“Is she with you?”
I’ve never received a text message that sent such cold ripples through my body.
We were out of town a few weeks ago for a wedding. We stayed in a hotel – our daughter’s first time – and I had gone out to do some crate digging at local record stores while she and her mother took a nap before getting dressed and heading to the church. When I’d left them, they’d been each in their own double bed, sound asleep. Two hours later, across the town in a shop by myself, I received that text from my spouse.
“I hope yr kidding” I texted back. But the chills seeping into my body could not be mollified by a mere text, so I called.
“She was still asleep when I woke up,” she told me, “so I got in the shower. I heard the door open as I was getting out, I thought it was you. She’s not here, I was hoping you’d taken her somewhere.”
“I haven’t been back,” I said slowly.
“I don’t know what to do. Please get back here now.”
I knew it would take me fifteen or twenty minutes to get back to the hotel, and I had harshly practical realization that if things were not okay within that time, they would never be okay. She had to be in the hotel, right? I mean, where would she go? What bad things could happen to her in a hotel? Of course, someone could snatch her up and take her away, but honestly, what were the chances that there were child predators prowling the hallways of a mid-class family hotel hoping a child would wander out unattended?
But what if she wandered outside? What if she wandered into the street? What if this was actually the very day that a child predator really was staying in the Holiday Inn?
“Found her” came to me before I even started the car. Then: “In the lobby in her pjs” with a frowny face emoticon.
(There’s really no emoticon that adequately captures the overwhelming mixture of reassurace, irritation, dread, and thwarted proleptic grief that comes with finding your lost child. But the Germans probably have a word for it: meinKindGottseiDanknichtwidertun.)
When I got back to the hotel room, my spouse met me at the door. “Don’t scold her,” she said. The story she got from our child is that she woke up, thought we’d left her, and went down to the lobby to wait for us. Why didn’t she check the bathroom first? Who knows. But when my spouse rushed into the lobby in wet hair and dirty clothes, after frantically calling down the hallways of two floors, she saw our child by the window, and the two tearfully reunited, apparently with equal amounts of fear and relief. There she’d sat, in a chair by the window, in nothing but her pajama top and underwear, clutching her stuffed orange kitty and watching, forlorn, for a familiar car to pull up to the door.
Everyone who has heard us tell this story says something like, “Every parent has to have that experience when they lose their child. May this be your only one.” Amen and amen to both statements. Yes, dear Jesus, let that be the only time we feel that kind of gut-crushing panic. But also, yes, universe, thank you for giving me a taste of that feeling. It is humbling and grounding to be reminded of my mindlessly fierce love for my child. Scary as it was to face a few eternal moments of fearing the worst for her, it is a touchstone I can go back to in those moments when she is driving me crazy. Seriously: thank God for the luxury of her driving me crazy by splashing me at bathtime; for the beauty of her refusal to sit still and use her fork; even the maddening fits and tantrums become reasons for rejoicing – we found something we might have lost.
Jesus, the Christian religion’s perfect avatar of a lost child found again, tells a parable about a woman who loses a coin and turns her house upside down to find it. When she does, she throws a party with all her friends to celebrate. “Rejoice with me,” she says, “for I have found that which I lost.” Commentaries will attempt to explain what made that one coin so valuable (She was poor! It was her dowry! It’s just a story, lighten up!) , but Jesus explains the meaning by saying that heaven rejoices with equal measure over just one sinner who repents. Or, in other words, that God feels this way about all of God’s children when they are lost and then found.
I know there are times when I have felt left behind, times when I woke up and felt God – or Whoever – had gone away. And like my child, I didn’t stay put or check obvious places, because waking up alone in a strange place is disorienting and frightening. So I wandered to a place I thought I was likely to be found, looking out into a scary world, exposed, pitiful, deserted. The next time that happens, I will remember to take with me the knowledge that even in those lonely moments when I feel most forsaken, there is a divine and holy spirit frantically searching to find me.
I grew up in an evangelical community where I often heard the aphorism, “If you’re feeling distant from God, remember that you’re the one who moved away.” I suppose that might often be true; my child was the one who the left the hotel room, although her mother did get up to take a shower. But I have compassion and understanding toward my child who, in her confused and startled mind, made a decision she thought best. If we move away from God, it’s not because we’re wicked, wayward sinners; it’s usually because we’re bewildered and afraid and uncertain. And if we move away from God, it’s good to know that God will then be storming through the building with wet hair and dirty jeans, calling out to find us.
There are occasions, the frequency of which falls somewhere between “rare” and “commonplace,” when my child wants to be helpful. I believe she enjoys the feeling of contributing the household welfare, not to mention the ways it makes her feel a little more grown-up. Mostly, though, I think it gives her a sense of belonging in a household of two parents and no siblings. If Mommy and Daddy are cleaning the kitchen and washing dishes, the easiest way to participate without being trampled underfoot and subsequently scolded is to join in. Sometimes she washes dishes in the sink, or runs the vacuum, or, in the weirdest but most delightful instances, cleans up her room to a nearly immaculate state.
The new chores of living in a new house have provided novel helping tasks heretofore unexplored. For instance, she has become and enthusiastic mailer of letters, particularly in the raising of mailbox flags. She has also expressed interest in taking the trash cans to and from the house and the street on trash day. Last week, she rolled a city-sized trash can up our driveway – a forty degree incline of twenty-five feet – all by herself. It was empty, of course, but still. I was impressed.
This week, trash day was also recycle day. This meant two city-sized trash cans at the curb. I was eager to let her help me, since this would mean only one trip up and down the hill. When I announced the need to bring the trash cans in, she cheerfully asked to help, thrilling to belong to a very grown-up level of helper. We marched down the driveway, her chatting away happily about how helpful she was going to be to me in bringing a trash can up the driveway.
After reflecting upon this incident, it has occurred to me that my child is likely still younger than the age that my ancestors were put to work by their parents on the farm. I was perhaps too blinded by the thrill that having a child was finally starting to pay off to realize that letting her help is still not about actually receiving help. So when she grabbed the first trash can and said, “Help me, Daddy,” I merely tipped it on its wheels towards her and turned back to the other trash can.
Have I mentioned that our street is also on a hill? Meaning that our driveway slopes down to the street, which then slopes back up about as steeply along our yard. So that my child is now standing between a tilted city-size trash can and a downward concrete slope.
“Help me!” she shouted as the trash can rolled and pushed her back. I realized the folly of entrusting her balance to such weight and incline and began to move towards her just as she lost her balance. Fortunately, this meant she let go of the trash can, which then tipped back away from her, righting itself and stopping still. She threw a foot back and caught herself, too, free of the force of weight and balanced. Disaster averted, I thought with a sigh of relief.
But it wasn’t. The true disaster, the emotional disaster, had already occurred. She burst into tears. “I can’t do it!” she screamed.
I was fixated on the fact that she hadn’t fallen, hadn’t hurt herself. “That’s okay, honey,” I said in what I thought was reassurance, “I can get it.” I grabbed it and started pulling it up the driveway.
She followed, howling, “I couldn’t get it! I couldn’t get it!”
“Honey, it’s fine, I can get it.”
She wailed all the way to the top of the driveway, me lugging the trash can, her circling my legs shouting “I can’t do it!” About that time, Mommy pulled into the driveway. When she stepped out, she immediately stooped to our child and asked what was wrong.
“Daddy made me get the trash can and it fell on me!”
As my spouse looked up me, a look of puzzlement (or was that accusation?) on her face, I wanted to shout, “No one made her do anything! She asked me to help! And nothing fell on her! She’s talking nonsense!” I didn’t say those things, though. I just shrugged and said, “She’s not hurt.”
That wasn’t strictly true, of course. She had gotten quite a scare. I can only imagine how it had felt in that split-second when it seemed like the trash can really was going to topple over her – that thing is nearly a foot taller than she is, and four times as wide. That flood of cortisol and adrenaline might not be the most familiar sensation to her four-year-old body, and I should be more forgiving towards her propensity to project blame onto me instead of the cruel and uncontrollable fact that she isn’t older and bigger yet.
More than that, though, her pride was hurt. Scraped up good, blood seeping through the raw pink wound of her tiny tender ego. She’d wanted to help me but couldn’t. She was nearly crushed under the weight of it. The cheer and joy of being useful and productive snatched away from her in a panicky moment of threatening imbalance. The promise of belonging cruelly supplanted by limitation and failure.
I couldn’t see any of this in the moment; I just wanted to get the trash cans up. It wasn’t a big deal. And of course, Mommy’s soothing misdirection (“Come inside and tell me about your day…”) dried her eyes in just minutes and it seemed as if the whole thing had passed, another strange moment in the life of a four-year-old. Yet I couldn’t shake the suddenness of her distress, the intense power with which she became so distraught. Maybe my attention was caught with the incongruity of her reaction at not getting hurt, but looking down into her eyes as she howled at me, I saw something deeply and primordially afraid. I assumed in the moment it was just the shock of almost falling over, but I realize now it was more than the threat of scrapes and bruises. As she followed me up the driveway shouting, “I couldn’t get it,” what she really was saying to me, with guttural and slightly pre-verbal intensity, was: I can’t do what you want me to do; am I still yours?
It’s the image of her, trying to cling to my leg as I pulled the trash can up, that kept coming back to me as I pondered this incident. I didn’t give her the answer she needed in that moment, although to be gracious to myself, I had no idea what she was feeling right then. Now I can see it, the need for reassurance not only that the trash can will still find its place, but that she still has her place as my child. After all, I can easily remember all the times in my life when I have asked, and still ask: I can’t do what you want me to do; am I still yours?
Part of why I didn’t see it is because I so naturally assume that she belongs to me, that she will always belong to me in some form or another, that she will always be my beloved child, that nothing she could do or fail will preclude that. Of course I don’t need her to carry the trash can up the driveway to love her, for her to stay my beloved child; it’s so obvious to me that I wasn’t able to think of it until later. But maybe it’s not always so obvious to her. My first reaction to that is to wonder what I’m doing wrong as a parent to cause her to suspect that this simple failure might result in losing my love. But it’s not about my parenting; it’s about her finding a basic sense of trust and place in the world. That’s her developmental job at this age, and it in no way reflects on my parenting. Every child needs this explicit reassurance. In fact, so do adults, from time to time.
My second thought was wondering how I am already communicating that belonging comes in meeting another’s wants. This feels like a dangerous message for a little girl to be internalizing. But it’s a message we’ve all internalized. Try as I might, I’m not sure I can prevent this introjected value from embedding itself in her soul. After all, it’s embedded in my soul.
I may have missed the opportunity in the moment to assure her of her core existential need in that moment, that her belonging in my heart has nothing to do with her utility or performance. I have lots more chances, though. I can’t overcome the message completely. It’s a broken world based where value is determined by usefulness and there’s no way to escape it. I know my own wounds in fearing rejection from failure. They’re more subtle than hauling in a trash can, but they no doubt throw me off balance just as quickly and powerfully as that trash bin loomed over her. I also know how blessed it is to have someone love me like a quirky piece of art: not for the purpose I serve, but simply for being unique and beautiful. It is, at heart, how my own parents loved me; how my spouse loves me; how the divine spirit loves me. I love my child this way because I, first, was loved this way. Those small but potent places where I have belonged in the universe are reinforced and celebrated every time I tell my child that she is mine, no matter what anyone wants or does.
It’s been several weeks since I posted anything. I have a good reason: we moved into a new house. After a year of dismal apartment living – cramped space, dilapidated appliances, ignored noise complaints, and lots and lots of bugs – we are now in our own home. Except for crickets in the woods, it is blissfully quiet. We have lots and lots of space. The appliances are new and very fancy. (Our refrigerator beeps if it’s left open.) We’ve even been reunited with the 40% of our stuff that was stashed in a storage unit. I can’t tell you how satisfying it was last night for me to open up boxes of books, feel them in my hands, then place them on shelves. I’m not planning on reading any of them, but after having them stuffed into boxes in the back of a dim storage garage for a year, it was nice to bring them home.
Our daughter, however, seems to be a little on the fence. She’s not explicit about it; if you were to ask her if she liked her new house, she’d probably say yes. There’s a tree swing in the yard that she loves. Her bedroom is pink, and she’s now sleeping in a “big girl bed.” Her books are all unpacked and her daddy’s set up the Netflix so she can watch Curious George when she earns screen time. She likes our neighbor next door and last night we found a collection of quartz geodes the previous owners seemed to have dumped out in the flowerbeds.
But it’s the fourth room she’s had in a little over a year. It’s all new. And, just like last year when we moved into the apartment in a brand new city, she’s acting out. I’d like to think it’s not as bad. After all, her teachers and friends and school and church are all the same. But she goes to sleep in a new bed at night and the car pulls into a different space and the faces of the neighbors are different. Some of her toys are still in boxes. And as she shouted at us in a moment of frustration the other night, “I don’t understand my room!”
I’m not entirely clear what that means, but it seems appropriate. There’s a lot in this world for a four-year-old to not understand. What she did understand, at least until last week, was what her room looked like and where her toys were and how bath time proceeded and even what roads we drove on. Once again, all of that is up in the air, and she is starting over to establish routines and familiarity.
We don’t plan on moving again for a very long time. Maybe ever. My child will hopefully move out eventually, but we plan on her spending a good fourteen years in this house. So I know she’ll get used to it, and when she’s an adult, she will no doubt think of this house in those moments when her memories turn wistfully to her childhood. I wish I could speed up her getting used to the house or, better yet, infect her with the same sense of relief and excitement that her parents feel to be living in such a wonderful place. Transition is hard for anyone, and for a little person, transition is experienced as five or ten times bigger than it is for adults. We’re employing every tactic we know of to reassure her that we are with her, that she is safe, that she can depend on us, that new routines are forming. But a four-year-old lives in a world of emotions and reactions, and she is going to feel out loud whatever she feels.
There’s something to be said about just living out your uncertainty. I wish it was taking more obedient, manageable forms. But I’m trying to admire her emotional honesty. Sometimes I don’t understand the world I live in, either, and that’s scary, particularly when it includes the one place you need to feel safe and familiar. As her parent, I think my job here is twofold. First, I’m trying to make room for her that she can understand. Not rationally, but in her heart. Secondly, I think I just have to keep loving her no matter how maddening her acting out becomes. Come to think of it, those are every parent’s jobs.
As the boxes continue to become unpacked, we will find our home, and so will our daughter. May you also continue to find room in your life that you understand, and find the space to feel your frustration when you don’t understand it.
Last night, I witnessed a tragedy in our kitchen. Spoonman. May a flight of angels sing thee to thy rest.
For her birthday several weeks ago, she received a “Souper Action Figure Spoon” from one of my colleagues. She reported that her children loved to eat with it and, sure enough, so did my child. We affectionately named him Spoonman, partly in honor of the Soundgarden song, but also partly because he is a man with a spoon for a head. In the past few weeks, my child has usually asked at breakfast or dinner if Spoonman was clean so that she could use him to eat.
Yesterday, Spoonman went missing. He could not be found at breakfast, and there was no time to search for him. By dinner time, we had forgotten about him. (We had spaghetti, which is more of a fork meal, at least for a four-year-old.) Cleaning up and washing the dishes, I dumped uneaten noodles down the garbage disposal and flipped the switch. A terrible sound of grinding and cracking filled the room, and I quickly turned off the disposal and water to see what had gotten caught. I reached in and pulled out a single purple arm.
“Uh oh,” I said.
“What is it?” my spouse asked. She and my daughter were looking at me from the dinner table with concern.
Looking tenderly at Curly Fries, I said, “I’m so sorry.”
She hopped down from her chair, came rushing into the kitchen, and saw the single arm lying on the kitchen counter. For just a sliver of a second I saw a quiet look of recognition slip over her face. And then in an instant she exploded into weeping, her fingers flying up to her face, her body bent over with the force of her wails. “No no no!” she sobbed, tears pouring from her eyes, her face scrunched into a grimace. “He was brand new! He was just brand new!”
Her mother came over, knelt beside her, held her close. “I’m so sorry, honey.”
“Fix him, Daddy!” she beseeched me. “Please, just fix him! Put him back together!”
I dug another few pieces out of the disposal. A split torso, a severed black foot, the head of a spoon. “I can’t fix him,” I said softly.
At the gruesome sight of these pieces spread out on the counter, she fell to the floor. “Brand new!” she kept crying. “He was brand new!”
As a hospital chaplain, this was a familiar scene. I’ve seen many a family frantically rushing into the emergency department, following up a vague and ominous call from the hospital. Standing in the doorway, they see me, then look past me and catch just a single glimpse of the loved one’s lifeless form. They collapse into tears, wailing and pleading and weeping as I try to provide them support and care. Granted, the stakes in my kitchen last night were undeniably much lower than those hospital scenes of heartbreak and loss. But the reaction was identical.
It was such a familiar emotional display to me, in fact, that I started to cry, too. Of course, like all parents do when their child has a toy break, we began to promise that we’d get another one. But that statement was as efficacious to her as if I’d suggested to a shocked and grieving widow that she could find a new husband. She only cried harder.
I’ve seen my child cry about a lot of things. I’ve seen her cry over broken and lost toys before. But this scene was viscerally painful for me. I’ve walked with a lot of bereaved families in some of the most tragic circumstances that they had ever faced. I’ve seen a lot of people break down at the inexorably terrible news that their lives have been forever changed. I’ve heard the heartrending howls of lovers and children and parents suddenly pushed into the deep end of loss. Every one of those families’ losses has affected me. I carry their grief with tenderness and care and I count myself as blessed to help them hold the love and loss as the one who found himself in a position of showing them a small piece of love and care.
Last night I got just the tiniest glimpse of what it would look like if it were my own child. It was terrifying. I know it was just a spoon and it was just our kitchen, but for a moment it felt to me much bigger and scarier and awful. I don’t mean to suggest that my child experienced a similar loss as those families grieving loved ones. I do, however, mean to suggest that she had a similar emotional reaction. On a much smaller scale, my child experienced the sudden and unexpected loss of something she loved, and her emotional response mirrored the typical patterns of human loss that I’ve witnessed so many times. In that moment, I was telegraphed forward to some tragic possible future, when my own child might be one of those families in the hospital, responding to the loss of a friend, a lover, or perhaps even me.
I know, this is some heavy shit to get into over a spoon. But I do think this is the kind of heartbreak we open ourselves up to as parents. Or, for that matter, as people who love other people. We worry and we hurt and we fear for those we love. We get these flashes sometimes of how much we love someone through the flashing realization that if something happened to them it would devastate us. We feel the suffering of others as if it were our own, and the stronger our love, the more overwhelming the sharing of their suffering.
I believe, as a chaplain and a caregiver and person who wants to maximize the output of love in the universe, that this empathy to suffering makes us better at loving other people. As I stood over her, trying to reassure her to no avail that we could easily buy another Spoonman, I let the crazy association with a grieving family take over. Fighting back my own tears, I knelt down beside her, the crushed pieces of her beloved spoon action figure in my hand. “Do you want to say goodbye?” I said, my other arm around her, holding her tight.
“He was brand new,” she whimpered.
“I know,” I said. “I’m so sorry this happened. I wish I could fix him for you. I can see how sad you feel.”
I kissed her and let her cry until she said, “Goodbye, Spoonman.”
Of course, a replacement Spoonman is already on its way. (And thanks to Amazon Prime shipping, his miraculous resurrection will be faster than the three-day standard.) What loving parent wouldn’t instantly fix his child’s suffering? If the disposal hadn’t mangled and broken the plastic into pieces, I’d have glued him back together for an even quicker fix. I’m already looking forward to her reaction when she gets Spoonman 2 in the mail. One day, however, I know I won’t be able to fix it for her. My fierce love for her will fight that day tooth and nail. But when it comes, I want to be there for her to hold her suffering with her, to kiss her and wish with her that the world could be a little different. And when the day comes that I can’t be there for her, when she suffers losing me, then I want her to have learned that grief is the privilege that accompanies love. I’m so grateful that I am the person entrusted to love and care for her, no matter how much it may one day hurt.
My child is remarkably adept at being underfoot. I stumble to keep from tripping on her, or she blocks my access to some task or object, or she peppers me with interrogatives. At least once a week, this scenario takes place in the morning while I am getting ready for work. It does not take much of this to make me late, which only increases the inconvenience. This morning she decided to try on her mommy’s shoes in the closet with me while I attempted to get dressed. She swarmed around my legs like a squirrel while I tried to pull my pants on; she threw the door open while I tried to use its attached mirror to tie my necktie; she peppered me with questions that consisted mostly of repeating “Daddy?” I did all I could do not to lose my temper, but the morning was quickly moving from bad enough (it was morning, after all) to an official classification of a Bad Morning.
I sat down to put on my shoes, trying my best to ignore her intrusions and keep my cool.
“Why you wearing those shoes?” she demanded. “Is it because you want to?”
The logic seemed unbelievably simple – why else would I wear those shoes? Except, of course, that I didn’t really want to wear those shoes; I wore them because I was going to work and had a dress code I was required to meet. This strangely simple yet profound inquiry exhausted me, and it wasn’t even seven o’clock.
“Yes, honey. Because I want to.”
I bent over to tie them and then I felt her arms snake their way around my shoulders and her wet, warm lips mushed against the back of my neck. She kissed me, softly and without too much noise, then whispered in my ear, “I love my Daddy.”
At least as many times a day that she finds her way underfoot, she surprises me with spontaneous kisses. She likes to snuggle, to hang around my neck and nuzzle her nose against my ear. She still likes me to carry her sometimes, or sit in my lap, or climb up my legs. She’s an affectionate kid.
The American psychologist Harry Harlow is known for a series of experiments in the 1950s in which he built two artificial “mothers” for infant Rhesus macaques: one mother was made of wire and wood but provided a bottle for feeding, while the other mother provided no food but was made of warm, soft cloth. The Rhesus monkeys preferred not the cold wire that fed them, but rather the warm cloth they could snuggle and sleep next to. This debunked the school of behaviorism at the time which argued that infants developed bonds with caregivers solely for the purposes of meeting physical needs. What became known as “attachment theory” through the work of Harlow and another researcher, John Bowlby, took seriously the ways that infants and children develop secure, healthy attachments to their caregivers through warmth, touch, and physical affection.
Let me interrupt this psychology lecture to announce that I am not, by and large, a touchy-feely person. I do not seek out physical affection and require very little of it from my friends and family. I’m not big on hugs or standing close to people. (My spouse, who is very much these things, will begrudgingly confirm.) However, despite my reticence for physical touch – or perhaps because of it – I am glad I have a child who is so physically affectionate.
Following the attachment theorists, I could describe how my child is expressing her secure attachment to me in her spontaneous displays of affection. In fact, I could make the case that she senses in those moments when she is irritating me underfoot how important it might be to keep her secure attachments, picking those very moments to kiss me and express her love.
But I’m not interested in talking about that. Instead, I’m curious how this behavior is good for my attachment. I don’t mean to suggest that I might decide to stop being my daughter’s parent if she didn’t hug me and express her love. As I said earlier, I don’t really need that. I love the people I love without needing to touch them all the time. I’m confident that my love for my child would endure regardless of how affectionate she would be towards me. However, I must admit that there is something grounding for me in being affectionate with my child. If there has ever been a human being that I truly want to kiss, hug, and snuggle, it is my daughter. My spouse is a close second, but there is something so affirming and disarming about the spontaneous affection of a child. It’s guileless and sincere; it’s as pure as a human’s behavior can be. Children don’t have the filters and preconceptions that adults have. Of course, as attachment theory shows, a child’s affectionate behavior serves her interests. But it isn’t calculating or even conscious; it’s literally unadulterated.
Some mornings she awakes in this magical time window where she is able to come to our bedroom but still sleepy enough to fall back asleep. She climbs into our bed and I am nearly always the parent she wants to sleep beside. I can feel her warm body curled next to my chest, smell her hair on my pillow, feel her feet as they push between my legs. I suppose she feels safe when she sleeps next to me. But the strange thing is that it makes me feel safe. I don’t understand that beyond what I’m starting to refer to as the “telescopic parenting effect” – that providing for my child the love, affection, affirmation, and safety that I received when I was a child causes me to receive those feelings all over again.
There are moments when I’m at work, away from my family, when I find myself wishing I could give my daughter a hug. It’s not the same as the longing I’ve had for my spouse as a lover. It’s a little like homesickness, but the pull doesn’t feel as sad and desperate. It’s fond and warm and helps me to remember who I am.
I can feel my attachment to my daughter when she is sweet and affectionate with me. I also feel my attachment to everyone else: my spouse, my parents, my friends, myself. The joy of experiencing that kind of genuine connection – through fingers, kisses, giggles – reassures me that attachment is in fact more than a behavioral requirement, but a deeply spiritual phenomenon. Maybe there’s a little bit of divinity in those spontaneous kisses. Maybe all we need to know of God is a sudden affectionate touch and a whisper that says we are loved.
After nearly six weeks living apart, my little Curly Fries moves to Charlotte full-time starting tonight. Her mother will join the gang tomorrow night, and the reunion will be complete: my whole family living under one roof again.
As much as I have missed them both, I must say that I’m a bit apprehensive. We’re temporarily in an apartment with about a quarter of the space of the house we left. We aren’t, however, living with a quarter of the child. If anything, we’re living with double
the child. Given the strangeness of our transitions – selling the only house Curly Fries has ever lived in, moving in with her grandparents, leaving the day school she’s attended since she was two months old, not seeing her father for days on end – well, let’s just say she’s been acting off the chain. The energy she has invested in acting out
has been matched by the energy she invests in rejoicing when she sees me and the three of us are together on weekends. We’ve had a high time getting to know our new city – playgrounds
, museums, swimming – but that’s all been done on the weekends. On weeknights, I’ve had the place to myself.
I’m an introvert, and there’s been a tangible sense of luxury in having entire evenings to myself. I can work out on my own schedule; I can fix dinner whenever I want; I can watch TV uninterrupted; I can randomly decide to go out and run errands. However, the downside of all this alone time should be evidenced by the final clause of the previous sentence. Who thrills at the freedom of running errands
? I’ll tell you who: lonely people. You have to be an extreme introvert to enjoy being alone all the time. As I’ve been telling some of my friends, something feels particularly pitiful to me every night when I try to figure out what to cook for a man who’s all by himself.
I’m glad that I will not be missing my child’s moments of hilarity, preciousness, and genius. All my cute parenting stories of the last month have come from reading my spouse’s Facebook page. I’m also glad that I won’t feel my life split into a disjointed dichotomy of an exciting work life and a boring, depressing, and lonely personal life. However, I’m already a little tired thinking about trying to get her to bed on a night when I also need to get to bed. And it takes very
little work for a three-year-old to dirty up an apartment.
So, prayers have been floating around my heart all day. Prayers of thanksgiving, and also prayers for strength. Being a family is hard work, and the work is about to start up in earnest again. But I’ve certainly been reminded during my six-week break from this work why it’s work I’ve committed to do.
I didn’t get home last night until almost nine o’clock. Clearly, it was a long day. Curly Fries had been asleep in bed an hour at that point, and my spouse was curled up watching ESPN. (Yes, fellas – I’m that
lucky.) I asked her how the evening had been, how Curly Fries had done with dinner and what kind of day she’d had. In her telling me about our daughter’s day, she told me this story:
“When we got home, she immediately wanted to put her flip-flops on. I was in the kitchen starting her dinner and she said, ‘Mommy, you want your flip-flops?’ I said, ‘Sure,’ so she went to our closet and dug out my flip-flops and brought them in to the kitchen for me and said, ‘Here, Mommy.’ So I slipped on my flip-flops and said, ‘Thank you!’ And she said, ‘Look, we both have our flip-flops on!’
“Then she got in one of her real cuddly moods, and she hugged my legs and said, ‘Mommy, I love you.’ So I stopped what I was doing and stooped down and hugged her real tight and I said, ‘I love you too!’
“After a moment, while we were still hugging each other, she said, ‘And Daddy loves us both.’”
I’ll give you a moment to ooh
and sigh about how sweet that story is. And yes, it was unbelievably heart-melting and a little tear-jerking to hear my spouse tell me this story. So take a moment to revel in the sheer adorableness, because I’m about to hold up what an incredible developmental achievement and parental vindication this is.
First of all, she knows that I love her.
Secondly – and perhaps even more amazing – she knows I love her even when I’m not there.
Every good parent wants their child to know they are loved. It’s our job, to love our children. We clothe and feed and bathe and rock and soothe and hold to them when they are tiny babies. That’s their entire existence at that stage, to simply soak up attention and sustenance until they fall asleep and allow us to sneak away and steal a quick nap or a glass of wine and try to recover from the never-ending neediness
. Then as soon as these babies wake up and realize that we aren’t there, the crying starts because they are too anxious to exist without parents present.
Our children get a little older and they gradually tolerate a little more distance between us, so long as they have something tangible on which to grasp. This transitional object helps them to internalize their sense that we still love them and will take care of them, even when we’re not in the room. It helps her sleep at night when the lights go off and we shut the door behind us on our way out: she has her blankie and her Abby
, and she falls safely asleep clutching them because they symbolize for her the love she feels when we are in the room with her, even when we aren’t.
And then one day, the transitional object becomes sufficiently internalized so that the child no longer needs it. If you were to go by how long it takes the child to give up the blankie or teddy bear, it might seem that for many children this internalized object comes at ages six or seven (or later). But it’s really much earlier, and it’s evidenced in exactly the kind of thing that Curly Fries said last night. “Daddy loves us both” – an unsolicited, unprovoked observation that she is loved by an absent parent.
(Let me observe how thrilled I am that she also knows and trusts that I love her mother, too.) She still needs her blankie and Abby to sleep at night, but the internalized parent is firmly in place, and it’s a parent who loves her.
I really can’t overstate how big a deal this is. The internalized loving parent is the basic building block upon which a healthy child can build her sense of ego strength and self.
Deprived of this loving parent, either through the lack of loving guardians or through the presence of an anxious and overidentifying parent who won’t allow separation to occur, children expend their energy trying to manage their own anxieties of abandonment and destruction and can’t find the creative life-giving space to become their true, authentic selves. In order to develop the courage to freely engage the world and progress forward into discovering who we really are at the depths of our beings, we need to safely trust that someone somewhere loves us just as we are no matter what.
What a grace this is. Not just for her, although I can’t rejoice loud enough that my love for her has been fierce and firm enough to give her that ground of being to step forward and be the beautiful little badass that she is. But it’s also a grace for me
. I’m far from perfect; I lose my temper, I run out of patience, I yell. But despite those flaws and failings, the Daddy she has internalized is the Daddy that loves her. There is room for me to make mistakes, to be my less-than-idealized self in moments. I’m still good enough that the love she feels will carry us both through those moments when she screams in my face and I want to strangle her. In the scary moments, there is still the internalized realization that no matter where I am, I love her. That might even mean more to me than it does to her.
When I think about my faith, about the deep-seated beliefs I have about the Divine Presence and the experiences I seek in my life to more fully encounter the rich mystery of life and existence and love, I think about my own internalized loving parents. I trust that there is a God who loves me because I trust that there are people
who love me, and I’ve known that for as long as I’ve known anything. When theologians suggest that our images of God are rooted in our earliest memories of our parents and guardians, it is not far away from what developmental psychologists say about transitional objects and internalized parents. So when Curly Fries tells her Mommy that she knows Daddy loves them both, she is getting closer to understanding who and what God is. I’m not God, of course. But it is my responsibility (as well as her mother’s and her grandparents’ and her communities’) to help point her to that experience in healthy, life-giving ways. And I’m doing it, in spite of everything. Join me in rejoicing that despite all our flaws and failings, we can still be good enough to make love permanent.
“If I can play with sidewalk chalk?”
This is what she asked me as soon as I came in the door from work, this literal iteration of her mother’s instruction to ask daddy if she could play with sidewalk chalk. Into the blissfully cool pre-thunderstorm air we went, squatting in the white concrete driveway. She opened up her box of large Crayola chalk to continue work on the art that we started several nights ago: her name in large block letters, being admired by the pointy-headed sun who, quite logically, was wearing sunglasses.
Nearing the end of the day of the end of the week, I sat down on the pavement and let her play. She handed me a purple piece, but instead of drawing or coloring I gazed vacuously down the street. I do this, as many of us are wont to do when we feel exhausted and pensive: I zone out and stare off into blankness as my thoughts climb out of holes in my brain.
After a few moments of this empty meditative staring, I felt her at my side.
“What’s wrong, Daddy?” she asked.
“Nothing,” I said, turning to her with a smile.
“What’s wrong?” she repeated.
“What makes you think something’s wrong?”
She put her arm around my neck, the small wiry flesh gripping me with surprising strength to her torso. Her forehead rested against mine and she said, “Everything’s going to be okay.”
“I know that, baby,” I said, kissing her warm cheek. “Thank you for your concern.”
Satisfied that I now understood the impending okay-ness of all things, she went back to coloring on the pavement.
There really wasn’t anything wrong in that moment; I wasn’t in a bad mood or worried or sad. If anything, it was actually a pleasant moment for me, finding a space of comfort and relaxation during an otherwise busy and overwhelming time in my life. So what did my daughter notice about me? What made her concerned that something was wrong? What appeared to her to be wrong in that moment, either for her or for me?
The best I can figure is that she became immediately aware that something was going on inside me and that I wasn’t really there with her in that moment. Which is true. Nothing wrong about that to me, but she interpreted that as there being something wrong – wrong with me. Perhaps it was a fear that she was alone, that my mental separation in that moment created a sense of anxiety in her for fear of being abandoned, if not physically, then emotionally. Or perhaps it was less about anxiety of abandonment and simply sheer puzzlement that I wasn’t having as much fun as she was. Clearly, to be seated on the pavement with a piece of chalk in my hand and not be coloring wildly meant something was wrong with me. Or maybe she simply had never seen me in a moment like that. I do it quite frequently, to be truthful, but usually after she has gone to sleep or left the room. In that moment, however, she detected that I wasn’t fully with her.
Children have an inherent understanding of moral ordering; we don’t need to force it on them. All we need to do is hold them in a safe environment of love and care and they will discover their own sense of rightness in the world. As I marveled at her interruption of play to comfort and reassure me, I watched her working on the sun I had drawn with her during our last chalk session. I had drawn the circle in yellow, adorning it with triangles as is the custom for stylized cartoon suns. In that moment, after intervening in my apparent mental disappearance, she was coloring in each of those triangles. Every one had to be colored in completely. Her attention to the symmetry and order was clear as she methodically went around the circle and vigorously filled in each triangle. Children desire this kind of balance and we see it in their art and play. But it is still play: for every triangle, while colored in completely and in a consistent order, was colored with a different color. Blue and purple and green and pink and orange and yellow and white and gray (yes, gray chalk) – for each new triangle she went back to the box to fish out a color she hadn’t used yet. Amid the order and continuity was variety and diversity. There’s an order to that, too: keeping everything fresh, refusing to repeat. Around the complete circle, colors vivid and changing.
My child wants to dance around the circle. She wants to be free and creative. She wouldn’t use those words, but it’s the moral center of a child’s soul to seek that kind of play. But she needs the circle, and I am the circle. Her sense of rightness in the world – that everything is indeed going to be okay – rises to the surface when the water is warm and calm and she can trust that she is held.
I, too, need to trust that I am held. That’s why I space out in those moments, to give myself a break from all the holding. I’m glad I can do that, and I don’t mind modeling that for her every now and then. But I am thankful that my child has learned to call me back to her in such a sweet and caring way. It’s self-preservation for her, I know; she’s dependent on me and if something happens to me, then she won’t be held in the same way. All empathy starts there, though, just like all authentic relationships are built out of our own needs. I’m thankful that she is finding tender ways of calling me back to her. What parent wouldn’t affirm such a compassionate invitation to color the circle?
This week, I’ve been celebrating the freedom from being a parent. We instituted what I believe will be a blissfully regular tradition: the week away at Grammy’s. We dropped her off at her Grammy and Pappy’s house on Sunday for duration of the week (although her Mommy headed back there yesterday to stay the weekend).
Three years ago, when Curly Fries was only a month old, I wrote this
. A few months later, I wrote this.
They feel so sweet and quaint now. Let’s just say that having my little girl visit her ancestors in Tennessee without me has been absolutely wonderful. And if I was a junkie for being a parent, well, now I’m a recovering addict. I have not
missed her this week.
There’s a crushingly overwhelming sameness to the day-in-day-out routines of parenthood, particularly with a toddler. Cajoling her to sit still while she eats, or to eat at all. Wrestling her in a tub full of water on bath night. Running up and down the stairs to attend to whatever new obstacle has arisen to sleep. Dressing yourself with one hand in the morning while trying to corral her away cosmetic products in the mornings. And always washing dirty underwear. It’s like that Jackson Browne song: “When the morning comes streaming in / We get up and do it again.”
This week, however, was blissfully free from these responsibilities. We ate dinner as early as we wanted! We went to a real restaurant! No one threw food on the floor! I slept in nearly a half hour every morning! We watched Breaking Bad
as loud as we wanted! The house looks just as clean as it did four days ago! I can hardly recognize the luxurious calm of my home life this week.
It’s a vacation, really. If you’ve ever taken a week off from work (lucky you), then you know the feeling. With your job receding in the background, everything you hate about it is in clear view as you taste the beautiful freedom from it on your tongue. Then as the week progresses and you settle into the relaxing break of your routine, you start to let go of all those obnoxious coworkers and mindless tasks and begin to grow reacquainted with how good your life really is. And then, hopefully, when you go back to work, you’re able to slip a little back into these routines with a little more contentment and satisfaction.
Last night, I got a call from my spouse to tell me she’d arrived safely in Tennessee. Mid-sentence, she stopped to say, “Curly Fries wants to talk to you.”
“Hi, Daddy!” came her voice. It sounds so different over the phone; more garbled, but somehow more grown-up.
“Hi, baby! Are you having fun?”
“Yeah. I’m playing a game with Grammy.”
“Really? What game?”
“Old Maid. I have the Old Maid.”
“Oh? That’s no good.”
“I colored you a picture.”
“You did? Thank you!”
“When you come to visit, I will give it to you.”
“Thank you, I can’t wait.”
“Bye, baby! I love you!”
“I love you too, Daddy.”
Then, suddenly, I missed her. So yeah. I'm off the wagon again.
It doesn’t take very long for a parent to develop a taxonomy of his child’s cries. I know the sound of her crying because she’s upset she isn’t getting something she wants. (This is the most common, oft-heard crying in household these days.) I know the sound of her crying because she’s fallen down or gotten suddenly pinched or hurt. I know the sound of her crying because she’s frustrated that a toy won’t work or that she can’t manipulate an object how she wants, which isn’t far off from the sound of her crying when she’s tired and fussy. But the worst crying, the most immediately heart-wrenching type, is sick-crying.
It’s a hopeless, destitute sound. It involves more sobbing than wailing or whining. The tears that fall from her eyes are dissolute and wet; they don’t fall in steady streams, but seem to simply spread across her face like thick humidity. It’s persistent and steady and it does not rise and fall like her other cries. It does not have a hint of anger in it – much of her other cries have lots of anger – but is heavy with despair and desperation.
She only cries like this when she’s running a fever, severely congested, or sick to her stomach. It’s different from an injury or a fall, which has an overwhelming element of shock and suddenness to it. Sustaining an injury creates an outcry of indignation at having something in the outside world inflict its damage on her body. But sickness is internal and invisible. From her toddler understanding of the world, there is nothing immediate to blame for her sickness. When she falls, she cries and identifies what part of her body is hurt, and what it was in the outside world that hurt her. She can’t do this when she’s sick; she only feels the pain.
Thankfully, we don’t hear this crying very often. But when we do, it’s unmistakable. And with the recent addition of her increased abilities at speech and diction, we have a new layer added. It used to be we had to diagnose her ourselves, using thermometers and tissues and checking the messy contents of her diapers. Now that she’s growing up, we can ask her and reasonably expect her to answer us.
A few days ago, she spiked a fever of 101.5. Not as bad as some she’s had, but she quickly turned lethargic and puny. She’s had a thick snotty cold for a few days now, and it’s turned into a drainage cough, so a fever isn’t completely unexpected. We gave her some children’s ibuprofen, lots of cuddles and kisses, and put her to bed. She slept great for a few hours, but then she woke up with her distinct sick-crying. I went to her bed, asked her what was wrong. The sick-crying was steady and unyielding, and she either didn’t hear me or couldn’t stop to respond. For a minute or more, I repeated my question: “What’s wrong?” Finally, I said, “Honey, use your words.”
“My head hurts,” she said. It was so pitiful, the tone of despondency in her voice. It was the sound of someone who has given themselves over to grief. If you stub your toe, the pain subsides after a few minutes. But a sinus headache brought on by congestion and coughing? That doesn’t let up. She said “My head hurts” with the same manner as a bereaved person mourns the loss of a loved one: miserable, dejected, helpless.
It struck a fear in my heart that I rarely feel with her. I think it’s common to feel helpless when your child is sick or hurting. What decent parent doesn’t confront his child’s pain with a bone-deep desire to make the pain vanish and feel the waves of resigned disappointment at being unable to magically disappear whatever is causing it? But when I heard her words, I not only felt my own helplessness, I felt hers. It was as if, for the first time, she also knew that I was helpless to do anything for her.
When we suffer, we begin by suffering alone in silence. Suffering and pain are experienced on the most basic level as hidden, private and unique. Ultimately, suffering and pain are none of those things, but it isn’t until we can speak our suffering out loud that we open ourselves to the realization that suffering and pain are actually revealed, communal and common experiences. In that moment the other night, however, it was my child who was suffering a headache, not me. I suffered for and with her, but she was the one in physical pain.
Crying is the body’s most primal expression of pain and suffering. Speech and language help clarify diagnosis and description, but the body knows preverbal communication for suffering. This is why parents learn their children’s cries. When she told me her head hurt, I wasn’t really enlightened with any new knowledge that changed the way I was present to her pain. I already knew she was sick and didn’t feel well. But I do believe that it helped her to say out loud what was hurting. Crying signals our need for care, but being able to verbalize my head hurts puts a name to the experience of suffering that is reasonable, identifiable and communicable. Naming and lamenting is the transition into understanding that we are not alone in our suffering.
It is this weird paradox that makes wholeness in suffering possible: that in her feelings of helplessness, she recognized that I, too, was helpless. In this shared helplessness comes solidarity. Did she understand this in the dark hours of her headache a few nights ago? Not on any tangible level, of course not. But I responded to her, “I know your head hurts. I’m sorry.” And I kissed her forehead and held her close and her crying eased a little. Would she have cried less a year ago? There’s no telling for sure, but I don’t think so. Now that she’s verbal, she has the means to transcend her suffering just a little and connect with other human beings. It’s a beautiful, liberating transformation, this new ability to openly lament. May I rise to the occasion to honor this developmental growth, never shying away from bearing witness to her suffering and pain.