I’ve been scattered and stretched and working hard lately, while HB has started a demanding new job. And yesterday the poor Unreliable Narrator reached a breaking point.
The UN has the quirk of liking frozen vegetables well-nigh frozen. (I think it started when he was tiny and I’d give him frozen peas as a summertime snack. Refreshing when it’s 98 degrees outside, ever so slightly odd when it’s not. Whatever–the house rule is that there no limits on veggies.) So when I gave him some green beans for dinner straight from the freezer and put his warmed pasta on it to defrost them a little, he whimpered and cried and rubbed his eyes. Both wanting to lose it and trying hard not to.
And then he said, “If you do that again, mommy, I will hit you in the bom-bom head.”
Now before you think we’re a crazed and abusive or just a handsy “spare the rod, spoil the child” family, realize this: we’ve NEVER hit, swatted, or otherwise laid an ungentle hand on this child EVER. We’re philosophically opposed to it even though it is really really (did I mention really?) hard, and time-consuming, to take the high road. Oh, and throw emotionally wearing into the mix to do that, too. We do our best to not use abusive words either, but we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t occasionally growl things through gritted teeth.
Normally, my son doesn’t say things like this: “Lion has a tail that shoots fire and poison bombs out of it, like the bombardier beetle that kills people and blows them up.” Or “If that happens again, I’m gonna slap your poo-poo buttface.”
Normally, my son says things like: “Mama, in this picture this is baby heart, mama heart, and daddy butterfly. See his deely-bobbers?” Or “Mama, I found this rock just for you.” Or a thousand and one very simple but very thoughtful questions.
I’d noticed an increase in violent talk recently, and thought it was correlated with the return of H. to the UN’s classroom. H. is basically a sweet kid who watches, in my humble opinion, way too much age-inappropriate tv. When the UN started talking about bombs and asking how guns work, I asked him how he’d heard about these things. “From H.,” he said. “The Power Rangers use weapons too.” Or he happened to mention a game he and H. and some other children were playing in the corner of the playground behind the climbing wall: “H. and L. and C. and I were playing a game where we punch and kick each other.”
“WTF??” and “Dis-turb-ing” were my initial reactions. And, “Cripes, do kids need to see every last little thing on tv?”
It was all sorts of troubling. (I’m talking to the UN’s teacher about it.) I dislike that H. seems to be anointed as some sort of cultural authority with exaggerated social influence simply because he’s Mr. Way Too Precocious TV and the vector for these inappropriate memes. I hate the impact it’s had on my son.
He’s normally a confident and happy kid, not an alpha kid, but not a lowest-on-the-totem-pole either. Just a happy, easygoing, sturdy, loving, ebullient kid with a big vocabulary and an overactive imagination. So to see him following H. a little too submissively, to watch him run around the playground a half-beat off his usual inner music–tentative, halting notes of defeat and uncertainty sounding where there’s usually only carefree joy–was painful.
We go through cycles where everything humming along smoothly and everyone’s good; the connection among the three of us is easy and solid and all feels well. Then one of us grownups gets out of whack (work related, what else? travel, long hours, deadlines) and the other two struggle to keep in balance. In this case, it was the preoccupations of two adults against the concerns of a four year old kid. I wouldn’t say we all stuff our emotions, but we three are all pretty self-contained by nature, so there’s much low-grade grumping and feeling weepy and sorry for oneself at the sink while loading the dishwasher (me) or getting all hitty with the hands and an increase in aggressive talk (the UN).
And to be honest, I think because HB and I have been distant and self-involved lately for situational reasons, that we’ve created an emotional vacuum in our son where his friends and their dubious ideas and values–terrible notions of harm and pain–can rush in to fill that void.
So when the UN had his hunger-tinged “I’m falling apart moment” at dinner last night, I let him eat, and then we had a long talk.
I held him and acknowledged how busy we’ve been. How it’s hard to get mama and daddy’s attention. How we’ve had to talk more than usual about grown-up stuff, often grumpily, and so he’s stuck listening or getting scolded for interrupting. How sorry I am that we’ve been so rushed and impatient and hassled, with not enough time for hugs and play like we usually do. We haven’t been present, but that doesn’t mean we stopped loving him. I felt his weight on my lap, stroked his soft-soft cheek and nuzzled his hair, just letting the comfort of animal closeness say things in between my words.
He cried with little waves of relief and recognition; I, with guilt. Here was my dearest heart, in pain. That I had caused.
And I thought about how lately he was “baby kitty cat” and I was “mama dog.” Of course I was “mama dog.” All I did was bark at him.
I let him feel his feelings. I don’t believe in wallowing, but I don’t believe in boys in particular stuffing their feelings into cold storage either. We were sad for ourselves and each other. We ached, and comforted one another.
I told him, “I love you even when you’re mad at me and say mean things.”
In a little while, he told me, “Mama, if there were pink and purple flowers, I would pick them all for you.”
I said, “I love you soooooo much, because you’re my wonderful darling boy. So thoughtful to share that with me. And I know those are your favorite colors.”
I sometimes forget what awe-inspiring powers parents have over children, mothers specifically. We are the first mirror our child has of him or herself, and without that crucial and accurate self-knowledge that child is left to look in the funhouse mirror the indifferent world holds up to him or her, with distorted images that caricature or even mock what’s really there.
And he said, “If there were three hundred million flowers, I would pick them ALL for you. And put them in a bag.”
Which got, and was returned with, bear hugs. And with his words I thought I could hear a little bit of his joyful inner music come back. A little of mine did too.