Nurturing and supporting your child’s talent takes energy, commitment, money, and sacrifice. Mostly, though, it takes time. For many of us, that time is most often spent in the car. When my youngest daughter started ballet lessons, I wanted her to get the best training, just I had years ago. Since there were no high-quality schools nearby, we began commuting 50 minutes to lessons, rehearsals, and summer programs. I used to joke that I watched my daughter grow up through the rear view mirror.
“When can I sit in the front seat?” Audrey whined.
“Never.” I said.
The highway driving was stressful. There was the unpredictable Boston traffic always threatening to make us late for class. There was the dark winter afternoon driving and impending snowstorms to consider. (Should we go? What about the way home?) I tried making good use of our travel time. We played number games, practiced spelling words, reviewed state capitals, and listened to recorded books. Then one day, my little dancer morphed into a tween girl with her own Ipod and earbuds, leaving me to drive undistracted. When I looked in the rear view mirror again, she had become a dozing teenager.
Only when I became a Dance Mom myself did I appreciate what it must have been like for my own mother who, when I began attending a pre-professional school at age twelve, chauffeured me to lessons along with my three younger siblings. I never thought about where my mother went or what she did while waiting around for me to finish class. I never thought about all the time she spent in the car. Now, I tried not to think about all the time I spent in the car—or all the hours waiting for Audrey to finish class.
Then one day, I find my sixteen-year-old dancer soaking her bleeding toes in a basin of warm water. I sit down at the edge of her bed and gently massage her tight shoulders. I ask if she has had a chance to check out brochures for summer dance programs. She answers no. I tell her which one I think would be best. She balks at the length of the training day–nine to five for four weeks. She is quiet for a moment, then looks up from the textbook balanced on her lap. “I don’t know.”
I stare at her. “You don’t know?”
The silence sits between us. Audrey removes her feet from the basin and towels them off. She picks at a shred of athletic tape still stuck to her pinkie toe. Once Audrey photographed her bruised, taped feet in first position. I named this photo, “Dedication.”
Her voice is tired. “Do I have to decide now?”
“No…but we need to plan for it pretty soon, if you’re going to audition.”
“The thing is,” she says, closing her textbook. “I”m not sure what I want to do, like, I just really want to have more time.” She looks at me, knowingly. Time–or lack of it–has been a recurrent theme these past few years. “Summer is the only chance I have to do other stuff,” she says. “Like, my other interests.”
A tiny alarm buzzes in my head. “But if you don’t dance this summer, how can you get to level 6?”
Audrey sighs, then tells me she doesn’t know what she want anymore …what she even wants to do next year.
I feel a quickening of my heart. I stare at my daughter, her hair pulled back in a tight bun from her afternoon class, this child whom I’ve always called my “ballerina.” “I don’t understand. What are you saying?”
Audrey pulls her legs to her chest. “I’ve been doing ballet for a long time.” She pauses. “I’m not going to be a professional. I need to decide where my focus is going to be.”
I nod. My daughter has other interests besides dance. She is blessed with other talents, too. She is right—one can’t pursue them all. But her revelation has twisted my heart in a knot. My vision for Audrey was to graduate from the pre-professional school, to achieve her personal best, and carry that confidence and artistry into college life and beyond. I thought she wanted that, too.
When my daughter decided she would not continue intensive ballet study, getting relief from driving was the last thing on my mind. I knew I was facing a parental reckoning. Ballet and the pursuit of perfection had once filled my youthful days. Should I urge my daughter not to make the same mistake I had made when I quit? But I hesitated, wondering if our life decisions were actually parallel. This was the parental moment when you realize your child’s dreams are not your dreams. And it is the moment you must let your child make her own decision.
On the day of Audrey’s last ballet lesson, I entered the school and took in the familiar surroundings: girls in pink leotards, a Chopin piano waltz starting and stopping, the sound of pointe shoes across the floor, the bunhead teenagers stretching like pretzels, the inspirational dance photographs gracing the walls, the dance moms chatting in the waiting area.
Standing outside the studio, I watched through the window as Audrey rehearsed the dance she would perform at the Gala the following week. My heart leaped along with her. I tried hard to think about this moment, not as an ending, but as a new phase in my daughter becoming a young adult. I swallowed the sadness and focused on keeping my emotions in check.
After class, as we stepped outside into the parking lot, I waited for Audrey to make some pronouncement. (Maybe thank me for the years of chauffeuring?) She said nothing. I asked if I could take a photo of her in front of the school sign. She sighed, then acquiesced, squinting into the June sun. Then, like any other day, we walked to the car.
“Hey, Mom,” Audrey said, swinging her dance bag. “Can we stop for ice cream? It’s my last lesson.”
“Right,” I said, as if I’d forgotten our yearly end-of-term ritual. “Sure we can.”
Then my daughter opened the passenger car door and slid into the front seat where she had sat for the past two years.
I watched her buckle up. Then we were on the road again.