I know all about when I am anxious -- how I parent out of fear, am fueled by what people will think rather than what I know, snap and bite at anyone near me (except strangers, I'm quite sweet to them). It can be messy.
A whole different set of things happens, though, when a kid is anxious.
This week one of my kids was in a music/dancing/acting camp -- in five days they put together an hour and a half long show in which every kid had at least two feature parts. The cousins had done the same show last year, and I didn't even think about the performance piece being uncharted territory.
Throughout the week the camper had stomachaches in the mornings and sometimes in the afternoons, but there was a bug going around so I didn't give it much thought.
Quick background: this is our sweet kid who regularly has stomachaches Monday mornings, sometimes every morning. All school year we fumbled with how to parent because at any given moment there were actual sicknesses sailing around the classroom; it was near-impossible to know if the pains stemmed from angst or virus. Should we push or protect? Over the many months, Ben and I wrestled with compassion and tough love, wondering what on earth to give when.
Here we were in summer, a fun camp with cousins, music and dance, and by Friday morning there were arms clenched across the stomach and big teary eyes. Could this be anxiety? To keep us off balance, a cousin did have a stomach bug earlier in the week, so, like always, anything seemed possible.
In the three hour break between camp and the evening show, every symptom heightened: there weren't just tears but there was wailing, desperate eyes begging me not to close the car door; there was outright panic.
What was most fascinating (and shocking) was that the kid, no matter how we asked, was not nervous. At all. None of this had anything to do with the show. None of it.
After discussing and wondering, we gave the child a choice to sit in the audience or stand on the stage. The freedom seemed to birth freedom, and into the auditorium all the kids filed, dressed in black, ours lined up and ready! We both exhaled (and my mom, who had been with the performers all afternoon and dragged ours kicking and screaming into the car an hour before -- bless her), and the show began!
The show opened with confidence as our kid lined up as a featured dancer in the opening hip-hop number. Just as it was ending I saw the shift, an instantaneous inexplicable crash, and there in the sea of smiling, clapping chorus kids, ours was the one unmoving face, plastered frown, eyes brimming so full they were bound to spill. The exaggerated misery was almost funny, would have been if it weren't so awful. Next, the child on my right suddenly dove into my lap and began to cry, overwhelmed by the naked pain on stage. So there I sat, one child crying into my lap, the other on stage boring into me with desperate eyes, and Ben whooping and cheering overly-loudly for every small performance to compensate. I suddenly started laughing so hard that tears came -- the it-turns-out-my-laughter-just-unlocked-the-sobbing-I've-stifled-for-hours laugh -- and there we all were, the Newcott spectacle.
Soon after, between songs, our performer slipped off the stage arms crossed and jaw clenched, dreading the twenty-minutes-from-now when it would be time to speak three lines.
As we got closer I asked, Want to sit up front on the floor so when it's time for your skit, you can just run up there with everyone else? I was not the least bit confident that this kid would step back onto the stage, lines or no lines.
I don't want to do it! (mumble) but I know I have to. My hope was ignited; there was some inner spark that might kick this kid back onto the stage. And sure enough, when the lights were down between scenes, the six kids in the sketch scampered back stage with mine in tow.
Out they came, donning simple costumes, another kid in the sketch surely 13 and post-growth spurt (my child maybe came to his chest), and before I knew it, my kid was loudly pouring words into a microphone clearly and loudly in an Italian accent, with Mediterranean hand gestures! The room laughed (they were a great audience) and my child didn't miss a beat.
These people are full of surprises; I did not see that coming.
Finally, longest 90 minutes ever, the crowd on stage bowed and that kid rocketed off the bleachers, still tied in knots, and we went home.
I'm not sure what I learned about myself or children, anxiety or performances, but I know at the least, our kid saw that survival is possible even when the body screams against it. This morning, all pain is done, and the kids are scampering around the house with their cousins. We have four weeks to think about this before we hit a school Monday morning, to talk about the body as a teacher -- sometimes it knows our fears before we do -- to think about the skinny Fear guy from Inside Out running around the brain screaming, arms waving, declaring an emergency, four weeks to calm that guy down.