Dear Daughter: I’m Sorry For Overlooking Your Mental Health

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“Ten years ago, my daughter, just days after turning 2 years old stepped into her very first dance class. I saw a version of my daughter I had never seen before.

Her passion and love for music and dance was instantaneous. Each year she would add more classes to her dance schedule until she was spending almost every day after school at the studio. She met friends who shared the same passion for dancing and her childhood began to take shape.

During a dance convention when she was seven years old, she won a scholarship to perform a solo at a future competition. She learned this dance in just a few short weeks and performed at a regional competition.

It was this competition that changed Maddie’s mindset completely. She wanted more! More instruction, more stage time, more of anything and everything dance related.

As her mom I tried to encourage her to try new things in addition to her love for dance. We tried soccer and musical theater and basketball. Although some she enjoyed, she kept feeling this pull into the studio and told me at age nine that she wanted to devote herself full time to becoming part of a dance team. This prompted me to find a studio that better aligned with Maddie’s future goals.

Although this change was a humbling time in her life as she went from being one of her previous school’s top dancers to just an average-at-best dancer with this new studio, it didn’t slow her down. She immersed herself in new friendships and daily dance education.

I look back three years later and can’t believe the grace and preserve she possessed taking such a big leap so confidently. Everything was going according to Maddie’s plan, until it wasn’t.

Girl in purple dance dress holding bouqet of flowers
Courtesy of Adrienne Anzelmo

Maddie started middle school this year. For any parent who’s sent a child to middle school we all know it’s a time of transition, a time of self-awareness, a time for figuring out your ‘why.’ Maddie has been no exception to this.

Maddie’s body has not aligned with her dance goals. She doesn’t have the lines or feet of a ballerina. Do you need those things to be a beautiful dancer? Absolutely not.

Did Maddie have the perception you need these things to be a beautiful dancer? Absolutely.

She struggled in more ways than just her body, too. Suddenly every afternoon at the studio started to make less sense. Dance quickly went from the very thing that gave her life meaning to the very thing that felt like it was robbing her of living.

In the middle of the dance season, Maddie started getting migraines. The doctor suspected they might be due to dance as she seemed to be getting them close to competition time and before dance classes.

One headache was so bad we headed to the pediatrician who also could not seem to get her ‘out’ of the migraine, which prompted a visit to the emergency room where she finally felt some relief after several hours.

I remember asking my daughter what happened. Where did this change come from? What was all this stress around dance suddenly about?

She could not tell me. She would just say it doesn’t feel ‘good’ to dance anymore.

I communicated this to the studio owner but quitting mid-season was not something that even crossed my mind. I was raised with an extremely strong work ethic, which I believe is one of my best qualities in adulthood. I will push through under almost any circumstances.

So, the conversation with her dance teacher was not if we finish the year, but was how we finish the year. To be clear, I didn’t care if Maddie continued to dance beyond this season; if my children are active and happy that is all I care about as their mother. But this was a commitment, and I did not want her to let her team down.

This was an important lesson for her to learn, wasn’t it?

The weeks marched on, and more and more I saw Maddie slip into a moody, sometimes mad, sometimes sad, slumber. The rides to dance class would be quiet and she remained unengaged until she would get out of the car to enter the studio. Most nights after class she would come out the same way she went in, unattached and sullen.

On occasion she would come out with her friends smiling (which would give me a false reassurance), and occasionally she would burst into tears as soon as the car door closed behind her. I attributed much of this to the moodiness of being a preteen. I made excuse after excuse about the why’s in my decision making around having Maddie complete the year commitment.

A week ago, Maddie told me she couldn’t take it anymore. Three weeks before the dance recital, the stress at the studio was high (justifiably) and the pressure for every dancer to show up and give 100% was imperative.

Maddie expressed that her teachers were frustrated with her. She was frustrated with herself. She just couldn’t be who they needed her to be.

I sat with the words she expressed to me for a little while. I spoke with some close friends, and I had a good mom cry alone in my car. Something became clear suddenly.

I allowed Maddie to suffer at the hands of my unreasonable mindset and expectations. I was so focused on Maddie fulfilling her commitment and seeing her dance season through that I ignored so many red flags. I worried more about how the kids in her classes would feel abandoned and how her dance teachers might be upset with her and me than I did about what was REALLY going on with Maddie.

I saw what I wanted to see and not what was there. I failed Maddie as a mom during these months.

I realized that I wanted a neat and tidy end to what would likely be the end of Maddie’s time as a dancer. I wanted a way to celebrate and commemorate the very thing that was Maddie’s compass for a decade.

Girl dancing on stage in gray and pink tutu
Courtesy of Adrienne Anzelmo

I think I subconsciously wanted a return on my investment. A chance to say goodbye to this version of my daughter I enjoyed watching on stage so much. I put the needs of myself and others ahead of my daughter’s and that is not an easy thing to come to terms with.

It was easy to ignore the signs because mental health is easy to overlook. Mental health is easy to pass off as something else altogether.

It was a conversation with a friend that stuck with me: ‘If dance was a person would you advise your daughter to stay in a relationship with them?’ The answer is simply, no.

Boundaries and mental health are things we just do not talk about enough. These are such important aspects of life and qualities even many adults I know struggle with, including myself.

Maddie walked away. It was hard and emotional and messy, but she walked away.

I wish it didn’t take me so long to recognize this was the right thing to do. In hindsight, Maddie can now articulate that for weeks, maybe months, at dance she was not available to be a good dance student and meet the expectations of her teachers because she was in crisis.

She was so emotionally elevated she was unable to access the tools that were typically available to her. She was having a fight or flight response.

Mental health matters. It matters more than activities, more than friends, more than ANYTHING.

We need to teach our kids this, even if we are still learning it ourselves. This is not an easy task, but we should want better for our children and our future generations. And so I march into the future with a new perspective, a new outlook, new priorities and I remind myself to breathe… learn…. grow.

To my daughter, I am sorry for this misstep. I am sorry I waited so long to see what was right in front of me. I am sorry I considered any factor or obligation ahead of you and your mental wellbeing.

I promise to do better. I value you, I respect you, I love YOU.


Little girl in dance jacket smiling in parking lot
Courtesy of Adrienne Anzelmo

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Adrienne Anzelmo. Subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

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