the deep breath of parenthood

Well, we did it. We made it through the sixth birthday. But with it came profound questions, transitions and challenges. With it came Grade One.

Now I always knew that I would have to face grade one some day, but I never thought it would come at the cost of a good night’s sleep, or an interminable conversation with my husband and friends as to what to do with Leila. We’ve always described her as our wild little spirit, someone different, vibrant and unique. We are proud of her in countless ways: for her thoughtfulness and her gratitude; her organized creativity, her musical intelligence and her determination steering the way.

For the woman that we know she will become.

But in the meantime, we are up against something big and strong, something not moving, not curving to meet her on her own bends: the school system. A rigidity unchanged since we sat in those teeny, tiny grade one chairs.

Although we’re trying to be open minded, our Leila is not used to conformity. Even in our family, our daily routines, and the hourly operations of this house, she has struggled. She’s not used to sitting in a desk all day, answering questions on demand. She’s used to action, to imagination.

We know that to her, school life begins and ends on the playground. The only daily reports that we receive are from her music class, which her father and I carefully follow. Last year’s highlight was Kindergarten Choir, in which they danced like bumble bees and mimicked rainbows. This is her truth in life, her raison d’etre.

Meet the teacher night didn’t go well. We were greeted with an impromptu critical analysis as other parents walked into the room, her teacher pronouncing that because we had taken the last month off kindergarten, Leila was already behind. She was in Mandarin classes in Beijing, i said, an attempt at her defense. Our decision. Our choice.

Next came homework. Another hurdle. An entire lineage of teachers, parents, grandparents, and other relatives in the mix, and the child will not read. Words on a page suddenly don’t make sense to her, and when her father and i sit down to do homework, a mysterious tummy ache appear out of nowhere. Our only salvation is to sing the homework, in rhythm and in rhyme. She laughs, clapping to the beat, forgetting for a moment that she’s doing it-  she’s reading.

But still, I worry. Frustration. Panic. A breakdown in the Superstore parking lot after Parent-Teacher interviews.

A voice inside calls to me,  just love her. Wait for her. Her time will come.

The deep breath of parenthood.

I call to others, questioning parents on the whens and wheres of normalcy. Some show sympathy, painfully remembering the days when their kids didn’t or wouldn’t fit in. She’s probably the next Steve Jobs, says my boss casually, shaking her head, her eyes growing wide as she remembers back, or  a pro surfer.

A pro surfer, I muse. I could handle that. Summers in Tofino, winters in Hawaii, and I catch myself drifting away, almost late for class with a pile of unmarked midterm exams in one hand and a cold cup of coffee in the other. Am I really the teacher whose daughter won’t confine to the slow, labored breathing of the system? Do i really wonder where she gets her impassioned, mercurial tendencies?

More than just the teacher, I am the woman who resisted authority, her parents, her older brothers, even to this day (by painful times) – her husband. The very slow learner whose explorations were not always academic, they were mystical, transcendental. I was stuck in epic Wordsworthian poems of immortality, and for that, well, I don’t apologize.

“… our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!”

And so to my dear Leila, I will not give up on you. Let rainbows and choir practices be your guiding stars, and may we all catch up with you some day.

Love, Mom

P.S. As a post-script, here is a photo of what Leila would like to change her name to. I don’t know where she came up with “Ziley”, but I quite like it.


  1. I love this girl and I know she is going to go places even if it’s not in order:) Conforming is after all quite boring!! xoxo

  2. Love this post, Mo. It made me laugh, then feel concerned, but mostly it made me relieved to know that she is just like you, and you turned out more than *fine*

  3. Oh man. Here’s to Ziley, indeed. I feel for you, and for Leila. If I could transform her school today I would. Just keep reminding her that people in charge of schools are still learning, and they need a lot of help. If she has any ideas, she should let me know, and I’ll use them to help me fight the good fight.

  4. I can so relate to this. My adorable daughter had NO intentions of following the rules in first grade. But she thrived in an open environment of Montessori. Even then she was strong willed and determined but very bright. She could read but found it so boring and much preferred action. Being a developmental OT therapist, I resisted all those who wanted her to fit the box or ‘be medicated!” ( I suggested to one teacher that she take the meds if it meant that much to her!)
    After much research, we discovered her true learning style and I taught each teacher how each child learns differently and how to tune into it. I was fortunate to find a school that worked with me and my daughter thrived academically.
    I so agree with the above post- the schools and teachers are learning too and if Ziley has a different learning style (singing works for me!) to let the teachers know. Patience, my dear cousin. IT will pay off. Do not despair but support her and let her explore her world and learn as she can.Yes, there are those dreaded bench marks to obtain but there are so many pathways to achieve them.
    My daughter thrives now after much turbulence in her life and I can see the woman that she is becoming: bright, focused, loving and still wanting to learn all she can.

  5. Wow Mo, love your writing. And, I love the understanding and support that you have for Ziley, and she grows up in PEI!

  6. Hey Mo – rewind 7 years, and I could have written the same words about N. I find tears streaming down my cheeks as I read this, because I know where you are – and where Lei is.

    Grade one at SP school (makes me wonder if they have the same teacher) got off to a horrid start. Before the end of the first week, I receive a call with the decree: “she can’t learn.” It went downhill from there. Resource, school meetings, humiliation, bad reports – rinse/repeat.

    What kind of system allows such a cruel and ridiculous assessment ever, let alone, less than a week into formal education? We hadn’t a clue how to respond so we struggled along, trying to stuff our sweet round peg into that unrelenting square hole (all the while, thinking back to our own struggles with rigidity and authority and feeling mildly sick). Both her father and I commiserated with her, told her it would get better – and agreed that it was tough and unfair – but told her to keep working hard. She lost faith in us a little. She asked me years later, “Couldn’t you see how hard I was working?”

    N had loads of stomach aches, head aches, heartaches – homework was a nightly ordeal, lasting two hours or more – and often ending in tears for both of us… Finally, at the end of grade three – when she couldn’t read in French or English, had few friends…and was “placed” in grade four….we pulled the plug.

    We got her some proper help (she learned to read at grade level in English over the course of 6 weeks). And we pulled her out of that school. THEY AREN’T ALL THE SAME!!! Grade four to six at ERS was a remarkable experience for N. She was excelled academically, had loads of friends, felt more confident – and dare I say…began to talk about how much she loved school! This has continued through even to the awkwardness and dysfunction of junior high. She is in late French Immersion and doing super.
    Her teachers look at us funny when we mention learning difficulties. They don’t see it. Even a little.

    I want to say it just took her some time. I want to say that maybe she did have a learning difficulty, but it was easily “fixed”. I want to say SP did their best for her. But I can’t. I realize now that I should have been her advocate from the start. The woulda, coulda, shoulda is the long exhale in the deep breath of parenthood. Someday, maybe, I’ll get the hang of it.

    Best of luck and lots of love to you all!

    1. Michelle, thank you for your honest, memorable post. This issue has indeed struck a chord with many. I had heard about your decisions, and I realize that it must have been a long, hard struggle for the whole family, not to mention the endless nights. I’m so glad to hear that N. is doing well, and I know Leila will too – we just may have a few hoops to get her there yet! Would love to chat more about this with you sometime… xoxo Mo

  7. I agree with Kari- what a great piece of writing! You should consider submitting this one somewhere for a bigger audience. I think it would resonate with many. When I see you walking across campus in your flowing skirts and shawl, leaning into the wind – I am filled with admiration for what a beautiful woman and mother you are. Leila is strong and bright like her mom, here’s to Ziley!

  8. My sweet boy had the same kind of report. Too much focus on play and recess. They are just 6 years old, how can they expect them to be seasoned readers at this stage. They are learning so much each day. They are learning about themselves, and their friends. They are also being taught in a new language. She says she has to continually refocus his attention, that he has battles with imaginary Darth Vaders and Aniken Skywalkers while she teachers. He is an imaginative boy and I am glad to see him using it. I felt like such a failure as well, and had the same little breakdown, but I thought of the article on CNN about parents getting upset and rejecting the opinions of the teacher who are trained in this area. I am going to trust that our babies will be just as bright as their neighbor, and we will be just as proud.
    Leila is as colorful as a rainbow and I hope no one ever takes that away from her. We need more Leilas in this world.

    1. Thanks Rhonda! Darth Vader and Aniken Skywalker…there’s a new one for me. We do put so much pressure on them, and on ourselves. Love your comments, as always.

  9. I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the last few days. What happened to our farm where we would ‘farm-school’ the kiddies? You and I should start a school, bella. It would be so amazing.

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