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One evening about a year ago I was on Facebook and happened upon pictures posted by an acquaintance. I scrolled through shot after shot filled with delighted partygoers, all people I knew. But no invitation had arrived in our mailbox. The worst part? The partiers weren't my friends. They were friends of my 10-year-old daughter, Lila. The party was at her friend Abby's house. Most of her class had been included. Why not Lila? "What should I do?" I hissed at my husband as I thrust the laptop in his face.
"About what?" Chris asked. "Have her feelings been hurt? Is she suffering?"
"Well, no," I admitted. Lila doesn't even have a Facebook account yet. "As far as I know, she has no idea there was even a party."
"So, good," Chris said reasonably. "No harm, no foul. We can't fault Abby or her parents for inviting whoever they want. You've got to let it go."
Easier said than done. A couple of days later I related the Facebook story to one of my closest friends, Melissa. "Ouch," she commented. "But...is Lila okay?" At that very moment, Lila approached us. "Can I have something to drink?" she asked.
"Sure. By the way, Lila," Melissa continued, casting a meaningful glance at me, "who are you hanging out with on the playground these days?"
"Nobody," Lila said matter-of-factly. My heart lurched.
"What are you doing on the playground, then?" I asked, picturing her standing there all alone, shoulders slumped, tracing her toe aimlessly along the pavement.
"Well," Lila said, "today I made acrostic poems about every Harry Potter character I could think of." She pulled wads of paper out of her pockets and began unfolding. Her cheeks flushed with pleasure as she began to read. "'Harry: Heroic Amazing Really Rad Youth.'"
Melissa smiled at me, raising her eyebrows. See? She's happy. Let it go.
When my babies were actually babies, my ability to put myself in their shoes was a blessing. But I don't have toddlers anymore. It was one thing to worry that Lila was going to crash her Little Tikes car and risk getting a big bump. It's another thing entirely to worry that Lila will experience full-scale social rejection and consequently be gripped with paralyzing shame and loneliness.
To reiterate: No such thing was actually happening. But even if it were, there'd be no way I could prevent it. I've got to step back and let her live her own life. It is the bitterest pill of parenthood, and one that I've resisted swallowing for a long time.
There's another aspect to this, though. While the incident put me in full mama-bear mode, ready to defend my cub against any wrong (real or imagined), I was simultaneously in adolescent-girl mode, reacting purely based on the memory of who I used to be: a scared, sad, lonely preteen who always felt socially inadequate. I was the one standing alone, shoulders slumped, toe tracing a line in the asphalt. But my daughter? No slumped shoulders on that one. She's the one dreaming up acrostic poems about Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger and reading them aloud.
My children will have their heartbreaks, of course. But this was not Lila's heartbreak I was experiencing. It was mine.
I wish I could say that I came to this understanding over due course of time, after much deep contemplation and inner reflection, but what actually happened was something straight out of middle school. Melissa slipped up and accidentally said something to Abby's mom. Abby's mom, no dummy, put it all together. Shortly thereafter I opened the following e-mail:
Dear Naomi, I was sorry to hear that Abby's party resulted in hurt feelings...Sweat prickled on the back of my neck. Wow, I really was in sixth grade again. With shaky hands I began to clumsily thumb a reply on my iPhone, then gave up and called Abby's mom directly. I wasn't sure exactly what I was going to say until she answered the phone and I began talking.
"You don't owe me an apology," I said. "Lila has no hurt feelings whatsoever. The only hurt feelings here are mine, and they really have nothing to do with this," I said, realizing it was absolutely true.
And then Abby's mom began talking. The photos had been misleading -- only five kids in their class had actually been invited to the party. Abby had been under strict instructions not to speak about the party at school so that no one would feel left out. But it was at the end of the conversation that Abby's mom said the kindest thing: "I know exactly how you feel." Lila is my oldest child, but Abby is her youngest, and she had been through this all before with Abby's older sister. "I hate that I made you feel that way," she said sincerely. "I know how hard it is. When they go through all of the teen stuff, I swear to God it hurts us just as much as it hurts them."
"Does it get any easier?" I asked.
I could sense her rueful smile through the phone line. "I wish."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, September 2012.