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The Heart is What Makes a Ballerina a Ballerina, not Her Leotard.

alec vanderboom

At 4:50 PM yesterday, I realized that I lost Hannah’s ballet leotard.

We live in Washington D.C., a city renowned for it’s horrid traffic congestion. Every weekday, men and women sit in traffic for an average of four hours a day. From 8 AM to 10 AM, and 5 PM to 7 PM all the major highways and popular “back road” passes shut down.

This problem is especially acute for those of us who live in Maryland. Eighty-five percent of Maryland's state population lives along one sixty mile stretch of highway that leads from Baltimore to Washington D.C. Even without a daily commute, I still run my life around rush hour traffic. To cope, I use a multiplier of “six” to estimate potential traffic delays. If a kid has a doctor’s appointment at 8:30 AM or a ballet lesson at 6 PM, I estimate that it will take me six times longer to get there during rush hour.

All of this background explains why 4:50 PM, I had exactly 36 minutes to find Hannah's leotard, dress her in the leotard and black ballet tights, pin her hair in a secure bun, find her missing black ballet shoes, and buckle her seat belt, (along with her two younger siblings properly outfitted in their own winter coats, scarves and mittens) in order to make it on time for a ballet lesson at six o'clock.

The incomparable Ms. Meetz, Hannah's ballet teacher, does insist that her students show proper respect by being on time, properly dressed & stretched and with hair that is properly secured and hazard free.

So at 4:40 PM when for the 1500 time on a Monday when Hannah begs, “Can I please put on my leotard? Is it time yet for baaaaa-lllll-eeett!”

I look up from my email to the computer clock and realized: “Wow, we are actually in danger of running late today.”

“It’s time! Go find your leotard and your ballet shoes.” I delegate this simple job to the almost grown-up five year old of the house while I start to finding missing socks for the non-verbal and less-obedient members of Benjamin clan.

‘I can’t find my leotard!’ comes a familiar call five seconds later.

“It’s in the Hall closet, in a white Target bag,” I call back.

Without a moment of pause, Hannah says, “I looked in the Hall closet. I can’t find it.”

“I know I put it in there while I cleaned up for the party today. Look again.” I answer firmly.

“Mom. I can’t. PLEASE!” The dramatic please takes up all 800 square feet of our small apartment.

I join my daughter at the Hall closet. The white plastic Target bag containing the hot pink ballet leotard and the separate white plastic Payless bag containing a pair of size 13 black ballet shoes and 2 extra pair of black ballet tights are both missing.

At noon, five hours before, both bags were sitting on the pile of shoes by the front door. They had gotten stashed somewhere in the forty minutes of clean-up time before our Candle mass party at 2 PM.

For the next twenty minutes Hannah and I searched and prayed fervently to St. Jude. I have absolutely no memory of where I moved Hannah's ballet things.

We search in the closet we search in the kitchen. We search in the laundry baskets; we search in the “catch all” dining room hutch. I search her dresser drawers, I search her clothes closet. We eventually find the Payless bag which contained two pairs of tights hanging up on a hanger under a winter coat, and the ballet shoes wrapped in a box hidden under 15 pairs of unused summer shoes in the bottom of the Hall closet. Rather than helping, these finds convince me that my mental state during the frantic clean up was a bit disordered. I have no idea where I could have easily stashed a beloved hot pink leotard in the five minutes before guests arrive.

The Lord gave me my beloved husband for many reasons, not the least because I’m, in my own family’s words “not a good looker.”

Here’s how my husband approaches something that is mislaid. “Hmmm. This is an interesting puzzle. I wonder where the item would logically be?” With the ease of someone completing a Sunday cross-word puzzle he starts at a logical corner and easily moves out in concentric circles. He has the calm expression while he searches as someone who completes astrophysics problems for fun.

Here’s I how I look for something. “I can’t believe it’s gone. I can’t believe it’s GONE! I spent ninety minutes at Payless today tracking down the elusive size 13 ballet shoes with three kids in tow. And last Monday, I spent 120 minutes at Target tracking down the elusive size 6X leotard with three kids in tow. Now it’s only lesson two, and we’ve already lost all the pieces of the ballet costume. AHHH!”

I’m sure every mother can relate to these moments.

Here’s where I’m unique. I have a social anxiety disorder. It never occurs me to that it is permissible to send your kid to ballet lessons without her ballet leotard.

In my mind, good mothers are responsible, competent and respectful. Good mothers have kids who show up on time for lessons, with their hair pinned back, dressed as the instructor requested and ready to jointly experience the Art of Dance.

Hannah's love for dance class is so intense, she's turned her ballet teacher, Ms. Meetz, into a beloved, strict aunt. I trembled at the thought of “disrespecting” Ms. Meetz's class with sloppy sweatpants. In my disordered, socially anxious mind, a lost leotard is equal to blowing a raspberry in Ms. Meetz’s face.

When I get anxious, my thoughts start to spiral and I get tempted to slide into sin. “This is an impossible job, mothering.” I started to say in a well-worn interior monologue. “Who can expect me to entertain, cook dinner and keep on top of the ballet costume. . . “

When I start the inner-pity party it’s ease to lose my temper and start yelling at whoever is currently preventing my “very important work” at the moment. Sometimes that’s my husband, Sometimes that’s one of my children, Sometimes that’s myself. The yelling fest that follows is always, always awful.

Yesterday, I had this sharp sticking point of truth. Yesterday, was the feast day of my Beloved Spiritual Mother.

Even in my distracted, anxious state, I knew that Truth. You can’t host a beautiful Candle mass party for nine young children, and then turn around fifty minutes and start yelling at your own children. That yelling fest is going to be the part that sticks in their minds, not the lovely blue tulle party favors.

“You can’t yell right now,” I warned myself in the second person. “That is going to undo all the work you did today on that party for Mommy Mary.”

So I kept my temper.

I cried anxious tears. I rumbled through a lot of carefully packed items. I urgently retold the same thing to Hannah “I’ve got no idea where you ballet leotard is honey. Only St. Jude knows. We’re going to have to pray to him to help us.”

I knew that St. Jude knew where I’d stashed the missing leotard. I also knew that I wasn’t finding the leotard.

Slowly it downed on me that maybe I wasn’t supposed to find it. Maybe the best way to honor my Blessed Mother wasn’t by being “perfect” or having the Saints help make up my mistakes, but by putting Hannah in some less than fantastic clothes and having her attend ballet lessons anyway.

I found Hannah’s Gap skirt that looked like a ballet uniform and her double sleeved pink & grey cotton shirt with the giant red heart embroidered on it. I put it on the bed as an alternative.

Several more moments passed. I kept looking, I didn’t find anything. (I’m such a bad “looker,” I think Hannah was the one who found her own missing ballet tights.).

At 5:15, I admitted defeat. I got Hannah’s long hair pinned up in a secure bun. Hannah, of course, after watching her Mother freak out inside Hall closets for twenty-five minutes was in panicked state herself.

“I can’t go to ballet class without my leotard!" she whined. "It’s my favorite one!!!!”

“I know, honey,” I said with more gentleness. “I lost your leotard. My job, however, is also to get your hair pinned up and get you to dance class one time. We don’t want to be late for class on top of everything.”

A friend called to check in for a later chat. It felt good to hear her voice because on top of everything else, on Monday I’d started my period. This event marks the ninth month of a straight “no” to our “please let us have another baby” prayers during our nightly rosary. On those days I’m so tender now. I took the loss of a leotard as a mental “See I can’t handle the three children I currently have well, so that’s why God isn’t giving me a fourth.” I haven’t even connected my fragile mood with my period until I heard the reassuring warmth of my friends voice. (Thank you Meredith!)

I’d had gotten all three kids into their seatbelts in the back of our PT Cruiser at 5:25 PM, when my husband showed up on his bike. (My husband bikes to work to allow me to have our one car. He’s a gem).

“I got home as I could. Can you take out Maria and Alex while I go look?” he said.

“It’s okay, you don’t have to look.” I said. “She’s already in the car. I’ve got to get going soon because of rush hour traffic.”

My husband took the chin-strap off his bike helmet and said seriously, “What is she going to wear! Let me look.”

I realized that my two desperate requests for advice and joint prayers to St. Jude during my desperate hunt for the leotard have convinced my beloved spouse that this is an emergency equal to Alex’s bloody, needed three stitches lip. (Actually, Jon was more calm when I reported that I was off to Urgent Care with a bleeding Alex than he was last night with the news that Hannah would be the only one out of fourteen ballerinas without a leotard. He didn’t rush home early from work on the “our boy needed three stitches” day.)

Now that my spouse was convinced this was a tragedy, there was nothing to do but check my “this won’t be so bad as long as we’re not late” plan and follow him into the house. I left Hannah in her car seat and carried out Maria and Alex. I stayed in the house, thinking that I could help Jon look. Since I’m not a good looker, my help consistently mainly of holding a crying from a sore tooth Maria. I sat on a chair and rocked the sad, sad baby. I watched the digital numbers change on the electric clock.

“Jon, it’s already 5:35.”

“I’m going to find it. Just give me a moment,” he called from deep in our bedroom closets.

I rocked sad Maria back and forth. I watched the numbers change from 5:39 to 5:42. “Don’t say anything” I commanded my agitated lips.

Finally, at 5:43 Jon came to my chair and sad “I can’t find it.”

“I need to go now because of traffic. Pull the Lasagna out of the over when the timer goes off. We’re going to be fine,” I asserted firmly as I handed a doubtful husband my sleepy baby Maria.

When I got to the car, poor Hannah was a crying mess. “Why did you leave me out here for so long! Where is my leotard.”

“We didn’t find it, honey. I’m sorry.” I gave her a little hug and got her seatbelt refastened.

This was not the answer my five year old wanted to hear. “I can’t go to ballet without my leotard. It’s my favorite. I can’t go!”

“Hannah,” I said meeting her gaze. “We can stay home. You can do a make-up class. But think about how sad your teacher will be today without you. You can do the class without the leotard. The heart is what makes a ballerina a ballerina, not her leotard.”

Taking her mystified look as permission, I got myself strapped into the front seat and shifted into reverse.

“What are you talking about the heart of the ballerina, Mom?” Hannah asked through gulps of air.

“Your heart is what makes you a ballerina. Not your costume.” I said with Holy Spirit confidence.

Driving in awful traffic across two major highways, I had the pleasure of telling my oldest about my role as Peasblossum in Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream. I was only nine, but a real costume designer from New York City made my fairy costume. I had a big speech which opened the whole Enchanted Forest scene. I got to dance around with these gorgeous frothy sea green wings. My wings dropped off my arms and danced around during my speech.

During one performance, I forgot my wings in the green room. I was ready to turn back to get my needed wings, when Oberon (an adult) caught me. “You don’t have time to go back. Your cue is coming.”

“I need my wings. I can’t do my opening speech without them!” I pleaded.

“You’re Peasblossum, with or without your wings” Oberon insisted.

I went on stage and felt naked, without my wings,” I told Hannah in the car. “I found out that people believed in the Enchanted forest because of me—not my fabulous designed in New York City costume.”

“I just shared with Hannah the subject of my college admission essay,” I thought. I also remembered that kind Oberon died of complications from AIDS about six years after our meaningful conversation. I was in the middle of a prayer for his soul when Hannah’s voice interrupted my thoughts.

“Mommy, what does 5 5 5 mean.” Asked Hannah reading the dashboard clock. “Do my lessons start at 5 5 5? Are we going to be late????”

In front of us there was a solid row of red brake lights. We were in the midst of yet another traffic jam.

I covered up the clock with my left hand. “We on God’s time now, Hannah, we’re going to get there on time.” In my mind, I refused to mentally review how many times I had checked the clock earlier inside our house. “It’s important to listen to your husband” I repeated calmly to myself. “God will take care of it.”

We got lost. Hannah’s ballet class takes place in the posh dance room of a posh new middle school in a brand new, almost looks fake subdivision. All of the streets in the subdivision look exactly the same. I ended up on some dead-end street with no middle school in sight.

“We’re on God’s time. It’s Mary’s Day.” I kept reassuring myself as I drove lost through the suburb.

We did make it. We were the last student who slipped inside the door as Ms. Meetz started to close it at 6:01. I’d frantically changed Hannah from street shoes into ballet shoes immediately outside the door.

“Oh you forgot her shirt” a grandmother called in a thick Spanish accent. “Do you want me to open this door?”

I looked at her in confusion. “You forgot to change her out of her tee shirt. My mom just wanted to remind you,” a younger mom said with clearer and more confident English.

“She’s only wearing a tee-shirt,"I sighed. "I lost Hannah’s leotard today. It’s missing. That’s why we are late.”

The two ladies nodded sympathetically. “Oh yes. It’s so hard.” Their daughter (and granddaughter) was named Iris. We had a friendly chat about five year olds and ballet lessons and a necessary love of pink while looking through the windows of the dance studio.

Because my husband had kindly come home to watch Alex and Maria, I had an unusual amount of time to chat and to gaze for a long time through a door window at Hannah. She’s so big. She commands that room with such confidence. All the former sadness and panic were gone.

Afterwards I walked through the middle school hallway and gazed curiously at the Art Displays.

At about 5:45 PM, as clear as day the voice of my former therapist came into my head. “It’s not a crime to lose a ballet leotard.”

Giving birth to my second newborn in eighteen months, and the no job, no health insurance, and parental disapproval that accompanied this second birth, triggered my first experience with panic attacks in January 2005. While I termed everything in my life "a mess," there was one particular thing that lead to repeated panic attacks. I’d misplaced Alex’s social security card in the hazy post-partum period after his birth in October 2004. Our urgent need for a tax refund in early January of 2005, meant that I faced the unpleasant task of appearing in person at the Social Security Office in Madison, Wisconsin in order to request a duplicate card. My mind shut-down in fear. I had heart palpitations when I thought about facing a United States government employee and having to admit that I'd lost such an important, official document as my son's Social Security Card.

I needed help. I found a therapist who was so kind and gentle with me. I think we spent a full one hour session on this single issue. She said “I understand that you’ve got a sensitivity to authority figures in your life, and this unknown stranger in the Social Security office stands for the full authority of the United States Government in your mind, however, it’s only a lost card, it’s not a crime.”

Me, the girl who aced three years of Law School Exams, looked at her with skepticism.

“Oh, it’s a crime.” I responded.

My therapist looked at me with raised eyebrows.

“It’s sort of like a crime,” I asserted.

My therapist calmly replied “It’s not a crime.”

“It’s bad. I'm irresponsible. I lost an official piece of mail from the United States Government that I was supposed to safeguard for my minor child.” I said.

“A lost card social security card is unfortunate. It might even cause this unknown government agent to have to do a lot of extra work. It might be a big hassle to go wait for three hours in the Social Security Office waiting room with a newborn. However, it’s not a crime!"

"Abby, if you show up and say that you lost Alex’s Social Security Card they are not going to lock you in jail. You’ve got to start telling your panicked mind: THIS IS NOT A CRIME!”

“This is not a crime,” is the mantra we used through three months of therapy to get my mind out of the frequent anxiety/panic attacks as a new mother and back into more normal functioning mindset.

When a gentle voice said: “It’s not a crime” in my mind at 6:40 PM in the middle of Lakeland Middle School it was a mental short hand for all kinds of reassuring thoughts and feelings.

I realized in that hallway that I’d blown this leotard thing all out of proportion.

I'd let my disordered thinking see an emergency when there wasn't one in front of me. Moreover, on their, Hannah and Jon probably wouldn't have blinked at the "no leotard for ballet class thing." They are both very balanced, calm individuals. Yet because they loved me, my daughter and my husband had followed me on this trail of anxiety and panic. I’d caused Jon to leave work early. I’d caused Hannah to cry and get anxious.

The Mom is the emotional center for the family. I might never heal this social anxiety and my great fear of upsetting authority figures. That weakness already has a negative impact on my family.

Yet at the same moment that I realized that sad thought, I also had this happy one.

I didn’t yell.

I didn’t yell.

I had a panic attack on the high range of a seven or eight and yet I didn’t yell. I didn’t fall into sin.

By me not yelling, Jon and Hannah could recover fairly easily and painlessly. Their night wasn’t “ruined” due to their own hurt and black responsive mood. Hannah was happily dancing out her heart now and Jon was tending to a teething baby and rescuing almost burnt lasagna.


I might never be able to be a) the Competent Mom who doesn’t misplace hot pink leotards or the Social Security Cards of newborns, or b) the laid-back Mom who rolls with the punches.

I might always be the Mom who floats between slightly frazzled and overwhelming frazzled. Yet I could model resilience. I could model how to have an amazing “I got to be line leader even without my leotard” for my daughter or a “we can work together under an urgent traffic deadline” for my husband.

A gentle, yet still imperfect Mom is a good goal for me.

I love feast days in the Catholic Church. I love the minor days, the ones no one notices in the daily rush of Ordinary Time. The liturgical year is filled with mini Ash Wednesdays. Times that stretch us with feast and fasting.

Happy Candle mass Our Lady. I love you