I was heartbroken. Not because she had lost but because she had just learned a hard life lesson—very publicly—and all I could do was watch. I’m being too dramatic, right? It’s just a spelling bee after all. But it had nothing to do with what happened on that stage—and everything to do with what was happening inside my daughter’s head and heart.
She is not a crier. When she was little and would get hurt, she’d struggle to hold everything in. I would whisk her away from the crowd to a private place and tell her, “It’s okay. You can cry.” Sometimes she refused; sometimes she sobbed. But as she sat alone in loser’s row, I knew it took every ounce of her to hold back her tears of humiliation. As the spelling bee continued, Hubby kept looking at her and whispering to me, “This is awful.” He was feeling it, too.
After the last two contestants battled it out, we congratulated them and found our daughter who struggled to hold a composed smile. We left the auditorium, and the closer we got to the car, the harder her quiet tears fell. When we were a safe distance from others, I pulled her to me and let her muffle her sobs in my shirt.
I wanted to say, “It’s okay…” but it wasn’t okay. She needed to feel what she was feeling. I wanted to say, “I told you so.” But I couldn’t say that either. This wasn’t about Mom being right. We’d discuss it…but the car ride home wasn’t the time. I would let a day or two pass before I launched into the mom lecture titled “Now What Did You Learn from This?”
But my lecture plans were cancelled.
That night as I tucked her into bed, she was still fighting tears. I pushed hair off her forehead and kissed her nose and said, “I’m sorry, Sissy.” Because I was. It’s tough to learn tough lessons. She looked up at me with big green eyes full of tears and squeaked out, “I don’t think I tried hard enough.”
I didn’t say a word…although I wanted to. But there was nothing to say. She got it.
I wanted to assure her that she did try hard enough—because I’m Mom and I wanted to ease the yuckiness she felt—but I couldn’t tell her a lie.
I wanted to downplay it, make it feel smaller for her. It was just a spelling bee. Did it matter? The lesson mattered.
Instead, I reassured her I love her and always would—no matter how big the win or how big the loss—because her value isn’t based on either.
To this day, we don’t speak about the spelling bee. It doesn’t matter that years have passed and she’s a college girl now on scholarship. But occasionally when her Daddy wants to pester her, he’ll ask, “Can you spell happiness?” I dodge because an object will likely fly in his direction.
It’s a lesson that still hurts. But the most important ones usually do.
This post originally appeared at KarenSargentBooks.com, published with permission.