This here bringer of the pooper to the fun party

Try, try again

Leta has been taking piano lessons for over a year and half, and her relationship with this activity is complicated. If she ever starts dating a paraplegic in Russia who doesn’t speak English and can’t move to America because he has 14 foster kids I’ll say, “Remember piano lessons? You can handle this!”

She long ago surpassed my skill level and the only help I can give her during her daily practice sessions is to tell her to play through everything twice. Sometimes I’ll sit with her and nod if I think it sounded right, but some of you are probably like WAIT LETA DO NOT TRUST HER. Because Radiohead sounds right to me. In fact, this is my all time favorite Radiohead song:

Yes, I’m totally serious. Don’t look at me like that.

She’s got talent in spades, but she gets very frustrated when she has to learn a new song. I wrote about this when she turned eight, how the perfectionism she inherited from me can turn a wrong note into the destruction of her future. When she can’t play a new song right the first time, everything that has ever gone wrong in her life surfaces and that A flat she missed is now suddenly cancer. And it has spread into every organ. Oh, and now she’s on the floor. Yep, she’s lying on the floor. And she says she’s dying. Sure sounds like she’s dying.

Once she learns the song, however, she’s delighted to play it. Well, okay. Sort of. She’s delighted to play it once. That I make her play everything twice every day is something she will bring up again and again as evidence that I was the meanest mother who ever lived. And every time she does it I’ll ask her if I ever broke a lamp over her head like Great Granny Hamilton did to Grandpa Mike and then remind her that SOMEONE got to eat Fruity Pebbles for dinner every night AND IT WASN’T GRANDPA MIKE.

Here’s where some of you are totally going to disagree with me and possibly judge my parenting style. And that’s fine. That’s cool. We can still be friends. You can still come over for a glass of wine. I might spit in it first, but you won’t even notice.

Leta has more than once begged to quit piano. There have been a few songs that were so difficult for her to learn than she wanted to pick up the piano and throw it across the room. And I understand the distress she was experiencing. It’s a distress that she will encounter in various experiences throughout her life. Quitting gets rid of that momentary frustration, but it doesn’t help her learn how to work toward any sort of resolution. So she doesn’t get to quit.

Would the meanest mother who ever lived please stand up? Oh look. I’ve been standing here the whole time.

On Saturday Leta had Federation where she was required to play two memorized songs in front of three judges. In preparation for this her teacher gathered all her students for an informal recital at a friend’s home last Wednesday night. I’d been listening closely to Leta’s songs while she practiced them over the last few weeks and noticed she was a little wobbly in the middle of one of them, but when I asked her if she was ready for the recital she waved her hand and assured me she’d do fine. Like, whatever. It’s just piano. It’s not anything important like the “iCarly” series finale.

Unfortunately that wobbly piece reared its ugly head right there in that recital room in front of all of her peers and their parents. She lost her place about thirty seconds into the song, stopped, and then turned in embarrassment to her teacher to ask for direction. The silence at that moment was uncomfortable for everyone in the room but mostly for her.

Every other kid bumbled portions of their songs, too, and later before tucking her into bed I told her I wanted to have a talk.

“Are you mad about the recital?” she asked, worried that her mistake had somehow let me down.

“No, not at all,” I answered and then I rubbed her arm to assure her. “I’m not mad. But I want to ask you something. Do you think you were prepared?”

She shrugged.

“Leta, I don’t care what anyone in that room thought about how you played. In fact, I don’t care what score the judges give you on Saturday.”

“But why? That doesn’t make sense. Why do I have to play in front of judges if it doesn’t matter?”

“It matters that you prepare yourself. It matters that you learn how to prepare. It matters that you know how it feels to be prepared. And that means practicing and messing up and then practicing some more and messing up some more. The judges are there just to give you something to prepare for.”

“But I mess up a lot!”

“We all mess up, Leta,” I explained. “But you learn when you mess up. You get better when you mess up. Don’t be afraid of messing up. The reason your teacher held the recital tonight was so that all of you could look at yourselves and ask, ‘Am I ready? Am I prepared?’ So that all of you could identify what you need to work on.”

“I have so much to work on,” she said and then shook her head as if stranded at the bottom of a mountain.

“Would you like to be prepared for the judges on Saturday?”

“Yes,” she answered but it was more of a question.

“Okay,” I said. “Here’s what we’re going to do. Tomorrow when you get home from school you and I are going to spend as much time as it takes to get those two pieces down. I’m going to walk through the room while you play and I’m going to bang on the coffee table and I’m going to knock over vases. That way you can learn how to ignore everything else and think about the notes.”

“What if you break something?”

“You let me worry about that, okay? Let me help you with this. Because, Leta, you’re looking at one of the worst messer uppers in the world. I know how to learn from messing up.”

And that’s what we did. She sat down at the piano and played her songs while I made the hugest, dumbest, most obnoxious racket I could. I dropped giant books on the floor. I knocked over stools. I suddenly jumped right next to her face and yelled, “CHOCOLATE CHOCOLATE CHOCOLATE CHOCOLATE.”

And she ignored me. She’d miss a note and move on. She’d miss another note and move on. After an hour she could get through both songs without a single hiccup while I banged a pot and pan behind her head.

When we were finished and I high fived her for her hard work she asked, “Can I have some of that chocolate you were talking about?”

Cut to Saturday afternoon. She was dressed formally as is required by the rules of the program, but that didn’t stop her from running up and down a set of stairs to wiggle out her nerves. And, oh, was she nervous. She kept biting her lip and sneaking quick glances at the closed door to the performance room. I didn’t say much, I just rubbed her back here and there while we waited, my way of acknowledging her jitters and reminding her that I was already proud.

federation1

And then they called us in.

It was a tiny room with barely enough space to fit a piano let alone three judges, two parents, and one little sister high on adrenaline (“Marlo, if you are quiet during Leta’s performance we will go home and bake cookies in the oven. Or I could just shoot you.”) Leta stood next to the bench, presented them her sheet music and announced the names of her songs. And then she sat down to play.

I wasn’t nervous about her first song. She’s been able to play it with ease for several months, and she breezed right through it again. In the silent eternity before they signaled that she could begin her next piece, I closed my eyes, pulled a surprisingly cooperative Marlo deeper into my lap and held my breath.

Maybe it was my intuition as a mother, but I could tell after the first note that this was going to be the best she had ever played this song. There was a confidence in the dance between her two hands that I had not ever heard before, a fluidity in the notes that broke my heart with its beauty. When she hit the final, major-key note at the low end of treble clef I involuntarily started bawling. I didn’t want the judges to see or hear me so I hid my face in Marlo’s hair, a futile maneuver because she instantly perked up and screamed, “ARE WE GONNA BAKE COOKIESTH?!”

They told us the scores wouldn’t be revealed for a few days, but it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter one goddamn bit. Once we were out of the room and around the corner I knelt down so that Leta could see the light in my eyes and I hugged her as hard as I could without hurting her.

“You were so prepared,” I whispered in her ear. “I’m so proud of you. I’m so so so proud.”

federation2

She hugged me back, and when she pulled away her face was beaming. “I did awesome, didn’t I?”

Yes. Yes, she did. She nailed it. And to celebrate we baked the fuck out of those cookies.

  • Lauren3

    Fuck yeah, Heather. Fuck yeah, Leta. xoxoxo

  • lyssann

    This made me cry so hard. This was exactly the right thing to do and she will remember it. I wanted to quit piano a lot as a kid but eventually when I got older, practicing and playing became relaxing and way to quiet my mind.

  • HeatherArmstrong

    It’s called “Little Cloud” by Kevin Costley.

  • Sarah

    You’re only mean if you think Amy Tan is a mean mom.. Although, didn’t you mention a while back that Leta asked that she no longer be on your site? If I were you, I’d go ahead and respect her wishes. good luck to you.

  • Can’t tell you how much I wish I had your kind of “mean mom” in my life as a kid. I didn’t figure out the “learning from messing up” thing until college. And my perfectionism still sabotages me every chance it gets.

  • Angela Dyrcz

    This was such a great post, Heather. I loved it!

  • keisha

    Wow. This is our life. Sub a 5-year-old boy for Leta and taekwondo for the activity. And I am desperate to let my son quit! My husband feels the same way as you, though. So we put on a (somewhat) united front and go on, at least until the 6-month chunk of time we’ve prepaid for has ended. My son is an anxious perfectionist as well, and he’s is lazy as well, BECAUSE of his perfectionism. If something doesn’t come easily to him, he shuts down. Making him practice taekwondo is like torture for both of us 95% of the time. So, God bless your patience and your fortitude in guiding Leta along in her piano practice. Sometimes I wonder what kind of person I would be today if I had stuck it out with piano. Maybe I wouldn’t be so desperate to end taekwondo lessons every time my son pitches a fit.

  • keisha

    That didn’t come out right. “Lazy as well” = lazy in addition to being a perfectionist, NOT saying “lazy as well as Leta”…

  • tobs

    I begged my mom for years to quit the piano. She didn’t let me, either. Looking back on it, I think it was one of the best parenting decisions she ever made. I loved the piano, I was proud of my accomplishments, and I love that I can still sit down and play.

  • Bobbi

    Oh Heather, that was a great post! It even brought a tear to my eye. I wish I could get mine to understand the preparedness issue. She fights me every step of the way despite the numerous different approaches I take. Kudos.

  • Megan Gordon

    You did good, mama. Lots of things are hard and frustrating (parenting comes to mind), but learning how to deal with that and succeed is a gift.

  • Shelley

    Dear god, that was beautiful. I’m going to blame the pregnancy hormones for my teariness upon reaching the end of that post. On a slightly related note, have you heard of alt-J? I think any Radiohead fan would appreciate their music. Their album, An Awesome Wave, deserves to be listened to from beginning to end. While listening to it the other day, I thought, “I bet Dooce would like this.” That’s totally normal, right?

  • Likethewrap

    I am crying at my desk at work. I really hope that no one notices or atleast this starts a good rumor. You are a beautiful mother Heather. This is definitely a lesson that I will remember and will pass on to my baby when he is older. Like you, I see the perfectionist that is me in him. I know that this will be a hurdle time and time again for both of us. Leta is very lucky to have you. Marlo is too.

  • Tina Stovall

    Damn! Where were you when my kids were growing up?

  • OMG you are the best mom ever. And the best writer ever, too. And now I want a cookie.

  • jessica

    And I bet she won’t hate piano so much anymore… as a lifelong music student, I had many times when I Just Didn’t Wanna, and usually that was because I wasn’t prepared, because practicing sucked etc. But as soon as I put in the time, I always earned a great performance and loved the glow that came alogn with it. Bravo and congratulations Leta, and good job Mom for teaching her how to practice. Learning music is one of the hardest things in the world, but I believe one of the most rewarding.

  • honeysucklelife

    Not the worst. You set high expectations, and then did everything you could to help her meet them. I think that’s the best kind of parenting. Said from a former piano player that absolutely HATED it.

  • Sarah

    eh, the bad parenting apologists are an odd breed, and their schtick is getting a bit old. At any rate, if this is the Amy Tan parenting approach, the results speak for themselves. I do remember your daughter asked not to be featured here, though- if no one else will speak up for her, I will. Good luck to you.

  • susiw

    i can not even begin to tell you how much i enjoyed this. love love love it

  • Federation (and its violin equivalent – Festival) prepared me better for real life experiences than any other child-activity. After performing a DeBeriot for super pissy judges, speaking up in meetings and presenting a bullshit ppt for a hundred people became easy. I’m glad my mom/dad pushed me through it. Torture, yes. But life doesn’t get easier.

  • OrangeLily

    That was great. You taught your daughter a very important lesson, one more important than math or reading. And I learned too, and I will bookmark this page, as I like the words you chose to express yourself to your daughter, where finding the best words fails me oftentimes.

    But the last line was priceless.

  • Katy McCaffrey

    This was lovely. Thank you.

  • Rachel Sea

    I love this. I think it stinks that parents are told to celebrate quitting as an expression of individuality. Sticking with a thing even when it is frustrating and scary can be so, so good in the long term. Parenting shouldn’t be about having safe kids who are always happy, it should be about raising up strong, confident, self-sufficient adults who are able to overcome challenges and find joy in their accomplishments.

  • kk158462

    Yes, yes, YES! My husband is a violin teacher and the biggest problem he sees with the students are the parents! So many parents teach their kids that quitting is OK. Granted, if the kid absolutely hates the instrument, that’s a different story. But frustration over a difficult piece is no reason to give up or move on to another expensive instrument. Good for you!!!!!! She will thank you!

  • crn

    This is beautiful. Good job, Mama Dooce. You nailed this one.

  • Dellasaffy

    I’m a single 30-something with a cat. No kids. No piano lessons. But I’m crying in the cubicle. You’re one awesome mom and a hell of a writer too. You rock, Heather.

  • Abbylu12

    I am having a hard time with my daughter right now because her behavior toward homework is exactly the same as mine was at her age. I needed to read this, because I needed to know that we are all just teaching the coping skills we have learned. And hey, we aren’t dead.

  • THIS this piece, made me cry. So beautiful. Way to go Heather and way to go Leta.

  • africankelli

    You are wonderful. May we remember how important it is to practice, to learn from our errors and to be prepared. Thank you!

  • Beth

    Why am I crying? I don’t care if they are 4 or 24, when your child accomplishes something that seemed so hard, it explodes the heart of a mother with such pride that we can’t help but cry. I cried when my son cut his food by himself for the first time. I can’t imagine what a piano recital would do to me. Thank God I have years to prepare.

  • Jenny

    You’re not perfect, but you practice. You do what you can to be prepared, despite all the distractions of life – even chocolate. You’re such a good mom, and you give me hope that even though I’m not perfect, or even always prepared, I am a good mom to my daughter as well.

  • sam

    you are a great mom

  • bethstoddard

    I’m a piano teacher.

    This just made my day.

    Thanks. You rock.

  • meomeoh

    You did great meanest mommy in the world! And when your daughter is a lot older she will thank you! Thanks for your posts!

  • Kate S.

    One of your best posts, ever. Good job, mom! And Leta!

  • Dorothy Logan

    As someone with a degree in music ed, man, have I been there done that. Great job with getting her to just shut everything you were doing out. 🙂

    Side note: if you know who Edgar Meyer and Bela Fleck are, you should see if you can find some behind the scenes footage of them rehearsing and performing. There was one piece – a canon in 15/8 – that was screwing them up. Meyer (a bassist) was practicing a run on his own and kept screwing up over and over again, and during a performance they actually had to stop, regroup, and start again. Man, did I feel better about my practice sessions after that.

  • At least you got yours to rehab. I was a single mom and so close to my kids – it was “us” against the world, you know. And now, in his 30’s he’s using SOMETHING. I’m not sure what…he hasn’t lived with me for a long time but it’s heroin-like. He’s lost his fiance, he has no place to live, he has no clothes – he sleeps and lives in a work uniform, no car, NOTHING…this is my BEAUTIFUL Beautiful, talented, loving, son. I text, he doesn’t answer except once when I was sick a couple of months ago and he texted back, “I love you mom”. I wrote back, “I know you do honey.” His shame is SO GREAT…it’s dibilitating. I’ve paid for rehab but now I”m down to nothing. I had over a million in assets and cash 5 years ago, now I have nothing. I’ve lost my house, he destroyed another I owned. I have no idea when I go to bed at night, where he is or if he’s alive. I would give my life this very second if I knew he would be okay. Not even great – who needs great – just, “okay.” I’ll take okay. My grief and despair is as dibilitating as his shame. And I don’t know what to do…I really don’t….so, I know it’s hard. Oh god I know. But Mamabigdog…your daughter is in rehab. TODAY, you know where she is. You know she’s alive and relatively warm, clean and provided for. I can’t begin to tell you what I’d give to have that…You’ve gotten her this far and that’s HUGE. Good for you…I know how alone it can feel at times when you always been “between.” Between her and family, between her and siblings, between her and her father. Be strong…you are not a mean mom but a brave one. And she knows that. She loves you too…she really does. Just let her know that no matter what you love her. My fear sometimes is that I will die and my son will think I thought he didn’t love me. It’s important to me that he knows that I know HE LOVES ME SO MUCH…and he does…I get it and I hope you understand that she loves you.

  • Wow- good on you. I started learning piano when I was 4. My mum was my first teacher. We pretty clearly saw the non-sense of that, and I swapped to another teacher. Being basically over-confident and just a little lazy, every time I got stuck on something that was beyond my ability to play immediately, I’d want to quit. My mum would.not.let.me. She once asked me, ‘What piece would you really like to be able to play?’ I mumbled something about something by Kabalevsky, and she said, ‘Right; how about you keep going until you can play that, and then see if you want to quit.’ She was so right. Once I got to the stage where my ability matched my confidence (and my ambition)– about three years later– I was home and hosed. It didn’t mean I still didn’t struggle at times with frustration, it just meant I knew I could do it.
    When I was at Uni, I started teaching piano myself. It was great money and I got to do it right from home. The second week of lessons was a huge revelation. I knew IMMEDIATELY who had practised and who hadn’t. IMMEDIATELY. I remembered (with horror and shame) thinking I had fooled my teacher for years, when it was quite clear, I hadn’t and she must have just been incredibly patient. The guilt was quite something. I know when my daughter is old enough to start learning, it will be with the caveat, ‘We’re not starting until you’re quite sure you’re going to give it a really good, committed bash. Oh. And your grandma can teach you.’

  • Peg

    I’ve never commented here before, and full disclosure, sometimes I don’t read completely through longer blog posts. We’ll call it short-internet-attention-span-ism. But this one? Total welling up with tears…and I read the WHOLE thing. Nicely done!

  • Adri

    Aren’t piano lesson a lot like marriage?

  • katherine

    My first question after reading this post (as I try to compose myself from becoming choked up) is: when did that darling young woman in the photos grow up? I’ve been reading your blog since before Leta was born and my god she’s all of a sudden a confident young woman and I’m feeling like a million years old.

    I wish beyond wishing that my mother had taken your approach. I took piano lessons for 2 years as a kid and mom used practicing as punishment. To this day I wish I still knew how to play and even bought a parlor grand piano thinking I would learn again; so far I just can’t bring myself to do it.

  • Are you kidding me NOPE you are not the meanest mom in the world. What you are doing is what I do with my 14 yrs daughter. She plays the Cello and every day I had to reminder her about practice. Even when she loves Cello there’s some times she feels like she’s not doing her best. What we teach our kids by pushing them to practice more and by not quiting is life lesson. She will not be the first one running or taking the easy way in any life type experience.

  • Martha

    I had the ‘meanest mother in the world’ also when it came to piano lessons (I had to play my songs FOUR times!), but am I EVER glad I did. She told me I’d thank her someday and she was right!

  • Jane

    I wish I’d had a mother like you.

  • ajlars

    You are kick-ass mom and I’m inspired by your love for and diligence in helping them strive to be their best, not the world’s best, not even your best, but their best. Thanks for sharing this!

  • zinwap

    I’m not crying–I’m just cutting onions in a really dusty apartment…

  • I’m 32 and still have the same worries about my messing up – and my poor, dear husband is now the one who has to assure me that there’s nothing wrong with mistakes. Fingers crossed that Leta internalizes it a little better than I have. 🙂