Like Mother, Like Daughter

She’s like looking in a mirror sometimes, Rainey reminds me so much of myself. The other day when I took her out for a mother-daughter date, we both horked down the brownie sundae we were sharing so fast we should’ve just asked for shovels. I’m surprised we didn’t lean back, unbutton our pants, and belch after we finished. But that’s not Rainey’s style or mine, so we politely wiped the dripping chocolate sauce from our chins and giggled instead.

That girl loves a good dessert just like her mama.

Depending on how you look at it, watching your child slowly start to resemble you is one of the joys of parenting. To me, there’s no greater affirmation of my personhood than when one of my more redeeming qualities is embodied by my daughter. Whenever Rainey makes me laugh or dazzles me with a drawing or roots for the underdog, I love to praise her for her sense of humor, creativity, and compassion. But secretly I can’t help but feel good about myself, too.

Sometimes staring into the face of a miniature version of myself, though, is tough for me to stomach, unlike the brownie sundae. Not only does it make me face my own demons but my daughter’s as well. And lately Rainey and I have been staring down some pretty nasty ones.

And it all started with two grapes.

On the last day of kindergarten, Rainey was eating lunch – the same lunch that I packed for her almost every day that year – at our kitchen counter. I heard a high-pitched wheezing noise and looked up to see milk coming out of her nose and Rainey clutching her throat. In an instant I grabbed her around the waist and began giving her the Heimlich maneuver. After four or five thrusts, a grape flew out of her mouth, and I sat her down on the stool to check to see if she was okay. But she still couldn’t breathe, so I flipped her upside down over my knee and began slapping her back as hard as I could, afraid that if I continued the Heimlich I’d break a rib because of her tiny frame. I kept screaming at her to “Cough! Cough!” And as I was pounding her back and as she fought for air, she finally threw up another grape on the floor. Exhausted and trembling, we both curled up together on the floor and started to cry.

“Could I have died, Mama?” Rainey asked me through her tears. And all I could do was nod my head.

Over the course of the next few weeks, Rainey recounted to her friends and family the scary ordeal, but it wasn’t until the end of the summer that we noticed some of its negative effects. For one, Rainey lost four pounds, and at her age and body build, those were four precious pounds she couldn’t afford to lose. She also had difficulty swallowing her food; she stored it in her cheeks like a chipmunk ready to explode and swallowed only once everything in her mouth liquefied into some sort of mush. And, what terrified me the most, I sensed fear and anxiety moving into parts of her where trust and enthusiasm used to live.

So in the beginning of her first grade year, we scheduled an appointment with a child psychologist. She diagnosed Rainey with an adjustment disorder and worked with her for a few months to overcome her fear of choking. Soon Rainey was eating grapes, gaining weight, and, more importantly, learning how to relax when she was afraid to swallow.

But in the process of her therapy, I realized I related too well to Rainey’s anxiety. When I sat in on her sessions and listened to the therapist asking her questions, in my head I answered them for myself, as if I were the six-year-old sitting beside her. That’s when I knew I might need to talk to somebody, too.

Almost every week since then I’ve met with a smart, quiet, and kind counselor named Ellie who mostly just listens to me talk about myself. At first, it felt like torture, and I couldn’t believe I was actually paying someone for it. Many sessions seemed to be a waste of her time and mine. But because of her warmth, authenticity and unconditional acceptance, parts long left unexplored inside of me have slowly felt the freedom to be seen, heard, and healed.

It hasn’t been easy, and it’s taken its toll on all of us. In fact, a few of Rainey’s anxious tendencies have resurfaced. She’s having problems eating again, and some of her outward behavior is reflecting what I can only assume is some internal turmoil.

So I decided to introduce her to Ellie.

Some people may think that sending her to therapy this time around is not a good idea, that it may communicate to an already sensitive child that something is wrong with her. But I’m not doing it because I think Rainey has a problem, and it’s not because I want Ellie to “fix” her any more than I want or need or can be “fixed” myself. I’ve explained to Rainey that I meet with Ellie to talk about my heart. And it’s a safe place for Rainey to talk about hers.

Some people may also think that she doesn’t need a counselor, that she just needs a mother who provides a little more consistency. I admit that in the midst of this journey I’ve fallen short in many ways as her mom, and I know no one can give her the love, direction, and attention she needs quite like me. But where others may see sending her to someone else for help as a way of shirking my maternal duties, I see it as an extension of them. I view it as an expression of my complete and undivided devotion to her.

But this isn’t about what other people think. And, frankly, I don’t care. I can appreciate and process their opinions, like I’m doing here, but ultimately my priority has to be my daughter and understanding what she needs. And so far, Rainey has been delightfully cooperative about it.

But, honestly, I don’t know what the outcome will be for either of us. Hopefully this whole experience will make us both stronger and will solidify us as women who can give and receive love well. Right now, though, we’re in the thick of it, fighting a force that seemingly seeks to extinguish our spirits. But because we’re both tenacious, we’re committed to growing and healing in light of it.

And when it’s all over, when our demons are dead and we can look each other in our hazel eyes and giggle again, we’re totally celebrating by pigging out on some pie together.

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