It is her 12th birthday and we are meandering through Central Park when we are stopped by a poet.
When moms learn of my work to prevent human trafficking, the conversation always turns to fear for their own children. They wonder, how do I protect my kids? They ask, what can I do to prevent this from happening?
We go in early March when the selection is good, the options plentiful. There are knitted, embroidered, and ruffled varieties. Vivid colors. And even some that aren't all about cleavage.
There is nothing worse for parents who have written books on parenting to feel the sting of hypocrisy. Or, I suppose for a marriage and family counselor to feel like a fraud if things at home are sloppy.
“Your story is not my story!”
The outfit I have chosen is discarded in the clothes-swamp floor of her room. Jeans and a sensible t-shirt strewn among sparkly dresses, floral skirts, and chunky sequined sweaters. I know this walking down the hallway before I even enter. “We are going to be late,” my voice rises in warning as my footsteps fall heavy on the hardwood floors.
When I was pregnant with our 2nd child, I prayed for a girl with red, curly hair. I got my wish, apart from the curls. Looking back, I see now I wanted so much more for her than that curly red hair.
I don’t really think of myself as a strong woman.
I just think of myself as a woman.
From Cheering on the Sidelines to Playing: Raising Girls while we Raise Ourselves with Tracy Johnson
I had no idea that I would become more of myself for having had children, and my four daughters have each called out differently to the best in me. In helping them discover themselves I have often been faced with choosing how to more fully embrace my own self.
My second born, Allison, is the feeler in our family and I mean “feeling all the feels”, all the time. She is my extroverted, passionate, artistic wild child and she was also diagnosed with a learning disability in first grade. Growing up behind her academically high achieving sister was a challenge.
To be honest I struggled to understand the sister dynamic, as I didn’t have a sister growing up. The girls had an interplay of intimacy and animosity that was mind boggling to me most of the time. Sometimes I felt frustrated by their bickering and other times I felt like I had somehow missed out on something so beautiful it ached inside of me.
When Allison was eleven or twelve we were driving home from school one day when she began talking about how she wanted to get the cartilage in her ear pierced. I asked her why and she proceeded to talk about one of Katy’s friends and how she really felt Carly got her because she was an artist and wore interesting clothes and was the second born in her family, like Allison, and she had her cartilage pierced. She went on to make a comment about feeling alone in our family and like none of us understood her. I wasn’t sure how to respond, but I found some words and said, “I love that you see things in Carly that tell you that you belong.” Katy rolled her eyes and I quietly worried that I was losing Allison.
I pondered that whole conversation for days. I hadn’t wanted to come off churchy or with some sort of predictable response like, “Well you know you belong in our family” or “You’re not alone Al, we all love you.” I knew those words would just hit some hollow place inside of her and roll around leaving her sure that she was right and I didn’t understand her.
I had my own ear piercing story and it was a far cry from wanting my cartilage pierced. The whole process of simply getting my ears pierced had felt like a battle between good and evil and clearly ear piercing was evil and highly questionable. While I had often thought it would be sweet to have my cartilage pierced I never really considered doing it, sure it would garner raised eyebrows and judgment.
A week or so later I took a trip to visit a woman who was a mentoring presence in my life. As we stood in her kitchen talking one evening I shared about the kids and told her some of my current favorite Allison stories. She listened and said, “You know Tracy, it seems like you really cheer Allison on and I love that; and I see you on the sidelines and I wonder what it would be like for you to get out on the field and play with her?”
I remember standing there and feeling like I had been invited to something good. I didn’t have an answer in that moment, but I knew in my gut that I wanted to get out on the field with my girl and play.
I flew home pondering the possibilities and decided that a great way to play with Allison would be getting our cartilage pierced together. I picked her up alone from school one day and she was surprised and curious, “what are we doing Mom?” I told her we were going to the mall to get our cartilage pierced together. She was shocked, and filled with joy. She couldn’t stop smiling and asking me, “Seriously, Mom, seriously. Why? Why are you doing this?” I told her that I loved her creativity and uniqueness. I told her I knew she was different from Katy and I told her that I’d always wanted to do it and how glad I was that we could do it together.” Her eyes danced as she listened and she was just a bit tearful.
It wasn’t as easy as I had thought it would be to get it done together. State laws prohibited me from getting her cartilage pierced without her having a military or state issued form of identification, which we didn’t have. Allison wasn’t bothered at all, “Well, Mom you should get yours done so I can see how bad it’s going to hurt!” So, I did. And, I was determined to find a way to get Allison’s done too.
A few days later with a piercing gun borrowed from a friend I pierced Allison’s cartilage in the parking lot of the conservative Christian school she attended, which did raise a few eyebrows and garner some judgment, somehow making it even sweeter.
It’s a fun story that marks the day I stopped cheering from the sidelines and began playing with my daughter to validate who she is and the uniqueness of her heart and soul, to let her know I was with her. The beauty of it is that the validation I gave to Allison came from parched places inside of me that were watered in the process of loving her well.
Allison and I have continued to play and mothering her has taught me much. Today, she has her masters in leadership and works as a resident director at a college where she is passionate to see and care for each of her students as she pushes them to engage with topics of diversity, self-care, intentionality, and identity. I remain grateful for the wise woman who invited me to get out on the field and play - it’s wisdom I have passed down many times to other women trying to figure out how to mother their girls well.
Tracy Johnson is passionate about nurturing communities where people experience healing, hope and celebration. A certified lay counselor she has written curriculum and traveled the world speaking on healing in the context of abuse. Married for 30 years, she and Mark have five children. She is the founder of Red Tent Living and can be found on Instagram and Twitter @seizedbyhope.