Packing Elle’s lunchbox, I waver, a pink, princess-covered water bottle in my hand.
Is this going to be cool, or not? I wonder, attempting to transplant my 33-year-old brain into the psyche of a 5-year-old girl.
Cool, I decide, shoving it in and zipping the lunchbox up tight.
What is definitely not cool is the oversized plastic hospital cup I then wrestle into her backpack, as Elle looks on uncomfortably.
“This is for, you know, if you get carsick on the ride,” I explain, trying to sound like it’s the most normal thing in the world to be packing a vomit receptacle along with my daughter’s towel and bathing suit.
Today marks Elle’s first big away-from-home playdate: a trip to the Ouray Hot Springs Pool with not one but two of her older friends. And no mom or dad. No one to stand in her shadow, making sure all things go smoothly as she dips her toes in the fascinating, sometimes unsympathetic echelons of female social order.
The minivan pulls up, little girls spilling out into the driveway and enveloping Elle in their excited chatter. So far, so good, I assess from the sidelines, doing my best not to do or say anything that could be considered embarrassing by my daughter. Like reminding her to keep her throw-up cup next to her at all times during the ride.
Yet my cautious optimism that my sweet, sensitive eldest daughter won’t feel at least a little sting of ostracism is soon dashed, as Craig hauls a huge, grey car seat out of the garage.
“You still ride in a car seat?” asks one of Elle’s friends, disbelieving.
“We have boosters,” the other finishes, as they all turn to watch Craig attempt to install Elle’s oversized seat in between her friends’ smaller, cooler, older-kid versions.
Elle doesn’t know what to say or do about the car-seat faux pas, and so looks down at her glittery Hello Kitty flats. I notice her friends wear colorful athletic sneakers.
I bite my lip. Why is this so uncomfortable for me, I wonder, as I push aside irrational thoughts of running inside to get Elle a new pair of shoes. I want to teach her the opposite of how I’m feeling: Be your own person, be unabashed and unafraid and wear whatever shoes you like. Be unconcerned that you have a big bulky car seat and undaunted by the thought of explaining the oversized cup stuffed into your backpack!
Yet I can’t help but wish I was sitting in that van as it drives away, to at least partially stave off any upcoming social discomfort my kid could experience, and all the uncertainty that comes with it.
You would think, as a grown woman, I could look back on that time of my own life with unemotional, even amused detachment. Those uncomfortable moments are merely a part of discovering who you are, just a normal and natural part of growing into a person with a strong sense of self worth, poise, and confidence… right?
Yet the sting of adolescent awkwardness still lingers, I realize as I partially relive my own insecurities through my daughters. Like the time I showed up at summer camp dressed in full toga regalia, only to be slowly horrified as the other campers arrived, in normal clothes, the realization that my mother had misread the events calendar hitting me like the stomach flu.
And speaking of the stomach flu, the time I kept farting in the library – trying desperately to escape without being found out, but each fart’s retort like a trumpet blast announcing my every footstep towards the door.
Or when I had to pee so badly I thought I might pass out, standing in the cold at the top of an alpine racecourse in too-bulky snow-pants and what appeared to be the longest line of race bib-clad kids of all time, finally determining my only course of action was to sit down in a big pile of snow and just pee through my ski pants; clearly not having the forethought to realize that when I stood up, the snow would be yellow, and every kid in that line would point and laugh at me. And I would still have to wait in that godforsaken line, for my chance to race through some gates in soggy ski pants and steamed-up goggles.
Elle returned home, ecstatic and tired. She survived. Of course she did. And she will continue to survive, and thrive, even though there will certainly be more, and more poignant, causes for her embarrassment than a too-big car seat or too-babyish shoes. And perhaps, as I stand by watching these mini-dramas unfold from the sidelines, as she blossoms from an unconcerned little girl to an unsure bigger girl to an assured woman, I’ll have to relive a little of my adolescent discomfort too… and, hopefully, be made better by it.