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.