By Dorothy O’Donnell
“Situations that would give most kids a mild case of the butterflies—like performing in front of a crowd—can push Sadie over the edge and trigger explosive anger or panic attacks.”
We arrive at my 9-year-old’s school talent show a little late. I made sure we didn’t get there too early. Sadie doesn’t go on until after intermission and I worried that sitting through all those other acts would only increase her jitters. And mine.
The auditorium is warm and humid as a hothouse, the air thick with the smell of popcorn and pizza. Hoards of parents, grandparents, siblings and friends cram into rows of folding metal chairs or stand along the walls. The size of the crowd overwhelms me. We are so doomed, I think.
Sadie yanks her hand out of mine and bolts off to hunt for Mary, her best friend, who promised she’d be there to cheer her on. I watch her mane of honey-streaked brown curls bounce behind her as she vanishes in the crowd.
Standing behind the last row of chairs, I alternate between watching the door for my husband, Jim, who’s meeting us here after work, and trying to focus on five boys in white karate robes showing off their kicks and chops on stage. But all I can think about is Sadie. How she’ll be up on that stage, all alone, in less than an hour. Shy and reserved myself, I was beyond proud when she decided to enter the talent show a couple of months ago—something that wouldn’t have been possible for her even a year earlier. Now that it’s almost time for her to perform, though, I’m not convinced either of us will survive.
Sadie was diagnosed with pediatric bipolar disorder in kindergarten. Ever since, I’ve often felt I have not only earned the right to be a helicopter mom, but that I owe it to my daughter to be one. Situations that would give most kids a mild case of the butterflies—like performing in front of a crowd—can push Sadie over the edge and trigger explosive anger or panic attacks. There was a long period when her moods were so unpredictable and her self-esteem so low, I thought she’d spend her entire childhood sitting on the sidelines.
With ongoing therapy, she slowly gained enough self-control and confidence to start trying new things. She signed up for hip-hop and her school chorus. She discovered she loves singing and has a knack for writing songs. Music seems to soften the harsh voices in her head. Voices that tell her she’s stupid or doesn’t belong on this planet anymore.
For the talent show, Sadie planned to sing one of her own songs. She’d be the only singer performing an original number. And the only one who wouldn’t have pre-recorded background music to pump up the audience or hide behind. Just her and a microphone.
* * *
The auditorium lights flicker on for intermission. I scan the room for Sadie. No luck. The knot in my stomach tightens. I feel a tap on my shoulder and turn to see Jim.
“I can’t find Sadie,” I tell him.
“I’ll go look for her,” he says. “Don’t worry—she’ll be fine.”
I wish I could believe him. But my mind flashes back to earlier that afternoon when Sadie I and were at home. I made her a snack and settled her in front of the TV while I went into my room to change. When I was done, I sat down beside her on the sofa. The snack was untouched on the coffee table. Ignoring me, Sadie scowled at the TV screen. She clenched her fists so tightly her whole body trembled. It was a gesture I’d seen hundreds of times. One that turned the soft dimpled little hands I loved into weapons. I knew what was coming next.
“No, Sadie, ” I said firmly, grabbing her arms as she started to raise one to her face.
“I’m so angry!” she snarled. “I need to hit something!”
“It’s okay, honey,” I said, wrapping my arm around her shoulders and pulling her close. “You don’t have to do the show if you don’t want to.”
“No!” she snapped, glaring at me. “I want to do it.”
She shoved my arm away, stomped down the hall, and slammed her bedroom door.
Maybe I shouldn’t have told her she could quit. But my doubts that she could get through the show had been growing since a rocky dress rehearsal earlier that week. After flubbing a couple of lyrics, she’d punched herself in the forehead.
On the drive home, I had tried to help Sadie shake it off. “Even Adele makes mistakes,” I said, trying to sound upbeat. “That’s what rehearsals are for.” But inside, I feared I was setting her up to fail.
* * *
The show director announces that intermission is ending; it’s time for the next group of performers to go to their places. I finally see Sadie bulldozing her way across the room towards me. When she reaches me, her face is crimson; her dark eyes brimming with tears.
“Mary had to leave,” she screeches. “I hate her!”
She erupts in sobs.
“I can’t do this!” she screams.
Other kids swarm around us. A few pause to peer at us with puzzled expressions. As I hug Sadie and smooth her hair, panic sweeps through me.
My first impulse is to grab my little girl and flee for the nearest exit. But we’ve made it this far. Is quitting really the right thing to do? My thoughts jerk back and forth in a vicious game of tug of war: Save her. Let her sing. Save her. Let her sing.
I steer her to the bleachers, still uncertain about what to do. We sit down, and I slip her hand into mine. After a few minutes, she stops crying. She loosens her grip on my hand a bit. The last of the performers settle around us; I tell Sadie I need to go down and find a seat.
She nods, but her chin quivers. I squeeze her hand one last time as a trio of fifth-grade girls in ponytails and sequined mini-skirts prance across the stage.
“You’ll be great, honey,” I whisper, forcing a smile. “Just sing it the way you do in the car.”
My heart thumps louder than the Selena Gomez tune the girls gyrate to as I walk away. I stake out a spot by the concession stand in the back of the room. Jim is up front preparing to film Sadie. I stay put, my eyes glued on her. I remind myself that even if she bombs, she won’t be scarred for life. But that’s not how it feels. It feels like I’m shirking a mother’s most primal responsibility—to protect her child from harm. Sadie looks so fragile, like a china doll teetering on the edge of a shelf. It takes every ounce of self-restraint I can muster not to swoop into the bleachers and pluck her to safety before she topples and shatters.
Then I notice her hands. She’s tapping them together, just barely, in tepid applause for a fellow performer. By the fourth act, a piano solo, she’s clapping with gusto. And by the time two gymnasts flip and fly through the air, she’s hooting and hollering along with everyone else.
Sadie is one of the last performers to take the stage. I hold my breath when she wobbles across it in her new, jewel-studded sandals. She stands there, blinking into the bright footlights. An expectant hush falls over the dark room. It’s quieter than it’s been all night. Clutching the microphone to her chest, Sadie starts to sing. Her soft voice wafts through the room.
The words catch in her throat a couple of times. But she gets through the whole song without forgetting a single line. The audience explodes in applause. Sadie dips her head in an awkward half-bow. When she rises, I swear she’s five inches taller. She soared—and landed safely—all by herself. And I’m so light I’m floating.
Dorothy O’Donnell’s essays and articles have been published on Brain, Child, GreatSchools.org, Mothering.com, Scary Mommy, among other publications. She is working on a memoir about raising a young child diagnosed with a mental illness. Visit her at dorothyodonnell.com or follow her on Twitter @MVDorothy.