"Mommy, today I told Mrs. Kopico I wished she was my mommy."
I gazed at 5-year-old Flannery over the kitchen table where we sat munching on after-school popcorn. She might as well have taken my heart and thrown it bouncing against the tiles of the kitchen floor like her Silly Putty. I was doing my damndest not to burst into tears. This sending your firstborn off to school was no piece of cake.
"What did Mrs. Kopico say?"
"Well, what Mrs. Kopico said was, 'I don't know what to say.' I don't believe she knew what to say. I wonder why."
Oh, my innocent daughter. Her delivery was as calm as that of a scientist who's announcing the latest lab results are statistically insignificant. Mrs. Kopico didn't know what to say. She wasn't sure why.
Well, Mrs. K and I had one thing in common. I didn't know what the hell to say either. Three days of kindergarten, and I had been knocked right off the Number One pedestal: my daughter would like to trade in her 38-year-old mommy for her teacher, the bright and shiny new Mrs. K. I wasn't about to ask her why; somehow I knew I wouldn't be up for hearing the answer. In my mind I was conjuring the fairy tale Mrs. Kopico--soft-spoken, blond of course, porcelain skin, wry little smile. Meg Ryan with a dash of Cinderella.
I wanted to change the subject. Quick.
"You know I think I like Jollytime better than the Orville Redenbacher," was my desperate topic-changing ploy.
"Me too. This Awful Red-Biker is kind of greasy."
Thank goodness Flannery hadn't realized her mother's heart had just careened wildly from the fridge to the breakfast bar. Clearly, her intention hadn't been to hurt.
Cabrillo School Open House was two nights away. I had 48 hours to imagine every quality that Mrs. Kopico had for every quality I lacked. Of course Mrs. Kopico would come from old money. The modesty of a school teacher's wages would in no way, darlings, hinder her fashion statement. There would be a huge, pretentious scarf worn in an artful arrangement over her romantically attired, rail-thin, fresh-out-of-teaching-school body. Little girls were suckers for this kind of flamboyant dress. Mrs. K's gentle laughter would peal like temple bells in little gales of hilarity at kindergarten humor. My stomach turned over in anticipation of meeting this tart.
Friday evening rolled around. I wrestled into my Lycra-enhanced, stomach-flattening taste-exuding black-dress-for-any-occasion. We'll show this floozy a fashion statement. Terrorized, I entered Room 5.
A 40-something, slightly plump, bespectacled woman in a rather ordinary corporate suit was striding towards me, her hand outstretched, her eyes sparkling with warmth. "Wow, you must be Flannery's mom! I have really been looking forward to meeting you. Your daughter is just amazing. You must be an amazing mother." OK, so she could use a little help with accesorizing, but I knew I was in the presence of a wizard of emotional intelligence. I basked in that presence despite myself.
Beginning that night, I too was falling for Mrs. Kopico's surprising charms. She was pretty amazing herself. Not a breathy-voiced Snow White impersonator or even a Vanna White imitator, she was a middle-aged CPA in a sensible gray suit. She'd put in fifteen years at the Nestle Corporation, never had children of her own, and at the age of 40 decided she was ready to relinquish her life in feasibility studies and come back as a kindergarten teacher. Spreadsheets to finger paints. Profit projections to playground duty.
"Did you just not like accounting?" I asked her several months later at a parent-teacher conference.
"Oh, I LOVED it. I just knew there was more to me."
Indeed there was. And there was more to my little girl than perhaps even I'd realized. Mrs. K was bringing all of that out. Flannery had a knack for negotiating little disagreements between classmates. When she helped mediate one of these crises, Mrs. Kopico would issue a Positive Power slip. Every Friday Flannery could turn these in for bags of fresh-popped popcorn. My daughter was learning about earning and her mentor was a CPA who could show her a new angle, one I didn't quite have in my arsenal of mothering tricks. Oh what a relief--I wasn't on my own after all!
Mrs. K was the first of many mentor/mothers who have entered Flan's life with beautiful frequency. They have each shouldered some of the work of bringing my daughter up to be the confident, responsible, multi-talented young woman she is today. There have been physics teachers and journalism mentors and RA supervisors and ministers and research directors and recovery center bosses. Sometimes along the way, I have been able to relax and close my eyes and let those outstanding in their chosen fields work their magic:
Today a very important new "mother" is entering my daughter's life. One Pilar Sanjuan, PhD, her new boss. This is a Significant Day for my little girl. Today she starts her first official, thoroughly grown-up job. The kind that requires a college degree. The kind that requires intelligence and independence and a diversity of skills. This is the job description:
A research associate position is currently available to work with Dr. Pilar Sanjuan of the MIND Institute on research in post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction. In this position, primary responsibilities will include coordinating the daily activities for these studies, such as coordinating recruitment and assessment of veterans, conducting face-to-face clinical assessments and experimental tests, managing and analyzing experimental data. This is an excellent opportunity for highly motivated individuals who are seeking to go on to graduate or medical school. Qualified hires will receive training in addictions and PTSD research with veterans, genomic data collection, and brain imaging data collection and analyses. Applicants must have bachelor's degree (or be expected to have completed a BA by June 2008) and excellent interpersonal skills. All candidates should possess strong interest, and preferably experience, in conducting PTSD, addiction, and/or neuroscientific/ neuroimaging research.
That would be my baby. My baby, who worked graveyard shifts at a recovery center the summer after her freshman year. My baby, who is currently conducting her own undergraduate research project on mental practice in the UNM psychology department. My baby, who will be accepting an Alumni Association Citizenship Award tomorrow night. My baby who is building one helluva medical school resume. Flannery, who ran her first half-marathon a couple of months ago, as though we didn't already know she's in it for the distance. That sparkling woman has come a long, long way since that kindergarten afternoon.
I too have come a long way. I look back at that afternoon and I now know that Flannery wasn't looking to replace me with Mrs. K. She was acknowledging in her five-year-old, emotionally precocious manner, that other women were entering her life, women who had certain things to offer. I am 100% secure in my status as Flannery's much-loved mother. I bask in that status and in that formidable love. But today I am having glowing thoughts of all the other "mothers," some of them male even (and certainly not excluding her incredible father), who have polished the varied, beautifully complicated facets of this young woman I am so proud to call my daughter. Thanks to these many mothers, for Flannery, life seems to come as easy as pie.