Rituals: A Mother-Daughter Story

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We have a ritual in our house, my eight-year old and I, where she lays out her clothes on her bedroom floor the night before. She spreads out pants and shirt onto an invisible body, imagining what she’ll look like in the morning when she wakes up and gets dressed. I check to make sure she included all accessories, undergarments and socks, and especially shoes because we all know one of them will wander away if we don’t keep a close eye on it, then give my approval.


This ritual began during preschool when she had difficulty getting dressed in the morning. I would have loved to dress her, but my fiercely independent daughter protested every outfit I chose, so I moved all clothes down to her level and gave her the freedom to select for herself. However, our mornings became a nightmare when she would fling herself on the floor because the shirt she was looking for wasn’t in her closet, or her pants didn’t fit the way she wanted and we were running out of time before we had to leave the house. Years later, it is habit for her to call out for me to approve her outfit before she goes to bed.


Last night I admired her choice on the invisible form on her floor: blue jeans, her favorite pink and grey horse shirt with the cute buttons on its sleeves, and a puffy pink vest to keep her warm. This morning I know exactly what she will look like when she emerges from her bedroom.


My daughter materializes downstairs where I am rushing around helping her younger brother and sister put on jackets and shoes. She holds out her arm to show me the addition to the outfit she had laid out last night; a delicate chain dangling on her wrist, a bracelet that was a gift from her grandma a few years ago.


“I don’t think you should wear that to school,” I say to her, stopping to gaze into her eyes so she knows I’m serious. “Don’t you have PE today? I don’t think they want you to wear jewelry when you’re running around and doing your exercises. Something could happen to your bracelet.”


“It will be fine!” she argues, body tensing, gearing up for a fight. I recognize the signs of a power struggle about to start, something we go through far too often. Sometimes I think her first instinct is to do the opposite of everything I say. I love this child of mine so much, but she challenges me and questions every parenting decision I make. She glances down at her wrist, held out to display the tiny pink and white beads that were hand-sewn around the chain. She touches the beads with her other hand and admires the bracelet.


“I’m not going to fight with you,” I tell her. “But you know that bracelet is special. It’s more for a fancy dinner or event. School is different.” I plead silently with my eyes and my heart, hoping she will see reason.


She glares at me and I acquiesce, not wanting to cause a rift before we even stroll out the door and separate for the day. We walk to school, her trailing behind me on the sidewalk as I push the double stroller with her brother and sister bundled up against the chilly wind. “Have a good day. I love you,” I tell her as I kiss her on the forehead and give her a quick hug before she can escape to the schoolyard; another ritual we perform every morning. I turn the stroller around to make the short walk home. I pray that the bracelet lasts the day, through PE and recess and all the excitement that is second grade.


Once, when she was maybe three or four, we left a birthday party with a giant balloon as the party favor. She was so excited to bring that purple balloon home and walk around the house with it attached to her wrist, laughing with the exhilaration of seeing it float back up every time she pulled it down. I loved seeing the joy on her face as she experienced something new.


It was a gorgeous, sunny day and she wanted to go out and play. She loves to be outside, my active child, running and jumping and yelling and climbing, constantly demanding my attention and affection. So often other parents comment on her courage to climb tall trees or playground equipment, other children looking on in concern of her defiance of unspoken rules. She is determined to do what she wants and I’ve learned it’s not easy to change her mind. That afternoon she wanted the balloon to go outside with her.


“Don’t take the balloon outside,” I told her. “It could float away and you’ll never see it again.” Of course her little self refused to listen to reason. She was convinced that balloon was going to stick to her no matter what. She pulled open the sliding door to the backyard and slipped out, balloon string a tight knot in her hand. Tugging on the string, feeling the tension as she pulled and bounced, she enjoyed the power she had over it. I watched in the background as she jerked and accidentally released the string, the balloon floating higher and higher out of her reach. Even though she jumped and stood on her tiptoes, she couldn’t catch the string before it was gone. I watched as her face crumpled and tears fell.


It is now afternoon and I wait for her to walk out her classroom door. Her siblings and I have been patiently waiting, knowing she will be one of the last to exit. She has created a ritual of helping her teacher after school every day, erasing whiteboards and tidying up. I love how she enjoys assisting others and takes pride in her service, giving some of her abundant energy to a worthy task.


I catch a glimpse of her pink shirt and wait in uncertain expectation. Some days she comes out of the classroom giddy and excited. Other days I can tell she is ruminating on the events of the day and tells me she “doesn’t want to talk about it” when I inquire. Today her eyes are downcast as she exits, her face pale and drained. She clutches something tightly in her hand and I can see her try to hide the emotion on her young face. I know immediately what she holds, but give her the space to show me.


“Look,” she says as she leans in to me, carefully uncurling her fingers to reveal the tangle of chain and string and beads in her hand. She uses her other hand to push the beads around in her palm, trying to will the bracelet back together.


I think about this child of mine, how it feels like she is constantly on the offensive, daring me to pick a fight with her over anything and everything. So many times I bite my tongue, when all I want to do is shake her and say, “Why didn’t you listen to me? I told you what would happen! We could have avoided this disappointment together.”


We have another ritual we perform, my daughter and I, when days like today don’t go as planned, despite my warnings and praying and hoping. “I’m sorry,” I say, and I mean it. I bend down and give her a hug, leaving my heart open to her if she wants to talk about it. Then we turn and walk home together.


Beth Robinson was a California public school teacher before becoming a stay-at-home mom. Her three children will tell you her favorite things are Reese’s peanut butter cups, taking naps, and her family, most likely in that order. She can often be found reading, writing, gardening, or traveling. She has written for BabyCenter, Coffee + Crumbs, and spontaneously blogs at My Pregnancy and Beyond.


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