Well. I wish I had recorded THAT conversation.
And I face a slight ethical dilemma in sharing this with you, because when she saw that I was transcribing what we’d talked about, she didn’t want me sharing the story with anyone but her grandparents. And honestly, I won’t give you all of the details, because even though she’s only nine, I get it. It would be like taking a page from her diary (if she had one) and posting it online for all the world to see. Too personal, even for someone not quite an adolescent.
But my Bridget — my precocious, adorable, creative, maddening nine-year-old — has been describing to me the three (THREE!) boyfriends she has had so far in school.
Now, I know that the childhood definition of “boyfriend” changes substantially when you’re into the teenage years, and there’s perhaps a subtle distinction between a teenage boyfriend and an adult boyfriend. But the central idea is still the same: a chosen, special companion, singled out from all others for individual attention and care, playtime and comforting. Forget the physical intimacy of those old enough to partake: it’s enough that your partner will hold your hand, when you’re a kid.
Hell, I still love it when my husband holds my hand. Maybe that in of itself is a gesture of intimacy. After all, you wouldn’t normally hold a stranger’s hand, or very often, a friend.
But back to Bridget.
This conversation all came about while she was playing with playdough, and at some point she started singing the lyrics to Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space”, and she asked me why Dad had fallen in love with me. I said I didn’t know and she’d have to ask him. Then she said she thought it was because he wanted to be tortured.
I don’t know, maybe there is something to that. Science has shown that powerful chemicals are at work in the process of choosing / pursuing a partner, and the concept of lovesickness has been chewed over by countless poets and authors and songwriters. That lyric, “Boys only want love if it’s torture” — so often, we (boys and girls and most of us in between) crave that which is most out of reach, forbidden, or dangerous, because that suspenseful high resulting from the risk makes our hearts beat faster and those stolen moments all the sweeter. Who wants a love that’s easy?
Look how many romance novels and movies and plays are all about the struggle. The angst. The “what-if” and “better-not” and “you’ll-get-in-trouble” of it all. My nine-year-old is already experiencing some of these things, even though they are limited to heads resting on shoulders and hands being held at recess. For her, dating a boy isn’t yet about anything more than those simple, brief acts that make them both happy. After all, she’s never spoken to me about making a boy hold her hand who didn’t want to (we have had a couple of conversations about the idea of consent — guess we’d better keep going!), or been devastated by losing her favourite’s attentions.
So . . . if romantic love is about finding companionship with someone who makes you feel special and cherished, but experience suggests that we only get that through emotional and physical struggle, deprivation, and mistreatment, is it still romantic love if it’s a couple of elementary school kids who say they’re boyfriend and girlfriend for a few recesses at school? Is that something that we should deride as being cute and harmless, or take seriously?
I vote for the latter. Because I remember liking liking boys and girls when I was in elementary school, and the struggle that went along with deciding whether to admit to those feelings. Opening yourself to that gives those who are cruel a fresh chance to spike your most vulnerable spots. No matter how much you want to show that you like someone more than everyone else does, maybe by blending your personal space bubbles by joining your hands, you’re taking a risk that bringing the feelings out in the open will encourage the other kids to make fun of you. Or get you into trouble, particularly if your school has a no-touch rule. Or start rumours about you. No, romantic love is a serious business even when you’re a child, perhaps even more so in some ways than for adults who are not exposed to the wolf-packs of the playground twice or three times a day.
I told Bridget tonight that I wish she had told me some of these things when they’d happened, but I understand and respect why she kept them to herself. And I hear my mother’s own voice in my words. My daughter is developing her capacity for and understanding of affection beyond her immediate and extended family, growing her ability to love others for themselves. She has given herself (and I have reinforced) boundaries for expressing her feelings. And for now, it’s a stable course. Interestingly, too, her experience so far has been completely different from my own: her way of seeing others, her ability to make those romantic connections, her attitude when the connections are over, all are separate from my own memories of kindergarten through grade 3. This doesn’t mean I have less to worry about — instead, I have to start considering alternatives that she might go through. I can’t just imagine her in situations like those I experienced, and that’s awesome. What’s less awesome is that I’m now in some unfamiliar territory as a once-girl and now-woman, pushing 40 in a world substantially different than the one in which I grew up, raising a daughter to be confident, self-aware, etc. If she was more like me (as my son is), this job wouldn’t be as much of a challenge. But who ever said parenting shouldn’t — or couldn’t — be challenging?