The day had been ordinary, we all had our work cut out for us: employment responsibilities for the adults, play for the children.
Nothing was unusual. Everyone seemed happy.
But the sun is waning. The witching hours are setting in. And as night closes in, strange things start to happen.
Sudden fears pop up. Angry accusations. Every step lands in a potential minefield.
She is crying in the backseat of the car as we start the 11-mile commute home. A few minutes earlier she had been happy, bubbly; singing nonsense songs to make her brother laugh.
All of that was gone now; clouded over by the pitfalls of growing up.
"I'm so, so, so, so sad," she cries, and breaks into incoherent sobs.
I can hear the fatigue of a long day in her voice.
I am tired, too. I am at the edge where I would trade all the happiness in the world for a 20-minute commute filled with comfortable silence. I am at the very place where losing my patience meets screaming my head off.
But all of that building rage disappears the instant she finishes her complaint:
"I am not pretty. My hair isn't pretty. My clothes aren't pretty. I try and I try and I try but I am never going to be pretty. I am always just going to be me."
I do what every parent does when words their kids say rip at their hearts.
I search what's left of my mind to come up at a loss: Where. Is. This. Coming. From?
How could she think she's not pretty?
In an instant, I jump to cruel world of summer camp.
"Where did you get that from? Who told you that? Did someone hurt your feelings at camp?"
No, she assures me. No one stomped on her tiny little ego. Again it's JUST her.
I am taken off guard by the outburst, but when I think about how to answer I realize I shouldn't be surprised.
Hasn't she been trying to look different lately? Wearing dresses? Wanting her hair to look just so? She is watching and comparing and accounting for every slight, every stern look.
She tells me more about the problem's genesis: The kids, from weeks ago, who wouldn't play with her. They all had pretty clothes and pretty hair. That must have been the difference, she reasons. She wasn't pretty enough.
I feel like I'm trapped in a cave.
Of course I want her to grow up unaffected by societal pressure. I absolutely want her to be comfortable in her own skin, whether it's beautiful or otherwise. I know all about beauty being skin deep and in the eye of the beholder and underneath. But I don't want to tell her that beauty is unimportant, especially when it clearly holds importance to her at this moment in time.
I've thought about what I would say. I've pondered the possibilities. I've wondered if by telling our smart girls that wanting beauty is petty and shameful we haven't completed a circle begun when our grandmothers we're told they should be pretty and obedient. It's a circle that skirts the truth of the matter.
Yet I also thought I had more time to ease my way into the pool from the shallows.
Instead I dive into the deep end: I tell her that what she feels in normal; that we all feel unpopular and unattractive at times but that often these feelings, while real, aren't always true. We compare ourselves to ideals that can't always be met, and we're also not always the best judges of ourselves. ... I don't know how much she understands. She is, after all, only four.
But she accuses me of not understanding: "You are a grownup. You aren't like me. You don't know."
"You are right I am nothing like you. But I was a child once, only I never had the gumption you have. I would never have gone up to a stranger and asked them to play with me. I never would have had the guts to try. Your father even talks about how amazed he is with your courage. You are not like me. You are better.
"This is all the tricky stuff of growing up, you know. ... We humans are silly. Sometimes we belly up to the things that scare us and give them a good old poke in the nose, other times we take those same fears and give them a pat on the back.
"It's really hard to figure out which to do when. Even when you are a grownup, it's difficult."
I look back into the rearview mirror, and see her blotchy face, calm and serene. I know from her expression that the conversation won't continue. She's not convinced, she's just moved on to another topic.
"Can we have ice cream when we get home?