Yesterday, I went to talk to my son’s class about living in Germany. Liam’s social studies teacher asked any class parents who had lived in other countries to come talk about their experiences to the class.
I had such fun talking with the third graders about my six years out of the country. (My dad was stationed there for most of the 1980s, when I was in middle and high school.)
The kids were actually completely captivated, which may have been aided by the fact that I knew the crowd I was playing to. I talked a little bit of Cold War geopolitics at the beginning to explain why we were there, but mostly we talked about things like how much less sweet German desserts are; how when you order fish at restaurants, they bring it head-and-all; and how a bomb blew up outside our apartment building once (not everyone wanted American soldiers in their country, go figure). And they collapsed into peals of giggles when I read the words on my bus pass to them.
My son was clearly delighted that his mom was such a hit. So imagine his dismay when later that day, the class sociopath decided to ask Liam if he was going to have a baby brother or sister soon.
Let me make this quite clear: the kid who said this is as total and complete a creep as I have ever seen in this age group. I do not use the word sociopath lightly. He genuinely gives me the heebie-jeebies. So when he sneered to Liam, “Hey, is your mom having a baby or something?” — it was not in that innocent way that some kids have of stepping head-long into an unmeant insult. No, he was clearly trying to be nasty. He saw Liam — and everyone else, for that matter — enjoying a nice moment and decided to defecate on it.
My son was in tears for much of the afternoon. A few of his friends asked what was wrong, and he told them. And pretty soon the whole after-care program knew. And then an interesting thing happened. Every kid — and particularly the girls — ganged up on Sociopath, Jr. They chased him. They excluded him from their reindeer games. They shut him out.
Liam was anxious about talking to me about it last night. He was worried that my feelings would be hurt.
“Look, honey,” I said. “I am overweight…”
“No, you’re NOT!”
“… Well, yes, I am. But what I was going to say was, it’s OK. I take good care of myself, and I’m happy with who I am. And I’m not going to let what some little mean twit says about me ruin that happiness.”
“OK. I guess younger women worry about this stuff more than women your age do.”
Fair point. And one of the delights of being over 40.
I felt like this was one of those really significant moments in my son’s — and those kids’ — social development. According to my son, no one thought what Sociopath Jr. said was funny. They all shunned his behavior without mercy. And I got a chance to make clear to my son that self image is just that: self image. We can be strong enough to hold it sharp and clear in our minds, and not let the puny little creeps of the world nip it to death.
From Thursday through Monday, I got to take what has long been a dream trip: I went to the Dutchess County Sheep and Wool Festival, popularly known as Rhinebeck. (For the uninitiated, this is basically a state fair, but focused on fiber animals like sheep, goats, llamas, and alpacas. There’s also an enormous fiber market scattered across the barns, which makes it a mecca for knitters, crocheters, spinners, weavers, and the like. I was there selling knitting books with the publisher that I work for, Cooperative Press.)
When my son was younger, I used to crave these longer work trips; I used to crave the chance to not have parenting on my mind every waking minute (not to mention some of the sleeping ones). This time was different. While it would have been completely inappropriate to bring my son to the fair (I was working / he has school / he would have been bored a lot of the time), I found myself wishing a lot during the trip that I could have brought him. I missed him, and I wanted him to see the cool things I was getting to see — like the border collie vs. children relay races and the llama leaping contest. And the fall leaves on the rolling hills of New York. (Pictured above is the house where I stayed with seven friends. The photo doesn’t begin to capture how intensely orange those trees were in the fading afternoon light.)
Quite a few kids tagged along with parents who came as customers to Rhinebeck, and I found myself gravitating to those kids — and particularly to the little boys who were about my son’s age. While their parents were looking at our books, I would chat these little guys up about what were the hot Halloween costumes this year, how fast we could run, how super-strong our respective upper arm muscles were, what Lego sets were best, and what it takes to dispatch a zombie.
It reminded me all over again just how much I adore boys at this age. When I was eight myself, I suddenly found that most of my friends were boys instead of girls. I just liked what most boys were doing then, and liked less what most girls were doing at that age. Let me be very clear here: I know all boys aren’t alike, and neither are all girls — I was Exhibit A for that, after all — and I know that these behaviors are learned. All of that conceded, I found that with many girls there were now secrets and intrigue and all kinds of intricate social dynamics that personally I found both baffling and boring. With most boys, the play could be complex, but the rules tended to be stated outright. The play also sometimes got too rough for my tastes, but for me it was a small price to pay for forthrightness.
As an adult, I have found both women and men who appreciate this kind of straight-up interaction. But somehow eight-year-old boys seem to have that filter-free personality in its purest form. They can be rude and artless, but when I remember that this is all borne of naive honesty, I find it utterly charming.
As one eight-year-old boy at Rhinebeck this weekend mimed for me how to cut down a zombie with a battle ax (I played the role of Zombie), his mother apologized, rolling her eyes. “Sorry,” she says, “he just doesn’t know when to stop sometimes.”
“Oh, it’s quite all right,” I said. “It’s some of the most fun I’ve had all weekend.”
I have a truly lovely cousin whose maternity leave ends today and — as it does for so many of us — it’s kind of tearing her up a bit. So I’m writing this as a love letter to her and all the other parents who are facing that first day of work after being at home with a newborn.
Dear brave soul,
Here you are, on the eve of your first day back at work. I can’t presume to understand exactly how you feel, but I’ll tell you how I remember feeling. I suspect we’ll have a lot of those feelings in common.
Part of me couldn’t wait to go back to work, because DAMN BABIES ARE BORING. Especially newborns. As the one with the mammary glands (not to mention the one with the gigantic abdominal surgery to heal from), I understand why I got first shift on the family leave thing, but I really got the short end of that stick. Newborns don’t play with toys. They might lie there semi-quietly while you read a book to them, but you will get very few expressions of interest, let alone comprehension. They can barely focus their eyes, for crying out loud, let alone have an I-thou moment with you. And that fantasy that you can strap your baby on like a backpack and explore the world? Pfft.
Yes, I am not a baby person, and even so — that first day back to work was so hard. Dropping my son off at day care for the first time felt like someone driving a serrated knife into my gut and twisting it. He cried, of course… and cried. And clung to me. It was a terrible moment.
But let me tell you something that I have learned over the years. Babies are like dogs. They are SO UPSET the moment you leave and it is but a matter of moments before something shiny or tasty or messy has distracted their attention and they are perfectly content until you come back and then they’re like OH YEAH, YOU LEFT SOME INDETERMINATE AMOUNT OF TIME AGO… HI HI HI (NEED NEED WANT WANT). And for all you know that sucking need was there the entire time you were gone and you are a horrible person for having left it all unfulfilled for that eight hours that you spent helplessly trying to catch up with your goddamn email. But that’s not what happened. Your baby was cared for and fed and entertained and got to watch other kids in action and now you’re back and that’s great.
For a while, every time you leave will be a GIANT TRAGEDY that will end as quickly as it began. Babies are not walking wounds waiting for you to drive them into therapy. They are emotionally resilient creatures that — again, think dogs — act like exposed nerves because no one has taught them yet how to keep their immediate feelings in check.
I also found going back to work hard because I found that my brain, which had once been this perfectly formed piece of rock candy, was now a glob of saltwater taffy being pulled in eight different directions simultaneously. I had trouble concentrating. I felt like an entire lobe was now devoted to thinking about my child and his needs, and it meant that I was a LOT less focused. I still haven’t gotten back to the rock candy state — I’m somewhere in the region of soft caramel these days. It’s incredibly irritating. And sometimes even embarrassing.
But you know what else? I also gained some perspective. The nice thing about devoting a lobe to a little person who needs your love, is that you realize how unimportant so much of that work crap was that you used to get so wrapped around the axle about. It might even lead you eventually to rethink the whole direction of your career — not necessarily to stay home with your kid full time (though that’s a great choice for many), but just in some way to make work time matter. If I’m going to be at work, I found myself thinking more and more, it had better be for something really, really, REALLY good.
I hope your day tomorrow is not too hard. I hope that in that moment when you feel the knife twist in your gut, that you will also feel my hand on your shoulder. I totally get it. You are so not alone. And she will be perfectly, perfectly fine in those hours you are gone. And increasingly, as she gets older, she will enjoy having the company of other kids and not just her parents. And you are allowed to have your life, too. Much love to all three of you.
My son is sleeping away in his room, literally unconscious of the fact that he turned eight half an hour ago.
There is no baby left, hardly even a little boy. This kid is a full-fledged kid with amazing superpowers — actual physical and mental muscles that surprise everyone — including himself — with what they can move.
It is the age of reading by himself, doing magic tricks, getting pretty good at basketball, trying desperately to play video games in a household that limits them severely, falling in love with math and science, paying attention sometimes to the news and being disturbed by what he finds there, developing best friends, having people start to cheat off of you on tests, not allowing his mom to buy him clothes unsupervised, and picking out (and dancing to) his own music.
Good god, my kid is funny. And in that really smart way, not just in the funny-sounding-farts or well-heeled-pratfalls kind of way. I need only direct you to earlier posts for examples of his wit. I used to laugh so as to humor him. Now he genuinely (and even intentionally) makes me laugh so hard that tears pour down my face.
He loves to swim laps — his record is 36 at one go — and given his long, thin frame, I think he could really go places with it — I mean go places other than back and forth across the pool.
Still on the table from last year: kung fu, reading chapter books that are a hybrid of text and comics, Legos, Pokemon, and the preferred daily uniform of t-shirt, basketball shorts, and flip flops.
If I had to name one development as my favorite, it’s my son’s newfound ability to empathize deeply with me — not to mention other people. He and I have butted heads on and off for years, but suddenly in the last year he understands why and when I get upset. And he tries not to upset me. And he voluntarily apologizes when he does. It’s nice. In this and many other ways, I feel like we are understanding each other more and more these days. There are times when I think there is no one on earth I would rather spend time with.
There are also times I want to chain him to a radiator. But those times are fewer and further between.
I’m sure there are times he wants to chain me to a radiator. And I’m sure I’d deserve it just as much.
I keep wondering if I’ll ever stop thinking, “This is my favorite age.” So far, I keep updating that award.
Happy birthday, sweetest boy. This is my favorite age.
And for posterity, some quick stats: today you are 4’7″ tall, weigh 74 lbs., and wear a size 5 shoe.
“Mom, what do people look like when they’re about to kiss each other?”
“Well, like this,” and then I plant one on him.
“NO. I mean, when they’re about to kiss each other.”
“Oh, you mean like romantically?”
“I don’t know. They just look at each other kind of googly-eyed.”
“Oh, come on. Just show me.”
“Um. No. You’re my kid. Can’t do it.”
“Is it like this?” (Does his best pouty lips and rakish eyebrow waggle. I crack up.)
“Yeah, something like that. You might want to tone it down a little if you’re really going to use it, though.”
There are these moments where you realize that your kid is SO your kid — these funny moments when the distance between you and your child collapses like a long, collapsey-kind telescope.
Today, my son and I were talking about some funny stop-motion videos we were making with Playmobils, when he said, “It’s extremely hard to get all the guys to line up just right so the next frame looks like it came just after the first one.”
“Yeah,” I agreed.
After a few seconds’ silence as we keep editing the little movie, he said, “Two X’s.”
And, weirdly, I immediately knew what he meant. He meant there were two X’s in the sentence he had just said.
No, this is not a game we play. It’s just that he’s an obsessively weird language person just like I am, and he flips words around and around in his brain before, during, and after he says them. So he noticed, as he was saying it, that the sentence he was uttering, unusually, had two X’s in it.
Once, when I was in college, my parents and sister came to visit and as I got into their car that evening, my mom turned around, all faux-exasperated, and said, “Mull foon.”
I replied, “Yup, mull foon,” and looked out the window at the bright, full moon.
My mom breathed a sigh of relief, turned back around in her seat, and said, “I knew you’d understand.” She had been in the car for hours with two people who had no idea what she was talking about. My dad and sister and I share many things, but the flipping-the-words-around-in-the-brain thing isn’t one of them.
When you’re weird like us, it’s a delight to discover — and later reaffirm — all those bizarre little ways that you really are family.