Confessions of a Black Swan Mother

Is my daughter living her dream, or mine?

Jan 11, 2012 at 2:00pm | Leave a comment

I’m writing this from the ballet school parents’ lounge long past bedtime on a Friday night, while my daughter rehearses behind closed studio doors, where she’s been since mid-afternoon.

During a 10-minute dinner break I shoved some soup and a sandwich at her; she burned her tongue on the soup and took one bite of the sandwich before being ordered back into the studio. “Girls! Go in there and get to work!”

Now and then I hear her name called out sharply and I imagine her in there, cheeks flushed, face rigid with concentration.

Just 10 years old, she’s attended this rigorous ballet school -- widely regarded as the best in the United States -- for nearly half her life. The hour-long subway commute is so familiar she could probably do it by herself, in her sleep. When I brought her to audition here, a little girl who never stopped dancing, I didn’t quite realize what we were getting into.

When the audition was covered by the New York Times and I read how many girls were turned away every year, I figured the possibility of her being accepted was slim, but just as I’d forgotten about it, the enrollment letter came. I was stunned and delighted. My daughter -- my daughter! -- was one of the chosen few. I’d always known she was special; now the most elite ballet school in the country had confirmed it.

Growing up, I was obsessed with being famous -- for what, I didn’t quite know or care. I spent hours analyzing the contours of my face in the bathroom mirror, I sang show tunes in the shower, and I acted out Debra Winger’s “Terms of Endearment” death scene in my bedroom. I was convinced that eventually some fabulous Hollywood figure would come sweeping through the stale-sandwich-smelling halls of Menlo Park Elementary School, storm into my classroom and point at me -- “You there! Come with me immediately! You are a STAR!”

Lots of kids want to be the next Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber. But when I look back on my childhood self, the self that wrote a letter to David Hasselhoff on Cabbage Patch Kid Stationery asking “How can I be on TV if I live in Ohio and my parents won’t take me to California?”, I see a little girl more insecure than most. I was (maybe still am) desperate for reassurance that I was a worthwhile and lovable person.

When I said I wanted to act, I was told that lots of people want to be actors and almost none of them succeed. I switched gears and said I wanted to be doctor (this inspired solely by reading the Berton Roueché “Medical Detectives” stories) but was informed that medical school was very difficult and extremely expensive. Instead of “You can be anything you want to be,” I heard “We just don’t want you to be disappointed, honey.”

I was one of those girls who couldn’t wait to have kids, and I promised myself that no matter what, I would always support their ambitions. Maybe I subconsciously gave up on myself and decided to pour everything into my children long before they were even conceived. I don’t know.

In any case, I did have kids when I was (much too) young, and I brought them to New York, so that every imaginable opportunity would be at their doorstep. Now here I sit, newly single and in debt up to my eyeballs, hanging out with the 1% in the lounge of a ritzy ballet school. Whose dream, exactly, am I living?

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Now in her fourth year dancing here, my daughter still loves it, even though it means homework done on the train with books balanced on her knees, meals eaten on the fly, too-late bedtimes, playmates postponed and birthday party invitations declined. In the face of exhaustion and the constant stress of her demanding schedule, she still says dancing is her life’s dream.

I’m in awe of the concentration and focus she shows in class, and the joy on her face after a performance is greater than anything I ever remember feeling when I was her age. And there it is -- “when I was her age.”

I see myself in her and her in myself. I question my motivation. But aren’t we supposed to want our kids to have better lives than we had? Isn’t it normal to want everything for them that we weren’t given?

One evening, we were heading home on the train and two young women stood behind her, talking over her head.

“Look at her little ballet bun – she’s sooo cute!”

“I think it’s sad. Her mom is probably making her do that. Can you imagine? ‘Ooh, I want to have a little girl and dress her up like a doll and make her into a little ballerina so I can live through her!’ Gross.”

“Yeah, totally. It is sad. But she’s still so cute!”

When we got off the train, my “little ballerina” turned to me, eyes flashing with indignation. “Did you hear those girls?” she demanded. “I’m not your doll! No one is making me go to ballet! They don’t know anything!”

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I was relieved by her outburst, but it didn’t quiet the whisper of doubt in the back of my mind. As much as I hate being cast as a pushy stage mom, I have to admit that her ballet career is as exciting for me as it is for her.

She gets to study with famous dancers and perform onstage at Lincoln Center in front of thousands of people, and I get to come along for the ride.

It’s not all pirouettes and roses, either. My behavior has veered into Barbara Hershey Black-Swan territory a few times lately, and I shudder to think what I could become after a few more years of this.

The other day she was standing with a group of fellow dancers and I noticed her slouching, stomach sticking out and shoulders rounded.

Unable to stop myself, I tapped her on the back and hissed, “Stand up straight!”

She pulled away and glared at me but I kept going. “Pull in your belly and push your shoulders back. Good posture should be a habit. Don’t be lazy.”

“Leave me alone!” she whispered furiously.

Pursing my lips to bite back further commentary, I backed off, feeling ashamed but still bothered by that slouch.

Another time some of her classmates were stretching and she was goofing off, being a kid. I was in a bad mood so I sniped, “If you don’t stretch, I don’t know how you think you’re going to keep progressing here. These other girls can do the splits. The only way you’re going to be able to do them is if you stretch. Do you want to be a dancer or don’t you?”

As soon as the words left my mouth, I hated myself. My daughter’s blue eyes puddled up and her face burned with righteous anger. Here was the person she depended on most in the world, betraying her. Instead of loving support, I offered only harsh criticism. I felt monstrous.

And yet -- who else was going to tell her? Wasn’t it best that she hear it from me?

I talk to some of the other ballet parents about it, but they are a biased sample, and my friends outside of the ballet world don’t really understand.

For now, I’ve stopped criticizing her, ever, because it gives me a stomachache. Few things in this world are worse than making your own child cry. But will she resent me someday if I let her fail at something she loves because I didn’t push her enough? Do I owe it to her to be the Tiger Mother? I don’t know the answer.

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(Follow Elizabeth @AnotherAnnie and you too can live her child’s dream!)