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.
“I sleep in new bed!”
They can’t sleep in cribs forever.
It’s actually not a new bed. We bought one of these fancy convertible beds that goes from crib to toddler daybed to a small twin. Moving from crib to daybed entails the very simple step of removing the front rail. That was the only change, but it was huge. HUGE. Because it freed her to roam about the room. Her bedroom is right next to the stairway on the second floor, so we can’t have her able to leave the room in the middle of the night. So I installed a gate.
That first night, the gate was ultimately more exciting than the bed. She had to come and go through the gate over and over again, wanting to close it fully every single time. Being a safety gate, of course, this required me to unlock it each time. I went through the usual bedtime routine: brushing teeth, getting into pajamas, rocking and singing, then tucking her into bed and rubbing her back. And then came the moment of realization – as soon as I stood up to leave, she hopped out of bed. “Rub my back,” she said.
“I did, honey. Time to go to sleep.” I tucked her back in, and this time I made it to the door before she got out of bed.
But she had the door opened before I was halfway down the stairs. “Rub my back!” she screamed at the gate. Then came the crying. “Daddy!” she cried. “Come rub my back!” After a few moments, the crying turned to despondent wailing. Then it became shrieks of misery. “Daddy, Daddy! Rub my baaaaaaaack! Pleeeeaase!” Then, changing tactics: “Water! I want some water!” Nothing makes a father feel proud of himself like hearing his child pleading for a sip of water.
This went on for an hour or so. Every so often one of us would go up and walk her to her bed, try to soothe her, encourage her to sleep. This became harder and harder to do with anything approaching a calm demeanor. She would lie in bed a few minutes, but then she would exercise her new freedom to get out of her new bed and come to her new gate and scream and cry.
The first few years of raising a child is full of game-changers: sitting up, crawling, walking, talking, potty-training. Each one brings a parent both excitement and challenges. You think I’d be used to this by now. But screwing with her sleeping patterns? Oh no no no no no no. This is not good. That first night, in a fit of sanity-deprived craziness, I came very close to reattaching the crib rail and pretending as if nothing had every changed. But you can never go back.
Fortunately, not every night has been this bad. Some nights she’s so tired that she falls right to sleep. Other nights it takes a few return trips on our part to rub her back and soothe her to sleep. Still other nights she calls out to use the potty, and then we have the collision of conflicting developmental needs: which takes precedence, potty-training or new sleep patterns? It’s a tough call. We usually err on the side of potty-training, but for me it’s less about potty-training and more about the hope that this will be what she needs to go quietly to sleep.
Each night feels like a tightrope. Will she go to sleep without incident? What can we do leading up to bedtime that will minimize our chances of a meltdown? How many verses of “Wheels On the Bus” do I need to sing before she’s ready to sleep? Oops, we forgot to brush teeth… screw it, she’s too quiet and I’m not going to risk riling her up by taking her to the bathroom and flipping on all the lights, she can brush them tomorrow.
Last night we had a breakthrough. Apparently she didn’t get enough backrubbing, and she followed her mother to the door. “Rub my baaaaaaaack!” she wailed. Her mother and I went about fixing dinner and picking up the house, trying to shut out the sounds of her screams for an appropriate amount of time before we attempted soothing her again. But after about five minutes, a strange thing happened: she closed the door herself and climbed back in bed. She was still sobbing, mind you. But she put herself to bed. Gradually, the weeping slowed and she drifted to sleep, one foot still hanging off the side of the bed. Watching her on our video monitor, I thought with surprise that I couldn’t be more proud of my daughter for crying herself to sleep.
Change is so disorienting for everyone involved. All that stuff you read in parenting books about “establishing routines” is completely true. And not just for the toddler, but for the parent, too. We feel far more comfortable and safe when events unfold to our preordained expectations. Unfortunately for us routine-craving mortals, growth is nothing but change. Every developmental milestone has brought some grief for us. I miss the days when I could lay her down and she would stay in one place. I miss the days when she didn’t care what we dressed her in. I miss the days when she couldn’t get out of bed on her own. But they can’t stay toddlers forever. Concurrently, we can’t stay parents of toddlers forever. Truth is, Curly Fries adapts to change far more easily than I do. She doesn’t know much different, my attempts to establish routines notwithstanding. Her life is changing all the time. Literally all the time. For crying out loud at the gate, she outgrows a pair of shoes in three months. As disorienting as it is for her to have a new bed, she isn’t nearly as undone as her parents are. Because I don’t want my life to be changing all the time.
So much for that. I became a parent, so I can’t say I didn’t sign up for this. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t also want to cry at the gate. Some nights when I go up to usher her back to bed, she is wedged in between her door and the gate, prone on the floor, whimpering with exhaustion. I know just how she feels. I also want to grab the gate and shake it and cry out for some water or a backrub or something. I don’t even want to get out of the gate. I just want it to feel familiar.
All of us need to cry at the gate, and all of us need compassion when we do. Sometimes we need someone to show us how to cry ourselves to sleep before we can do it on our own. This is what I tell myself when I steer her back to bed. Life changes faster than we can manage, and it makes sense to mourn that out loud every now and then. And if you get a backrub or a cup of cold water out of it, all the better.
She just pitched forward. I didn’t even see what initiated the fall; her hand had been on the stair rail last I looked. I turned to say something to her mother and then turned back and she was falling down the stairs headfirst. We were both at the top and I immediately recognized that I couldn’t jump to stop her without falling down myself and rolling over top of her.
This was at church Wednesday night, headed down to the Fellowship Hall to eat dinner. Three minutes before she had been playing out on the playground, climbing and running and jumping and swinging. On the playground equipment, I had watched her so much more closely, held her hand, told her she wasn’t big enough to swing on the monkey bars. And now here she was, tumbling down stairs like a rag doll. My heart nearly burst as I was flooded with thoughts: “Well, now my child is dead. It’s my fault for letting her go down the stairs by herself. And some other church member is going to turn the corner and see my daughter’s limp body rolling down the stairs and know that I am in fact the most terrible parent in the universe.”
After banging her head on the first stair (and these are church
stairs, people, not the soft carpeted cuddly stairs we have in our home), she rolled to the side, so that her fall went from head-over-heels to side-to-side. And – either because this new fall trajectory gave her more capacity for control, or because church stairs, in addition to being hard, are also wide – she was able to stop her descent at the fifth stair.
Naturally, she burst into a terrified scream. Once she had stopped moving, I leapt down to grab her up. I checked her head, her back, her elbows and knees. I could see a red bruise forming at the hairline of her scalp, but she appeared otherwise unscathed. I cradled her to my chest and spoke soothing words, trying to rock her gently. We walked past the hallway and, after ten seconds of screaming, she suddenly stopped, pointed to the Fellowship Hall, and said, “I want eat.”
“You want to eat?” I said, slightly suspicious.
“Are you okay?”
She wiped her eyes. “I want eat.”
“Well, let’s go eat, then.”
We walked down the hallway, and when we got into the Fellowship Hall and she saw some older boys chasing each other in the back, she pointed and said, “Boys! Down, Daddy. I want down.” Her tumble down the stairs seemed completely behind her. I can’t say she’d forgotten it; the next morning at home, she hesitated when walking down the stairs to breakfast, and she needed some coaxing and hand-holding. But the trauma was over and past.
For her, anyway. My heart was still racing. Even as we sat down at our table to eat and our churchgoing friends greeted us and smiled, we were both completely jacked. My hand shook as I held Curly Fries’ banana for her to peel. I felt on the verge of tears, either from horror or from relief. It was twenty minutes before my adrenaline subsided. Just in writing this post and remembering how it felt to watch her falling, I can feel my stomach tightening with a sick feeling. I can’t even say that time slowed down as I watched her fall; it happened in real time, neither slow nor fast. But I remember that sense that a mistake had been made, a critical error that could never be erased, and for just a moment I felt frozen into the realization that I would have to watch and wait before I could know what the damage was going to be.
Welcome to parenthood. In just a single moment, your very sense of existence can shatter, only to be put right back together again. Any parent who has turned around in the supermarket to find their child isn’t standing in the same spot knows the feeling. Turns out she’s just standing over there
, but in that one moment it seems like the essence of reality has plunged a dagger into your heart. A constant threat assessment runs in the back of your mind, using up valuable memory space that you previously used to enjoy your life. And there’s always the sense that you’re just waiting for a damage appraisal, preparing yourself with contingency plans for how we will cope.
I’m so glad life isn’t like this for my child. I can’t believe how resilient her little body is. If it had been me that had tumbled down the stairs the way she did, I’d be in the hospital right now. Of course, I’m much taller and have a lot farther to fall; I’d have fallen those five steps before my head had even hit one yet. But it takes a week or more for a bruise on my body to heal. Hers is already gone. This is due to the rapid pace of growth that her little body is undergoing. Children literally grow so fast
, and naturally their bumps and scrapes and wounds heal over quickly. It’s amazing how she can literally walk off a spill like that, how she can smack her face against the side of the slide halfway down and, blood still dripping down her nose, want to get back on and finish the trip down
. I wish I were that resilient. But the truth is, I am still
hurting from her
fall down the stairs a few nights ago.
I know there are many more scrapes and bumps and falls in my child’s future. I can probably go ahead and plan on taking her to the Emergency Room a couple of times, count on a broken arm or leg, plenty more bloody noses. And I can count on the hurts that don’t bleed or bruise: broken hearts and hurt feelings and wounded prides. It makes me want to cry to even see those words on the page, but I know it’s true. And I just trust that my child will continue to be resilient and strong. Stronger than I am, that’s my new prayer. Please God, let my child be stronger than I am. I’m not sure I can be as resilient to the pains my child suffers as she is.
When people tell you love is painful, believe them. The more intense the love, the more frightening life becomes. But, damn, is it worth it. Because when I see her shake it off – bloody nose, skinned knees, bruised head, hurt feelings, whatever – I am so proud of her that I could shout. Seems like a small thing, I suppose. But who doesn’t feel the need to rejoice at every moment where you seem to snatch life away from the jaws of death? That’s parenthood: a thousand daily moments of watching life being snatched away from death. And if I get to participate in that, then I suppose I am strong. So long as my child is stronger than I am.
A year ago today, I wrote a blog about what birthdays mean to me now
. Today, on my thirty-fourth birthday and my daughter’s second birthday, I revisited this post. I’m not sure there is much more that I could add to the sentiments I posted last year, other than to give thanks for all the adventures that have occurred between ages one and two.
For footsteps, slow and uncertain
, then speedy and steady, I am thankful.
For the blissfully beautiful moments when she discovered something new about her body
, I am thankful.
For each friend she has found in the little people around her
, I am thankful.
For every single word of praise and encouragement
I’ve heard from the adults in her life – and ours – I am thankful.
For new games invented and shared
, I am thankful.
For the ever-improving ability to express anger and disappointment with dramatic flair and volume
, I am thankful.
For the opportunity to once again become a little child and enter the kingdom of heaven and truth
, I am so thankful.
For the challenge, revolution and transformation that has taken place in my partnership with my spouse
, I am thankful.
For the magnificently out-of-tune warbling of joyous sing-alongs
, I am thankful.
For pink ribbons and pigtails and glittery shoes and the smile that accompanies her glimpse in the mirror
, I am thankful.
For the unbelievably rich blessing of comforting my child in the dark of night
, I am thankful.
For the simplicity of earnest words formed by an innocent tongue
, I am thankful.
Last year, I wrote: “It’s ridiculous how thankful I am for her life. Her life has made my life infinitely richer, and I could not be more grateful… I praise God for her life and I am thankful that my life could give to hers. And I will never fail to give thanks for each year that I have with her – for each day. May she always know that her daddy is thankful for her life.” This is even more true today. The only way that I can imagine a father being more grateful for his daughter’s life is to imagine what I will have to say next year.
Everyone who knows me in the real world already knows that several days ago my little girl told me she loved me. I’ve told nearly everyone I’ve seen face-to-face since it happened, not to mention having posted it on Facebook in several different formats (as the staged photo below attests).
It happened naturally enough. She woke up early and my spouse brought her in to me while I was still in bed to keep her entertained until my spouse finished her morning routine and could feed her breakfast. We cuddled in bed and read books and hid under the covers until Mommy was ready. When Mommy came and lifted her out of bed, she waved at me and said it: “I love you, Daddy.” That’s amazing and precious already, isn’t it? But of course, she pronounces “love” as “wub,” so that just makes it even more heartbreakingly adorable.
As the photo clarifies, she said this “without any prompting.” This was not the first “l love you” that either I or her Mommy have received. We have, like all parents, been coaching her to do and say cute, adorable things. (We taught her to copy an obscure character from the already-obscure TV show Community, but that’s proven to be too culturally specific for most people to fully appreciate.) We say “I love you” to her when we put her down at night, and we say it slow for her to repeat it back to us. She’s pretty good at parroting phrases, so we’ve heard her say “I love you” in response to our prompts and coaching.
But at some point, children start doing things on their own. And so I was the fortunate recipient of her first spontaneous “I love you” offered at precisely the perfect moment.
Does she know what it means to love someone? I doubt it. At least, not the way I mean it when I say it. Of course, she does love me, with every ounce of love and care that a two-year-old is capable of feeling. But does she know that this is what she is saying to me? The cynical side of me says no. But then again, she said it after cuddling and playing with me in the morning. She didn’t say it while eating, or sitting on the potty. She said it at precisely the most correct and appropriate time. So it’s not simple repetition of sounds; she understands its context if not its nuanced meaning.
This is how children learn: socialized context. I remember when she first began smiling. I don’t think those first smiles were about expressing her true emotions; I think they were about eliciting coos and cuddles from the adults in her life (which then made her emotionally happy). Does that mean her smiles are false attempts meant to manipulate those around her? No, not anymore. But we all have to start learning from nothing.
Remember your first kiss? Remember how awkward it was? It was forced, contrived, perhaps sloppily mechanical, and was an attempt to approximate what you thought a kiss was supposed to be like. Hopefully, you’re better at kissing now (if not, then I hope you find someone you can practice with, because kissing is awesome). When you kiss someone now, what are the reasons you do it? It could be genuine emotional expression on your part, or it could be for the benefit of the person you kiss, or it could be because it feels like the appropriate action in that particular context. Most likely, it’s a mix of all three. But hopefully, your kisses are genuine and natural and easy. But they didn’t start that way.
We’ve been teaching our little girl to say “please” and “thank you.” These are phrases she learned in sign language even before she could speak. She can say “please,” but she still signs “thank you” (the th and nk sounds are still pretty advanced for her). Last night at church, our good friend KJ was kind enough to share her cookie with our daughter. The first bite she shared, we said to her, “Can you say ‘thank you’?” Our girl dutifully signed her thanks. For the second bite of cookie, she then signed her thanks again while we weren’t even looking. KJ happily reported, “She said ‘thank you’ spontaneously.” We were thrilled, but again – does our little girl understand the concept of gratitude? Or did she just say “thank you” because she’s learned that’s the socially appropriate response to someone giving you something?
At this stage, I don’t care; her behavior is appropriate. And we affirm it appropriately, which in turn reinforces the behavior and helps her begin making the connections to the deeper meanings of her words and actions. I want her to grow up saying “thank you” when people are generous to her, and one day in the future it will click for her, and she will understand that this behavior is not simply socially appropriate, but it’s socially appropriate for a reason: that another person’s generosity evokes a sense of thankfulness, and expressing this thankfulness is good and right.
Which brings me back to her saying that she loves me. I’ve no doubt she does love me, to the extent that a toddler can love another person. And let me clarify: I think that extent is pretty large, particularly when it comes to her parents. I don’t think she can comprehend or understand it, but I know that her emotional attachment to me and her mother is vast and intense. Much of it is based on dependence, of course, but it is still real. I can’t know to what degree she understands her expression when she said she loved me. But she understands several things. First, she understands the context. That phrase was spoken in a moment of tenderness and intimacy, just as it is each time we say it to her. Secondly, and perhaps most significantly, she understands the response it gets from us when she says it. Of course the day will come when she will use those words for completely selfish purposes (“I love you, Daddy! Can I have the car tonight?”). But she is learning that those words are connected with the warmth and affection that she feels from us and for us. It’s the beginning of her experiences of what love is all about. This is both exciting and scary: that as she grows into an adult, all of her experiences of love – with her friends, with her family, with her lovers, with God – all stem from these beginning experiences of safety, acceptance, compassion and care. When I put that last sentence on paper, I’m tempted to feel a lot of pressure. But mostly I’m just deeply honored and grateful. What a blessing that I get to teach this beautiful creature what love is all about! But what I felt when I heard her say “I love you, Daddy,” wasn’t the satisfaction that I’m appropriately socializing my child, but the deep and heart-wrenching joy of experiencing love in its most basic and purest form. That’s the most divine of reversals: that this beautiful creature is teaching me what love is all about.
There’s the old trope that a psychotherapist will ask a new client to recount his or her earliest memory. I suppose in the recesses of Freudian or Jungian psychoanalytic theory, there is some truth in how a person’s earliest memory of childhood captures the basic experience of one’s early family issues. My earliest memory is one I’ve held for many years. By this I mean that it is an image that has been clear and memorable for a good part of my life. I didn’t recently uncover it or remember it; I honestly feel as if I’ve always remembered it. I was probably between one and two years old, but possible younger. I’m reasonably certain I was pre-verbal because I have no recollections of any words being spoken or otherwise attached to my recollection of this image.
I was in my crib in my room. It was dark in the room and I was supposed to be sleeping. I think it was a nap during the day, because I vaguely remember some sunlight shining through the curtains of the window, which was just over where my crib was against the wall. I was afraid. I don’t remember anything specific of which I needed to be afraid, but I was scared and I didn’t want to be alone. I was standing in the crib, with my hands on the rail, crying. And then the door to my room opened and my father came in. I remember that he was smiling and I can still picture his thick dark beard and glasses. He came in and picked me up. The relief I felt instantly overcame whatever fear I had to have my father come to comfort me.
The psychoanalytic tendency would be to name how I felt safe in the household in which I grew up. That I could depend on my parents to provide a holding environment that reliably soothed and comforted me when I was anxious. I suppose one could also analyze this image as a foundation for a smothering, overprotective household, but I don’t think the rest of my memories and experiences as a child really bear that out.
I know that memories are crafted, molded, even manufactured through the many filters of cognition and reflection and that each time we remember one we change and tweak and redact it. I know that we can be convinced to remember memories we didn’t even experience, as I know I can do remembering a time when my brother threw up beets in the car. I wasn’t there for that, but my parents have told that story so many times I remember it as if I had been sitting next to him. I know memories are factually inaccurate and unreliable, particularly the older they are and the younger we were when they occurred. I don’t pretend to present this earliest memory of mine as if it’s completely accurate or as if it hasn’t developed over time. Did I really see my dad in his thick dark beard? Or do I only remember that from the pictures I’ve seen of my dad during those years when I was such a young child? Who knows? But that memory does indeed capture the overall sense of the home I grew up in, regardless of whether it’s factually true or not. It’s true to my experience.
I have no idea what my little girl will remember of her life so far. Of course, I will remember many small details of it. Every week she does something that strikes me as remarkable and amazing and if I forget something she’s done it’s only so I can make room for the new thing she did today. But her brain is still growing and changing at an unbelievably rapid pace; on a cellular level, her brain is likely to be a completely different organ a year or two from now. When she is grown, what will her earliest memory be? Will she remember any of these past two years? Will she remember the trip to the aquarium? Will she remember her mother taking her to see the bunnies at Easter? Will she remember riding in her car seat? Or the time we stayed up all night when she had her stomach bug?
I have brought my earliest memory back to the front of my consciousness because I relived it last week, except I was the father. Our little girl awoke in the night, suddenly and loudly and abruptly with a shrill shriek. She didn’t have a fever or a dirty diaper; I’m pretty sure she had a nightmare that shook her awake with fear and loneliness. And so I got out of bed and went to her room to open the door and see her standing in the crib, her hands on the rail, crying. And I smiled and picked her up and she immediately fell quiet and wrapped her arms around my neck and sighed a deep breath of relief. And in that moment I saw myself through the eyes of my own father, entering my room to comfort and hold me. We sat down in the rocker and I hummed to her and felt her warm body against my bare chest and noticed her breathing slow as the last few tears ran off her cheeks onto my shoulder and dried. When I laid her back down five minutes later she was sound asleep.
Do you remember in the Gospels when it says that Mary “treasured these things in her heart”? Watching her child grow, witnessing all the strange amazing things her little boy did, she didn’t just remember but she treasured in her heart. I think all loving parents do this with their children, but I think children do this with their loving parents, too. My earliest memory is probably not really an accurate memory, it’s more of a treasure, and the heart is far less interested in capturing a historical fact. That’s why my mind reserves images and sensations for what is ultimately an experience of love and safety and comfort that cannot be described. And now as a father, I treasure in my heart each moment that I help to construct and hold the loving home in which my daughter will grow up. It’s hard to even describe the kind of joy I felt to hold her in the middle of the night, to comfort her in the wake of sleeping terror, because I know how powerfully relieving it is know that someone will come to me when I cry and hold me and love me.
Maybe one day my daughter will have children of her own and she will go into her child’s room to comfort her child’s cries and she will remember when her father came in to her room to comfort him just as my father came in to my room, like an infinite Droste effect of parental comfort spanning generations. Who knows, maybe she won’t remember when I came in to hold her in the night; there’s so much for her to remember, and even more for her to forget. But I will never forget.