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When I was taking Biology 101 the first semester of my freshman year at William and Mary, and I realized I was failing, I went to see the professor. I told him I didn’t understand why I was failing–I’d never received lower than a B in my life, with the exception of some rough spots in Calculus and Chemistry in 11th grade. I had certainly never failed a class.

I had also never had to study that much. It turned out college classes were just a wee bit more rigorous than what I was used to in high school. The Biology professor asked if I was an English major. I said yes, but I didn’t understand how that was relevant. “You have to know the parts of the cell,” he explained. “You have to identify each part and where it goes and explain what it does. You can’t just understand the idea of a cell or describe the meaning of a cell.”

I realized I needed to get my act together to pass, which I did by a hair, with a D minus. I also avoided taking any further biology classes until my last semester of senior year, when I enrolled in “Insects in Society” to fulfill the science requirement I needed to graduate.

Between college and now my abilities to pay close attention, to adapt and apply focus to a variety of tasks, and certainly to take new challenges seriously, have all improved. Thankfully I have learned a few things since I was 18. But in most cases I couldn’t pinpoint where or when I figured out how to step up my game. I just evolved.

In recent years I have been privileged to watch my daughter’s transformation in martial arts from someone who understands the idea of the techniques and gets the concept of martial arts to someone who literally embodies the precision, power, persistence, grace, and strength of a martial artist.

Zoe began taking martial arts classes the same week she started kindergarten. She was energetic and determined and cute. She was not especially powerful, focused, or coordinated. Not that that matters so much when you’re five. Emerson Doyle, who owns the studio that was Creative Martial Arts when Zoe started there and which later became EvolveAll, has always emphasized that martial arts is for life. Studying martial arts is about each individual’s journey to grow, learn, and yes, evolve. The staff at EvolveAll has high but age-appropriate expectations.

Master Emerson and his team of instructors have consistently encouraged and motivated Zoe and her classmates. They are patient and kind but also unwavering in their demands that students push themselves and do their best.

I have always appreciated how in martial arts, unlike in many other settings, Zoe struggled–and sometimes failed–to pass a particular test or master a specific technique in a given time period, but never gave up. EvolveAll’s instructors have always made it clear that you will always get another chance. You have to work, and nothing is handed to you, but you will always get another chance.

For a long time I watched Zoe practicing martial arts and, while of course I was proud of the hard work she was doing with her body and mind, I wondered if she was going to really get it. Even though every parent knows they’re not supposed to compare their kids to other kids, when you’re sitting there watching other kids seemingly excel at a difficult task with ease, it can be hard not to wonder why it’s hard for your kid. Sometimes I felt like Zoe was performing a dance–which was beautiful–based on martial arts, rather than actual martial arts. I remember for the first few years she was practicing, Mr. Christian would constantly remind her to kick higher–above her belt. I remember watching her during class and seeing her mind wander as she got distracted or played with her hair or her belt or just gazed out the window. I would try to get her attention with my mind and look intently at her, motioning that she needed to look at the instructors and pay attention. I’m sure I said it out loud more than once. Probably not that helpful.

Christian and Emerson talk about “the switch” that students make at some point in their martial arts practice. The moment where they truly get it, where they lock in to how to master their bodies and their minds–at least for 45 minutes at a time–when they start to understand the black belt mindset. For a long time, I didn’t have any idea when Zoe would reach that point. She didn’t either.

At every growth ceremony when we watched students completing their black belt requirements, I would ask Zoe if she could see herself in their position someday. She would always shake her head no.

From the beginning, when she was in kindergarten, she said her goal was to become a black belt, but she couldn’t quite picture how that would actually happen.

When Zoe was nine, she earned her red solid belt, which is the final step before black belt at EvolveAll. For all the lower belt ranks, there are a series of specific, concrete requirements for students to advance to the next belt level. Once you’re a red solid, however, the process becomes exasperatingly intangible. Instructors are looking for the blackbelt mindset. They’re looking for “the switch.” And you really can’t predict when it’s going to happen.

I was worried at one point when Zoe’s friend Ellie, who she had been in class with for years, earned her black belt, and Zoe didn’t. Ellie was two years older than Zoe, and significantly bigger and stronger. It was clear that Ellie had made the switch, but I was afraid Zoe would be upset or feel like she’d been left behind. Instead, Zoe seemed to be genuinely thrilled for Ellie, and definitely nowhere close to ready to follow her. I had to trust Zoe’s knowledge of herself, which can be hard. It’s always tough to know how much to push your kid and when to back off. I’ve had to remind myself many times of Emerson’s mantra that martial arts is for life, and there is no rush, no race for Zoe to finish. There is conditioning, community, and challenge, and that is plenty.

Then, a couple years ago, Zoe started to envision her path. She made becoming a black belt her goal, not just for someday, but for that year, and then the next year. She stopped asking if she could skip class when she was tired. She started going to more classes. She asked me to take her to the studio for extra practice when a test was coming up. She started helping teach the lower belt classes. At first she was not good at teaching and had no confidence in her ability. Then she got better and gained confidence. She stopped being afraid of sparring and embraced it. She started winning some of her grappling matches. Meanwhile, she grew several inches and learned to kick higher than I thought possible.

Every growth period includes a black belt pre-test, which all red solids and black belts are invited to participate in. Master Emerson works these kids hard during these tests. It is intense. Over 90 minutes they do hundreds of exercises and demonstrate techniques and grapple and spar. At the end of the test, all of the current black belts gather with the instructors to discuss which red solids are ready to move up, and prepare to become black belts.

At the test this past June, all the current black belts and the instructors thought Zoe was ready. But Zoe did not think Zoe was ready. So Master Emerson said she needed to wait. If Zoe didn’t believe she could become a black belt, she shouldn’t become a black belt. Yet.

The next black belt pre-test rolled around this October. This time, Zoe knew exactly who she was and what she could do and she did it. After Master Emerson announced that she would be one of three red solids who were selected to prepare to become black belts this time around, all the girls in the class mobbed Zoe in a sweaty group hug. Mister Christian walked off the mat and gave me a hug, because he has seen how much time I’ve spent watching Zoe practice and had countless conversations with me about what she needed to do to reach her goals and how we could help her, and now she was there. Or almost there.

One week from tomorrow, Zoe will attempt to complete the requirements to earn her black belt in martial arts.

She will break five boards using five different techniques. She will grapple and spar with her friend and mentor Sophie, who has been patiently helping her train, insisting that Zoe use more power, more power, more power. She will read from the essay she’s written about her journey from white belt to black belt. Once she has successfully conquered these challenges, she will take off her red solid belt and hang it around her neck. Sophie will take off her own black belt and tie it around Zoe’s waist. Zoe will receive an actual sword. And she will chop fruit with it. I will probably cry.

Most importantly, Zoe will know that she worked toward this moment for seven years. Just like she was in kindergarten, she is energetic, determined, and cute. But a lot has happened since then. Now Zoe is strong and powerful, persistent and resilient, generous and graceful. Of course I will be proud. But I’m already proud, not because of what she’s about to do, but because of who she is and what she has learned about herself.

(originally published on Invocations.blog)

Before my second baby was born
I used to worry (a lot) about 
having a boy
thinking, “what would I DO with a boy?”
as if he would turn out to be a different
species than me
rather than another gender
and that we would lack a 
common language

Now he is almost six
and I understand that 
what I was afraid of
was that he would be 
a stereotype
of a boy
or that he would 
(alarmingly)
be a clone
of boys I had known
who had scared me
or disgusted me
because of their 
aggressiveness
or
crassness
or 
insensitivity
which I wrongly 
attributed
to testosterone
and the Y chromosome

My son loves to kiss me
and snuggle and 
make art
together and 
battle bad guys (not with me, because that’s not my thing)
and build Legos (sometimes with superheroes and bad guys 
but sometimes not)
and watch the Great British Baking Show
and do martial arts
and play with his multitude of stuffed animals, 
all of whom he has given names 
and identities 
(some straight, some gay, some trans) 
and family relationships 
(usually interspecies)

He likes to wear pink and purple (and sports shorts and Adidas) 
I told him that I’m glad he knows 
pink and purple are colors 
for everyone
and not just for girls
He said unfortunately not everyone 
at his school knows that
and not everyone at his school thinks boys 
can wear nail polish
but he knows 
how much fun it is 
to get your nails done
and how cool it looks 

I used to worry 
that people would think
I was a boy
because my hair is short
because I mostly wear 
t-shirts and jeans
In high school when I wore Doc Martens
I was told “those are men’s shoes.”
(Now I sometimes shop in the men’s department for my size 11 feet
and I receive many compliments on my brown leather wingtips)
In college when I asked the boys down the hall
to use the clipper to shave the back of my hair
I was told “that’s a lesbian haircut.”
and because I wore plaid flannel, 
“you dress like a lesbian,”
(but seriously, it was the 90s)
A little girl once asked me, “are you a boy?”
I said no but she still said, “I think you’re a boy.”
When I wake up and stumble into the bathroom 
in the middle of the night or
first thing in the morning
so many times I’ve looked in the mirror
and wondered if I looked that day like 
Richard Simmons or Andy Gibb or Michael Moore
it’s always a weird male celebrity I see
I used to think that if I didn’t wear earrings 
when I left the house
people would think I was a man
even though plenty of men
wear earrings when they leave the house
like my daughter’s 5th grade teacher 
who was a middle-aged married father of two
who wore basketball shorts to teach and sported
a gold hoop in each ear

My son notices when I have new earrings
and is the first to compliment me 
when I get my hair done
He often does not care if his clothes
are clashing colors
but sometimes he wants me to brush his hair
and help him choose the perfect outfit
for the occasion

My son recites the names of all the Avengers
(and their friends such as the X-Men and the Fantastic Four)
and their unique capabilities
and asks me what powers I would like
and then endows me with them
and says, 
“I love you with all my heart and all my dreams.”
and falls asleep with his forehead touching mine
and his arm around my neck

Zoe’s English teacher announced this week the prospect of a new challenge–write at least 100 words each day for 100 days, beginning today, March 1. Apparently if you write every day for 100 days you become a Writing Centurion and you get to choose a t-shirt from Woot! Shirt. I can safely say this is the first time this school year that I have wished I were in sixth grade. Writing and t-shirts–two of my favorite things! So when Zoe said she was accepting her teacher’s invitation, I immediately said I would join her. This means you will be seeing a lot more words from me over the next 100 days. Maybe if you like what I write, you’ll buy me a punny t-shirt too!

March also happens to be National Reading Month, and reading is one of my other favorite things, up there with writing and t-shirts, so I am lined up to volunteer at both of my kids’ schools doing book-related activities. At Zeke’s school on Monday I am going to be a guest reader in his kindergarten class. I think I will read Mo Willems’ Nanette’s Baguette, which may not have the name recognition that Elephant and Piggie or the Pigeon do, but it is hilarious and reading it makes me so happy. I hope Zeke’s classmates share my feelings about Nanette and her baguette. (As an aside, I am ecstatic that Mo Willems was recently named the Kennedy Center’s first Education Artist in Residence, meaning we will have the opportunity to see some of his characters come to life at the Kennedy Center and perhaps meet him sometime over the next two years. He is, in my humble opinion, a creative genius.)

After I read to Zeke’s class, I will skip down the hall to the library to volunteer at the book fair. It should be obvious that book fairs are another thing that I love. I volunteered at the book fair at Zoe’s elementary school for all six of her years there and enjoyed every minute of it. Zoe’s librarian was marvelous and she and I exchanged book recommendations every time we saw each other. At the book fair I would often help kids look for good books and write down their wish lists, or help teachers or parents who were browsing. And between classes I would read books myself, and buy a few. And come back the next day. And buy a few. And then the kids would come in with me and they would choose books and we would buy a few. Book fairs are dangerous for me. But so satisfying. So I have high hopes for Zeke’s school book fair. Since this is his first year at the school I don’t know many teachers or kids besides the ones in his class, but hopefully I will get to know some in the library. For a few weeks I have been reading for an hour a week with some first graders at his school, so I’ll know them too. In any case, I will have the opportunity to walk around and look at and touch all those beautiful books.

On Tuesday I will be at Zoe’s school bright and early to help set up Booktopia, a day-long book giveaway where we will lay out 1,500 books on tables all over the gym (which we sorted by genre and boxed last week) and invite every reading and English class in the school to come in browse. Each student can choose a book and take it home for free. The PTA started this event when they discovered that many students at the school couldn’t afford to buy full-price books at the book fair, and that the book fair didn’t always have books that reflected the diversity of the student body. So the books we will give away at Booktopia will include a wide variety of new and used books selected to appeal to a wide variety of kids of all reading abilities and backgrounds. In middle school, parents definitely don’t have as much opportunity to hang out at school as in elementary school, so I’m looking forward to this chance to observe all the teachers and all the classes and hopefully connect some kids with some books they will love.

When Zoe’s school year started, I was surprised to learn that she had a reading class as well as an English class. Reading is mandatory for sixth graders, and I was skeptical because Zoe was already a great reader. But I soon realized that the class was not offering remedial help (although it does for those who need it) but pushing her and her classmates to read compelling and intriguing texts by amazing authors, and read critically and think about what she’s reading at a higher level. I have been incredibly impressed with the books she’s read in reading class, including Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover, The 57 Bus, Amal Unbound, and Child Soldier. Pretty much every time Zoe finishes a book, she brings it to me and says, “You’ve GOT to read this.” And I do the same with her, at least with young adult novels I read.

So when Zoe’s school announced a read-a-thon that kicked off today, I was all over it. I am so excited to support her in her reading and help her raise money for literacy programs at her school. If I had not become a writer, I definitely could have been a children’s librarian. I did spend several glorious months right out of college working at Barnes & Noble, which was unbelievably fun. I got to be around books all day! I got to tell people what books I thought they should read! (also we had to clean the toilets at closing time, but the books!).

Right now I’m reading a YA book called Saints and Misfits, about a Muslim girl who feels pulled between her secular friends and her Muslim community. She wears a hijab like her Mom, but her Dad (divorced from her mom and remarried) disapproves. It’s fascinating and beautifully written.

Zoe is eager to read my Day 1/100 sample, and I am pretty sure I’ve exceeded my 100 word requirement. I better save some of my words for the next 99 days.

bodydiagram

This is where my organs would ordinarily be, if they weren’t displaced by my all-consuming anxiety. 

I am so filled with anxiety that I am certain there is no room left inside me for my internal organs. They have been squeezed together in some tiny crevice so my anxiety has ample room to luxuriously expand. The knots in my stomach have all but filled my stomach so there is little space left for such old-fashioned things as digestion to occur.

I have spent a lot of this summer reminding myself to breathe. Taking deep breaths that require much more effort than seems normal, but then again when was the last time I was normal? I suppose the breathing has helped, as the threatening panic attack remains hovering at the edge of my consciousness, ready to jump in at any time an opening presents itself. The panic attack is like a first responder, but not the helpful kind.

Chief among the myriad reasons for this anxiety (although really, who needs reasons?) are two new schools. Tomorrow my kids will get on their respective school buses–they have never ridden buses to school before–and be delivered to elementary school and middle school for the first time. They will have new buildings to navigate, new teachers to get to know, new classmates who speak different languages, new assignments to remember, new school cultures to learn.

Of course I realize that kids start new schools all the time. This is the way of the world. But all those other kids aren’t mine. And my kids, unfortunately or inevitably or just because of good old genetics, share with me just a bit of that predisposition toward anxiety. We are a sensitive people. I remember years ago hearing the adage that having kids is like letting your heart walk around outside your body, and so it is. Starting new schools is like your heart has developed some confidence, a sense of style, a few signature jokes, and then suddenly it’s stripped bare all over again, completely vulnerable in a new environment. And now my heart is split into two, wandering through two new schools, looking around desperately for other hearts that will be kind.

This year for the first time I have a number of friends who are sending kids to college. Zeke’s previous preschool teacher and preschool director, friends from church, friends from high school and elementary school, and my yoga teacher all delivered offspring to college for the first time in August. (All to excellent Virginia schools, as it happens). When I think of them, even when I see the pictures on Facebook of their smiling kids in freshly decorated dorm rooms, I feel like my heart is not simply walking around outside my chest, but has been forcibly ripped from my body and flung hundreds of miles away, where it may be lying in a ditch, attempting to struggle to its feet. College! Thinking about this literally makes my chest hurt. My daughter is only seven years away from this prospect. When I ran into our wise preschool director the other day and mentioned this, she said not to think about it yet, just to concentrate on kindergarten and sixth grade right now. Which is good, because that is all I am capable of at the moment.

I try hard not to be a helicopter parent. My philosophy is much more free range, although it’s challenging in a culture of helicopters. I do believe in giving my children the opportunity to be independent, and learn things, and grow on their own. But what if kids are mean to them? What happens when kids are mean to them? Because it’s bound to happen and it’s already happened and it’s so hard. Did I mention we are sensitive people? This summer at a couple of camps some little boys said mean things to Zeke. I don’t know what all of the words were. Some of them, as I recall, were, “I don’t like you.” No one wants to hear that, but when you’re 44 it’s easier to give someone the side eye and walk away. Of course, when “I don’t like you” is accompanied by being punched in the back while you’re trying to make art, it’s harder to let it slide. Especially when you’re five. The day after this happened, Zeke was desperately and theatrically upset when I tried to drop him off at camp. It took 30 minutes for me to get to the bottom of the problem, but I did. I talked with the teacher and reassured Zeke that she would keep an eye on things and make sure the boys didn’t bother him. She moved him to a different team, and he was calm and everything was fine. By the end of the week he was playing with the same boys. Sometimes I don’t understand how life works at all.

With girls it’s different, of course. I’ve been hearing a lot from fellow parents of tweens that we should brace ourselves for the mean girls of middle school years. Optimistically I feel like we can bypass this particular trauma because we’ve been dealing with mean girls since Zoe was in kindergarten. While she had an overall excellent experience in elementary school and has always had lots of friends, there was rarely a time in which she didn’t have at least one “friend” who was trying to manipulate and control her. There was the girl who, in kindergarten, insisted that Zoe play Justin Bieber (Zoe didn’t even know who he was, but cried about it nonetheless), and later threw rocks at Zoe because she was trying to meditate when the girl wanted to play. And there were other girls for the following five years who tried to take advantage of Zoe, who threatened to abandon her if she played with other friends, who attempted to enlist her as a personal assistant. There was so much drama. And it wasn’t even middle school yet. So the good thing, I keep reminding myself, is that Zoe has so much experience dealing with this behavior and has learned how to stand up for herself and take care of herself in ways that it took me many more decades to learn myself, that maybe she’ll be ok in middle school. I hope.

At her school open house, she was not the only kid to be walking around in a daze, clinging to a parent’s arm, wondering how she would figure all this out on her own. I know she won’t really be on her own. There will be 899 other kids there! I know she’ll be ok. But I also know it’s a little terrifying, and no amount of reassurance from her parents will take that away until she does figure it out for herself.

Less than 24 hours from now, my kids will be at school. I’ll be on my way to a new yoga class I signed up for, which will be an excellent way for me to not sit home and cry or give in to that panic attack. Then after yoga I’ll come home and attack the million work assignments I’ve been neglecting during the last week of summer when I’ve been trying to squeeze in the maximum amount of fun experiences with my family so they can have happy memories to hang onto during their own moments of encroaching anxiety. And I’ll try my best to focus on getting my work done while I count the minutes until those school buses pull up to our bus stop and I not very casually envelop my children in gigantic hugs and try not to pepper them with all my questions about how the first day of school went. I will exhale. And the next day at least it won’t be quite so new.

When I arrived at school yesterday to pick Zoe up after her last day of kindergarten, I found her, fully clothed in her Abingdon t-shirt (“I want to wear it on the last day to show everyone how much I like Abingdon,” she said) and some shorts, sitting and splashing in a baby pool with several of her friends to cool off. She was soaked. And why not? What else is there to do after the last day of school? Apparently water games were part of the last day carnival that the extended day teachers creatively and generously put on for the kids but Zoe neglected to tell me about it the night before. Whatever. It’s the last day of school! Getting wet in your clothes makes it easier to not be too sad about the end of a fabulous year.

I saw Zoe’s wonderful teacher in the hallway as I was wheeling Zeke through the school to find Zoe, and thanked her again. Part of me wanted to hug her, but I knew if I did I would cry and I didn’t feel like she needed to deal with me crying. I did tell her, despite myself, that I found out I was pregnant with Zeke on the first day of school. So somehow the last day of school seemed like my little baby bubble was popping. I’ve been very lucky to have a lot of help and support from family and friends over the past eight weeks to make life easier for me and to allow me to focus on Zeke. Randy has driven Zoe to school every day since Zeke was born, which has been huge. On Monday Zoe will start camp which, thankfully, begins an hour and a half later than school starts, so it will be once again up to me to take charge of things in the morning. I am confident I can handle this, but I’m a little sad for the end of my morning repose with Zeke.

But I digress. While Zoe finished splashing with her friends, I nursed Zeke in the hallway, briefly chatting with the strings teacher, greeting other teachers who walked by, and meeting the technology teacher when she came by to admire Zeke. I saw tonight that she had posted a video of the Big Wave, an Abingdon tradition where all the teachers and staff sing and dance and send off the kids on the last afternoon. I love this school. Throughout the year, and especially over the past few weeks when it would seem all learning had ceased, Zoe did so many fun and interesting things at school. Her teachers and the other kindergarten teachers found creative and enriching activities to keep them engaged. She learned about Betsy Ross, magnets, the different between needs and wants, and introductory economics using musical chairs. The extended day teachers brought in a DJ for a dance party and hosted a slumber party. Field day was apparently the most fun Zoe had ever had in her life. Last night we went through a variety of workbooks and projects that Zoe brought home. She read us her end of the year book. She thoughtfully completed the final few pages in the My Kindergarten Year book that we gave her at the beginning of the year. Tonight we took her out for dinner at the restaurant of her choice (Lost Dog) followed by dessert of her choice (Dairy Queen) to celebrate her accomplishments during kindergarten and today’s tae kwan do belt ceremony where she broke her board (on the second try!) and earned her green stripe belt. We made toasts to each other.

Afternoons managing two kids are challenging, and this year has not been without its tough spots, including Zoe’s surgery, a rough pregnancy, and the trying minutiae that gets magnified and seems to consume us sometimes. But it’s lovely to end the year on a good note. We have a delightful rising first-grader and a cute baby boy who now often greets us with smiles. So what if the air conditioner is broken. We are lucky people. Let’s go jump in the baby pool.

Sometimes I wish Zoe would magically behave like some mythical girl I imagine from the 50s–perhaps like how I imagine my mom and her siblings were taught to behave by my Nana and Papa. I don’t know how they actually behaved, but I imagine a lot of “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir” and looking adults in the eye and shaking their hands politely when the adults said “you look so nice!” or “you’re getting so tall!” I somehow imagine they never had to be told (again and again) to sit up, or to stop scowling, or to stop kicking the back of someone else’s seat.

But that’s probably not true. That’s what kids do, right?

And in general I’m thrilled we don’t live in the 50s.

I often think about how vastly different the culture was and my grandparents’ circumstances were from my own parents, and–somewhat less dramatically–how the expectations for parents and children are for my generation. Paradoxically I wish for the simplicity, respect, and determination to appreciate what you have and not waste so much of everything that I feel was characteristic of my grandparents’ parenting and my parents’ upbringing. But I realize that times were different and some of that leanness was born of necessity. They had less so they had no choice. We have more so we can afford to make poor decisions more often. That sounds terrible, doesn’t it? Sometimes I don’t know how to stop it though.

I read somewhere that moms today spend way more hours actually engaged in activities with their children than moms 50 years ago, despite the fact that more moms today have part-time or full-time jobs outside the home than did previously. Because that’s what’s expected of us. We have playgroups, we take our babies to music classes and sign language classes and playdates. My own mom, who was a stay-at-home mom at least until my sister and I were in school all day, doesn’t recall scheduling playdates with us and our friends. Friends would come over to play or we would be dropped off somewhere else. But that didn’t really happen until elementary school. We went to preschool. But we didn’t take weekend classes at the rec center when we were three. I’m making no judgment here whatsoever. I’ve signed Zoe up for and schlepped her to plenty of classes, some of which I thought she would love, and some of which I felt like I was supposed to bring her to. And certainly when your kid crosses the threshold where you don’t have to participate in the class, and you can sit on the sidelines and watch, what a relief to have a break! In recent years Zoe has said, “I wish you were one of the counselors at camp so you could stay there all day with me.” Um, don’t you get it? If I was going to be with you all day, I wouldn’t send you to camp. We would just stay home. I have to work. That’s why you go to camp. But I don’t say that.

Which brings us, naturally, to martial arts. A couple years ago Zoe attended a tae kwon do birthday party. She was a little scared and a little intrigued. Chalk it up to a new experience. The following year, she attended the party of the same girl (now a black belt) at the same tae kwon do studio. She loved it. She wasn’t scared. She was fearless. She said, “I want to take tae kwon do!”

I file that away and then notice months later there is a new martial arts studio in our neighborhood. We sign up for a two-week trial. It’s not easy, but it’s fun and interesting and Zoe’s on board. Of course the timing on my part was foolish. When we did the trial we were in the midst of a rec center gymnastics session and a preschool soccer clinic. And we were looking forward to a summer at the pool and more swimming lessons. Tae kwon do seemed like too much to add, so we didn’t.

Then, after a summer of successful swimming (which it turns out that Zoe’s much better at than soccer or gymnastics), the pool closed and our thoughts returned to tae kwon do. The people running this studio are smart. The minimum commitment is six months. You can also opt for 12 or 18 months worth of classes when you sign up. You can go once, twice, or three times a week. It turns out that it actually takes a while (or at least it has for Zoe) to get the hang of martial arts.

I was thrilled that Zoe showed interest in this. It’s so important for kids–and I think girls in particular–to have the strength and confidence instilled by martial arts. Zoe is active and athletic but also very girly and princessy. Her parents are conflict-averse. I emphasize compassion and kindness and politeness. Assertiveness has never been my strong suit. So I didn’t make her sign up, and it wasn’t even my idea. But I’m the one who’s made the commitment.

Martial arts is hard. The master who teaches her class is excellent, and a stickler for perfection. He does not reward kids who don’t get it right. And why should he? If you’re going to learn it, of course you should get it right. But did I mention it’s hard? It requires different skills than reading or writing or painting or making up shows or any of the many, many things that Zoe does well at and enjoys. It requires patience, diligence, a lot of repetition. Martial arts requires strength, agility, and amazing motor skills and coordination. For a five-year-old, these skills are still developing, sometimes slowly. So Zoe complains. When it’s time to go to class, she often doesn’t want to. She’s tired. But when she gets to class she usually perks up and has a great time. I often struggle with what to say or do to get her excited about going. She doesn’t understand or care about the money I’m spending on the classes or the commitment we’ve made and I’m sure not going to get into how I want her to be able to fend off attackers when she’s older if she’s ever in a dangerous situation. It’s hard to come up with a reason you should do something that you don’t feel like doing that’s not necessarily mandatory, like school or eating or bathing.

Recently she went to a day of camp at the martial arts studio on a day when school was closed. When I arrived in the afternoon, it was time for her regular class. She’d already been there for seven hours, some of which she’d been practicing moves and some of which she’d been playing and watching a movie. Apparently she was completely spent. And apparently I was totally unable to comprehend that, and deeply frustrated that she was refusing to participate in the class and just glaring at me. I had brought her the day before to a 50-minute private lesson there because she had said she felt like she was behind and didn’t know what she was supposed to be doing, after missing a couple weeks of class because of her surgery. During the private lesson she improved dramatically just over the course of 50 minutes. She was focused, determined, and awesome. When she wouldn’t go to class the next day and she gave up the opportunity to demonstrate what she’d learned and test for a stripe on her belt, I was so angry. So we went home and I fumed and she sobbed and I did not have my best ever parenting day.

She went back to class the next regularly scheduled day and was happy enough to go. I thought she did great and the master asked her to try to test for her next stripe, and while I thought she nailed it, apparently she didn’t quite, because he didn’t give it to her. I was disappointed, but she came off the mat smiling and I congratulated her for working hard. I asked if she wanted to go to class Saturday (which we don’t usually go to, but could since we missed several classes and should really make them up) so she could have another shot, and she said no. I asked her again later and she still said no. But she’s been practicing her form all weekend and her punches and kicks, so clearly she wants to get back on the mat and try again.

Part of the reason I so want Zoe to stick with this is that it’s difficult and it doesn’t come easy for her. I wish I had had the opportunity to do something like that when I was a kid. The most comparable thing for me was math, but I never got better and there was no joy there for sure. I never played on a team or competed in anything except intellectual pursuits. That’s a whole different post, but the point is I know this could be so good for her. But I don’t want to push her so much that we both dissolve into tears and fury. But I don’t want to let her give up just because she doesn’t feel like working at it one day. But maybe when you’re five your parents should cut you some slack? Or maybe that’s when you need to start learning to be strong?

Randy says when she does get her next stripe, it will mean that much more because she’s had to try for it again and again. That’s probably true. Until then I probably just need to take more deep breaths and not say anything. I should try not to push or pull. But it’s so hard.

I am overthinking kindergarten. I know I am, but I can’t stop. Today I actually had this conversation with Zoe, apropos of her saying she wanted to buy lunch at school sometimes. I said, “when they post the lunch menu, we can look at it together and talk about which days you want to buy lunch and what healthy choices you could make.” Part of me thinks this is perfectly reasonable, and part of me thinks, CHILL OUT!

We have had so many conversations about kindergarten, some initiated by me, some by her. We have talked about teasing–which she is concerned about. We have talked about getting up early and getting there on time, which I know will be a challenge for our entire family. We have talked about pencils. We have talked about how long she will be allowed to check out books from the school library (1 week was my guess but I really don’t know). We’ve talked a lot simply about how many days until school starts.

I let Zoe stay home from camp today because she wasn’t feeling well yesterday. We went to the doctor yesterday afternoon because Zoe’s been complaining of stomach aches repeatedly in recent weeks, and she also had a rash and a sore throat yesterday morning. But of course by the time we got to the doctor her stomach and throat were fine. No sign of strep or any other infections. She has bug bites and sensitive skin. We’ve had some issues this summer with her saying she is sick and needs to come home and when she is fetched, at varying degrees of inconvenience, she is immediately well again. We’ve been trying to impart to her that malingering is unacceptable. And, for whatever reasons, we are still struggling with occasional accidents. And god knows I don’t want that to persist through kindergarten.

I just want her to be healthy. I want her to do well. I want her to be happy. I don’t want her to be teased.

And I realize I have precious little control over any of that. She’s become a big kid, at least compared to the preschoolers we see on every playground where she suddenly seems to have outgrown the equipment! Of course she’ll still be a little kid when she passes the 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders in the hall this fall. Hopefully none of them will knock her over. She’s her own girl. And it’s not like she’s been home with me all day since birth–far from it. But kindergarten is big and different and scary, at least for me. I hope it’s less so for her. I can’t wait for it to start so we can stop thinking about what it will be like and just live it. Ready or not, here we come.

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