Unearned Belonging


She’s almost five and this is her first thing.

The ballet clothes I bought last year have smudges and picks and are starting to stretch against her long body, which won’t be held back by thread or threat.  She pulls them on in the wrong order, adding accessories, never editing, just constantly moving in a direction I can’t map. She has played, even slept in the clothes for an entire year before setting pink foot in class. Now she lines up timid against a mirrored wall, knees crossed over one another and shoulders rounded downward, diminutive.

She latches on to an assistant teacher, unwilling to try skipping across the room without this lifeline. We’ve tried skipping before, I know she hasn’t grasped it yet, and I can see in her face that she will not expose her inability to this group, to anyone. I mention the skipping on the way home. “I don’t want to talk about that,” she says, and I know how it feels to work out my belonging internally, to childishly suspect it is reflected in success.

I wonder how I have managed to give this to her when I’ve been so careful.
I’ve had plenty of opportunities to fail at parenting. Her passion drives me away, I can’t understand it. Sometimes she clings to me with tears and something in me wants to tear away from her, unaccountably afraid to engage her need. I don’t know what it feels like to show pain or desire, joy for that matter, on this side of flesh. I prefer feeling deeply, internalizing the world, gathering up experiences and inspiration for a well that I dispense in measured number, careful to give only what is needed, and hardly ever gratuitously.

I see the outbursts, the rage, the silliness, shyness, the exaggerated plays for attention, and I want to make her stop. I fight an urge to gesture to her from the other side of the window to participate, try harder, stop being silly, pay attention. My conscience chastises me when she becomes shy knowing my eyes are on her. I remember something about being a child, about wanting to please, but fearing the inevitable.

Rudolf Dreikurs calls it Undo Attention-a mistaken belief that belonging occurs only when someone is paying attention. I can see that she is most free when she is invisible. She charms me with her pretend play, unaffected and pure, exploring complicated social scenarios I had no idea she could navigate. She creates soulful art when she is left to her choices-I hear myself, “babe, mixing black into the colors only makes them darker and muddy–how about using another color?” She swirls black into purple into red, discovering the color of a tulip I once saw in an art book, and I see that I was wrong about the merits of darkness.

wren art

I want her to try, yes, but more than that, I want her to know she belongs, to understand her worth.

Belonging and worth become important only in their inability to be earned.

She has value that has nothing to do with my approval, or the ability to skip in dance class. I see her interpreting life at this little age in ways that are beyond her young years, and I see myself in her like this, for better or worse.

I’m a slow learner, but I’m beginning to see what she needs from me. She needs to be encouraged. “You can do it” burns in her ears like it does in mine, reeking of platitudes and insincerity. She needs me to believe she is capable, then leave her to decide what she will pursue and how she will pursue it. She should know how she captivates me and makes me jealous of the people that will one day gain her heart.

She needs to feel like she belongs and has worth. She won’t be able to understand this explicitly now, but she needs the seeds of unearned belonging and worth sown in her life now, implicitly taking root in her childish understanding. These gifts freely given have transferable power to the one in possession-a sense of belonging and worth, intrinsically owned, roots a child in their identity without shame and without debt.

She walks into the ballet room on this day with something on her mind. She is ready when the skipping comes. She starts, a shuffle first, then the knee comes high with the precision of careful concentration. It is clear that she has been practicing, but when, I don’t know. Behind closed doors, careful to be unobserved in her tries and missteps, I imagine her with an audience of mute dolls watching in quiet adoring encouragement.

Let it be a lesson to me.


  1. wow indeed! so beautifully written and gorgeously perceived. Thks for sharing—such an impt lesson for us all, at any age, “unearned worth”

  2. Wow! Makes me smile and makes me think about how you are able to delve so far in to these feelings and perceptions. She’s lucky to have you as a Mother!


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