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Friday, May 2, 2014

On the Brink

Every afternoon, it is the same cycle of emotions. I stand at the bus stop, eagerly awaiting the return of my kindergartener and his bright smile. I am antsy with anticipation and picture our reunion – the two of us holding hands back to the house, and sharing stories about our day over cookies and milk. Sometimes, this does happen. But most days, I watch passively as my son steps off the bus and toward me, slightly unrecognizable than the Aidan I know. He appears to be my son, yet there is something unfamiliar about the boy that stands in front of me, as if aliens kidnapped him for the day and returned him to the same spot mostly unbothered. He is dressed in the same clothes he put on in the morning, but they are slightly disheveled, like a businessman who has already rolled up his sleeves and undone his tie. Crumbs around his mouth serve as evidence of some classmate’s birthday celebration. His jacket is strung around his torso, as if he was rushing to pack up for the day, unlike the meticulous way my husband and I make sure he is dressed in the morning. A shoe is untied. He smells of school supplies and cafeteria cleaning products. There is a patch of crusty glue in his hair. His fingers are dirty with marker residue. He looks mildly happy to see me, but not overly enthusiastic about it, and I lead him into the house, picking up the strewn shoes, backpack, and crumpled note from his friend as I order Aidan to wash his hands. I sit at the kitchen table as he devours a snack, drilling him with what seems like a thousand questions about his day. “I don’t remember,” Aidan mutters in between mouthfuls of pretzels. 

He lets me look through his wrinkled pile of worksheets and journal entries before running off into his playroom. “I gotta go, bye!” he echoes down the hallway. Aidan’s obsession is drawing, and I can tell that he has had “withdrawal” all day, so I let him sketch and draw at his desk while I tidy up his backpack litterings and unload the dirty Tupperware from his lunchbag. I go in a few times to admire his latest sketches of pirates or Disney characters and steal a kiss, but I try to respect his need for this personal downtime before it’s time to start the homework-cooking-dinner-bath-bed marathon of each evening. While I load the dishwasher and wipe the countertops clean after dinner, I happily let my son and husband play and talk together. They’ve missed each other as much as I’ve missed them, and I dare not intrude on the small snippet of time they have together during the week. Trudging up the stairs later at night when it’s time for my own bedtime, I linger in Aidan’s room for my last check-in. His books and flashlight have been tossed at the foot of the bed, and he finally has fallen asleep. Here is the place where I finally feel unrushed to spend time with my little boy, even if he may not know it. I kiss his warm cheeks and brush his hair and kiss him some more. Up close, he still looks like my newborn baby – all soft puffy cheek and milky-colored thin skin. But as I step away, I realize how big he’s gotten. His limbs sprawl all over the twin-sized bed, covering the majority of the mattress. I stand over him like a shadow and the awareness of his metamorphosis into being a middle-aged child hits me hard. We are on the cusp, teetering delicately between the innocence and simplicity of youth and something larger, bigger, and much more complicated. I enjoy having an older child, but there is something about elementary school – the institution and routine of it, that has hardened the innocent edges of my little boy. There is something a little more jaded in him, a little more street-wise. Things are just different. It’s both kind of cool and terrifying. I feel like we are inching up to the peak of a roller coaster precipice, unable to get off. I kiss Aidan one more time and head to bed. 

Yesterday, during our regular walk back from the bus stop, Aidan’s weariness quickly fades into tears. His huge brown eyes well with water and his tiny face crumbles into an infant-like cry. Thankfully, he shares the reason with me. A boy on his bus, angry that Aidan would not share a toy, told Aidan that when he grows up, he will use a gun on him and that his policeman Daddy has a gun and he’s going to arrest Aidan and shoot him. Mature and babylike at the same time, Aidan cries out, “and I just can’t get that image out of my head. I’m scared!” he wails. Trying my best to control my own primal emotions, I comfort Aidan and try to ease his imagination. For awhile, my baby has returned to me. He sits on my lap and nibbles Goldfish as he sniffles up his tears. Feeling better, he gets through the rest of the day, but is haunted by his busmate’s threat at bedtime. I absolutely hate that my small son had to experience such a terrible image. I feel nauseous thinking that my baby now has knowledge of such a violent and scary scene, however irrational it may be. I crawl into bed with him and help him fall asleep. I must admit that there is a tiny piece of me that is grateful for feeling so needed, and for having my little boy restored. Having an empty nest during school hours, my role as a mother has been redefined, and often feels blurry – a constant cycle of feeling certain about what I’m supposed to be doing and wondering if there’s something else I should be doing. But at this moment, it is more clear than ever. No matter how old my child is getting, I’m simply just supposed to be there. There. Not teaching, disciplining, monitoring. Just being there. Continuing to be the soft spot for him to fall, the steady reassurance in an increasing world of ambiguity. 

At night, my husband and I discuss what to do about the situation. My impulse is to tell the principal or at least the bus driver; his impulse is to remind me that these things are going to happen, and that we have to simply let them happen. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but I know it’s true. There are going to be fights, threats, disagreements, embarrassments, failures, and lots more scary things. And part of our job now is to help Aidan figure out how to deal with them, and perhaps not come to his rescue as we would have when he was younger. I hesitantly agree to keep quiet about the incident but inform someone if it happens again. But mostly, I try to calm my queasiness over my child having to be so upset about something. It feels like a raw, bloody wound atop his youthfulness. 

This morning, Aidan happily gets ready for school. I am nervous if he may be a bit hesitant to ride the bus or interface with this other boy, but luckily he dons his Star Wars backpack and asks for help with his shoes, as always. “Ugh, you’ve got to start doing this yourself!” we mutter to him about his laziness about putting his own shoes on. Secretly, it feels selfishly good. I cusp his little socked feet and lead them into his Buzz Lightyear light-up sneakers. I wish I could cover his entire body, heart, and soul with a maternal shield as I send him out into the world everyday. But I can’t. Lacing up his sneakers, holding his hand to cross the street, and keeping hope in my heart for his safety and happiness is all I can do. It has to be enough for both of us. We trail to the bus stop. 

“I wonder if Captain Hook got my letter!” Aidan wonders excitedly aloud the way he has every day lately. One week ago, we took him to Disney World for the first time. As mature he has gotten lately, it was refreshingly joyous to see him sitting atop his Daddy’s shoulders waving to each and every character dancing down the parade routes and eagerly announcing who was coming next. There is still innocence, I remember thinking about my big boy. There is still hope for it to last awhile longer. I wave to Aidan and watch the yellow bus travel down the road. I walk back to the house. The feeling of being apart from your child never seems to get any easier. No matter how many times I will wave good-bye to him as he leaves me each morning and as I head back up the driveway, alone with my thoughts, it will always feel like a tender, thumping piece of heart has still been ripped away from me. I go inside and take out some red construction paper and a black pen, trying my best to disguise my handwriting for Captain Hook’s. I tear the edges of the paper, roll the letter and tie it with twine, and put it in the mailbox to await my son’s return. I hope that today was a better day for Aidan. I hope that no one scares him, hurts him, or chips away at his happiness. I hope that he will innocently skip to the mailbox when he gets home and beam that Captain Hook has indeed written back to him, and save the letter forever. I hope.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Rain Dance

Written a few years ago.

I am beginning to think that those who write a lot about parenting are mistaken for those that think they have all the answers. Since the birth of my son, a dramatic entrance of a new world entirely, all I seem to think and write about is motherhood and the ways in which my son continues to evoke transformation in me. Perhaps this sometimes can come across as if I, you know, actually know what I am talking about. But I am the first one to admit that when it comes to motherhood, my heart is humbly speckled with open, raw voids; curious abysses waiting to be filled with a certainty and knowledge that, in the end, I know only my son can provide for me.  I look to him as my guide in the quest for these truths, and write my way to make sense of the lessons he bestows.  

As a mother and person in general, I am absolutely terrible at flexibility. I prefer my palms to be firmly gripped around the rigidity of the schedule, expectations, and outcomes that I deem appropriate. It makes me feel powerful, in control, and oddly at ease. I am uncomfortable with the open-endedness that often comes with having a young child to keep busy and entertained every day. I feel like Aidan thrives better when we have definite plans to stick with, and when intentions are thrown off or rescheduled, I find myself a little lost in the empty space that leaves itself open for interpretation and imagination, despite my son’s immensely rich creative spirit. Going with the flow is just something I can’t seem to do well. 

It is a drizzly, unseasonably cool Tuesday at the start of summer and my son’s plans for a pool playdate with his preschool class has just been cancelled. He’s missed his class buddies since school let out several weeks prior and was looking forward to seeing everybody again. As the rain steadily increases to a humid downpour, I decide to treat Aidan to a movie and popcorn. Aidan’s been fearful of the theatrics of movie theaters in the past, so we’ve waited a good year to try again. This time, he is familiar with the characters in the movie sequel, and I wait until the last minute to bring him into the actual theater to avoid intimidating previews and loud commercials. We don our crappy sandals and head into the car and down the road to our local theater, windshield wipers slushing the water away as damp hair curls around my ears from the mugginess. Driving in the rain has always felt so romantically blue to me, and it is no different with my son. I love taking Aidan on private dates, just the two of us to create sacred and private memories. 

We run into the theater holding hands and dodge the pouring rain, buy our buttery popcorn, and enter into the movie. I am enjoying the start of my mother-son date so much that I don’t even realize the previews haven’t started yet. Aidan sees a friend from school and we make our way over to her and her mother. I chat, and nosh at the tip of my popcorn bag, not even noticing that the previews have begun, and that Aidan is starting to tense up at the loud sound effects. He starts to get more nervous as a big animated bear roars across the screen and, despite my hand on his tiny back, Aidan is frightened and pleading to leave. We shuffle ourselves out of the aisle immediately, spilling our snacks in bits along the way. At once, I feel bad for my young son yet embarrassed at his inability to calm down. I feel the hot flashes of others staring sympathetically for us as we step on their feet and as I accidently smack my pocketbook against them. I think back to the beginning days of Aidan’s existence as a baby and young toddler, where my husband and I would simply have to pick up and go, sweaty and frazzled.  And as I sit out in the lobby with Aidan as he eats his popcorn, trying my best to be patient with his trepidation whilst encouraging him to try again, I am hit with a sudden white hot awareness of my own selfishness as a mother; for being annoyed at wasting all the money I just spent, for not getting to explain ourselves to our friends back in the theater, for feeling irritated about ruined intentions and a whole day ahead of us with nothing else lined up, and for realizing I can sometimes be so wrong about what’s right for my son. 

We trudge home in the rain. With nowhere else to go, we sit at the kitchen table and finish our bags of popcorn in silence, staring at each other. I don’t know why I always struggle with changed or ruined plans when it comes to Aidan’s life. I don’t know why I always feel so deflated at their outcomes, even when my son seems perfectly content going with the flow and moving on. The rain is steady outside, and the silence at the table is thick, apart from the nibbling crunches of our stale yet yummy popcorn. “Well, I don’t know what else you want to do now,” I sigh, immediately regretting my tone. Of all the things I may do right as a mother, this icy rigidity to expectation and disappointment in plans gone awry seems to negate everything else.

Aidan licks the powdery butter off of his teeny fingers and replies. “We could play in the rain?” he casually suggests, as if he was holding out on me, saving his simple epiphany for this very appropriate moment, a moment like many others in his mother’s inflexible life. I peek outside at the endless summer downpour and realize that my son has never really played outside in the rain before, a detail that shakes me enough to surrender to my son’s modest wisdom without holding onto my hesitation. We step outside on the driveway with bare feet and already-soaked through clothes and my disappointment in the day washes from under me. In its place, I feel invigorated by submitting myself to Aidan’s leadership. I ask him what he wants to do in the rain, and he guides. He jumps into the gray, dirty puddles of the driveway’s valleys and dips, struts intensely into superhero poses, and instructs me to follow his lead in silly, elaborate dance moves. My pointless feelings of frustration or loss of control over the day and my son’s activities are behind me, and as the humid, sticky rain soaks through my clothes, make-up, and down to my bones, I feel youthful and humbled under my son’s simple joy. I feel gratitude for the simplicity that he has given to the day without much planning or fuss. 

I look up at his four-year-old body and its nuanced mannerisms, and feel ashamed that it’s taken me this long to let him play unabashedly in the rain; such an archetypal image of childhood that I perhaps have robbed him of all this time. But soaking and renewed under the wet sky, I finally understand that this moment in time needed to happen exactly the way it did; and that, as always, it is my son who has brought me to this place and sacred shared moment together. My flaws as a mother have less to do with rigidity, and everything to do with my own hungry need for control. If it were not for altered plans, or scary movie previews, or the open-ended horizon of the rainy afternoon, this blessed experience would have never happened. Have more moments like this christening been wasted under my firm and irrational grip on routine? How many other times have I let my own self-interest drown out Aidan’s simplistic voice of reason? 

When we finally come in from the rain, I let Aidan strip naked in the garage and wrap him in a huge bath towel. I am drenched as well, but I cradle his swaddled, big boy body on the couch so he can warm up. It’s funny, I think, that I am usually the type of parent who welcomes my child’s growing up and maturity, yet every night after bathtime, my husband and I still wrap Aidan in the same hooded towels he’s had since newbornhood; his one last vestige of infancy. Every night we swoop him up in that blanket and stare down at his black eyes shining up at us like they did so long ago, and I am transported back to Aidan’s first few moments of life – a wet and warm brand new baby, a vulnerable person looking to me for guidance and direction. And every time holding the refreshed newness of my damp boy-child baby, it feels like I have just given birth again. But on the couch, as the rain continues to beat down and as Aidan and I look at each other’s glistening, slicked skin, I think of how wrong I have been. On this day, it is me who has been rebirthed by Aidan, and perhaps it has taken me all this time to realize that every day with this boy is a new beginning for me, to try again and to follow alongside him with newly awakened, humbled eyes.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

An Open Letter to Every Future Mom I’ll Ever Meet

      Hi future fellow mom. Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Debra. We’ve just met at some kid function. Maybe it was while waiting at the sidelines at an extracurricular activity or during a PTA event at school. Perhaps we struck up a conversation in the pediatrician’s waiting room. Or maybe we exchanged a few bits of dialogue in the frozen aisles of the grocery store buying dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets. In any event, I thought I would give you a bit of a heads-up about myself before we dive into anything that even closely resembles a female friendship. You see, I am a bit strange. I wanted to give you fair warning so that there are no surprises.

      Allow me to explain. Some women come into motherhood and assimilate into their new friendships with fellow moms quite naturally. For them, maybe there is no thought behind the process at all. These are the women who had a big group of friends during childhood, who were able to juggle their cheerleading and yearbook and student council responsibilities with their weekend partying. They had boyfriends and actual school spirit. They joined sororities and made quick friends with their college roommate and posed for pictures at parties with their arms around fellow girls. They delightfully planned their weddings with gaggles of friends and included them all as bridesmaids. They laughed together in limousines to celebrate someone’s bachelorette party. They like wine and hug each other hello and goodbye even when they’ll see each other in a week. And when these women have their babies, they walk into the scary, shaky world of parenting together, hooking elbows and embracing a new female bond together.

      You see, the deal is that I wasn’t one of those girls. In fact, I was quite the opposite. The kind of teenager reminiscent of mid-90’s indie flicks about loser teenagers. I rolled my eyes at school spirit and scribbled away in my poetry notebook and tried to get by with as little social interaction as possible. Sure, I had friends, but not without the awkwardness and anxiety that came with being a sullen teenage girl trying to maintain said friendships. Over time, I realized I got along much better with guys. There seemed to be no drama, no social butterflies, no pressure to make total sense all the time. They didn’t care about how you did your hair or how many friends you actually had. Guys were more cynical, sarcastic, dark, and quiet. And amazingly, I happened to fall in love with one of them. I married him and had his baby.

      When I had my son, there was nothing more I wanted to do than make stay-at-home motherhood a full time career and make a great life for the two of us during the week. I was so excited to take my very curious baby to all the storytimes and library infant classes and programs and see that there were others like me – new moms who were strung out and befuddled at how grueling parenthood could be. Like any new mom, I just sought solace. And when I encountered fellow moms, perhaps I occasionally got a little too excited. I joined multiple playdate groups and attended everything, and introduced myself eagerly and naively. And maybe my social shortcomings manifested in ways I didn’t realize until it was too late. There have been times I didn’t realize I said something too bluntly. Perhaps the times I was being spacey and in my own head made other moms misinterpret me for being rude. I had wanted to be a mother more than anything, but I wasn’t prepared for the social game that often follows.

      Before I became a parent, I would have never thought about how being around fellow moms can unfortunately be so like high school sometimes. There are cliques, judgment, gossip, silent assessments and the sizing up of others. But in order to entertain and socialize our children, we all need to be around other moms and form friendships, regardless of our comfort level with that task. A mom who may walk a little off the beaten path, or is an oddball in one way or another may be talked about, excluded, not invited, defriended. Someone we thought we’ve bonded with can become a stranger all too soon. I guess that’s true for all moms. But in spite of all this, there is hope for us weirdos. There is hope for all of us. For every mom that can’t relate to you, there is one out there that can. There are great women who will accept you for who you are, who have enough of a sense of humor to know when you are being sarcastic and when you’re not, who aren’t too sensitive, who don’t mind if you have opposite tastes and dissimilar interests, who can engage in conversation with you even if you seeing things totally differently. There are hundreds of fellow moms who like you just the way you are, and who are happy to talk about the joys and hardships of parenthood with someone else and not let personality quirks and social idiosyncrasies get in the way.

      So, fellow mom I’ve just met – you can’t say I didn’t warn you. If you see me again, you’ll know I may not be exactly like you. I am a loner yet extremely talkative at once, a strange and confusing combination. I can be very uptight. When I get really passionate about something, I can’t stop talking. I’d rather sit on the couch with my husband watching some independent movie that nobody’s ever heard of than going out for a“Girl’s Night.” Sometimes I don’t think before speaking and I don’t make much sense. We won’t like the same musicians or actors. I like solitude and fear social gatherings. I may not always agree with you. I have a really hard time with small talk but I am happy to discuss the heavy stuff all day. I don’t fluff the truth or lie. I have no concept of what’s popular or trendy. I hate talking on the phone. Sometimes I may appear distant. Like I said – I’m a little strange.

      But if we do become friends, what you’ll also get is someone who will always be loyal and honest. I’ll bake you muffins when you’ve just had surgery and I’ll sit with you for hours at Starbucks to let you vent about a big problem. I’ll offer a different perspective on things. I’ll give you advice if you ask for it. I’ll always be willing to let your kids come play at our house and make a mess. I’ll offer to babysit. I’ll make you laugh. I’ll remember everything you tell me. I won’t judge or be catty. I’ll write you heartfelt thank you emails or letters when you’ve been a good friend and fellow mom. Because - we’re all in this crazy parenting thing together, and maybe we’re all a little weird to begin with. And we’ll be better moms for trying to get to know each other, no matter how different we all are.

Yours Truly,