I think my son is stressed out. He grinds his teeth at night. When I ask him how his day at school was, he says “Great!” But when I dig deeper, he tells me he got in trouble at naptime for “not being a good listener,” or at lunch when he and his friend tried to have a picnic instead of sitting at the table, or for pushing at going home time.
When he was an infant, I thought every decision I made was essential for his future development. Making sure he had breast milk instead of formula, pureeing organic carrots and apples bought from the farm stand. I carefully read the ingredients on laundry detergent, soaps, clothing labels, matresses. I figured these were important decisions. I let myself believe these were The important decisions, the Most important decisions, that we would have to make as parents. The infant decisions seemed huge, and they were.
Dave relayed to me a conversation he’d had with a friend, whose kids are older than ours. In response to Dave’s telling him how hard it was having a one year old, the friend said “don’t worry, it gets harder, but also more fun.” We’ve reminded each other of this missive more than once. Parenting an almost-four year old is way harder than it was to parent a one year old, or a two year old, but it is way more fun. Infancy is hard because it’s exhausting physically. A parent is always on deck, prepared, like a goalie when the ball moves toward the box. The parent is always worried that the child will fall off something, or swallow something, or throw-up on something, or cry for some reason, or need food, or drink, or sleep, or fresh diapers. Now he’s almost four, and instead of being the ball, he handles the ball, and his skills are getting better.
For the most part, trouble at school doesn’t translate into trouble at home. We figure it’s bad enough to get in trouble, to have to sit in the Think About It Chair or to miss out on an activity. When he gets home, we talk about it, how it felt, what he was thinking while he was doing the thing that got him in trouble, try to help him think through how to handle the situation next time. I tell him we are on Team C, and he says “you’re on my Super Hero Team?” And I say “yes, mommy and daddy are on your Super Hero Team no matter what, we back you up.” I think of my step-mom, who always had my back. When a girl cursed me out on the CCD bus, or when my 8th grade social studies teacher said I should get used to doing all the work while men take all the credit, her eyes flashed, and like an invading army, she crushed those who she believed had wronged me.
C doesn’t want to tell us that he got in trouble at school. It’s not that he lies about it exactly, but he does obfuscate. Without our telling him what our expectations are for him, he knows, better than we do or had even articulated, that we’ve set the bar pretty high, and he doesn’t want to tell us that he’s come up short. The thing that he doesn’t realize is that he can’t come up short. It’s impossible for him to come up short. We are so astounded by him all the time. I wonder if he’ll ever really know how great and wonderful we think he is, no matter what trouble he gets into, we’ll always know his good heart.
When he gets upset I can see his resolve fall apart. He becomes collapsible inside, just the way I used to feel, the way I know his father used to feel, the way we still all feel sometimes. I hold onto him tight. I ask him to hold on tight to his insides, to know how real and strong he is in the face of all that bad feeling. I say “you are strong,” and he says “I am?” with a quaver in his voice. I hold him so tight, knowing that there are so many things that I won’t be able to squeeze away, and that the time will come soon when he has to hold onto himself.
It’s so hard to see all the beautiful and tragic things in the world and still keep your heart whole, and full of love. Watching my son struggle with his big joys and anguishes makes me quaver, I find that there’s nothing for it but to hold onto myself, if only so that my arms are strong enough to hold onto him.