Parenting H

Month: July, 2014

We were outside tonight, bumping up against the hour of H’s bedtime routine. The coming together again after a short separation, the warmth of the sun on our skin, and the softness of the early evening light tugged at us to stay, so we did, stretching our good fortune by unraveling the garden hose and playing with the cool spray of water showering from its nozzle. H held the hose as I turned the spigot, and he caught me with the first spray.

“Mama get wet,” he laughed, as I ran to get out of water’s way.

“Yes, mama got wet,” I said, laughing, too. The sticky, sweaty heat of the day had given way to a gentler warmth, but still the water felt refreshing and nice on my bare arms.

H turned his attention to the hose, shaking it up and down and turning his body this way and that to direct the flow of water. His mouth and eyes were open wide with delight.

“Mama get wet some more,” H implored.

“Yes!” I agreed.

I counted one, two, three, and ran through the misty spray just as if I were 12 again and on the front lawn of our house in Fisk, running through the sprinkler on a hot, humid Wisconsin summer day.

I ran through our makeshift sprinkler three, maybe four more times, and something about our laughter mingled with the water droplets and the warm Seattle summer air and being out later than we usually are pulled me into a deep nostalgia for my own childhood. I was transported behind the shed, one of the juiciest, most daring places to hide during games of Ghost in the Graveyard that lasted well past sundown; to the metallic, fresh smell of summer rain hitting the gravel on our driveway; to the seat of my blue Schwinn bike, pedaling with Jenny S. around huge country blocks that penned in fields of corn and alfalfa; to the railroad bridge we sat on, drawing on its concrete supports with chalky rocks and dropping stones into the water below; to a time when I was young and carefree and unmarked by the inevitable pain and suffering that visits us in life.

I stood back out of the water’s reach and studied H playing with the hose. A deep longing to memorize the moment came over me. It is a familiar desire I have, the desire to somehow capture in a jar the quality, presence, and sights and sounds of an experience so that I might have some tangible reminder of it forever.

My jar, if I had it, would tell you this: There was the comfortable warmth of a mid summer evening, and there were rhododendrons, an oak tree, and dirt and asphalt. There was a woman that, when she thought of it, felt surprised by somehow having reached middle age. There was a young boy with a hose. He was 33 inches tall, wearing a red hat snapped up on the sides, its red string pulled taut under his chin. His collared, short-sleeve grey knit shirt had a blue line drawing of a fire engine. The blue, yellow, and green plaid shorts he was wearing did not quite match his shirt, but he pulled it off with aplomb anyhow. Light grey socks cuffed over once peaked out of lime green and midnight blue shoes strapped on his feet by velcro. They were size 6 1/2. He was filled with playfulness and joy, taking delight in the simplest thing, a garden hose, as if it were the only thing to do. He was in the moment. It may very well have been the only way he knew to move in the world at that time. He was perfect.

Through the spray of water between him and me I saw a rainbow that danced as H moved the hose, growing larger and smaller depending on the water’s relationship to the sun and the tree branches behind us.

My jar, if I had it, would contain a beautiful summer moment, perfect and complete just as it was, the kind you want to linger over and then savor long after it has passed. My jar, if I had it, would be one I would take down from the shelf at the end of every day.

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H is in the bathroom pulling tissues out of a box of Kleenex. I am in and out, checking on him between staving off a full blown fruit fly infestation, mopping up spilled water, and straightening up after a day of play. Each time I return to the bathroom, I find H intensely focused, pulling out tissue after tissue, one at a time, each one fluttering to the floor as he pulls up the next. At some unseen point he reverses course. When I return, I find him intensely focused, stuffing tissue after tissue back into the box, one at a time, the floor slowly being cleared of stray Kleenex. The reversal stops me, and I watch as he squats down to retrieve tissues, crumples them back in the box, and peers around the toilet to look for more.

He should not be doing this. Surely a better mother would not let her child destroy nice things, the things that are put together, the things that make it look like a responsible adult lives here.

I watch this thought flit through my mind. It is not a loud thought, not insistent, but it is there, and I immediately become suspicious of it. It is a should, and I have been on a years-long mission to weed the shoulds from my life. This one puts me on high alert.

He should not be doing this. Why not? Is he in imminent danger? Is he hurting himself? Is he hurting someone else? Is this behavior part of a pattern that seems to be spiraling out of control? Is he generally disrespectful and destructive? No, no, no, no, and no.

What would he be missing out on if I stopped him? I think about his delicate hands meeting the softness of each tissue, about the sound they make when he pulls them from the box. I think about how pleasant the tissues look fluttering to the floor and imagine he sees beauty there, too. I think about how it must feel to bunch them, to tighten and relax the small muscles in his fingers and hands, about how the plastic on the box resists his tiny fist as he stuffs each tissue back inside. I think about him exploring the concepts of in and out, empty and full, and about the pleasure that can be found in repetitive tasks.

There are so many things I hope to teach H that have taken me a very long time to learn, many of which I am still working on believing to be true. I want him to know that it is okay to make a mess, okay to experiment, okay to fail – that things working out other than as he had expected or hoped or as someone else said they should does not make him a failure. I want him to know that it is okay to play, okay not to have it all together all the time, okay to feel any which way when things do not go as he imagined they might. I want him to know that there is space for things to come together and space for things to fall apart and that he is absolutely, fundamentally okay through all of it.

Letting his curiosity take him where it will and then letting him be is the most powerful way I have figured out to hold the space he needs to learn these things. There will be times when boundaries are invoked, the ones that keep us safe and help us respect ourselves and those around us, but there is no need for that now. Now is the time for loosening up and letting go of the need to control every single little thing and of judging myself by some nebulous, impossible-to-meet-anyway standard. Now is the time for emptying the Kleenex box and filling it back up again and for taking great delight in the task. Now is the time for soaking up the joy of a happy toddler at play.

“Oh, baby,” I say as I pick H up to rock him. We are in bed, heading into what I sense is the final stretch before sleep.

“Oh, baby,” H repeats.

“You are my baby. You will always be my baby,” I say, gently laying him back down on the bed and kissing his nose.

“H always comes back,” he replies.

“Yes, mama always comes back,” I say. It is something I have said to him often, almost every time I have left him for any length of time over the past two years. I think this is what he means to say to me now.

“H always comes back, too,” he says, and I realize he said what he meant to the first time. He is telling me he always comes back.

I wonder if he can see right through me, right into my heart. I wonder if it means it comforts him to hear those words from me. I wonder if he knows that it might comfort me, too, to hear those words from him. I wonder how I got so lucky to be parenting this gentle, sweet soul.