I have a very distinct memory about the first time I can remember feeling shame. I was in preschool, maybe four or five years old (my daughter’s age – spoiler alert!). I did something I wasn’t supposed to do. I was put in time-out in a corner of the room after being called out by the teacher. I was scolded in front of the class and sent to the time-out corner. There I sat, being watched by my classmates, as I cried and sulked.
As my earliest memory of shame, I’m intrigued by the things I don’t remember. I don’t remember what I did to get into trouble. I don’t remember who the teacher was. I don’t remember any of my classmates. I don’t really remember what the classroom looked like. I don’t remember what happened to get me out of trouble. I assume that, at some point, the teacher decided I’d paid my debt and released me from time-out to rejoin my peers. But I don’t remember that.
Here is what I do remember: I remember sobbing. I remember being very angry. I was angry that the teacher was punishing me; I was angry that my peers were watching; I was angry that I’d done something wrong. I also remember feeling guilty. Whatever it was I got in trouble over, I knew I’d done it and that it was something deserving of punishment. My guilt had perhaps a touch of defiance: I had done it and I wouldn’t pretend I hadn’t. And yet, more than anything, my guilt was about regret, because whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t worth the humiliation and pain I was then experiencing.
More than anything, I remember wanting to disappear. I wanted to hide from the looks of my classmates. I can recall my recognition that each of them had at one point been where I was, but at that moment, it was me and not them. Their expressions were a mix of pity and relief and they burned me. I didn’t want them to see me crying, but their seeing me made me cry harder. It seems reasonable to guess that I had perhaps experienced emotions of guilt, anger, embarrassment, sadness, and regret before that moment. But the hot burning sensation of all of these emotions – the deep, overwhelming shame – well, this was new and terrible and I’ll never forget it.
This foundational memory was brought to the surface of my consciousness yesterday when I picked up my daughter who was obviously having her own foundational shame experience. The signs became painfully obvious and right away and it didn’t take long for me to recognize what was happening to her.
When I walked in, she was standing by herself playing with some blocks. She refused to look at me, even when I said her name.
The teacher explained that she “might be a little upset.” She told me my daughter had just gotten out of time-out for coloring on another classmate’s paper. Three times the teacher told her to stop, but she didn’t.
I told my daughter to get her coat, that we were going to eat dinner with her grandparents. She announced to the room, “I’m going to my Grandmom’s house!” But it wasn’t with delight or glee; it was clearly in anger and defiance. She might as well have added, “And none of you can come!”
Robin (not his real name), the victim of my daughter’s errant coloring, then came over to show me his artwork. He, with great animation, pointed to a large swath of yellow on an otherwise unimpressive drawing of who-knows-what and said, “This is what she did!” With that, my daughter burst into tears and ran from the room into the hallway. The teacher apologized, offering that this was the first time she’d had to correct my child. Of course, I assured her no apology was necessary, that she’d done the right thing. And in that moment, I could feel my own foundational shame coming back to the surface, albeit with a new adult distance of respect. If my child needs correcting, I want her to get it, I thought. And I also thought, oh I hate that she has to feel what she’s feeling right now.
I went out into the hall and found her sobbing in a corner. I put her jacket on and held her hand as we walked to the car.
“Can you tell me what’s making you cry?” I asked as gently as I could.
“I didn’t finish my artwork!” she wailed.
I waited a moment, and asked, “Is that really why you’re crying?”
“I had a rough day,” she admitted as I buckled her in. “I got put in time-out.”
“What did you do to get put into time-out?”
“Robin said I colored on his paper, but I didn’t!”
“Why would Robin say that?”
“I don’t know! He’s telling stories!”
I didn’t believe her for a second. And in that moment, I comprehended her shame so clearly: it hurt so bad to be seen, by her teacher and her classmates and now her own father, that she was resorting to lying. She was that desperate to hide.
“Please don’t lie to me,” I said. “Your teacher said she saw you.” I waited a moment. “Sometimes we mess up and do bad things and get in trouble. I want you to be honest with me. Did you color on Robin’s paper?”
Whimpering, she nodded, “Mmm hmm.”
“So Robin wasn’t telling stories, was he?”
“Why did you lie to me?”
She said, “I didn’t want you to find out.”
Which, of course, makes no sense on the surface. The teacher told me right away, not to mention Robin himself. I’d already found out. You can’t unfind things out.
And yet… wow. How many times have I tried to fudge my way out of a painful truth? When I was fifteen, I snuck out of the house with my friend during a sleepover. When we came back to the house, my parents were up and looking for us. It was immediately clear we’d been caught, and yet I still scrambled back into my room through the window desperately trying to come up with a story that would explain away where we’d been and why nothing was wrong. Even now as an adult, I catch myself trying to minimize my mistakes, shift blame away from myself, downplay any negative effects. Ultimately, I wonder, if we all try to weasel out of responsibility not because we’re afraid of the consequences of our mistakes, but because it feels so toxic to be seen making them.
I tried to go for the teaching moment in the car with my daughter. I told her I wanted her to be honest with me, and honesty meant admitting our mistakes and accepting the consequences. I told her I loved her, even when she did things wrong. I told her we can learn from when we do bad things, and that everyone does them. I promised her that if she always told me the truth, even about things she did wrong, that I would try to be more patient and calm than if she lied and tried to cover over her mistakes. I don’t know if any of that will sink in; it’s the parental duty to snatch a teaching moment, even if it doesn’t take, so I went for it. But what I really wanted to do for her, even in the teaching, was to help her tolerate being seen messing up. So I told her again that I loved her.
There’s no shaking our shame. Shame is some goddamn potent shit, no question. I still have plenty of my own shame still lying around; to this day I can feel the hot rise in my cheeks remembering my preschool classmates watching me cry in the corner. And that’s just my earliest memory of shame; if I were ranking my most intense memories of shame, that one wouldn’t make the top five. Even with all that shame that still follows me around, what helps me heal, what keeps me from collapsing under its crippling weight, is the very thing that feels so lethal: being seen.
I know deep, deep down in my darkest depths the burning, consuming fire of shame that comes with being seen as we falter. I know, too, how poisonous it feels when the eyes seeing us belong to those we love the most. This is the most insidious irony of all: the eyes that are actually the most forgiving usually feel the most deadly. More than teaching her honesty, I wanted to teach her that being seen by those who love us can be healing. I sure wish I had learned that truth sooner.
Up until maybe a few months ago, there was an essential beginning stage to our daughter’s bathtime routine: Naked Running. While we ran the water, she would strip her clothes off and then run naked through the house. Usually there would also be squealing involved as she thrilled to the sound of her voice. Once the bath was full, there would be one last lap down the hallway, and then into the water.
In the last few months, our lives have gotten more full, which results in the compression of routines. I didn’t realize that Naked Running had been excised from our bathtime routine until last week, when my little girl suddenly asked if she could do it before bath. Why not, I reasoned, even as I wondered where that part of the ritual had gone. Through the house she ran, giggling and delighting in the tactile pleasure of a little breeze rushing through the places where the sun doesn’t shine. It dawned on me that we have begun to set boundaries on the way she treats her body, particularly her private parts. She wipes herself after using the potty now; I encourage her to wash herself during bath; we tell her that she should only talk about her “gina” with family and the doctor. I also now request privacy from her when I am in the bathroom or shower, and encourage her to claim her own. This feels like an age-appropriate shift for teaching modesty and respect. But I couldn’t help but grieve a little as she delighted in her own nakedness, streaking through the house like a freed wood sprite. I know she can’t do that outside our house; that this society and world is really not safe for a young girl with no personal boundaries. But I really wish it were.
At the beginning of this Lenten season, I am mindful of the creation story. We are, Ash Wednesday reminds us, made of dust. According to the creation narrative of Genesis 2, we are creatures made of earth. Literally: the name “Adam” is from the Hebrew word adamah, which means “dust from the ground” or “earth.” None of the other animals are described as being created this way; only humans have the distinction of being formed out of the dust. God then splits this living earth creature into two genders, man (ish) and woman (ishshah). Genesis 2:25 tells us they “were both naked, and were not ashamed.”
But oh how things change. There’s that one tree that God tells them not eat fruit from, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. You know the story: the serpent makes a pretty good case for eating the forbidden fruit to the woman (who had not been created when God first pronounced this tree off limits). She eats, gives it to the man, and then “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” When God comes looking for them, they hide. God calls out to the man, and the man says, “I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” God, puzzled by this turn of events, queries, “Who told you that you were naked?” Then the blame begins: the man blames the woman, the woman blames the serpent, everyone involved gets punished. God’s final word in his litany of punishment comes in Gen. 3:19b: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
To me, sin means all the ways we learn to be ashamed of our nakedness. I’m sad that we’re already teaching our daughter that nakedness is the exception; that such delighted freedom can only be safely enjoyed in rather strict circumstances. That is, unfortunately, the world we live in: broken, fallen, sinful, whatever word you want to use. We are so quick to hide our nakedness from others, even those who have seen it before. God had seen them naked; God made them naked. Yet they were ashamed and hid.
Lent is usually a solemn time, a time of fasting and repentance and self-reflection. I contend it might also be a time of celebration. Perhaps we might celebrate our dust-natures; maybe we could love our earthy, loamy body-selves in all their dirty glory. Penitence usually means that we allow ourselves to stop hiding, bringing our darkest selves out into the light. This Lent, perhaps it is time to do this without shame. After all, we’re not just unique because we’re the only creatures God fashioned from dust; we’re also the only creatures into which God breathed life.
So this year, Lent means to me an uncovering of my nakedness. My child, bless her, hasn’t learned to be anxious about her nakedness yet. She loves the uninhibited freedom of being unhidden. So this Lenten season, I’m going to try to be a little more naked. Don’t worry, I mean that metaphorically. I’m tempted to slip in a joke about how no one wants to see me naked, but you know what? I’m not going to do that. I’m not going shame my body like that. You can trust me to be socially appropriate, but I’m not going to make self-deprecating jokes about why I ought to stay hidden. I’m giving up shameful hiding for Lent.
We are dust and to dust we shall return. But we are dust with breath and that is something to celebrate. I hope your spirit finds opportunities in the next forty days to run free and unencumbered, to feel a little breeze rushing through those places you normally hide. Let go of some shame and rejoice in your naked dust-nature. And if there is also some squealing involved, thrill to the sound of your own voice. May your soul do some Naked Running.
(Inspiration from Mary Oliver)
I plan to put a record on
in my basement tonight after the sunlight fades.
Lady Soul, which came to me while
my fingers sifted through crates of cardboard,
the scent of earth and oil hanging
on my shirtsleeves. Behind the counter
a grizzled traveler sorted seventy-eights.
Each corner is a crinkled knuckle of
blue and faded white and I will
slide the black wax back into my palm,
with its label like the dusk against night
and the silvery shimmering circles
blinking bright in my eyes.
Ah, and the warm crisp crackle that will
fill the room like strong ale!
Tender tasks of care draw my child, and as I
lift my finger away from the needle she may
appear at my waist with eyes of questions and
curiosity (or maybe mischief).
Perhaps we will dance with the manners of
four-year-olds, stuttering limbs and wavering jabs,
and I will try to teach her to love all the ways
her little body moves in this world –
with a touch more joy, I pray,
than I have loved my own body.
There are only five songs to the side and then
the little one will tire. I will be left with the sound,
but before all this – before the grooves run out and
the stylus scrapes the sticker with thickening
stillness – before the dark sparkling slows to
a stop – before the pops of full-bodied
analogue dwindle – before the imperfect
wows and flutters smooth away to space –
I have this record to play.
On Monday, our daughter had a bad day. Her teachers scolded her for not listening. Her classmates didn’t want to play with her and told her she was mean. She came home in a bad mood over it. Not, as her usual bad moods manifest, hostile and defiant; but rather sullen and despondent.
At dinner, she spoke a little bit about it, telling us that her teachers had threatened she would miss a field trip if she didn’t listen better.
“Uh oh,” I said, trying to strike the balance between empathetic and didactic. “What was going on?”
“I had the issues,” she said.
Her mother and I looked at each other, puzzled. “What issues?” we asked.
She shrugged. “I didn’t listen. I had the issues today.”
“Do you want to talk about it?” her mother asked.
“No,” she said, “it’s too ridiculous.”
Just a reminder – she’s four. I can only imagine what dinner conversations about bad days are going to be like ten years now. (Actually, I imagine they’ll be exactly like this one.) Mondays are tough and more likely to be bad days than other weekdays. And, like most bad days, it’s not entirely other people’s fault. The more we drew out of her, the clearer it became she contributed to her own bad day.
“No one wanted to play with me today,” she said.
“They didn’t?” I asked. “What did they say to you?”
“They said I was mean and they didn’t like me.”
“What made them say that to you?”
“I was calling them names.”
“Oh. I see…”
So it’s true: she had the issues.
I can completely identify with her. After all, my worst days are not days where annoying things happen to me. They aren’t days where people seem to treat me rudely or dismissively; days when work doesn’t get done or some project fails; days when I am unexpectedly inconvenienced. Those things are not fun, of course, and don’t usually make it to my list of Good Days. But the worst days are days when I get into a frame of mind such that everything is awful. Often, something on the above list might provoke me into a gloomy, stormy mood, but not always. Some days I just wake up in a bad place and the day follows me there. My worst days are not days where the outside world is mean to me; they are days when I am the one with the issues.
My daughter’s insertion of the definite article in describing her issues struck us as cute and funny at first. I imagine she heard one of her teachers say something like, “You’re having issues today,” and she heard the ing sound as a the sound, interpolating this as “You have the issues today,” much like one would have the sniffles or the shits. How many times a week do we hear someone – ourselves included – say “I’m having issues.” It’s a popular vernacular term, and I have no problem with one of her teachers using it to describe her.
I think there’s some powerful – and unintentional – wisdom in my daughter’s mishearing the definite article. Generic issues, I mean, we all have those, am I right? But the issues, that’s different. The article “the” is often used to indicate something that is known as superior, such as “That is the camera to own,” or “They are the team to beat.” It is used to refer to proper nouns of particular significance; i.e., the Smoky Mountains or the Beatles. Anyone can have issues, but when you have The Issues, well, that’s of particular concern and import.
More than drawing attention to the significance of said issues, however, I think the definite article “the” draws attention to the most insightful aspect of one’s possession of issues. “The” can be used in place of a possessive pronoun when referring to someone’s belonging, body part, or possession. “I went to answer the phone,” or “I got kicked in the shin,” or “It’s in the car.” The implication, in all these examples, is that “the” stands in for “my.”
So when my daughter says “I had the issues,” it doesn’t just mean “I had the issues” but also “I had the issues.”
Our encouragement to her after a day of having the issues was, in its way, an invitation for her to take ownership. We told her she could do better the next day; that she could work to listen better; that she would have more friends if she didn’t call people names. But she was already taking ownership – linguistically, at least. It must have worked: Tuesday was a better day, she got to go on her field trip, and her friends have started playing with her again. It seems an important lesson to learn at her age – well, at any age – that a really bad day isn’t just about what happens to and around us, but how we respond to and internalize those happenings.
Generic issues are everywhere; we have them all the time. But our day only gets ruined by certain issues in particular – you know the ones. They may be different from mine, but we all have our issues. And they are our issues. That’s okay, we’re entitled to them, but if they’re going to ruin our day, we should claim them so they don’t claim us. Those truly bad days are usually happening inside of us. The issues get the better of us – that’s why they are the issues. But we have them, so we can respond to them.
Next time my day spirals out of control, I will think of my daughter. And I will have the issues.
Last week, driving home from picking up my daughter at school, we stopped at a busy intersection where a man in ragged clothes stood on the corner.
“Look at that man,” she said. “What’s he holding?”
“It’s a sign he made,” I said.
“What does the sign say?”
“‘Homeless and hungry, please help,’” I read.
There was a moment of silence in the car.
“He doesn’t have anywhere to live,” she said, processing.
Then, softly, she said, “We could give him some money, maybe.”
“We could,” I said. “But the only money I have with me is the two dollar bills your Grammy sent you. Do you want to give him those two dollars?”
“Yes, we should help him.”
I rolled down the window and the man came over. Both his hat and sweatshirt had the U.S. Navy insignia on them. “It’s not much, but I hope it helps you,” I said.
“God bless you,” he said.
We drove off. My daughter was quiet for a moment. Then, quietly enough so that it sounded like she was talking to herself, she said, “I hope he finds someplace warm to sleep.”
“I do, too,” I said, sad. “It’s very cold out.”
“I wish he could come to our house and stay,” she said, “and we could be friends.”
I looked in the rearview at her, watched her looking out the window into the winter dusk.
“That was very nice of you to give him the two dollars Grammy gave you,” I said.
She looked at me in the mirror and, as if reassuring me with an obvious fact, she said, “I’ll get more.”
It’s true that kids aren’t very good at sharing, but it isn’t because they don’t want others to have their things. This was the same kid who just a few weeks ago fought with her cousin over every toy either of them opened at Christmas. But I’m convinced that children don’t fight over toys because they’re stingy, but because they don’t understand the idea of limited resources. It doesn’t occur to them that if they take another child’s toy, it means that child will no longer have that toy. Likewise, I don’t think my daughter understood that giving her dollars to another man meant she would have less. Her primary orientation to the world is an expectation of abundance.
The world is not always abundant to all of us. It certainly isn’t abundant for that veteran standing on the corner last week. But my little girl is right about her own abundance: she will most definitely get more dollars from Grammy. She has a bed to sleep in all by herself; it’s big and warm and it’s in a room of her own in a house that has food and clothes and warm running water. She can’t see the ways she’s privileged and entitled, how she ignores the abundances of her life when she throws a fit because she can’t watch another Curious George cartoon or eat a piece of candy. But she isn’t selfish; she doesn’t want to withhold from others; she innocently wants everyone to enjoy the same abundance she takes for granted.
She’ll grow out of it. We all do, don’t we? Somewhere along the way we begin to learn that when we give something away, then we no longer have it, and we focus on the things we lack at the expense of others’ needs. The expectation of abundance quickly becomes one of scarcity. We give only when we’re certain we have plenty to spare or when it benefits us to give. We look at others in need and we hurt for their very real losses, but their scarcity reminds us of how we close we might be to our own lack, and abundance loses out. It won’t be long before my child understands that most of life is zero-sum and that giving means not having – and the most important thing is to always have.
I wish that wasn’t what happened to us. Because I think that there is actually a great deal of abundance in this world. I believe there’s enough food for all of us, enough shelter, enough water, enough light, enough work, enough friendship, enough love. I suppose that’s a little naïve on my part, but we drive through some rather nice neighborhoods on our way home and my daughter likes to point out the houses that have more than one chimney. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that there is enough heated indoor space in this city to physically accommodate every citizen with a warm place to sleep.
There are limits to the abundance we personally experience. We don’t have all the time in the world, or all the energy and investment, or all the resources. Sometimes individually we don’t have enough money, enough energy, enough love. The idea seems so scary because I have stopped trusting that others are out there to help me. Maybe it’s because I know that the world has bought into the lie of zero sum. Maybe it’s because I would rather take on too much responsibility so I won’t have to ask for help. Whatever the reason, I’ve forgotten that when my well runs dry, I can say with confidence, “I’ll get more.”
I hope that this year is a year of abundance for you and your family: health, money, happiness, etc. But more than just being a recipient of abundance, may we reclaim that sweetly beautiful belief that we can give because we’ll surely get more.
When I was in third grade, my father took me to buy my brother a Christmas gift. We went to a local toy store downtown and he told me to pick out a toy I thought my brother would like. I went straight to the Transformers. In 1986, Transformers were the new cool toy, unspoiled by an oversaturated market or Michael Bay. All my friends had one, and on the school bus they would each brag about how theirs would beat the others in a battle. They were also rather intricate toys, with small parts and complicated directions for converting them from robot to vehicle and back again. So I picked out the coolest one the store had on shelf: a Decepticon called Thundercracker
My brother was in kindergarten, and my father perhaps should have noticed that a Transformer was a little beyond his age range. But I suppose he could see the excitement on my face as I ran down the aisle with the toy I’d chosen. He bought it, we went home and wrapped it, and I wrote my brother’s name on the tag.
On Christmas morning, I was so eager for my brother to open the Transformer. Once the gifts were opened and my parents and grandparents retreated to the kitchen for breakfast, I took my brother’s Transformer to play with it. He didn’t notice; he was more engulfed in the other age-appropriate toys he’d opened.
I can remember transforming it back and forth, firing the spring-loaded missiles, walking it across the bookshelves in my grandparents’ living room. After some time of engrossing play, my father came into the room and asked me why I was playing with my brother’s toy.
“He’s playing with other toys,” I answered.
“That’s his gift. You picked it out for him.”
“But he doesn’t even want it!” I insisted.
My father knelt beside me, gently taking the Transformer out of my hand as he realized what was happening. “Son,” he said, “we don’t give things to people because we want it for ourselves. That’s not a gift. A gift is something we want the other person to have.” The Transformer went back to my brother’s pile of toys, and from then on sat in his closet collecting dust.
I once had a girlfriend who was a terrible gift-giver. One Christmas she bought me several shirts, wrapped them all in a box, and told me to pick the one I liked best so she could return the others. Then for my birthday, she just took me to a store and told me to pick out something I liked and she’d pay for it. I’m not a gauzy romantic, but I know when a special occasion is being treated like a financial obligation.
But then there was the time she brought me back a gift from vacation. There was no occasion, she just saw it and thought of me and decided she had to give it to me. She was practically bubbling with enthusiasm in giving it to me, so I worked as hard as I could to fake excitement in receiving it. It was terrible; it was hideous, completely useless, and obviously unbelievably expensive. It was also the nicest gift she ever gave me. I held on to it long after we broke up because I didn’t have the heart to part with the one gift she truly wanted to give me. I think I really tried to want that gift; to find a way to appreciate it. I could feel the love behind her excitement for giving me something she wanted me to have. But I also wished she’d known me well enough to realize it wasn’t something I wanted. In this season of gifts, I get conflicted.
There are people in my life for whom gift-giving is an obligation, an expectation of family ties and convention. There are people in my life for whom gift-giving is a joy but a challenge; material things seem unimportant compared with what they mean to me. And then there’s the one person – my child – for whom gift-giving is just fun. She’s easy to please, I know what she likes, and her expectations are still pretty low. In all of these gift-giving opportunities, I wonder: what do I really want these people to have? What is “the joy of giving” that people so blithely talk about at Christmas?
The best gifts are not things. Here’s the part of the Christmas-themed blog where we cue up the whole “reason for the season” tropes. Jesus, salvation, etc. I could do that, but it would be lazy. If a gift is something we want another person to have and that meets them in their particular needs and wants, then a gift is something that comes out of our own self.
I like it when people buy me things, but when I think about the gifts
I’ve received, they are from people who knew me well enough to know the things I missed in my own life and want me to have them. They might have been things impossible to give me, like peace of mind or relief from grief. They might have been things I wasn’t consciously aware I needed, like kind words or a compassionate touch. Sometimes they were things I didn’t even know existed, like the wisdom my mentors have passed down to me. Sometimes they are exactly things I am looking for and know where to get them, as in the ways my spouse and I have learned to support and affirm one another through our years together. Sometimes I don’t even recognize the gifts I received until years later, like the ways I can see my parents having loved me over my life. It’s a radical, extravagant claim to say that every good and perfect gift comes from God.
That is such a bold thing to say about God’s presence in the world. With all the suffering and violence in this world, there are still so many tiny gifts awaiting us on our paths, little things from someone who wants to give that meet an emptiness in our life. Often as small as a warm meal or even a passing smile, these gifts are everywhere around us: kindness, compassion, grace, and forgiveness. When we see others missing these things and we want them to have them, we give a gift. When we listen to one another, to know one another, that is a gift. When we want someone else to have good things, that is a gift.
I am grateful for the people in my life who have shown me the divine spark of good gift-giving. I hope that this season I can meet their example, just a little, and offer love that I want someone else to have.
Yesterday, I had to pick my daughter up from school early because she threw up. She seemed completely fine: no fever, no diarrhea, no rash or hives, and she didn’t throw up again. She even ate a little dinner last night. So who knows.
But when my kid throws up at school, someone is by-gosh going to get her and take care of her. And yesterday that person was me.
On the thirty-minute commute home, I pulled the empty plastic container out of my lunch box for her to hold in her lap in case she got sick again. It filled my car with the smell of stewed chick peas, which is not nearly as appetizing in a cold wet car as it is in a warm kitchen. Also, the vomit still caked to her shirt had a little odor to it, too. I cracked the windows to give her a little air and I tried to keep her occupied with conversation. I asked her to run down the day and see if she could pinpoint when she’d started feeling sick and what happened. I was trying to ask her when she’d first knew she felt sick, but she heard it as me asking her when she first knew she was going to throw up.
“When it happened,” was her answer. “I didn’t know the throw-up was going to come out of my mouth until it did.”
“Yeah, that’s how throw-up works,” I grimly agreed.
We got home and got her changed. Grandmommy and Granddaddy came over. She watched Strawberry Shortcake on TV. She ate some crackers and soup. I let her take some toys into the bath with her. We bent some usual rules. By the time her grandparents left, she was her usual self: bouncing off the walls, hollering and laughing, clearly feeling fine. I would say I felt suddenly thankful for her apparent recovery, but I’d actually been feeling thankful for a while.
In that time that I was leaving my office and driving to pick her up, I didn’t know anything about how she was doing other than she threw up. I expected a fever; I expected more vomit in my car; I expected holiday travel plans would be canceled; I expected less sleep and burned-up PTO. I expected… well, not quite the worst, but much more worse than it turned out to be. And in the midst of my hurry to get to her, in the midst of anxiety and fear, in the midst of my mobilization of every internal emotional resource of strength and support that I could muster, you know what popped up? Gratitude.
Driving to her school, uncertain of what the next hours might bring, I was so grateful to have the chance to give care to my child. I never wish her sick, of course, but she’s got a human body susceptible to world just like all of us, and I’m glad I know what it’s like to so powerfully give my life to someone I love. I had already decided she was going to puke in my car again – might even puke on me – and that didn’t even slow me down. I’m thankful my child has someone like me to love her, not because I’m the amazingly perfect parent, but because we all need someone to love us. She has two parents who will nurse her when she’s sick; she has grandparents who would take her to the hospital if needed; she has a school with teachers who wipe vomit off her shoes; she has a doctor who is good with kids. And I have these things, too. I’m glad I can be a part of a community that cares for her – and others as well.
Driving to her, uncertain and anxious, I didn’t know that thanksgiving would bubble up from my heart until it suddenly did.
Because that’s how thanksgiving works.
I haven’t posted anything in the past few weeks. It’s been a very busy few weeks; I’ve done a lot of traveling for work, as has my spouse. Our daughter has bounced along mostly fine. Facetime is a great tool for keeping connected while one of us travels, and grandparents have been invaluable.
Another reason I haven’t posted anything is that, honestly, I haven’t been struck by much to write. This could be due to how busy I’ve been, that all my awareness has been dominated with the various comings and goings. But I’ve wondered if it is due to some kind of routine settling over our lives. Does there come a point when life settles and suddenly everything is no longer some provocative learning experience for parent and child? Is my four-and-a-half-year-old now at a stage where development levels off, where the milestones don’t pass by with less speed and frequency? Over the nearly five years that I’ve been writing this blog, there haven’t been too many weeks that I’ve struggled to come up with something to write. But the past few months have been that way.
I wonder if this is reflective of a larger theme of the journey of parenthood: if at some point parents settle in to their roles, grow accustomed to the emotional travails and triumphs, and find it slightly less life-altering to have a child running rough-shod over life? If so, is five years too late or too soon? And when the next milestone passes, how surprised will I be? Is this an eye in the hurricane, or a well-earned respite?
I could just be tired of writing. This blog has given me energy and hope and a space to reflect over the last five years, but it also takes energy. Perhaps I’m written out for the time being. That would be okay, too, I think. A sabbatical from the weekly task of written reflection might be what I need to recharge and refresh, come back with a renewed take on the growth of my child.
Before announcing an official hiatus from this blog, I might indulge in just a little more reflection before packing it in. If I feel this way, then how does my child feel? Does she also grow weary of the constant developmental circus, of the ceaseless processing of experience and insight? Some nights she won’t stay in bed, is so intent on continuing her exploration of play and energy. But other nights (or weekend afternoons) she tells us she is tired and willingly forsakes books or songs in favor of going straight to sleep. Children don’t always know how best to say they are tired and need a break, but they do seem better at it than adults.
Scientists say that growth occurs during rest. Muscles grow stronger not during active lifting of weights, but in their recovery afterwards. Neurons in the brain synchronize and solidify their new pathways during idle moments, perhaps most quickly during sleep. And I haven’t even started whipping out the theological themes of rest, Sabbath, and the commandment to let fields lie fallow. Perhaps it is time to be grateful for these periods when parenthood seems routine, not to mention coming off of a very busy month with the intent of resting in every possible aspect. I suppose I could enact a little wisdom by saying that I’m tired and ready for a nap.
I think it best to honor the rhythms of my life and announce that I am taking an intentional break from Shaken Parent Syndrome. I will not hold myself to the once-a-week posting schedule I have held over the past years. I am not quitting it, and I might even be inspired to return full-force in a week or two. Until then, blessings and rest to you. Enjoy the fallow naptimes of your life when you get them. There will be work and play to do when you awaken.
I’ve been feeling tender and raw this week. For various reasons, the personal boundaries between my own emotional existence and the sufferings of the world have felt particularly permeable in recent days. I’ve been more affected by the news of tragedies and deaths than I usually am, and it’s left me with a dull ache in my chest. This morning, when I went in to wake my daughter, I had an overwhelming urge to stay home with her. To keep the doors locked and the world away while my little girl slept peacefully, her beautiful hair stuck wetly with sweat to her forehead. To huddle on the bed next to her, surrounding her in safety. To treasure her warmth for as many uninterrupted minutes as I could manage to steal.
Of course, thirty minutes later I was snapping at her for not listening. Seriously, how many times do I need to ask to put some socks on? It’s not that hard. Thankfully, I checked my irritation before it led her into open defiance and revolt, instead of the benignly clueless lack of attention that comes with a four-year-old waking to a new day. After all, poor thing, she doesn’t know how blessed she is to have socks and shoes to ignore.
It’s amazing how quickly children can help us forget how lucky we are to have them. This very day, parents in my city will be told that their children have been taken from them through illness, incarceration, infertility, or death. I learn about shootings and bombings and disasters and I think of all the parents the world over who have lost their children and my heart breaks both for their pain and for my fickle appreciation for my own lovely child. Children who have lost parents are called orphans, but have you noticed that our language doesn’t have a word for parents who have lost children? It would just be too harsh a word to form on our tongues.
Most of the time I am able to move through the world and keep my eyes focused on the light of mundane and routine things, the darkness of tragedy merely fleeting shadows on the periphery of my vision. But I get weary sometimes, and I turn to stare at the blots of nothingness that creep around at all times, swallowing up other people whether I am watching or not. It makes me want to hold my child tightly, never let go. Well, at least until she starts squirming and kicking. And then we’re back to dragging ourselves around in the fake florescent light of comfort and privilege.
I’m not saying anything new or particularly insightful. This world is fragile; we all know it, or at least carry an inkling around in the back of our minds. We know, at least rationally, that there are no guarantees. Children are a blessing; cherish them; blah blah blah. Nothing takes me to the cheap intellectual assent of distant hypotheticals like a child who won’t put her socks on. I suppose that is its own blessing, that in an intense week of feeling the suffering of the world, I had a respite in my annoyance that my child wouldn’t listen to me. (Imagine that! A four-year-old not listening!)
Children are magicians. They will break your heart while simultaneously mending them and then irritate the piss out of you so fast that you forget you even have a heart. They build an expressway straight to the center of what’s most valuable to us, that One Thing without which we would sink into eternal despair. Then they litter that magnificent heart path with rubble and detritus so we close it down to all traffic until further notice. Children crack us open, in every possible sense, even as they crack us up… in every possible sense.
I understand why Jesus said we should become like children. I understand the service my child provides me every day, provoking me to new levels of frustration and empathy. I understand the mixed joy of weeping at the death and destruction in the world and laughing at the absurdly maddening details of not getting my way. They go hand in hand, really. I think that comingling of irritation, hope, sadness, and joy is what the Kingdom of God is all about. A place where darkness and light – real light, not the false glare of manufactured light – this is where the Divine invites us to dwell. And my child leads me there every day, her path littered with giggles and stains and those freaking socks she won’t put on.
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.