My daughter London turns 12 today.
Despite the fact that we celebrate seven birthdays in our home each year, I couldn’t find a single birthday candle for her birthday cake when it was time to light it. As I dug through the kitchen junk drawer, cursing as stray thumbtacks pricked my fingers, London emerged from her bedroom carrying a triple-wicked, coconut-scented candle that normally lives on her desk. She reached into the same junk drawer and pulled out the candle lighter.
“Here, I’ll just blow these out,” she said, lifting the candle for me to see. She was completely unbothered by the notion that she would be blowing out a decorative, non-birthday candle in just a few moments’ time.
She smiled into the glowing flame as the members of our family sang “Happy Birthday,” and then laughed alongside us when she couldn’t seem to blow out the candle. She eventually extinguished the flames and told me the exact piece of the sheet cake she had her eye on.
Watching her stare into that rather bright, blazing candle, in that moment, brought me back to a younger London — age 2 (the first birthday I got to celebrate with her), age 3, age 4 and a few more after that…. She used to HATE it when people sung her “Happy Birthday.” So much so that she would cry. Like, head down on her arms, real tears – CRY.
She hated the idea of it being sung to her so much that she once cried uncontrollably when we sang it to her grandmother. Another time she cried when her preschool class sang it as a group to another student.
London always loved the other parts of her birthday, of course — the presents, the cake, the decorations. It just really bothered her when every person in a room had their sole attention focused on her, waiting for her to complete a task: blow out her candles. It was a lot of pressure. She didn’t like it.
It checked out, of course, with her personality at the time. As a little one, London was what people would typically call shy. Looking back now, I’d say she was cautious — and decisive. If she was going to do something, she wanted to decide first.
She didn’t like it when people made a fuss over her curly hair, which happened every time she went anywhere in public. She didn’t want to stand out or be noticed without her consent. She did NOT want people to sing “Happy Birthday” to her.
In pre-K, the teachers were unable to “assess” London properly upon entry into the class because London simply would not speak to them. After three attempts, the teacher said, kindly, “Well, I guess she will just make a lot of progress this year.” By the end of the year, London was a friend to every fellow student, and was awarded the “Blossom Award” by her teachers. Her outgoing assessment showed incredible progress. But she did it on her own terms and in her own time. She made friends and spoke up when she was ready and comfortable.
In first grade, her teacher asked London to bring in a favorite stuffed animal to read to, just outside the classroom door. London did not want to read out loud to anyone else, including the teacher, so her precious, favorite stuffed bear was the proxy. The teacher could hear her from a distance reading to her bear (God bless her) and those sessions strengthened her literacy and word fluency. She could read just fine — just not on demand, when she was put on the spot.
In second grade, I would quiz London on her spelling words each week and she would sob as she correctly wrote down each word, every time. It didn’t take me long to STOP doing that and I transitioned her to a computer program where she could practice, independently. I wondered “why?” at the time — why was she crying when she clearly KNEW how to spell the words I was asking? Eventually it occurred to me that she wasn’t crying out of frustration over the words themselves; she was crying because she didn’t like being put on the spot. She didn’t want me standing there, watching her write out each letter. I thought I was being an attentive parent by being involved in the process but really what she needed was to just do it on her own.
Finding the balance between being attentive and giving London her space has been one of the biggest challenges of parenting her, thus far. As a “fixer” in my own personality, it can be tough sometimes to stand down. This is something London needs to grow, though, and so I’ve had to adjust my own approach and grow as a parent, too.
With each year that has passed, London has stepped a little out from the shadows, feeling more comfortable in her own limelight. She’s found confidence in her abilities. She’s gone out on a limb and performed on stage, sometimes singing alone or stealing entire scenes from her costars. She has made new friends, and more new friends. She has asked us if she could try new sports and activities — ones we had not even thought to put her in.
In recent years, especially, London has found a deeper sense of self, without rushing the process or compromising herself. She has stepped away from shy — but not because we intervened. She has had to take her own personal risks to get there. There are still moments when I see the panicked little girl who used to hate the “Happy Birthday” song, but she recovers from them. Or she recognizes why the moments are happening and removes herself from the discomfort. Or she just has a typical preteen freak out and then recovers on the other side. All of these things are part of the process she needs to keep growing, to keep taking risks, to keep settling into the person she is becoming. I look forward to seeing that process continue to play out.
Happy Birthday, London, my sweet little girl. Here’s to another great year ahead.