When Disappointment Strikes…

Image by Author - It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To…

Yesterday was a momentous day in our house. At 4.15pm, announcements were due to be made via email about the Head Girl, Deputy Head Girl, House Captains and Prefects for the incoming school year. 17-year-old Alice had been reminding us about it for days. The build-up was intense. She knew she wouldn’t make any of the very top positions, there was too much competition. She couldn’t compete with the period poverty campaigner who had successfully encouraged the Education Minister to provide free products in schools nor the girl who had raised thousands for charity nor any of the members of the Chamber Choir. She definitely couldn’t compete with the Irish dancing champion with her piles of medals nor the one who had written a film score and not even the savvy ones who had been winning over teachers via home-made brownies (ok, I made that one up) but she thought she was in with a chance of becoming a prefect during her final year at school. By 4.20pm, there was no sign of the much-anticipated email. “What’s a prefect?” asked her 13-year-old sister who attends the same school, and has obviously been greatly impacted by their influence. “Are they the ones that wear the different coloured ties?”. Her dad was waiting impatiently in the car. She was playing tennis at 4.30pm but didn’t want to leave without knowing the outcome. Time was marching on so she had to go, clutching her phone, continuously refreshing her Outlook as she left the house.

A few minutes later, in came the What’sApp message - “I didn’t get anything”.

I am not a super over-protective mother. In many ways, I can be quite hard, I encourage them to be independent. I don’t do that much practically for them. At times, I let them suffer the consequences of their foolishness and I definitely let them fight their own battles. But when I read those four words, my heart broke for her and I could feel the tears welling up. I felt the devastation she was feeling. Perhaps it brought back all the memories of my own disappointments and I recognised just how much those rites of passage matter. A few minutes later, another message arrived, “I want to come home”. “That’s ok,” I replied. “Dad won’t let me,” she typed back. Typical man I thought, no idea at all, no idea at all! I rang him. “I thought a wee run about would help her,” he said. “She’s not a dog,” I screeched.

And so, back home she came, tennis abandoned. I braced myself as the car door slammed. The anguish was real. Her eyes were swollen, her cheeks puffy, the tears were dripping, there was mess and snot and despair. There was nothing I could do. All I could do was wrap my lovely, sensitive, ‘almost an adult’ child in a hug and hold her grief. There were really no words. I have always hated the advice and wisdom bestowed by others when disappointment strikes and telling her how important she is to us, how much we value her, much as she needed to know it, wasn’t going to take away her pain. I could have told her being a prefect wouldn’t define her, it wouldn’t add much to her CV but the future seemed irrelevant in the misery of the present. Her littlest sister cuddled into her and we all sat there and we waited, we listened to the sobs and we let her continue to release all those emotions.

We tried not to analyse who had succeeded and who hadn’t. We couldn’t begin to understand the rationale as to why some people had been picked and others hadn’t. “It’s just life,” I told her, “I wasn’t chosen to be a prefect either”. I was a librarian. My contribution was to tidy shelves. “You still have the badge in the drawer,” she reminded me. I didn’t stand out enough at school. I was clever and solid and hard-working but I was quiet and shy and unremarkable - and quiet people, in spite of the wonderful gifts they can give the world, often get overlooked.

I told her this will hurt most today, it will be easier tomorrow, it will floor you at some point when it rears its ugly head again and hits you hard for no particular reason. You will be fragile for a while. The hurt will disappear over the summer and it will re-emerge in September when your peers take up their new roles and you watch them do so. Years later, when another disappointment knocks you for six, you will remember this day and how you felt when you were told you weren’t good enough to be a prefect.

A few hours later, following a flurry of activity and many Snapchats, she had gathered herself, dressed for a walk, sunglasses on to hide the swollen eyes. Our doorbell rang. It was a delivery of chocolate, cookies, churros and ice cream ordered by her friend. Well, that nearly broke me.

Alice is no different from me even though I am much older. Disappointments sear and wound me. None of us are immune, no matter what age we are. It’s maybe no longer the prefect - it’s the job or the position or the award or the recognition. We allow ourselves to be measured through the judgments of others and that rejection can make us question our whole selves. For me, it has come many times, usually after lengthy application forms and competency-based interviews that have led to nothing. I have howled with frustration. I have railed at the injustice. It has come to me again recently as the result of a public vote and I am still processing how it has made me feel. I will carry the scars for a while. It never gets easier but what I have learned is that we need to allow ourselves to weep and wail and rant and rage, and never ever see it as a reflection of who we are. Most importantly, we need our disappointment to be properly acknowledged. So often, it is just swept away as something we should be able to cope with. With disappointment comes the realisation that we have people who love us. I will never forget when I got a notification that I hadn’t been shortlisted for a post I was highly qualified to do. As I sat in my University office, I lifted the phone and I rang my colleague sitting at her desk on the floor above. She heard the wobble in my voice and despite my best intentions never to cry at work, I couldn’t help it. In the most powerful expression of friendship, within seconds, she was there to comfort me. I knew at my most vulnerable, if I reached out, someone would come. You will never know that, if you only ever have success.

This morning, Alice got up and announced “I’m going to apply to be a peer mentor”, “I could look after the first years”. “The forms come out today”. It’s not a lucrative role, it doesn’t come with much kudos but I know she’ll be good at it and she’ll give it her best. After all, she has excellent experience, managing all her difficult siblings.

In an attempt at humour, her dad announced we would make her ‘prefect of the house’. He’d asked what prefects do. “They look after the attendance registers”. “Is that it?” we thought. “You can check everyone in and out at night and in the mornings then,” he said.

This afternoon, I collected her from school. “How are you now?” I said.

“I’m ok,” she answered - “It’s only a tie”.

P.S. Alice has given me full permission to share this story. She said it might help someone else…I hope it does.

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Deborah Sloan

I’m a mum of four girls who recently left a career to focus on writing. I write about leaving, change, career, motherhood and life. @deborahjsloan on Twitter