Who was I to help her navigate love and heartbreak?
By Kerala Taylor
Written on Nov 21, 2023
Photo: Courtesy via author and tOrange.biz, MariaDubova | Canva
In first grade, my daughter fell in love. I didn’t know much about the object of her affection except that, as my daughter told us with a faraway look in her eyes, “He just looks… I don’t know…. He just looks really nice.”
I appreciated that she deemed her parents worthy enough to be recipients of this news. Growing up, I never talked about boys or crushes with my parents. When I was 11, my father caught me kissing Joey from New Kids on the Block. Not the real Joey, tragically, but the poster of him that I had ripped out from Seventeen and taped above my bed. In it, Joey was smiling his perfect smile, flanked on each side by Danny and Donnie. (Ugh, Danny and Donnie. Maybe their voices were passable, but first and foremost, weren’t these guys supposed to be cute?)
Joey had it all — the looks, the voice, the dance moves. He even seemed to be about my age. I diligently gave him a kiss every night before bed — that is until my father caught me. My father could have just said nothing and kept walking down the hall.
After all, I was 11, and kissing a picture of a prepubescent boy band member before bed was classified as totally normal behavior.
But my father, being my father, wasn’t about to let this slide. “Kerala,” he said. “Were you kissing that poster?”
“I was kissing Joey,” I said, wanting to make sure he understood that I would never kiss Danny or Donnie. (Unless of course, it was real life, because kissing any member of NKOTB would give me lots of bragging rights at school.) My clarification probably made things worse.
At that point, my father could have just carried on with his evening, but he wasn’t going to let me off the hook that easily. First, my mother had to be informed, and then worst of all, my younger sister. I could see from the smirk smeared across her face and the sparkle in her eyes that she knew she had just struck a goldmine of teasing material for months to come.
Joey was not my first love, nor would he be my last. My first love was a second-grader I’ll call Sean. He had hipster glasses back before hipsters were a thing. We sat at the same table in Spanish class, and even though I loved Spanish class, I feigned disinterest so he would think I was cool. It seemed to be working, kind of, until I got my end-of-quarter report card and saw to my horror that amidst the sea of pluses, I had gotten a forward slash (/), which meant “sometimes,” in the Spanish section for “shows interest in the subject matter.”
Over dinner, my parents furrowed their brows and asked me why I wasn’t interested in Spanish. I shrugged and said, “It’s boring.”
Though I feigned nonchalance, and though I would continue to pine for Sean for the better part of the next two years, I made a subconscious pact with myself that boys would never come before pluses. I wanted a report card unmarred by forward slashes. I sat up straight in Spanish class, raised my hand, and rolled my ‘r’s. By the end of the quarter, I had convinced my teacher that I was in fact “always” interested in the subject matter. By the next year, Sean was no longer at my table, and besides, word had gotten around that he liked Claire.
But so what? I could recite The Three Little Pigs in Spanish by heart.
My parents never knew about Sean. They never knew the real reason my report card had been blighted by that vile forward slash. They never would have known about Joey either if I hadn’t been so reckless with my goodnight kiss.
However, my daughter was not shy about sharing her first crush with me. At first, I panicked. This was a seminal “parenting moment,” and I didn’t want to mess it up.
I often looked to my parents’ example when I needed navigational assistance, but in the arena of love and heartbreak, my parents had not excelled. I felt very much alone. I resolved to take my daughter seriously, to refrain from teasing, and to engage her in whatever conversation she was willing to have.
On Valentine’s Day, she told me she wanted to bring her crush, whom I’ll call Lucas, a flower. We were on our way out the door, caught in the chaos of, well, getting out the door. I almost started to explain that usually, boys give girls flowers, not the other way around. Then I caught myself. Why in the world would I encourage such old-fashioned gender norms? So I plucked a daisy out of the vase in the middle of our dining room table and wished her good luck.
As my daughter told it, the whole class was in on The Giving of The Flower. It started with the girls huddled on the blacktop, hatching a strategy. It was decided that Chloe would deliver the flower to Lucas and pronounce my daughter’s love for him.
“He got the flower, Mom,” my distraught daughter told me that evening, “But he didn’t say anything. He didn’t even say thank you.”
I was suddenly grateful to be nearly 40, married, and no longer expending most of my emotional energy trying to figure out what was going on inside a boy’s head.
The upside of marriage is that you gain a pretty good sense of what is going on inside your spouse’s head. Even if you don’t entirely understand it, or even if it ticks you off, at least you know what’s going on.
I think back to all the effort I once put into trying to decipher what I assumed were the deeply complex thoughts and feelings of the boys I was crushing after. In retrospect, I wished I had saved that emotional energy, and stashed it away, so that I had more to use now on practical things, like arranging daycare pickups. (I don’t know if energy works like that. If it does, I also wish I had spent more of my 20s sleeping.)
My daughter got impatient the next day and decided to take matters into her own hands. She marched up to Lucas and said, “Well? You haven’t said anything about the flower. Did you like it?”
Lucas said he did like it. He said he’d brought it home and put it in a vase. Then he said, “But next time, could you give me some candy instead?”
When my daughter slipped a lollipop into her backpack for Lucas the following morning, I began to worry that maybe she was being taken advantage of. Again, the Girls of the First Grade were summoned to the blacktop and a messenger was appointed. Again, my daughter waited.
“Well?” she asked Lucas the next day. “Do you like me, or what?” According to my daughter, his answer was vague.
“He might not understand what it means to like someone,” I offered helpfully, to which she looked at me with her signature Incredulous/I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-Related-To-You look.
“Of course he knows, Mom,” she said. “I just don’t know if he likes me.”
Over the following weeks, I found various notes in her backpack, on the kitchen counter, and on the floor of the car. Dear Lucas, read one. I like you sooooooo much. Do you like me? Yes or no (circl 1). Love Z.
The notes were often accompanied by drawings that featured large red hearts drawn around two people. The girl was colored brown with a snarl of curly black hair. The boy was colored peach with a bit of hair just on the top of his head, which dipped downward and curled up at the end like an ocean wave.
“I don’t know Mom,” she reported to me after school. “He said that he likes me but he doesn’t act like he likes me. I know when we’re married he’ll act like it, but we have to wait until we’re adults for that.”
I gently explained that even though Lucas was her first love, he would most likely not be her last. In fact, she might fall in love several times before she ended up getting married. Or, she might decide not to get married at all.
“WHAT?!” my daughter spluttered. “No Mom, I’m marrying Lucas.”
It was so easy for me to dismiss the soul-stirring exhilaration and the soul-crushing pain of young love. That fast-burning love that leaves you dizzy, breathless, and ultimately wrecked. You can’t imagine how the time-space continuum will persist, or how it ever persisted before you discovered the object of your obsession. I felt it, first when my arm brushed against Sean’s as I feigned boredom in Spanish class, and later when my lips made contact with Joey’s lips, frozen on the glossy page I had ripped out of Seventeen.
It was so easy for me to dismiss the soul-stirring exhilaration and the soul-crushing pain of young love. That fast-burning love that leaves you dizzy, breathless, and ultimately wrecked.
My daughter simply could not conceive of a world in which Lucas was not the focus of her unwavering affection. Like everything else she did, she loved with her signature blend of stubbornness and ferocity.
When she came home from school a few days later and flung her backpack theatrically on the floor, I asked her if she was okay. Fine, she said. “How was your day?” I asked her. Fine, she said. “Do you want to talk about it?” I asked her. No, she said.
Later, after dinner, she finally opened up. The source of her distress, as I had secretly predicted, was Lucas. “At lunch, he asked if he could have my box of raisins,” she said. “So I gave them to him and then he just put them on the ‘No thank you’ tray and everyone was laughing.”
“That was really mean,” I said. I was about to explain that maybe he was acting mean because he liked her, but I caught myself. When I was a kid, adults were forever telling me and my friends that when boys act mean, they actually like us. Not only does the explanation defy all rules of logic, but it kind of lets the boys off the hook.
Because boys aren’t emotionally intelligent enough to translate their affection into kindness, we girls have to not only put up with them being mean, but it’s also our job to take it as a compliment. Talk about emotional labor.
I experienced my share of mean boys in elementary and middle school, some of whom in retrospect did probably like me and some of whom were just being plain mean. In the seventh grade, a sixth-grade boy started following me around for the better part of a week, teasing me mercilessly.
The attention was almost flattering until it got old, and I warned the boy that if he didn’t stop, I was going to kick him in the balls. He didn’t stop. So I kicked him in the balls. The look of complete shock on his face as he collapsed on the ground clutching his crotch was utterly delicious. It settled and spread around my tongue like ice cream.
He left me alone after that.
I didn’t think Lucas deserved a kick in the balls (at least not yet), and I mentally rummaged through my parental toolbox trying to come up with an appropriate response. My daughter wasn’t really looking for advice though.
“Mom,” she said, looking at me with her wide eyes, which were not blazing with her usual defiance, but rather damp and soft and laced with pain. “I just feel like I’m losing him.”
Sometimes, I realized, you don’t need tools. Sometimes it’s enough to reach over and squeeze your child’s shoulder. I was tempted to tell her, “It’s going to be OK,” but for all she knew, she was losing her soulmate and there was nothing OK about it.
Instead, I said, “That’s rough. I’m so sorry.”
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Kerala Taylor is an award-winning writer and co-owner of a worker-owned marketing agency. Her weekly stories are dedicated to interrupting notions of what it means to be a mother, woman, worker, and wife. She writes on Medium and has recently launched a Substack publication Mom, Interrupted.
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.