The Box

Last Friday night Nina,6, had a sleepover at her friend Sasha’s house.  She came home with a decorated shoe box.


“What’s the box?” I asked Sasha’s mom.
“Oh, it’s a box Sasha and Julie made, Sasha wanted Nina to have it now.”
“Oh, OK.”
“It’s a secret box!” Nina announced excitedly.  

The box was put on the staircase until after dinner, when I brought it up to Nina’s room.  Nina got out of the bath first, and as I was helping her older brother, I saw Nina in the hallway laying out a large square of white silk.  

“What’s that?”
“It’s from the box.”
“Oh, it’s lovely.”
“And look at these!”  Nina brought two fairy figurines into the bathroom.  “Look Sam!  Look at these!  These are from the box too!”
“Wow, Nina,” said Nina’s older brother, moderately impressed. 

Nina left the bathroom and started to roll the fairies up in the silk.  “Now you can’t see them!”  
“No, now they’re just a lump!” I commented. “There are lots of special things in the box!”

I helped Sam out of the tub and went into Nina’s room.  She was sitting on the floor looking carefully at the other contents of the box.  On the front of the box was a label, that read exactly: “Please join the secret club.  Go to Sasha and Julie for more detils.  Nina not alloud if try then no!  www.secretclub.come.  Gift aloud in box.  Gift as birthday present to join.”

“Do you see, it says ‘Nina not allowed,” Nina announced.  “Julie wrote that.  But she’d be OK with me being in the club now.  We’re friends now.”  

Julie is Nina’s on-again off-again friend.  For several months Nina wanted nothing more than to be Julie’s very best friend.  To Nina, that meant talking to Julie as often as possible, hugging her, and always playing with her.  Julie requires more personal space than Nina, which is understandable as Nina has almost negative personal space and really feels best when enclosed in a bear hug.  Nina also somehow managed to contribute to Julie ending up on the dreaded cloud a couple of times.  Nina’s class has a “rainbow, sun, cloud” system; everyone starts on the rainbow, and can move to the sun as a reward or the cloud as a deterrent.  The cloud is seen as serious business among Nina’s friends.  

Then there was my part in increasing the strife in the relationship.  Julie’s mom and I once made plans for Julie to come to ours for a sleepover.  We set the date about two weeks in advance.  Shortly after the date was finalized, a dance to be held at the school began getting more buzz.  It was organized by the school music teacher who, in addition, is both my and Sam’s choir director and is Sam’s math teacher.  He had asked me a couple of times if we were going.  The children started learning some of the dances that would happen at the Hoedown in school, and I found out that several children from Sam’s class were going.  I asked Julie’s mom if we could bring Julie to the Hoedown, but she felt that it would be too late a night for Julie.  I sat with the idea of skipping the Hoedown for a few days but in the end asked Julie’s mom if we could reschedule the sleepover for Friday.  She agreed.  But Julie had a cough on the Friday and wasn’t well enough to come.  Julie felt better though in time for the party that took place just before the Hoedown.  I found out later that Julie was disappointed that she hadn’t come to ours after the party. 

After that weekend Julie and Nina’s relationship went rapidly downhill, to the extent that Julie ignored Nina and Nina pouted.  Nina started complaining more frequently about going to school.  I apologized to Julie’s mom for having strained the relationship because of the sleepover that didn’t happen.  I bought books about friendships between girls and read them carefully.

Finally, the situation improved.  Nina came home one day and announced, “Julie and I are friends again!”
“Oh, I’m glad to hear that.”
“I even played with her!”
“That’s great, honey!”

That was a couple weeks ago.  But now we have the box.  Amazingly, Nina herself does not seem too bothered by the exclusionary elements of the box.  There is the label, that makes her status as outsider clear, and then there are the little notes inside: “Best friends: Sasha, India, Charlie, Lottie, Jo.”  “I love India.”  Nina is not mentioned anywhere.  Nina wears her feelings on her sleeve, so it would have been apparent if inspecting the box further made her feel dejected.  But she approached it matter-of-factly.

The person who felt dejected was me.  My daughter’s friendships somewhat resemble solar systems.  There is a sun– Julie– that all the girls revolve around.  Then there are the inner planets, who are very close to the sun: usually India and Sasha.  Nina seems to alternate between being an inner or middle planet in this solar system and an outer planet in other solar systems.  The tricky part, for me, is that of all the moms in the class, I have become closest friends with the mothers of the girls in Julie’s solar system.  So rather than calmly observing the machinations of this solar system, I feel like a planet myself, and when it seems that Nina may fit better in another solar system, I feel like I have broken out of my orbit and am careening rapidly through space.  Whenever Nina’s position is about to change, I wonder about my own position, and the impact that her movement within the galaxy will have on me.  


I sent Sasha’s mom a text message: “Did you know that the box’s label says it’s for a secret club that Nina is absolutely not allowed to join?”


She texted back: “Had no idea.  Please rip it off.”  


I told Nina, “Sasha’s mom said she and Sasha give us permission to take off the box’s label.”
“We can’t do that.  It’s Julie’s box.  Julie made the label.”


Ah, the property element.  One of the five family rules that have been in effect for at least two years now is “We will treat other people’s possessions with respect.”  Nina had a good point- removing the label without Julie’s consent would be a clear breach of that rule.


The following week was half-term, and the box, to me, felt like an unwelcome guest.  On Tuesday I tried to put the box on a high shelf of Nina’s bookcase.  “No, don’t put it up there,” she said.  It stayed on the floor, with the label still firmly attached.  Every time I saw it, I wondered what sort of message I was giving Nina by leaving it intact.  Would she end up thinking I wouldn’t stand up for her?  Would she think by not taking action I was somehow complicit in her exclusion?  Was I blowing everything way out of proportion?


Julie’s mom and I had made a date for Julie to finally come for a sleepover the last weekend of half-term.  Midweek, our son came down with impetigo.  He started taking antibiotics and improved rapidly, but I knew he would still be somewhat affected the day Julie was meant to come.  I texted Julie’s mom, who replied that we may then have to reschedule as Julie suffers from eczema and impetigo can be especially catching for children prone to eczema.  A slight sense of panic washed over me– if Julie didn’t come, the box would remain the same.  Not to mention that Julie’s mom had already mentioned the sleepover, and if it were to not happen again, I feared that Julie, being 6, would again respond with anger towards Nina.  I texted back, asking Julie’s mom to please wait until the morning of the sleepover day to make a firm decision, as Sam could be nearly rash-free by then.  


Saturday morning I wrote again to Julie’s mom.  “Sam much better- I think it would be OK.”
“Just can’t decide,” she responded.
“There will never be a perfect time- let’s do it.”


I waited.  “OK, let’s go ahead,” came the verdict.
I went straight to my daughter to announce the good news.  “Guess what Nina?”
“What?”
“Julie’s coming for a sleepover tonight!” 
“Yay!  Julie’s coming! Yay!”


Julie arrived a few hours later.  As soon as the girls went upstairs, I seized the opportunity.  “Julie, you know this box that you made with Sasha?”
“Oh yeah.”
“Well, on the front it says Nina can’t be in the club.  Do you think we could change that now that you and Nina are getting along?  I can take off this label and you could make a new one together.” 
“Oh yeah, sure.”
“Is that OK with you Nina, now that Julie says we can take off the label?”
“Yeah, ’cause you like me now, don’t you Julie?  You’re going to have a sleepover!”
“Yeah, I like you now, Nini.”


I tore off the label and crumpled it up.  “Here’s a plain sheet of paper, you two can make a new label for it, there’s coloured pencils there.”
“Yeah, OK,” said Nina.  “Look at this Julie, it’s my pony eraser, you can take off the mane!”
“Cool, where’d you get that?”


I walked out with the decimated label and threw it in the bin.  I reviewed my performance: while I probably should have made the box discussion more child-led, the goal was achieved and the family rules were respected.  All in all a good outcome.  Why did the box still bother me?


There was the question of what the box meant for my own friendships with the mothers of Nina’s friends.  If Nina ended up not being close to Julie, Sasha, or India, where did that leave me?  I had cultivated relationships with these women and considered them my friends, but if Nina couldn’t be part of their daughters’ galaxy, I knew it would be increasingly difficult for me to maintain those friendships.


Then there was the stereo element.  So often when Nina faces challenges, I struggle to assign them their correct weight and deal with them in the present because I am thrown back to similar experiences I had as a child.  Not only that, but I instinctively play the tape forward as well, and guess at what the outcome could be.  So if Nina feels left out, I have to wade through all the times I felt left out as a child, plus I wonder how feeling left out will affect her next week, next year, and when she’s an adult.  After all of that, I still have to help Nina right now.  Before having children, it was much simpler to assess and respond to a problem in mono.  The stereo effect can have peculiar consequences.  When Nina performed in her first ballet show, at the age of four, I cried from the moment she stepped onto the stage until the moment she exited.  The intense happiness of seeing Nina perform was mixed with the knowledge that my own life at that age was drastically more difficult than hers and certainly did not include silver sequins and ballet shoes.  There was also the bittersweet knowledge that her future would be enriched because at the age of four she was already having the wonderful experience of performing for her adoring family. I did have the chance to perform music for my family, but that was much later, and for such things, earlier is always better.


Nina and Julie are still friends at the moment.  Nina and Julie didn’t make a new label that night, and Nina never decided to make one herself.  I returned the box, unnoticed by Nina, to Sasha’s mom a couple of weeks after the label was removed.  It hasn’t been missed.  


There will be more “boxes” for Nina.  Similar problems, mostly not as clearcut as this one, occur nearly every day.  My goal is to see these incidents as objectively as possible, and to attempt to separate Nina’s feelings about them from my own feelings, past, present, and future.   
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One Response to The Box

  1. Lisa says:

    At the age of 42, dear Beth, I still sometimes wonder if I'm in the right solar system, and why I can't seem to orbit as serenely and perfectly as everyone else. You've given your daughter so many gifts, in her dresses and slippers, her sleepovers and birthday cakes. And mostly in the encouragement, love, the rules and the support that form her values and the roots of her self-esteem. She will always be a star, just like you. Remind yourself of how radiant you are, and she will understand, too. Love to you. Thanks for sharing this. x

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