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.
Remember that conversation with my son that I told you about recently? The one where I took the high road and told my son to shut his piehole, while he took the low road and told me I was “the nicest mom in the world”?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot, because his response was such a funny, unexpected reaction. I didn’t quite know what to make of it. My first thought was that he was being sarcastic. Would the nicest mom in the world ever use the word “piehole” anywhere near her seven-year-old’s delicate ears? No, no, she would not.
But later, I had a stunning realization. What if he actually meant it?
Right after he said I was the nicest mom in the world, I laughed and said, “Oh, I don’t think so.”
“Well, who’s a nicer mom than you?” he says with utterly sincere incredulity.
“Lots of people.” And I start naming them. Whole legions of nicer moms. “I’m cranky. And irritable. But I do love you a lot.”
And he hugged me.
And it occurred to me in a flash of blinding, glorious insight days later that my son doesn’t love me despite the fact that I’m cranky and irritable. He loves me partly because I am those things. The word “piehole” is just inherently funny. So is a mom who tells you to shut yours. Most people don’t get to have moms who say shit like that. If you’re lucky, you get a mom who is kind and loving and cuts the crusts off your PB&J and smiles at you warmly while you fart in her lap.
And if you’re really, really lucky, you get a mom who is a bit rude and inappropriate, tells you to make your own lunch some mornings, and flies off the handle sometimes when you ask her to wipe your nearly-eight-year-old butt. And loves you insanely muchly.