A young girl of five or six, long blonde ponytail swinging back and forth across her back, runs up the stairs to her townhouse. She’s breathless with the joy and vibrant energy that comes from playing for hours and hours outside. She’s spent the last hour in the magical fairyland that exists in the hydrangea bush at the back of the townhouse property. Her two small hands are cupped together, overflowing with piercing blue “fairy” petals – a gift for her father. She runs up the stairs and into the kitchen, to be greeted by her stepmother.
“What on earth do you have in your hands? Are those what I think they are? DIDN’T I TELL YOU TO LEAVE THE HYDRANGEA BUSH ALONE? GIVE ME THOSE AND GO TO YOUR ROOM RIGHT NOW YOUNG LADY.” The stepmother throws the petals into the garbage and closes the door with a loud bang. The girl runs to her room, sobbing, in shock at the abrupt change to her mood.
I don’t know if this is how the story really went. All I remember is picking some hydrangea flowers and later feeling shame for doing so. They were so beautiful and I wanted to hold them in my hand, to play with them and revel in their loveliness. I didn’t understand how that could be wrong. But the story grew, it became a story about being wronged, being misunderstood. I was the innocent princess and “she” was the evil stepmother.
It became one layer in the barrier against doing fun, creative, imaginative things. A warning in my tender, unconscious soul that if you do something fun and creative, you might just get slapped in the face.
Now, as a mother of my own almost-five-year-old girl, I have some perspective on this story. My hydrangea bush (and almost any flower that grows outside our home) has been picked, prodded and pulled by the fairy princess deep in her imaginative play. And I’ve had my own explosion of anger at her “inability to listen” to what I’ve asked her again and again not to do.
And then I’ve had my own gut-wrenching feelings of guilt for making a sweet, innocent child feel bad about enjoying the beauty of a flower, for making a mess for me to clean up.
Is this strict contrast… this conflict… this endless friction between the adult world of “reality” with clear, strict guidelines to be followed and the soft, gentle, imaginative world of blurred boundaries and limitless play of a child… is it inevitable?
I know some mothers, some other caregivers, seem to smooth over this issue. They set clear boundaries and somehow ensure a child’s integrity is always intact – so the child isn’t left with a sense of shame for their actions.
This is an art – a daily practice at which I find myself failing again and again. But I know that each day is a new chance to be better. And that as long as I give and show love to my little girl, that’s what she’ll remember. Plus, I have a renewed sense of appreciation for my own caregivers. Yes, they made mistakes, but I always knew they loved me, just the same.