We are playing with puppets, acting out shows. Characters that H has named Old Grandma, New Grandma, Mama, Jack, Gretel, and Mathilda (a cow) make up The Family. The Family is the cast of the current show.
“It’s Grandma,” H says, directing Mama to the center of the stage.
“Is she a grandma now?” I ask. The instruction I had been given earlier was that the show starts with only Mama and everyone else in Mama’s uterus, so I guess that perhaps there has been a script change or a series of unannounced births.
“No, it’s Mama. She’s a witch!”
“A witch! She eats little people,” H tells me.
“She does!” My eyes go wide.
“Except she doesn’t eat hands. She spits them out.”
“And eats the rest,” I supply.
The show goes on.
H is in a season of wanting to hear and act out stories that get worse and worse. Terrible tragedies befall every protagonist, and seldom is any delivered from ruin or harm. The scenes are bleak, the unfortunate events unrelenting, the universe unforgiving.
I see him exploring the dark side of human nature and all those things we relegate to our shadows: fear, anger, confusion, resentment, despair, depression. It is as if he is asking, “What happens when everyone is angry?” And “How do I understand a world where there is so much pain?” And “What if people simply do unkind things much of the time? How would that be?” And “Is it okay to give voice to these things? Will I still be loved?”
It can be hard to wrap one’s mind around the shadow in a culture like ours that has turned away from it, where such a narrow range of expressed emotion is considered acceptable, where we repress things and then turn against each other with violent explosiveness.
He has been working on understanding it for months.
“You are not even— You are not— You are not even ANYWHERE!” H is furious, his small body wound tight with the indignity of the limit I had just set. He can hardly spit the words at me.
“Sweets, you sound upset.”
“You are NOT my friend. You are NOT good. You are NOT— You are NOT EVEN ALIVE.”
“You wish I were dead,” I reflect back to him. I am calm. Steady. I want him to know that he is seen and heard and that I can handle it.
“Yes! I wish you were dead and I had a stepmother!”
Folktales and fairy tales have been in heavy rotation during our reading time as of late. In a version of Hansel and Gretel we’ve read, the children’s mother has died, leaving them with a father so weak in spirit and character that he is unable to provide for the family and a stepmother who wants to be rid of the children because she has prioritized her need to eat over theirs. The children are repeatedly left in the forest by their father and stepmother before they find their way to a witch who imprisons them to fatten them up for later roasting and feasting. It is not a cheery story. H loves it.
We were several readings into Hansel and Gretel before he asked me to define stepmother. I explained in general terms, not calling on the specifics of our current family structure to help illustrate the concept, although that was fore in my mind as I carefully chose the words I used to describe the relationship between child and stepparent. He asked if he might someday have a stepmother. I said it was possible and left it at that.
Now he is angry.
It is not the first time that he has called me not good, disowned me, or wished me dead. These are age-appropriate expressions of real, deeply felt emotions that I do not take personally. I am not usually triggered by them, but this time I felt a pang of sadness, not for the expression of his anger and frustration, but for how close he came to my tender, wounded spots. How will I feel if one day H does have a stepmother? Will I be able to wish her well? Will I be able to embrace, truly and fully, her relationship with my son? What old feelings related to the dissolution of my marriage will be dredged up? Will I catch myself in moments overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy, shame, regret? Will I be able to embrace my shadow?
Whatever may come with regard to my co-parent’s marital status, what comes up for me will be my own personal work. H’s work now is to have all of his feelings, every single one, including those some would have him push into the shadows. His expression of those feelings is not about me. My work now, as his parent, is to make space for them all, to breathe into them, and to accept him just as he is. My work is to embrace his shadow so that he can embrace it, too.
It is hard to wrap one’s mind around the shadow in a culture like ours. I have been working on it for years, and here is another opportunity to practice.
He is angry, and I do not turn him away. I do not shame him. I do not shut him down. I sit with him.
We sit in the shadow together and breathe until we are embraced by light.