As a child, I spent years trying to fit in, trying to find my place, trying to find my voice, and trying to gleam validation from those around me. I constantly tried to be someone I wasn’t--when the cute boys in the neighborhood loved to skateboard, I pretended I could too. When other girls were wearing black instead of my favorite pink, I tried to ditch my beautiful wardrobe. When my sister loved The Grateful Dead I tried to memorize the lyrics even though I. HATED. THEM. I was so massively uncomfortable in my own skin. Even though I was the oldest child, I was originally a born follower, y’all. Truth.
It’s like that scene in Runaway Bride where Julia Roberts tries ALL the eggs, to see which one she truly likes herself. With one guy it was poached, with another it was omelettes, and with a third it was egg whites only. That was me. Fitting into others’ lives instead of feeling like I was good enough, like I was ENOUGH enough, for others to want to fit into mine.
I had a wonderful childhood--amazingly supportive parents, three younger siblings, and a huuuuuuge--and I mean HUGE--extended family. My parents were very involved, even by eighties standards, and they taught me and my siblings how to love each other and how to constantly be present in each other’s lives. They were just helicopter enough, just free-range enough. I was safe. I was loved.
So, in all honesty, I’m not sure when I started trying so hard to please others around me instead of getting to know, and ultimately love, who I was as a person.
I very vividly remember my parents trying to help me through this tough phase in my tween and teen life--the time when I was just constantly trying to please others, and that weakness turned into me being bullied. Not even so overtly bullied, but subtle, emotional bullying from girls trying to pass themselves off as my friends. As a mom now, I look back on those years with a different reflection. I can’t imagine what my mom (and dad, of course) as a stay-at-home mom and my primary caregiver was going through as she watched me struggle with a battle she couldn’t fight for me.
Friends will sometimes ask me when things changed, and I really don’t know. All I know is that it was a slow childhood-long battle and at some point during my junior year of high school I started to come into my own, but the transformation of my developing confidence wouldn't be complete until college. I wasn’t popular, but I wasn’t friendless. I wasn’t the captain of the cheerleading squad nor Homecoming Queen, but I was KIND, and from that I had friends and lots of fun. But I was still jealous of the girls who seemed to have it all together in life by 16… who were pretty and perfect and who had cars and lots of popularity. #thehighschoolstruggle
I remember viscerally when the time came for me to pack up for college, I made a conscious decision to approach this new group of people that I would meet and this new season of my life differently. All those years later, my experiences from elementary school and middle school followed me, wiggled into my subconscious. I changed my name from Jenny to Jen. I cut and highlighted my hair. I got a credit card and spent $500 on a new wardrobe.
Looking back, it was clear what I was doing: escaping my past and trying to write a different script for my future, one that didn’t include being a doormat, and one that finally included being comfortable being me and being a leader.
And you know what? It worked.
I was able to DECIDE that I was cool, and silly as that sounds, that just worked for me. It was a confidence that I lacked, an idea in my own head that I embraced: I was awesome. I was enough. And people would be lucky to have me as a friend. I was done with being made to feel less than and done being bullied by anyone. And that has remained true--at least up until this week.
So... here I am 23 years past that moment of leaving for college and I now am in many ways still that same confidence-fueled woman… except now I am a wife. I am a
mom of four kids of my own: Ava is 10, Charlie is 8, Mason is 6, and Evelyn is 1. I have a successful career as a reality television executive producer. And I can FINALLY, without any hesitation nor doubt, tell you that I am 100% completely and totally happy in my own skin. It only took me 41 years to fully get here, but at least I did!
I had thought that I had completely left bullying in the rearview, never to be seen in my life again.
But as happy and comfortable as I am, burned into my forever memories now, is the moment my little girl got in the car after school last Friday and told me she’d been bullied.
I am one of those parents who believe kids should be kids as long as humanly possible… as a society we force so many adult ideals down our kids throats, and with as privy as they are via technology and whatnot to seeing and hearing things above their age or grade (and trust me, I'm liberal with what I allow my kids to watch), anytime I can protect their innocence, this brief interlude of childhood, I do.
“There’s this kid, mom, his name is Neal--I think--or maybe not. But he’s in Mrs. W’s class--I think. And we were at lunch and he pointed at me and made fun of my Twisty Pets necklace that I was wearing and everyone started laughing.’
That’s how I felt as she described how the lunch table one class over started laughing at her. I watched her innocence, her heart, and her soul shift all at once.
I wondered what I could say to her to ease the sadness… to make her realize how smart and special she is. To remind her what an incredible fighter she has been and will continue to be, and that she doesn’t need anyone’s permission to love what she loves.
I saw my own childhood flash before my eyes. I saw the meek and embarrassed girl I was… how I wasn’t sure of myself and my choices until much later in life.
So hesitantly, I asked Ava “what did you say?”
She said, “well, I didn’t say anything.”
And I responded “and how did that make you feel?”
To which she kind of shrugged her shoulders.
She immediately jumped on to something else, so I decided not to push the conversation further… but all night I stewed on it. How soon is too soon to get involved with bullying? How much is too much conversation? Would me asking about it bring it to the surface and give it more credence and importance or would it make her realize I’m listening?
Ugh, this parenting thing, y’all. Seriously. It’s TOUGH.
I made the wrong decision. I went on social media with a vengeance.
“If anyone knows “Neal” in Mrs. W’s class, you can smack him for me for bullying my child.”
Alright, alright, alright… I know, never appropriate. But to me, watching my kid sad over this child’s actions, part of me wanted some reassurance from my tribe that other parents would be as pissed off as I was. Truth be told, I wanted to make sure that I did as much to help my daughter learn to deal with this situation on her own as I did to intervene and help her myself.
All evening long, as I did dinner and put the kids to bed with my husband, as we read books and watched TV as a family, my heart just wasn’t in it.
As partners, my husband and I often have different ways of dealing with things and that’s ok--he urged me to take down my post and just take a beat. He wasn’t wrong; I took it down.
I quietly stressed and struggled, not just with how to help Ava, but also with the fact that it really brought a lot of my own sadness up to the surface… I was sad that, even though she was hiding it well, I knew
that this little prick had stolen a small piece of my baby girl’s sparkle, and no matter what, she’d never get that back. All of the sudden she would be looking at toys she loved with a different eye. I’ve never hid my experiences with bullies from my kids--because I want to make sure that I raise includers, not mean kids, not kids who exclude or shame or embarrass… and by sharing my own obstacles, I’ve always hoped that, even though it seemed like they weren’t listening, that it was seeping in somehow.
The next morning as we were pulling into the drop off line at elementary school, I saw Ava pull something from her bookbag. I looked back at her just in time to see her put her Twisty Pets necklace BACK ON… I think my mouth was actually hanging open and I said to her with a smile on my face “you’re wearing that again, aren’t you?” And she looked at me, smiled, shook her head yes and said “And I added a couple more to it.”
THAT IS MY GIRL.
She has the spirit that it took me twenty years and a heck of a lot of therapy to find. When someone tries to knock you down, you come back harder, faster and stronger. Always. I wish that I had had even 1/10 of that strength of character as a child… likely I would have put my favorite ‘80s charm necklace in the bottom of my drawer, never to be seen again. Now I break that thing out every single St. Patrick's Day, proudly.
The moral here? There sure is a lesson, all right… but it’s one for me. Our backgrounds, our life experiences, all completely shape who we are as people; how we see the world, how we interact with others, and just as importantly, how we REACT to situations. I just have to be so careful not to let MY OWN fears impact my kids. I think I’m right to share with them and be transparent about my own struggles; it’s important that parents are involved in situations like this--to teach their children how to act and react but also to help other parents be aware when bullying is happening.
Trust me--if anything remotely similar happens again with the same kid, or anything that I think my kids can’t handle, I will intervene. I will step in. I will take immediate action. I’ll speak to her teacher, his teacher, his parents, whatever I need to do. It’s my job as a mom to help make sure that bullying is eliminated. And yes, there are parents out there who will accuse me of being a helicopter mom, of “hovering” and of trying to be a “fixer” for my kid… but make no mistake about it--I’m not getting involved in bullying issues solely for my own kid… I know I have a strong little girl, the sad fact is, there are a lot of other impressionable young kids out there who don’t have the same kind of backbone, who might not have the internal ability to turn the other cheek. With the rise of tween and teen suicide in our country, there is never a reason to let bullying continue--and it starts with us. If you’re ever concerned, get the teachers involved; if you don’t like that response, get the principal involved, get the other parents involved, go to the county. No matter what, bullying isn’t something any child should face alone. We have to be a tribe united.
Hi, My Name Is Jen Mom and I’m going to raise an #includer. Be Kind. <3