The Mom Files: When Not to Act

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.

12 thoughts on “The Mom Files: When Not to Act”

  1. Ugh, that is such a heartbreaking story. I know it is stupid to say that when I use the same term “heartbreaking story” when I read about immigrant kids being abused at detention centers and babies being neglected by their parents, but watching and waiting for a child’s inevitable emotional and social hurts is its own kind of heartbreaking. Everything you said about Rebecca Woolf and her girls (what a wonderful whimsical, Seussical poem!), I feel the same reading about you and Gabe. It hurts to read because I know what you’re feeling, and I feel the same way. I’ve always been a sopping emotional freak, but motherhood amplified it, and added a strong dose of pearl-clutchy “think of the children!” drama. It’s exhausting. But also somehow joyous and thrilling and…good. What a ride we’re in for.

  2. Oh man, this is hard to hear about. Makes sense, logically, but must be hard to experience. Your thought process sounds so solid, but I bet it’s not all that easy in the moment. Keep up the good fight!!

  3. Haha, Rebecca’s post makes you teary-eyed, and then your post makes me teary-eyed, and it’s this big pay-it-forward party train of emotion!

    It’s scary to realize that my own “little godzilla baby” is going to have to deal with rejection and fear and heartache someday. I still remember how hard those things were for me as a kid. But I think like you said, it’s valuable (necessary, in fact) to let him discover the world on his own. Even if it takes a stupid amount of willpower sometimes.

    “Letting go starts the second they want to be put down.” You’re right! I was unprepared for that.

  4. It is a sad fact that you will want to punch other people’s kids because they are jerks and hurt your kid. But you’ll tell them in a nice voice that something’s not okay, and then want to punch their parents because they don’t stop their kid punching yours or calling him names.

    It really is like your heart suddenly starts living outside your body when you give birth, with all the rawness and anxiety that implies.

  5. I shouldn’t have read Rebecca’s post yesterday with all of my third trimester pregnant hormones and shouldn’t have read your post today. Beautiful. Thank you. Excuse me while I try not to cry all the tears <3

  6. Letting him fall.
    Damn its hard.
    But he climbs and he wants to do it independently, so I have to let him. And he tumbles, and I want to catch him so he doesn’t hurt. When he does, I want to cuddle him better and sometimes he just doesn’t want to.
    Growing up too fast!

  7. I am behind on blog reading (damn jury duty and it’s lack of internet access), but oh, how this has been on my mind this week. We drove home from my parents on Monday, which meant Frances didn’t get her nap (because she WILL NOT sleep in the car if it’s light out. AT ALL.) By 5:30, she was just completely melting down – throwing things, fall on the floor tantrums, etc. Part of me was frustrated and trying to do the “good parent”, actions have consequences things. BUT part of me HURT, like actually HURT because I could see how exhausted she was, how she had totally lost her ability to control her emotions, and was just overwhelmed by all her feelings. And I thought: This is it. This never ends. It will always hurt me to feel her hurting, to see her overwhelmed and frustrated. To know that I can’t fix this. That she just has to feel hurt, to make her own mistakes, to deal with her own frustrations. Every day that goes by the times that I can fix things as her parent decrease, and the times that I have to let her go increase, and oh my god, it’s hard. It’s so hard. So I really feel you here. I am right here with you. Mommy solidarity.

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