Parenting H

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.

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“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.

H and I are in the bath, chatting about his upcoming birthday.

“H is almost two,” I tell him.

“H almost two,” he tells me.

“H is almost two,” I say.

“Mama almost two,” H says.

“Mama is almost two?” I ask.

“H almost two. Mama almost two, too,” H clarifies.

“H is almost two. Mama is almost two, too,” I say.

“Mama almost two, too,” H confirms.

I think for a moment about telling H my actual age, but decide against it. Instead we carry on like this for a while, playing with words and enjoying the fact of being almost two, both of us. And then I realize that, in a way, he is right. I may have lived many more years on this planet, but I am, as a mother, almost two.

H is almost two. I am almost two, too. Happy almost second birthday to both of us.

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.

The theme at story time today was space. There were, as you might suppose, stories and songs about outer space.

Here are the songs we sang before H decided he was all done with story time.

I’m a Little Rocket
(To the tune of I’m a Little Teapot)

I’m a little rocket, tall and thin
[Stand with arms stretched overhead]
Here is my nose cone
[Fingertips meet overhead to form cone]
Here is my fin
[Hold arms from sides pointing down like fins]
When I get all fired up
Launch begins
Watch me rise
[Jump up]
And see me spin!
[Spin in place]

We’re Flying Off to Space
(To the tune of The Farmer in the Dell)

We’re flying off to space
We’re flying off to space
I think we’ll see the moon up there!
We’re flying off to space

I think we’ll see some planets there!
I think we’ll see some stars up there!
I think we’ll see a rocket there!

Climb Aboard the Spaceship
(To the tune of The Itsy Bitsy Spider)

Climb aboard the spaceship
We’re going to the moon
Hurry up and get ready
We’re going to blast off soon!
Put on your helmet
And buckle up real tight
Here comes the countdown
Let’s count with all our might!

10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
Blast off!

I am in the vestibule at the grocery store, unloading a watermelon from the cart into the stroller. H lingers just inside the automatic sliding doors, within sight, absorbed in a rotating rack of gift cards to every store imaginable. When I come back through the doors to meet him, he walks toward me saying, “Home Depot. Home Depot.” His little arm holds out an orange gift card with a white square on it. Inside the square it says Home Depot.

H is not yet two. He has been to Home Depot several times, but not nearly as often as he has been to other places, like the library, for example, or the zoo, or the grocery store. I am not sure whether to be appalled by the power of branding and the marketing machine behind it or amazed by the capacity of the human brain to recognize color and pattern and make connections outside of context.

As we leave the store, I decide that I am both.

We came upon a caterpillar on our walk through the parking lot this morning. It was lying on the pavement, unmoving, glued to the ground in the place its insides had been squashed out.

“Pet him,” H said, squatting down next to the caterpillar.

I kneeled down, too, and pet the caterpillar while H looked on. I waited for him to reach out his hand, but he held back, observing me instead.

“Pick up. Mama pick up,” H said, looking earnestly at the caterpillar and then at me.

“You want mama to pick up the caterpillar?”

“Yeah. Yeah.” H’s whole body bounced in assent.

“He’s dead, sweet pea. See, he’s not moving.”

I lifted what I could of the caterpillar from the pavement. Its body was limp and pliant. There was no wiggling, no curling up on itself, no resistance to being encroached upon. I felt uncomfortable poking and prodding at the dead body, as if I were disturbing its peace.

“He’s dead. Not alive. Maybe he got run over by a car or maybe he got stepped on. His insides are all smooshed out. He’s not alive anymore. He’s dead.”

I pointed to the yellow ooze pinning one end of the caterpillar to the ground. I wondered if the caterpillar’s guts looked as yellow and formless on the inside when it was alive as they did now on the pavement. I thought about our guts and viscera, about consciousness, about what it is that animates us, about my own discomfort with death and dying.

“Not alive,” H repeated my words and nodded in the way he does when he is working at understanding something. “Dead. Smooshed. Car. Run. Over. Not alive.”

“Yes. He’s dead, that’s right,” I said.

H stood up and took my hand. We wandered a bit away.

“He broke,” H said.

“Yes. He broke. That’s right.”

H pulled me back to the caterpillar, and we stood over it in silent contemplation before he was ready to move away again.

We continued to talk about the caterpillar for a while, in-between talking about other things, H coming around to our beginning points again and again as he turned over the idea of death.

“Dead. Not alive. Smooshed. Car. Run. Over. Not alive. Smooshed. Dead. He broke,” he told me, nodding with each declaration. We traversed the parking lot, me repeating his words back to him and elaborating until he moved on to other topics.

How often he stuns me with the connections he makes and the ways he verbalizes his ideas. We had talked about death before, and we had talked about broken before, but putting those two concepts together was wholly his own. It is easy to forget when knee deep in diaper changes and tracking how much he is or is not eating and facilitating sleep and worrying over how to best support him through gross motor delays that there are bigger, philosophical questions turning over in his brain, the kinds of questions that require us just to be, to wander, to be outside, to explore, to happen upon things we don’t necessarily know we need to experience, to have the time and space to reflect and talk and wonder about the world around us. It can be easy to forget that these things are important, too.

I once read that human consciousness is nature’s way of gazing upon itself in all of its forms, an idea that has poetic resonance for me even if it is not strictly, scientifically true. I like how it knits us to everything that is alive, from the smallest, simplest organisms like bacteria and algae, to our nearest genetic relatives, the great apes. I like that it acknowledges our oneness and connection with the universe; we may be different from plants and other animals, but we are not separate. I like the responsibility implied; we are able to see the whole in a way that everything else likely cannot and with that ability lies the possibility that we might think beyond ourselves to find ways to care for the earth and all of her creatures. I like that the reach of our awareness is part of what allows us to grapple with questions about the meaning of life, about what consciousness is, about the meaning of death. Asking these hard questions, even if they remain unanswered, adds richness to our experience.

What a gift it is to watch a new consciousness gaze upon nature and develop theories about the big things in life, and what an honor to walk beside him as he does.

I have been tandem nursing lately. So far, I have breastfed, at H’s request, my Kindle, his toothbrush, a white crayon, a parking garage ticket, Tumble Bumble, my keys, an orange castanet, a Stief lovey, the skeleton of his lacing sheep, a stuffed zebra, the male catkins from a pine tree, and a dime.

“All done. H,” H says, when he has deemed his nursing mate has had enough.

Before moving over to that side, he repeats what I have told him so many times. “Nice you,” he says.

“Yes. It’s so nice of you to share your milk, sweet baby. I agree.”

H and I are driving toward the exit in the hospital parking garage, and that’s where I see them. A gaggle of upholstered armchairs huddle together, stacked two by two, bound together with industrial shrink wrap. They are on Level C, on the curve of the long, looping spiral that hugs the elevator shaft. I see the armchairs, and just like that I am sitting in the NICU waiting room, eating left overs from a meal provided by one of our family or friends, still in a hospital gown and socks, hair tied back a mess, hardly tasting the food, only there because I have to eat and food is not allowed in the NICU. I blink, and I am back in the car, staring at the structural pillar full of black bumper marks ahead of us. My stomach flutters, and I feel the reservoirs that lie behind my lower eyelids fill to the point of almost overflowing. In that one instant, triggered in a way and place I least expect it, I touch down into the pain and the grieving that still exists in me from the time H was born.

This is how it goes. The grieving never really ends. It softens, it recedes, it rises to the surface less and less, its intensity and quality change, but it is still there. I used to feel there was something wrong with me when grief arose from years-old wounds, ones I thought had healed reasonably well, but now I feel something different. Now I understand that grieving is a process with no timeline, and there is a part of me that is glad for it. The grieving is not something I like per se, but the alternative, disconnection and hardening toward myself, has become even more painful than the grief. The deaths, separations, losses, and heartbreak that have accumulated over the years are not what I would have chosen, but they have been great teachers. As I have opened, slowly and often with resistance, to their lessons, I have started to soften, to surrender, to loosen my hold, to let go, to yield, to hold myself as dear and gently as I do H. I have started to be able to hold in mind and accept the wholeness of my experience and being, to embrace everything, including both the things I want and the things I do not want.

So I am glad for the armchairs, glad for the reminder of an experience that is part of who I am and part of H, too, glad for the connection to the self that was having a profoundly hard time, glad for the opportunity to be in process and to practice being open and receptive to myself. I am glad to have the space and energy to turn this grief over to see what more it has to say, glad that being a safe distance from H’s birth allows this. We were at the hospital as visitors this time, not residents, and we are leaving together. H is in the backseat, healthy and strong. We are both growing.

Thank you, armchairs.

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.