Mothers need to fight for their children, even if others judge them for it

I might have spent my own life never wanting to be "that woman," but now I had a little girl of my own I needed to protect.
Illustration of woman holding daughter in a preschool.
Mothers have to trust their instincts and help their children get what they need.Nhung Le / for NBC News
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By Amy Klein

I knew they were wrong the minute I met them.

It was parents’ night at my daughter’s new preschool, and as her teachers introduced themselves on the dais, my heart sank, the same way it used to years before on blind dates.

They are not for her, I thought. Bland but sweet, and tepid low energy. I knew that my daughter, effervescent and exuberant even at 3, needed energetic and enthusiastic teachers — just like the teachers in the other classroom.

I did not want to be the helicopter parent who micromanages every aspect of her kid’s life. I did not want to be the hysterical mother demanding an institution bend rules.

After the event I told my husband my concerns, but he pooh-poohed me. “Let’s give it a chance,” he said. “We don’t know that.” But three weeks later, my fears were confirmed. Despite the fact that she had attended day care the previous two years without incident, she now went on an hour-long crying jag each morning, followed by an excruciating tearful drop-off. (At a certain point the tears were mine.)

I spent my time at work distracted, disheveled, despondent. I knew my daughter Just. Did. Not. Want. To. Go. To. That. Class. And truthfully, I didn’t want her to go there either. I knew it wasn’t a problem with the school, just bad chemistry in this particular class. But what could I do?

I did not want to be the helicopter parent who micromanages every aspect of her kid’s life. I did not want to be the hysterical mother demanding an institution bend rules that were in place for a reason. I did not want to be disagreeable, overbearing, unmanageable, unreasonable.

I did not want to be accused of being that woman.

We women spend much of our lives not wanting to be that girl, the annoying one who knows all the answers in grade school (even though she does, but what does she do? Keep her hand down to not seem to be a know-it-all.) We don’t want to be that girlfriend, the needy and demanding one who says what she requires from her partner and lays out all her expectations. We don’t want to be that wife, the one who tells her husband what time he has to be home or which men and women he can go out with.

I remember a motto someone mentioned to me when I was dating, perpetually single: “If being yourself means being alone for the rest of your life, then tweak it a little.”

I guess I must have tweaked it a lot. Reined myself in. Kept myself from saying everything I thought, or expressing every feeling.

I had thought being married and having my own family meant I could finally be myself, unbidden; I could let my freak flag fly, show my darker side and convey my unpopular opinions. But now, even as a mom, I was still afraid to rock the boat.

Six weeks into the new school year, things weren’t getting any better. So I arranged a meeting at school. “Maybe, er, perhaps, we might think about moving her into the other class?” I gently offered in that tentative tone that was sure not to offend the guidance counselors.

They informed me that the class configuration was delicate and they did not switch kids around. I nodded along with a polite smile on my face because … because I did not want to be that mom.

As the months progressed, my daughter still cried before school, but by drop-off she was fine. By fine, I mean just that. Not exuberant. Not overjoyed. Not her wonderful, sparkling self. Was I tamping down her spirit just because I didn’t want to ruffle feathers? Was she paying the price for my obeisance?

I decided to wait till the end of the year and switch schools. That’s right: I removed myself and my daughter from the situation rather than cause a stir.

Other moms witnessing the scene were tut-tutting me, telling me stories of yearlong battles with their kids who finally acclimated to their environments. They told me to give it time, that it was actually my energy my daughter was feeding off of and if I just stopped being upset she would stop being upset, something to the effect of how I didn’t really understand the situation or know my own daughter or get that everything I saw was not really real.

In other words, stop being that mom.

But I did not want to acclimate. I did not want to accept mediocrity. I wanted to be like a friend of mine at a different school who marched into the principal’s office and demanded they switch her daughter’s class. “I don’t want that teacher to even LOOK at my daughter,” she said, going full diva.

I wish I could say I went full diva, too. That I stomped into the principal’s office while she was in the middle of a meeting and refused to leave until she gave me my way.

I thought about it, I did. But in the end, I decided to wait till the end of the year and switch schools. That’s right: I removed myself and my daughter from the situation rather than cause a stir.

I think I learned my lesson, though.

On my daughter’s first day at a new camp that summer, my husband left her there crying. When he peeked in to check on her 20 minutes later after filling out some paperwork, she was still crying in the corner, no counselors taking care of her.

“That’s it – we’re done here,” I said when he called me to let me know. “Bring her home.”

“Maybe we should give it a chance, it’s her first day, her friends are here —”

“Nope. No. Nada,” I replied.

I wasn’t doing this again, going through a whole summer of worrying that I was leaving my daughter in the wrong hands. Of not listening to my own instincts, trusting myself, knowing what my daughter needed — what I needed.

In the end it was about me: I had to know that she would be happy — or that there were people around who were helping her get that way. I needed to know she was safe, nurtured and thriving.

In the end it was about me: I had to know that she would be happy — or that there were people around who were helping her get that way. I needed to know she was safe, nurtured and thriving.

“Kids are resilient,” people like to say, especially to worried moms. And it’s true that kids do have a way of bouncing back — sometimes stronger — from difficult situations. But do we have to deliberately put them in those situations to build character? Isn’t life character-building enough?

I might have spent my own life never wanting to be that woman, but now I had a little girl of my own I needed to protect. That afternoon, I picked her up from the camp and drove her home, clear she would never go back to that camp again. Yes, I was that mom. And that was just fine with me.