The biggest surprise for me on what being a parent means is how painful it is. There is so much joy. There is so much appreciation for the little things, there is so much excitement and happiness, but there is also so so so much constant heart break. And the more time goes by, the worse it gets.
Before I had a baby I thought, “oh, well you let go when they are 18 and grown up and when they move out. By the time you are happy to see them leave because they are so annoying.” But no. Letting go starts the second they want to be put down. The second they no longer want what you want for them, the moment even later when they say no and you have to actually try and respect it.
Part of my job is to chase. Don’t fall down those stairs, don’t tumble off that ledge, hold my hand in parking lots and across the street, don’t run over into another family’s picnic, etc. etc. On and on. Running running running to keep that perfect human from chopping his own head off.
A bigger part of my job is to let go. To watch. To stand just a little distance away, a distance that will grow, and purposefully not intervene.
We were at Barnes and Noble last weekend. Gabe and I were hanging out in the kid’s book section where they have a train table set up. Kamel was over hunting down a movie that was on sale. When we rolled up there were already 2 kids playing. They were older than Gabe by at least a year, maybe 2. There were 4 trains and they each had 2 of them. There were no trains for Gabe, and I worried that would upset him. Gabe ran up to the table spouting his excited jibberish and realized the other kids had trains and he didn’t. The kids, in turn, also realized they had trains and he didn’t, but they kept playing anyway, trying hard to not acknowledge him.
Gabe watched them rolling their little trains all along the tracks. He played with the moving parts on the train table, he entertained himself. He did not try to steal any of the trains from the other kids (thank god). I could tell that sometimes he was in their way, that they were annoyed that he was young and didn’t understand that they needed him to move.
I stayed seated a few feet from him. I didn’t ask the kids to share, even though I could have. I didn’t pull Gabe away either. I just watched and held my breath and waited to see how it would all play out.
It hurt me a surprising amount to see that the other kids felt that he was clearly a nuisance. They couldn’t, at that age, understand fully that he is just a baby still. They were kids and he was a baby, a little godzilla baby who has no personal space boundaries and who doesn’t understand any kind of social nuance. I wanted to apologize for him with equal zeal as I wanted to stick up for him. Watching it all play out, watching my 16 month old not get a train and make the best of it, watching him clearly in the way and not realizing it, knowing that my kid wasn’t really wanted in the play area with the other kids and had no idea tore me into little bits inside myself. It was such a small experience, watching him not being welcomed, but it felt so big to me. I know that was just the beginning. I know it gets worse from here.
Eventually one of the kids separated his two trains and dropped one in front of Gabe. Good parenting. Gabe took it happily and went along his merry way running it up and down the little tracks, still being obliviously in the way of the other 2 kids who were sighing, and moving around him when he wouldn’t budge.
When Kamel finally came to find us he took one look at me and asked what was wrong. It takes a lot of energy to let your kid just do his thing. It takes a lot of energy to do nothing in the face of so much desire to do something.
I felt crazy to have such an emotional response. It was just kids at a train table. Wait until he gets hurt at recess. Wait until his friends are mean to him. Wait until his own heart is broken. Mine will break for his a thousand times stronger. But I will hold back. I will let him fight his battles, I will let him navigate his own social sphere, I will comfort, but I will also watch from a distance – the distance that kills me to maintain.
And then yesterday I read this post by Rebecca Woolf about her youngest, twin girls, going off to preschool. I remember when they were born. I remember when they were conceived. I remember her family before they existed. And I cried at my desk when I read this post. I cried because of my own memories reading about her kids, and I cried because I’m going to have a thousand of those moments with Gabe, and I cried because I’m not crazy. This is just what it is to be a parent. All the joy and all the love and all of the heartache. All of the broken bits you tear off of yourself and hand to another human, not expecting – no, knowing – that it will never ever be truly returned. But it’s ok. I do it willingly. Go forth and be awesome, Gabriel. Wave your fiery sword. I’ll be watching.