I had a good day with the littles. Their school had a book fair at a local Barnes & Noble. They had readings, face paintings and other activities. The face painters had a paper with the different cartoon characters, animals and facial “tattoos” of hearts, rainbows and spiders that they were doing. Both of my kids asked for custom jobs. My son got his whole face painted like a Creeper from Minecraft. And my daughter who is obsessed with Animal Planet as of late, asked to be a gazelle. We also walked away with a Hardy Boys book and A Wrinkle in Time.
I almost didn’t get the books. We almost left after about 10 minutes with faces unpainted and one crying little girl. It is really hard to watch both of my children struggle with being shy and unconfident, scared to talk to strangers, even when I am right there with them, their friends and teachers are around, in a kid friendly environment and the “strangers” are two college aged girls offering to paint their faces. It is especially hard because I know it is a mix of genetic predisposition and learned behavior that they have inherited, in part, from me. It is even harder to watch my daughter, whose reservation and nervousness is compounded by clinical anxiety. She refused to talk to the young lady who was pleading with her to let her paint her face and was clinging to me. My son was just waiting to follow his big sister’s lead.
My daughter’s anxiety and my own came head to head and we almost left the bookstore. I had said before we set out that I could not afford to buy books today, but we would just go and enjoy the free activities. They both agreed. Until we got there and they were scared to talk to the face paint lady and their friends’ hands were full of books and one of their teachers asked them “Are you guys gonna get some good books?” They started grabbing at your average overpriced, mass marketed drivel that too often passes for children’s literature and begging. I said, “Let’s go. You promised you wouldn’t do this.” We made it all the way to the door. I was stressed watching my daughter stress. I felt embarrassed and guilty that I can’t always get for them the things I desire to provide for them. In the entrance, a scene started to play out that was exactly like one from my own childhood: “Why can’t we get books?” my daughter asked, her eyes welling up with tears. “Because I am poor,” I retorted. “Because I have x amount of dollars to get through the week and still have another bill to pay.” My eyes were now flooded too.
Then I was flooded with an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. I had been here before. I had been in her shoes. My mother had said those same words and forced adult realities and anxieties upon me that I was not ready to process. I said, “Fuck it! We’re going back in. I want you guys to get your faces painted – because you’ve talked about it all week – and have fun and talk to your friends.” I apologized for overreacting.
They lightened up. I lightened up. While they were getting their little faces painted, I went and picked out two books that I could afford and that are actual literature at their reading level. I told them they were books I could afford and enjoyed when I was their age. They were more grateful than a thousand Christmas mornings. Not because they understood the sacrifice I was making with my debit card but because I was filled with joy when I presented them to them, and maybe because I was a little bit assertive with my my suggestion, “I will buy you these books, if you still each want a new book.”
I don’t go back on my word often. I don’t plan to do so often. I know it can be confusing for kids and they need consistency. But I also know these two timid little ones don’t need this day or any other to be marred by the memory of their father’s anxiety, embarrassment and real life adult shit that they don’t need to be thinking about just yet.
We had a talk on the way out. I apologized again for my outburst. And I pointed out how far we’ve come. My daughter’s anxiety and my own have came head to head before, especially in crowded, social situations where she was indecisive and flooded with various emotions and I was scared about money and angry because she wanted 4 books or 3 pairs of jeans, because she couldn’t decide on one or two. We’ve left those situations before in a haste of tears and anger. I was vulnerable. I told them I have often been a bad example. I asked them to remember today. I asked them to remember that they not only got over their fear and talked to a stranger, but got two of the coolest custom face paint jobs of the day (the young lady even asked if she could take a picture of them to add it to her repertoire). I asked them to think about how their daddy is changing for the better and we are changing for the better as a family, becoming less explosive and talking things out. I asked them to remember the good time we ended up having today when we all relaxed. They said, “Okay.”
They had their painted little noses in their books all of the way home.