The little travelers play a game when they're stuck in the car. They call it submarine. They pretend that the car has the capacity to turn itself into an underwater vessel that if necessary, can easily "hide" itself in the ocean. Immediately after someone decides to start a game of submarine all four travelers become animated, everyone begins to get excited, rules are made, changed and argued as they go along. The sight of another car is an octopus, a bus is a killer whale, people are puffer fish and motorbikes are sharks.
"Oh my gosh! I don't like what I see. Look over there. There's a huge killer whale coming our way!" All four will immediately duck and squeal, someone will attempt to steer the submarine in a different direction, someone else will suggest a better route while dodging a school of jellyfish and a coral reef.
I could listen to them play Submarine for hours. Not only are they hysterically funny but it's the insight I gain from their imaginations. The fourth traveler likes to fill his underwater world with mermaids, they often have names of people in his life with matching personalities. I can tell exactly who's in the good books and who's hogging the play equipment at recess within five minutes of being submerged. The first likes to be in charge - she's always the captain of the vessel. The second traveler injects humor while remaining a fan of the underdog, the shark is misunderstood, the killer whale is actually a really nice guy. The third will aim for chaos and feel the need to either harpoon or run something down.
Each time they play I gain a glimpse of their internal thoughts, thoughts that I may have never heard. And like most mothers, I enjoy that brief moment where everyone is happy, where they giggle together and form one solitary unit against the world. I bask in my happy family moment, where everyone appears to feel loved and lucky. I quietly congratulate myself on my wonderfully happy little family. Look what I've done. How clever am I.
Which is maybe why I struggled when I found the poetry on my iPad.
It was titled "Lizzie's poem about sadness". As I began to read the words I felt the familiar proud parental chest puff. At age eleven my poetry consisted solely of roses being red and violets being blue (which is dumb because they're obviously violet) whereas she had written a real poem, with real emotion. My proud moment felt tarnished though by the pre teen angst. Within the words I felt a sting. Was she really that sad. Did she really feel alone? How could I not know this?
As I lie in my bed,
life goes on and on.
I watch it go by,
people come and go.
I rest my sadness on my elbow and look out of the window.
I'm all alone in my own little world,
happy as can be in there,
until someone taps my shoulder and I look out the window.
I'm watching, not living.
I live in my own world.
I approached her with caution. I told her how wonderful her poem was, how clever I thought she was, how I could have never written anything of that quality at age eleven. And then as gently as I could, I asked "are you really feeling that sad?" She looked confused for a moment, and then she put it all together, my worried face, the poem, the concern. There was an eye roll. "The poem is about sadness, what it feels like to be sad, I wrote what I feel like when I am sad".
"Do you feel sad very often?"
"It wouldn't be normal if I didn't feel sad Mum. It's not like the movies. If I was happy all the time then it would be fake. No-one can be happy all the time. You have to have the sad moments to be truly happy"
She had quoted me. I roll out that last sentence on a bi-weekly basis, usually in the middle of someones personal drama, whether it be not making the basketball team or chosen for the talent show. My nearly twelve year old had just shared a piece of my own advice with me.
When she was a baby consoling her was as simple as a feed, or a cuddle. As a toddler it was an offer of a bandaid or a promise of a trip to the zoo. As a tween it's getting complicated. Sure, there are still the quick fix options of a download on iTunes or popcorn at the movies, but emotionally she's beginning to work through things on her own. Before running to me it's possible there will be journal entries, poetry, music played on high rotation, and conversations with good friends.
I'm not always the first option. It's no longer an automatic reaction to run to Mum.
I always knew my job description was going to change, I knew there would be new skills required. I'm learning that it's not just about being there at the right time. It's about knowing when I don't need to be there. Stepping back and letting her grow.
She tells me about future apartments in Paris, about University and travel. I am in awe of how beautiful she is but I've learnt to stop telling her on a half hourly basis. And even though I can see her braces, her ponytail and a hint of lipgloss, her face is exactly as I remember it at three years of age. I have to stop my mind from wandering back to a different a time, a time where she made me promise that we would be together forever. "I want to live with you and Daddy forever, you have to promise, pinky swear" and I did, because I knew it wouldn't be me that would have to break it.
We have to have the sad moments to be truly happy.