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.