My daughter is a born performer. She made her stage debut in a child-only performance of the Nutcracker when she was three years old and had just started ballet and tap classes the summer before. Her part was to follow along a line of similarly costumed “angels,” led by a teen-aged “head angel,” as they walked in a circle around the stage—a simple part for a group of three-year-olds. She remembered to walk on her toes and had the most beatific smile on her face. Everything went well until the Sugar Plum Fairy appeared on stage left and my daughter stopped, dead center, awestruck by the wealth of purple sequins and layers of tulle. The line of angels continued past her until the middle-school-aged “trail angel” physically turned my daughter toward stage right and, with a gentle shove, maneuvered her back in line and moving toward off-stage. The grandmother of another child sitting next to me and I laughed and laughed.
The performances continue, twice a year for Nutcracker productions and spring recitals, entertaining in their way but not as hilarious as my daughter’s debut performance. A few years later, my daughter was placed in a 1st-2nd grade combined class in her school. The class’s spring play normally show-cased the second graders who would be moving on at the end of the year. However, the teachers selected my daughter, a first-grader, to sing one of the solos because she had a stronger voice for this particular arrangement than the other kids in her class. My daughter memorized the entire script and practiced her part for weeks, frequently recited during bath time. Of course, I went to see the play.
It was one of the most devastating moments of my life.
My daughter played her part and sang her solo beautifully. Her cheeks were suffused with a delicate shade of pink—she was so happy performing and being the center of everyone’s attention for a few fleeting moments. I was so proud of her, but I was also overcome with a feeling of abject terror. I had known, intellectually, that my daughter loved performing but I had not understood so viscerally that her love of this type of adulation exposed her vulnerability. Her pleasure was so apparent: I realized how easily others could recognize that quality and exploit her. I, the free-range mom who believed in letting children experience natural consequences for their actions, was powerless to protect her. I felt sick to my stomach.
My daughter is in her eleventh year of dance classes, mostly ballet. She’s performed as Clara, Queen of the Mirlitons, and the wind-up doll from the Nutcracker party scene, among many other roles and a good chunk of time in the chorus. She is not always the star performer, nor should she be, but I always make sure she knows how much I love to watch her dance. She does not know about the darker feelings I experience when she performs.
One of my colleagues, another Jewish mom, enrolled her three-year-old daughter in the same dance academy. In the course of one “dance mom” conversation, I revealed these conflicting feelings and my own disgust that my fears for my daughter affected my enjoyment of her dance performances.
My friend said exactly what I needed to hear: “Sounds like a good Jewish mom to me.” Her comment helped me realize that my feelings were less in conflict than in a yin-yang relationship and balanced with each other. Since then, when I watch my daughter dance, my fears and worry are still there alongside my enjoyment and pride, but I have overcome my guilt for feeling terrified on her behalf. Moms are terrified for our kids—and that’s okay as long as we don’t let our fears cripple us or, worse, enable us to cripple our children.
I think most parents do what they can to protect their children and give them the tools to protect themselves. Sometimes, we fail. Sometimes, we let go. Most of the time, we dwell in the grey space between the black and white.
My daughter didn’t bother to tell me that she was a featured soloist in her most recent performance, choosing instead to simply appear in the finale executing some very complicated steps and athletic leaps. She is not as obsessed with ballet as she used to be and either no longer tries to determine who will be chosen for what role or doesn’t care as much. Yet her face still turns delicately pink when she’s in the spotlight and she loves the rush. Perhaps she is learning to recognize her own vulnerabilities and be comfortable in them. I am.