Parenting H

Category: gentle parenting

H and I have been playing our own version of Marco Polo.

“Mama,” H calls.

“H,” I reply.

“Mama.” 

“H.” 

“Mama.”

“H.”

And so on, until H says, “Mama don’t say H anymore.” 

I take his cue and bring the game to a close by saying, “Okay. Mama won’t say H anymore.”

Our Marco Polo is a remarkably versatile and powerful game, having as many meanings and serving as many purposes as we need it to. Sometimes it’s a playful, lighthearted, just because bantering game, a way to delight in letters and sounds and cause and effect. Sometimes it carries deeper meaning. 

Sometimes our Marco Polo seems to be a way of saying, “I can’t see you, and I need to locate you in physical space.” And, “I’m here. I can hear you. Can you hear me?”

Other times it seems to be, “I can see you sitting right next to me, but I want to make sure you are really present. And, “Yes, I am here in all ways. I am fully present with you in this moment.”

Sometimes it is, “Look! I am doing something exciting and fun, and I would like to share it with you.” And, “I love watching you play.”

And yet other times it is, “Something or someone unfamiliar is here! Where is home base?!” And, “Yes, this is new. I’m right here. We’ll brave this moment together.”

Sometimes it’s a short middle-of-play check in, “I’m still here. Are you still here?” And, “Yes. I am here. We are here together.”

“Mama.” 

“H.”

“Mama.”

“H.”

“Mama don’t say H anymore.”

“Okay, sweet pea. Mama won’t say H anymore.”

Until the next time we play.

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It is dinnertime. H is in his chair with a plate of lentil salad in front of him. He picks out a piece of corn, eats it, and starts to explore the textures of his food with his hands, which makes them slick with balsamic vinaigrette. He rubs his hands together and slides them across the table in front of him, slowly at first, then picking up speed as he understands what the lack of friction means he can do. I note that he has turned dinner into a full-fledged sensory play experience and am wary of the near frantic speed with which his hands are moving back and forth on the table in front of him. This could go either way, but I sense that we have reached critical mass.

Sure enough, he throws a red bell pepper spear on the floor. It’s a casual toss that says, “Eh. I have no need for this.”

“If you don’t want something anymore, sweet baby, you can give it to mama,” I say. This is our thing, something he knows, something that has come to work the majority of the time.

He appears not to take it in right now though, because without skipping a beat, he tosses some corn, barley, and lentils overboard.

“Sweetie pea, if you don’t want something anymore, you can give it to mama,” I remind him.

“Give it to mama,” he says, pushing a fistful of food toward my plate, but it turns out to be a halfhearted concession.

He flings more food to the floor, less casual tosses now and more like he’s stepped into full costume for opening night. I can see a Jackson Pollock in the way he’s swinging his arm around and arcing the food through the air. It’s beautiful, but it’s also starting to get frustrating.

“The food is not for throwing, baby baby. The food is for eating,” I say.

Another shower of food flies from his tiny fist.

“You’re having a hard time with impulse control right now, aren’t you?” I ask him, keeping my voice even and calm.

“Yeah,” he says plaintively, almost as a sigh, as he releases another spray of food to skitter across the floor and under the table, the chair, the couch. Who knows where I will find it all later?

My mother, who had been quietly observing the whole thing, turns her head to the side to hide her laughter, and it sends me over the edge. I have to leave the room to conceal the convulsions my own silent laughter is sending through my body. It takes me a second to compose myself, and I return to the table.

“Want to get up,” H tells me, holding his hands out to show me they need to be cleaned.

“Yes, it looks like you are all done eating,” I tell him. The best thing to do now, it seems, is to change the scenery.

We decamp to the big couch for milk. His request.

We’ll pick up where we left off with the work of impulse control some other time in some other context with other players and props. We both did the best we could in the moment, and we are both in process. I am certain there will be plenty of opportunities to practice and plenty of times when the outcome looks different. He is, after all, just two. We have time.

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.

It was the second time that H had thrown the puka shell necklace out of his carseat and demanded that I retrieve it for him.

“Mama. Get it,” he had twice commanded imperiously, and by the second time I felt the spin of minor irritation in my body, like a mosquito buzzing in my ear or the scratches you get from reaching into a blackberry bramble with greedy, purple stained arms to find more. My thoughts felt like pennies just dropped into the spiral wishing well coin funnel that H loves, the one just outside the bookstore. They were looping around lazily in my head.

I am such a pushover, I thought, harshly, unkindly, the pennies picking up speed. I can’t keep picking up that necklace for him. I don’t want to. Why did I even give it to him? I need to set a limit.

We came to a red light. I twisted around in the driver’s seat to fish the necklace from where he had dropped it and returned it to him despite the voices in my head.

“Thank you,” H warbled, the words new to him, not completely formed, yet clear to me in the way his toddler words can be.

And there it was, one of the many moments between us in which I hung suspended, pulled out of time by love. It was the first time he said thank you to me.

How glad I was that I had chosen not to let the irritation grow, that I had somehow managed to snatch the pennies from the funnel before they locked into a fast spin. How glad I was that I had chosen to engage H in playfulness, that I retrieved and returned the necklace. How glad I was that I got to experience in that moment those words from that boy.

You are welcome, dear H. And thank you.

It was the middle of bedtime, and he was playing with the food processor.

“Grandma,” H had exclaimed, popping up in bed and pointing at the bedroom door. “Grandma!”

He had heard the front door unlock, open, and close, and he would not be distracted into lying back down. He wanted to say goodnight to grandma. We got out of bed and found her in the kitchen.

Somehow in the course of saying goodnight, H became so engrossed with the stem of the food processor’s grating and slicing disc that I could not attract his attention. He inserted the stem on the food processor base and twisted it around so that it dropped into place. He took it off and put it back on again. Put. Twist. Drop. Put. Twist. Drop. He did it repetitively, without the novelty seeming to wear off, until he noticed the plug.

“Plug. In. Plug. In,” he said. His big hazel eyes beseeched me to move the food processor closer to an outlet.

“It’s time to get back in bed, sweet pea. Please put the cord back on the shelf,” I said to him.

“Cord. Plug. Plug. In. Plug. In,” he said, averting his gaze, as if not looking at me meant not hearing me.

I tried a dozen different gentle ways to get him to put the plug away on his own accord, and finally, reluctantly he did. He tucked the plug inside the pocket made by the upturned fabric cover hiding the food processor bowl and assorted parts, pushed the shelf in, closed the cabinet door, and crawled into my arms. We started back to bed.

Somewhere between the kitchen and the bedroom, H became upset. He twisted in my arms, making his body heavy to let me know that he wanted to be put down, and he cried. He gestured back toward the way we had come and said something that sounded vaguely like, “That. That.”

We stood in the dark of the bedroom together, H still in my arms despite his protests.

“You were having fun playing with the food processor,” I said to him. “It’s so fun to figure out how things work, isn’t it? Then you wanted to plug it in, and mama said it was time for bed. H said, ‘I want to plug the food processor in.’ And mama said, ‘It’s time for bed.’ H said, ‘Plug in.’ And mama said, ‘Bed.’ It can be so hard to stop in the middle of a project. I don’t like it either. Are you sad?”

“Angry,” he said through his tears.

Stunned, I pressed him closer. Could he really understand the difference between angry and sad at such a young age?

“Angry. You are angry,” I said. We stayed where we were, swaying together.

“Yeah. Yeah,” he nodded, and I felt the tension drain from his body. He quieted and said that he was ready for more milk, so we climbed back in bed together, and it wasn’t before long that he fell asleep, peacefully, nursing. I stayed a while longer, my cheek against his still silken hair, hoping that he will always trust me with his feelings, even the ones that he will undoubtedly be told someday by someone are bad or unacceptable, that he will never experience the burn of shame at feeling anger, that he will learn how to appropriately channel his anger so that he does not turn it back on himself. I hoped that he would know and be comfortable with all of his feelings, that he would have the ability to watch them arise and fall away without letting them sweep him away, that he would know through it all that he is okay.

I closed my eyes and wished these things for H and for the rest of us, too.

H desperately wanted to carry nine crayons in one hand upstairs at bedtime tonight. Every time a few slipped to the ground, he cried out in frustration before squatting down to pick them up. Finally, after one too many drops, he threw them all on the floor, flailed his arms, and gave out a plaintive wail. I picked him up and snuggled him in empathy, because I know. I know how frustrating it can be to bump up against one’s limitations, especially when you don’t yet know you will overcome them. I continued to hold him close as we climbed the stairs, H carrying the crayons he could and me the rest.

On our way up, I sent this silent wish out to the universe:

May you always be pushing yourself, sweet pea, so as to discover where you struggle, for those are the places from which your greatest growth, joy, and fulfillment will come. When you stumble and fall, as you will, I will help you get up until you can do so yourself. I promise to be right there always, if not in body then in your heart, believing in and celebrating you every step of the way. I love you. I see you. I believe in you. Keep going.

We made it to the top of the stairs with all nine crayons. We did it together tonight, but sometime very soon, I know, H will be doing it himself.

I love him. I see him. I believe in him.

You can’t carry him all the time. He’s getting too heavy. You’re going to have to put him down.

I was told this when H was four, maybe five months old.

He was getting heavier, yes, but carrying him was no hardship. Every day carrying a baby was a workout for the next, until one day I was working out for the next day of carrying a toddler.

Now, when I pick him up and carry him out of bed in the morning, I marvel at the rightness of fit that exists between us. We stop by the full length mirror on our way from turning off Ocean Waves, and I see a little boy, his left arm hooked around my right, his long legs dangling, his head at just the right height for me to lean into his cheek for a kiss. I see one of the many ways in which we have grown together over the past 20 months. I see a perfect fit.

I know at some point H will be too heavy for me to carry, but that day has not yet come. When it does, I will keep right on carrying him in my heart.

It’s okay to watch your child. It’s okay to follow their lead. Yes.

This resonates with me.

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I thought I knew things about parenting, or the kind of parent I would be, before H came along.

All babies sleep in cribs, I was sure. I am not going to be my child’s playmate. I am going to be his parent, I was confident. All the firsts, first smiles, first birthdays, first steps, first haircuts, will be full of joy and only joy, I assumed. All I need to do is find the right book to help me understand my baby’s sleep and we will all be well rested. All I need to do is find the right book period and my every parenting question will be answered, I took for granted.

Now I know that some babies just cannot be put down for naps or bedtime. Now I know that there are many ways and places for sleep to happen. Now I know that to play is to parent. Now I know in my heart the great joy of firsts, but I also know that the joy of firsts can be tinged with sadness. Now I know that there is no book out there that can teach me better about my baby’s sleep than he can. And well rested? Now I have an inkling there may be no such thing as a parent, no matter the age of the child. Now I know there is no book period, no matter how helpful it is, that can teach me better about H than H himself can.

Maybe I knew nothing despite all the things I thought I knew, but it doesn’t matter now. H teaches me every day everything I need to know about parenting him, often throwing in an extra credit lesson for me about myself. He always shows up and he never gives up on me, no matter how many times I need the lesson repeated. He is a most excellent teacher, the best at showing me who I am and who I want to be, both as a parent and as a human being.

I bumped H’s forehead with my elbow today, and he cried his super sad cry. Maybe I surprised him or maybe I hurt him or maybe it was a little bit of both. I’m not sure. I swooped him up, holding him close as we walked away from the place we were sitting when the bump occurred.

I’m sorry sweet pea, I said. I bumped your head. Was it a surprise or an ouch or a little bit of both?

H cried, his face scrunched in sadness. I held him tight.

I know. You’re having big feelings. You’re upset. Maybe you’re in pain, I said.

I’m here. I’m with you. We’re in this together. I won’t leave you, I had told him when we were in the hospital. As we walked up the stairs, I thought about these words. I thought about his birth, about how he was taken away from me, about how I heard him cry for the first time from across the delivery room. I held him tighter.

I couldn’t hold him then, but I can now and so I do. I thought about how I won’t always be able to support the weight of his body in my arms. How I won’t always be able to soothe him simply by picking him up and pressing our hearts together.

Then I thought about the things I will always be able to do, the universe willing. I will always be able to sit with him through his experiences, no judgment or shaming or withholding comfort or leaving him alone. I will always be able help him, as best I can, learn about his feelings, that they are all okay, and that he is okay through all of them. I will always be able to hold space for him in my heart, even when he struggles to do so for himself. I will always be able to see him and have him in mind. He will never be alone.

I continued to hold H tight. I breathed deeply and rocked him in my arms. The feelings, whatever they were, cycled through him. He stopped crying. He looked at me, his face splotchy, tears pooling under his red-rimmed eyes. His smile was tentative, but it was there. The moment passed and with it the big feelings. There hadn’t been anything extra. Just me, H, his feelings, and love.