On Saturday night, we made a Target run. The purpose of this was twofold, as most of our Target runs are. First, pick up things we need. Secondly, entertain Curly Fries, who always finds exciting the red décor of “The Store” and the prospect of new stickers. Getting to Target in Charlotte, however, is a bit more of an undertaking than it is getting to the Target in Kernersville. By the time we finished, we knew we didn’t have long before the clock ran out on Curly Fries’ patience for dinnertime. So we made another common gambit with multiple goals: we took her to Chik-fil-A.
Curly Fries loves Chik-fil-A for the same two reasons that all kids in America love Chik-fil-A: waffle fries and a playground. (The chicken, however good it may be for fast-food restaurants, is incidental.) We promised her she could play on the playground after eating her dinner IF she ate all her chicken and behaved. We’re at a stage when the bargaining is rather effective, and she ate every bit of her chicken while sitting on her bottom and keeping her voice at a reasonable volume. She even shared some of her fries with us and drank every drop of her milk, and she triumphantly declared that she was full and it was time to play.
This particular Chik-fil-A had a nice outdoor playground area, with several tables for families on a covered patio. We ran to the shoe shelf as she hurriedly stripped off her shoes and socks, longingly watching the six other kids playing rowdily on the red and green plastic play structures. We told her we would be watching from an empty table at the back of the patio, and then we set her free to play.
Normally my kid dives into her rewards with overzealous enthusiasm, particularly if it’s a reward she named for herself and worked hard to achieve. After all, three-year-olds are not known for their capacity to savor pleasures. But Curly Fries didn’t run to the jungle gym or start climbing up the slide. Instead, she hovered in the neutral zone between the playground and the picnic tables, watching the other children frolicking and yelling all over through the giant plastic tunnels. She didn’t look back at us, but neither did she play. Gradually she drifted to one side, parking herself against the fence.
Minutes went by like that: her leaning against the fence, halfway between the playground and the tables, watching. As we sat and observed this, I began to get impatient. If you’re not going to play, let’s go home, I thought. You can stand around quietly in our apartment where we can fix ourselves some real dinner. I finally got up and went to her.
“Are you going to play?” I said as gently as I could.
“I wait my turn,” she said.
“Honey, you don’t have to wait your turn. You can play at the same time as the other kids do.”
“You come with me?” she asked.
“Honey, I’m much too big for that playground.”
Never taking her gaze off the other children, she said, “I wait for the other kids to finish.”
Then I looked into her eyes and saw mirrored back to me the familiar pains of shyness: sadness and longing and a touch of shame. Never deny the power of our own projections; there’s something overwhelmingly truthful in the ways we project onto our children, even when it’s inaccurate. In that moment, squatting before her against the fences watching her wait for the other kids to go away before she felt comfortable to play, I saw myself as a child and my heart broke for all the ways I missed out for being shy and quiet and longing to fit in. And then my heart broke again as I felt my own child experiencing that same heartbreak and I loved her more deeply than I had all day long while simultaneously loving myself with a tenderness I had never experienced. Then my throat got tight and my eyes filled with tears and I felt guilty for all the ways I was responsible for keeping her from freely playing without concern. I wanted to undo all the change and transition I had suddenly heaped on her for taking another job. I wanted her to be living in her old house and playing with her familiar friends and going to the same church. I wanted to change her heredity so she hadn’t inherited from me whatever little gene sequence engenders bashfulness and crippling introversion. I felt a strange and conflicting desire to both introduce her to every child on the playground and then tell them to get the hell off of it so my little girl could play without anxiety. I wanted to hold her and tell her everything was okay. But more than any of that, I really wanted someone to hold me and tell me that everything was okay.
I’ve come a long way since I was a small child leaning against the fence and longing to feel safe playing with other kids. But I still kind of feel that way. I think of all the ways that I’m hugging the fence and waiting for everyone else to finish and give me space in this new big city or at my new big job. I haven’t figured out the traffic patterns and I don’t know my way around the hospital and I don’t know where things are in the city and I don’t have friends here and I’m ashamed for being new and jealous of everyone who knows what they’re doing and where they’re going.
Our children give us gifts every day simply by being in the world with us. Perhaps the most powerful gifts come in the moments when we see our raw vulnerabilities reflected back to us in our children. It opens up a deep gulf of compassion in our hearts and enables us to travel back into our past and find compassion for ourselves and other people a little more authentically than we had been capable of doing before. Another word for this gift is love. My heart swells to think of the burdens and blessings that my child and I will share with one another and I have such hope that maybe having come as far as I’ve come I might be able to help my child play a little more freely than I was able to then, and perhaps she can help me play a little more freely now than I feel willing to do.
Eventually, the other children on the playground figured out that Curly Fries was too shy to play. They invited her to join them, showed her how to climb the slide, told her how much fun it was. Their unfiltered enthusiasm and curiosity touched me, but it wasn’t enough to coax her onto the playground. That had to come from Mommy, of course. And once she got to playing she forgot about us and her shyness and whatever else had kept her from jumping in. She went down the slide and she climbed the ladders and she turned all the wheels and one kid ran back to his parents to tell them all about the new friend he’d just made. When it was time for us to go, Curly Fries said, “I want to stay here.” It was sweet and I nearly gave in out of admiration and envy of her carefree abandon. I also want to get to a place of freedom and comfort and safety where I can play without care, and I’m sure I will want to stay there when I find it. We don’t just take our children to that place and make them live there; we have to find it together.