Monday, February 21, 2011

Tough Enough (Babble)

Aden and I got to pick the next book for our mother/child book club meeting in April.  I suggested Little House on the Prairie because my taste in children’s literature tends toward old classics.  I got Aden reading The Boxcar Children recently, I’m looking forward to reading The Secret Garden with her someday, and down the road maybe Jane Eyre.  I don’t think I’ve read Little House on the Prairie since I was about nine myself, and from what I could remember of it I thought Aden would enjoy it.  She was excited about the book–until we actually started reading it.

The first chapter seemed to leave Aden rather bored.  From her perspective the descriptions of selling a house and packing up to move elsewhere probably looked like grownups dealing with grownup problems and dragging the kids along for the ride.  I, however, was left dumbstruck.  They packed up to move from Wisconsin in the WINTER because the rivers and lakes would be easier to cross while frozen.  (We have trouble traveling in the winter here in Wisconsin and we have roads.  And heat.  And salt trucks plowing the way ahead of us.)  They traveled in their covered wagon over the Mississippi and down into Iowa and Missouri all the way to Kansas with two little girls and a baby.  A BABY!  How did they do that?  Why did they do that?  (Actually, I looked it up and found out in real life the baby was born while they were living on the prairie, but that doesn’t sound much better to me, and I don’t doubt for a minute that someone didn’t attempt something similar anyway so it’s still incredible to ponder.) 

They purposely wanted to go where there weren’t any people and start from nothing.  I can’t imagine doing that no matter how hard I try.  I’m in awe of what they did, but when I think about how tricky I found it to move from one house to another just across the street during a Wisconsin winter with two little girls and a toddler, I’m amazed all over again.  Pa builds their whole house and somehow makes a door without nails, and Ma cooks and cleans and IRONS THEIR CLOTHES in the middle of nowhere.  (My kids have only seen me use an iron for melting perler beads.  I don’t think they know it’s for clothes.)  It’s absolutely crazy and I was enthralled from the first page.

Now, the book didn’t stay boring for Aden, but unfortunately it got upsetting.  The Ingalls family has a dog named Jack who runs along under the wagon the whole journey (“Mom, why can’t the dog ride in the wagon?”) only to be swept away while they are all crossing a raging river.  Aden fell apart.  Normally when I read to her and something makes her sad or scared she starts repeating over and over “This is a kids’ book, so everything will come out okay in the end.”  But she knew this book was based on a true story, so when her sister tried to reassure her that everything would be fine, Aden said, “But this is a real life story, and real life doesn’t usually turn out okay.”  She wanted me to stop reading.  She cried about Jack the dog and said we never should have picked this book.  She didn’t want me to go on to the next chapter.

Honestly, I couldn’t remember if Jack would be found again or not.  I couldn’t promise Aden that the dog would be fine if we just read a little further.  So I took the opportunity to have a conversation with her about being so sensitive.  I told Aden I was glad she feels things deeply, and of course it’s sad when a dog is lost or dies.  But I also told her that I was starting to worry that I was doing a bad job as her mom in preparing her for the world if she couldn’t make it through a story where anything bad happens.  I’m afraid that if I shield her from too much that I will one day send her out on her own and she will be crushed to pieces.

I told Aden about how her great-great-grandmother here in Milwaukee had to drop out of school and go to work to help support the family at age nine, and that life can be hard.  Our own lives are so easy by comparison that we don’t get the benefit of learning from rough events.  Life usually isn’t fair or easy.  Everything dies, everything ends, and the lesson we must take away from that is to cherish beauty and life all the more because it is fleeting.  If I had only focused on the loss I experienced after my miscarriages I never would have had the strength to try again and we wouldn’t have Quinn.  It’s fine to grieve but not to be incapacitated. Aden looked at me, her face covered in tears, her knees pulled up to her chin.  She shook her head when I told her I was going to read the next chapter.

The truly absurd thing about all of this is that the Ingalls family had to be tough enough to actually live through all of these adventures, and I was only asking my child to find the strength just to hear about it.  I hadn’t appreciated how soft our lives are in general until I realized how simply reading about real hardship was too much for my (not so) little girl.  Because of her dad’s deployments I had no choice but to talk with Aden earlier than I would have liked about war and its consequences, so it seemed right to spare her any additional upsetting ideas if she didn’t feel up to them.  I live in dread of the day I have to explain the holocaust to her and let her know of all the relatives who lost their lives in that unfathomable nightmare.  She is so innocent of true horror and pain, and I wish she could remain that way, but if I don’t help her build a thicker skin reality will break her mind and her heart.  I want her to be able to cope.  I had to start somewhere, so we were going to deal with Jack the dog.

I opened Little House on the Prairie and read to Aden as she peeked out at me from behind her knees, clutching her pink bunny for comfort.  And, of course, by the end of that chapter Jack had returned, having survived being swept downriver and tracking their trail and nearly being shot by Pa who thought he might be a wolf sneaking up on their camp.  Aden was elated.

So what lesson did I teach?  I have no idea now.  Maybe that when in doubt you go ahead and read the next chapter anyway.  That’s a nice one, but probably not closely related to toughening her up.  I could rent Old Yeller but that would probably kill her.  I suppose I’m not really worried because in the long run no one’s life is easy and Aden will have to deal with any number of hardships that will come her way, I just don’t want to leave her completely unprepared for surviving them.  How tough is tough enough?  I suppose somewhere between building a little house in the middle of nothing and being able to read about it.

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