I had one of those “bad parent” moments today when you slip up and say something terrible. I don’t even remember the exact words, but I expressed some general frustration with The Boy’s constant, heartbreaking disappointment in me. He’s like the robot kid in AI in his unconditional adoration, yearning for me by his side even at my ugliest. His love for me is so pure and relentless, so overwhelming, so largely undeserved.
And I don’t mean “undeserved” in a self-deprecating way. I know I’m worthy of being loved. But I am not worthy of this degree of . . . devotion. I see how much faith he has in my ability to move mountains and make his world right, and I know for a fact that I am continuously failing these expectations. Because how could anyone not?
Those images of Flight 1549 survivors awaiting rescue have been haunting me for weeks now. There were mothers on that plane with their children. I keep imagining how that must have felt as the plane was going down, not knowing what would happen once it hit, but knowing your child fully expected nothing less than your sheer Mommy Power to keep them safe against all odds, with so many opportunities to fail. This is why I can’t sleep sometimes.
Even before I was a parent, the most memorable scene in Titanic for me was that mother putting her children to bed, lulling them to sleep with a wonderful story even as she knows the ship is going down. (Yep, I'm tearing up just typing about it now.) Imagine being able to comfort someone so completely in the face of certain death. Would I have it in me if it came to that? I’m trying to imagine putting my kids to bed under those circumstances, and all I can see is the panic and desperation in my son’s face when some disappointment far less serious than a sinking ship has happened. It’s too awful to even consider.
Statistically it seems likely that we’ll be spared any such disasters, but the whole grisly scenario is such an apt metaphor for how I’ve been feeling about being his mother lately. He is looking to me for the pure reassurance and safety he probably felt as a baby, back when I really could meet his every last need. Oh, I loved the newborn phase. Never in a million years would I have expected to love it, but I did. What a dreamy little life we had together, drifting through a Seattle spring and summer in his Baby Bjorn, having our little adventures.
Things didn’t get complicated until he learned to walk. Because once he’d mastered walking, he moved efficiently on to pushing down any kid that got in his way. All toddlers go through this at some point. His sister is two and she pushes from time to time. But this was every. single. time. And he wouldn’t just push. He would go after the other kid like it was a bar brawl or something. And then if he saw that same kid again on the playground later, he’d go after them again with Kill Bill intensity.
And there I was: shy, nerdy, socially awkward me. I was always the kid on the playground who wouldn’t talk to anyone or play with anyone. Nice to see that my child wouldn’t have that particular problem. But how awful to be thrust into his spotlight like this, constantly swooping in to avert disaster and apologizing to the other parents. They were usually understanding, but sometimes not. Sometimes my most sincere apologies and concern wouldn’t stop the occasional mom from sniping at me in that sarcastic, impatient tone usually reserved for being unpleasant to their waitresses.
I love my lefty-loosey Seattle, and I’m as PC as the next Birkenstock Mom. But there’s an attitude in this community that can really leave you cold. They’re big on “empathy,” but you’ll see very little of it if you step outside the lines. For example, I once admitted to some moms at his toddler preschool that I was proud to see him assert himself at a community playgroup. (The same big kid kept trying to take his toy away, but he held his ground and the big kid eventually gave up.) The other moms were speechless, kind of eyeballing each other uncomfortably like I’d just admitted to a crack habit. Finally, one of them compared my story to the families at an inner-city school where she’d taught. “If a child got hit, the parents would encourage him to hit back,” she said, shaking her head while everyone “tsk’d” and I squirmed.
Another time, The Boy was in the middle of a five-alarm toddler meltdown when we were approached by a beardo dad and his daughter. In some misguided attempt at John Gottman’s “emotional intelligence,” he barged into our little circle of tantrum and said “Excuse me. My daughter was just wondering why this little boy is crying?”
I took a deep breath. “He was really hoping to ride on the black swing,” I explained gently to the wide-eyed moppet while my son wailed behind me. “He’s very disappointed to have the orange swing instead of the black swing.”
The moppet looked at her beaming dad and said to him “That’s silly.”
“It is silly, isn’t it?” the dad joyfully affirmed. “You don’t care which color swing you go on, do you?” Moppet shook her head proudly, and off they went.
I was too stunned to respond. How nice that our public struggle was co-opted into a walking “Caillou” episode for the precocious neighborhood children. Really, where’s the empathy in that?
Anyway. This is the social climate in which The Boy blossomed into full-blown wildness. Pushing turned into biting other kids. Attachment turned into intense separation anxiety. Energy turned into pinching my arms and wrenching my neck in an attempt to climb to some unclimbable part of my body. He’d get as close to me as he could get and then try to get closer still, constantly burrowing, never settling down. I used to joke that he was trying to get back into the womb. But I was only half-joking.
There was a lot of work to be done. Thankfully he had an excellent preschool teacher who rallied the class to support us, and the biting stopped within a few weeks. I immersed myself in parenting books, classes, workshops, and online communities. Parents like to gripe about this stuff, but I was fortunate enough to find a variety of resources that saved my sanity and helped me turn out real results. High-fives to writers like Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, Anne Lamott, Elizabeth Crary, and John Gottman; online communities like Hipmama and Offsprung; and my IRL parent-friends and preschool teachers. Without these folks, I’d be curled up in a ball in some corner with big clumps of hair falling out. (That reminds me, big high-fives to The Simpsons, too. And coffee. I’d also like to thank coffee.)
Earlier this month, I was so happy to realize that I’ve made it this far into the school year without crying in my car after a parent-teacher conference. He’s been getting along at preschool like any other kid, making real friends, playing well with others, resolving conflicts, self-soothing, using his extensive vocabulary. It’s been such hard work, but the methods I’ve learned have been working. He’s made such progress.
Except . . . there have been some occasional slips. He freaks out at even the slightest disruption to the routine. Stories and lessons that are emotionally evocative upset him. He doesn’t hit or push so much, but his conflicts with other kids often leave him wildly frustrated and intensely inconsolable. And sometimes, there is fighting. These incidents were isolated at first, but they’ve added up. In fact, this week officially ended my no-crying-after-a-teacher-meeting streak. Progress or not, he’s still raising red flags for people.
And here we are. My sweet, smart, incredibly verbal little boy who prefers to hear 3rd-grade-level science books for his bedtime stories might not be fit for kindergarten in the fall. Well, that’s one theory, anyway. And it’s a theory that’s mainly held by other well-meaning parents. Redshirting is fairly common these days, and in many instances it’s a good choice. Maybe I’d consider it if he had a summer birthday, but he turns five this April. By the time the school year begins, he’ll be almost 5-1/2.
I know and admire parents who homeschool, but it is not for me. I love The Boy dearly but I would go batty from the stress of having him home all the time, and I know he would miss the social component of school. (As it is now, he can barely get through the weekend without asking when he’s going to see his preschool friends again.) And the kindergarten teachers I’ve spoken to have been very reassuring so far. “Bring it on,” they say. “That’s what kindergarten is for.” He’s going. More community, less Mommy. It takes a village, people.
But it won’t be easy. I can’t just throw him into a public kindergarten class like a Looney Tunes stick of dynamite, run away and hold my ears. There will have to be some evaluation on some level, if only to help me advocate for him more effectively in the public school system. People are so quick to label and pathologize the slightest unwanted behavior these days, but if there’s truly an issue there then I suppose it’s better we know about it sooner rather than later. I will have to carefully get him placed with the right teacher, and be ready to change course if it’s clearly a disaster. I’ll have to keep stuffing down my own social anxiety to go do what needs to be done to help him be successful in school. Because I really believe he’s capable of meeting the challenge. I’ve seen him do it before.
He won’t appreciate any of my efforts, and I don’t expect him to. He doesn’t appreciate how I stayed up all those nights with his little infant self, getting puked on and holding him for hours at a time until my wrists went numb. In his mind, that’s exactly as it should be. Which is why his heart breaks and his eyes fill up with tears when he can’t tear me away from my e-mail long enough to read him the Bionicles page in the Lego catalog. Again.
I know. Someday he’ll be 14 and won’t want anything to do with me. I keep trying to remind myself that and engage with him now as much as possible. And truly, he is more amazing than I can even allow myself to acknowledge. His vast imagination and earnest words. His pure enjoyment in the things he loves. His ability to tell stalactites from stalagmites. Our shared love of The B-52’s. And so much more, but how to possibly list it all without sounding like gushy? You get the idea.
But let’s get back to that plane crash metaphor. Because life is so wonderful, but so treacherous. As I get ready to send him out in the world, every fiber of my experience warns me that this plane is going down. Maybe not catastrophically. But it won’t be a “Barney” episode, either. There will be excellent teachers and administrators, and there will be awful ones. There will be great friends, and friends who ditch him once they decide he’s too weird. There will be all sorts of setbacks that I can’t even imagine right now. But I can’t shield him from it anymore than I can let him crawl back into the womb. He’ll have a strong foundation of love and support at home, and he will crash and tumble, learn and cry, and pick himself up a stronger person.
Just like his mother.
Me and The Boy in our early days.