Category: personal growth

“Want to help me?” H asks his grandma.

She has just announced to the house that it’s time to get rid of the cottonwood seeds that have been drifting about on the dining room table for the past week. The white, fluffy puffs had been dancing through the sky gently, like angels, for days, dusting the lawn, catching in our sunflowers starts, stowing away beneath the thick growth of hostas and irises and cleaver.  H has clambered onto the chair at the head of the table in order to save his cottonwood seeds from certain composting.

“No,” his grandma says.

“Why not?”

“I’m busy eating.”

Her tone is fairly short, almost brusque.

“I know you’ll help later. A different time,” he says evenly, his voice filled with total and complete confidence that it will be so. I hear not even a hint of irritation, frustration, or anger. He sounds as if he were simply making a plain-as-day statement of fact.

Here he is again: My teacher. The words he’s using are mine, yes, but the spirit is all him and one I’m not sure I’ve been entirely successful at invoking every time I’ve come to those same words. So many of my invitations to help clean up, to put away, to clear the space for our next activity, to tidy up out of respect for our space and our belongings and the people living here – so many of these invitations have been declined, surely as many if not more than have been accepted. And I know, more often than I would like to admit, that the words have been buoyed up by a roiling undercurrent of frustration, one that is liable to break the surface and spill into the space between us. The words, when I attempt to use them as space holders, called forth as part of an effort not to say something damaging that I will later regret, fall short of what they could be, of what H has shown me they can be.

Here I am again: H’s student. I’m taking notes on how to pour peace, love, and trust into the words I place between us.

“I know you’ll help later. A different time.” Said without resentment, because I truly mean it, because I truly trust in him, in me, and in us. That’s the way I intend to say it next time and the time after that and until those words are no longer necessary. I’ll let them be words of peace.

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!”

“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.

“Yes!”

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.

H and I are nestled in the box seat at one end of a teeter totter. In front of us is a wide, rectangular platform sitting over a fulcrum of large metal coils and opposite is the mirror image of our seat. The Puget Sound laps placidly at the beach below us. The Olympic Mountains are out in all their glory. H and I chat about the various colors on the teeter totter and how they are similar and different from side to side.

Two kids run over and ask to join us. The boy, 7 or so years old, climbs into the open box seat, while his sister, 9 or 10 or maybe even 11, hops atop the rectangular platform and starts rocking. She’s strong and her balance is good and soon H and I are bouncing out of our seats. H is shrieking in delight. We laugh and pretend that we are being bounced into outer space.

At a pause in the rocking and bouncing, our young friends announce that they slept in a park last night. “Actually, we get to sleep in a park every night,” the girl says. “Yeah, but not this one. This one closes at night. I’m not sure which one we sleep in,” her brother adds. It seems apropos of nothing, but perhaps there was some lead up I missed.

I list various of the city parks, but none ring a bell with either of them and before long, they run off to play on the climbing structure nearby. I look out over the water to the mountains to anchor myself. I cannot think of a city park that stays open past 11 pm. Perhaps they mean they have been sleeping at a campground, but I know of none, besides homeless encampments, in the city, nor do I know why they would have used the word park to describe a campground.

The day is clear, the sky an unblemished deep blue. Seattle has unfurled its summer best on this still spring day. I reapply sunscreen on both me and H to keep the hot afternoon sun from burning us.

The boy calls over from the play structure. “We come here every day to cook. We probably need to get a motel soon.”

“Yeah?” I say and nod in acknowledgement. I wonder about their story. They have given me just enough to make one up, but not near enough to know their truth.

They both come back to bounce us on the teeter totter, then run off to chase each other with sticks. The girl takes her brother’s hat and another vigorous chase ensues. I notice things about them I hadn’t before, like how their clothes appear dingy; how the girl’s shoes seem too big; how I can catch the scent of stale laundry when she sits next to me on the teeter totter; how the boy’s hair is neatly trimmed; how their blond hair shines in the sun; how sensitive the girl is to the social and emotional needs of the younger kids around her; how they run wild and carefree.

There is a white van with a small U-Haul trailer parked near the picnic shelters behind us. Three adults – I imagine them to be the kids’ parents and a grandparent –  are sitting at a picnic table with food and drink spread before them. There is a dog. The adults offer pouches of juice to the kids. They are 100 or more meters from the playground, but they seem to keep a mindful eye on the whereabouts of the children.

H requests a round of pushes on the swing before we go, so we leave the teeter totter and walk closer to the beach to the swing set. H picks the yellow chair swing. It feels like the tips of his toes might graze the mountain tops in front of us with each forward push. I swing him higher and higher every time without him having to tell me, then it is time to head home.

H and I pass our young friends and their adults on our way down the hill. I wonder if they have just moved to the area. I wonder where they will sleep tonight. I wonder if we will see them at the park again sometime soon.

We stop for a nature pee under the protective canopy of an evergreen with long, weepy branches. H is sun soaked and tired. I help him remove his shoes and pants, then return his shoes to his feet so he does not have to stand with socks in dirt. I think about the deaths, health crises, divorce, and other separations and losses I have experienced in life. None of us gets through unscathed, and still I have so much. I redress H, pull him close, and whisper a prayer of gratitude and something extra for those kids to whomever might be listening. There but for the grace of God go I.

We go home.

“Nothing is wrong – whatever is happening is just “real life.”
—Tara Brach from Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha

***

“Want to run away from papi,” H tells me. He is in my arms, his legs kicking against my thighs like he’s gunning to win the Preakness.

“Papi, we’re running away from you!” I call as we swing a large arc past H’s father. This is a game we sometimes play during the transition from me to him. I keep my tone playful and light.

“No, no, no,” H protests, his whole body shaking in the negative and stiffening with tension, his distress growing with each no. “Run all the way to the gate!”

I freeze, uncertain about the turn I can feel the game taking. H continues to express his displeasure, now at our lack of motion.

“Love, you sound unhappy,” I say.

“Yeah,” he tells me.

“Would you like to talk about it?” I ask him, but it is too soon for conversation. The feelings need to bounce around his body and settle before we can find words to put to them. I stay still, waiting.

“We talked before about how I didn’t want to see papi,” H finally says, thrusting his body toward his father, who stands motionless some distance from us, watching silently. My heart hurts for how I imagine this might feel for him.

“Yes, we talked earlier about how you didn’t want to see papi,” I confirm.

“Why?” H asks.

“We talked about the fact that you didn’t want to see papi, but I’m not sure we uncovered the reasons,” I tell him.

H’s distress continues to escalate. I pull his small body into mine and ground myself by breathing deeply.

“Is it because it’s hard to be separated from mama?” I ask.

“Yeah, it’s hard to be separated.”

I can feel some of the tension release from his body.

“Yes, I feel that way, too. I don’t like to be separated from you either, my sweet. I know that papi loves you and enjoys spending time with you. I’m glad you get to spend this time with papi, and I don’t like to be separated from you. I am glad, and it’s hard.”

H has quieted. He is focused on me.

“You will be in my thoughts. And in my heart,” I tell him.

“Why?”

“Why? Because you are part of my heart,” I say.

“Is papi part of my heart?” H asks.

“Yes, he is,” I say.

H considers this for a moment. “Mama put me in the car,” he says.

For weeks I have been worrying about how difficult these transitions have been for H, wondering how to smooth the rough edges, wanting somehow to solve this problem for him. But in a moment of clarity I know that this is not my problem to solve, that fixing it for him – even if I could – would be a disservice. This is a rough patch we are passing through. It is not easy, and I do not like it but these are our current seas and we will be okay. We ARE okay. There is nothing wrong. This is just life, and there is nothing to do but to be present with H and whatever feelings arise in each moment. Then sit with my own broken heart.

Later, H calls me on FaceTime.

He and his papi tell me about seeing many small boats and one really big boat at the locks that morning.

“There was a speaker. And it said, ‘The locks are moving now.’” H’s voice is getting trembly. “And beep, beep, beep.” And then tears as big, deep sadness rises to the surface. It travels through the ether and hits me in the chest. I feel it, too.

I take a steadying breath to prepare myself to be fully present with him again.

“I will never leave you, love. I will never, ever leave you. I am here with you. I am here. We will get through this together. It is okay to cry,” I tell him.

We sit in silence, and after a while, I offer to read a book.

“Hippos go berserk,” I say, showing him the front cover, and then I begin to read. “One hippo, all alone, calls two hippos on the phone.”

We pass the part of the book where all the hippos must go away. “Nine hippos and a beast join eight hippos riding east, while seven hippos moving west leave six hippos quite distressed.”

By the time I get to distressed, he is crying again, tears heavy with all the pain in the world spilling down his cheeks.

“Sweets. Would you like me to read a different book instead?” I ask.

He nods through his tears, and we read a book about construction vehicles and farm equipment lifting, pushing, digging, dumping, chopping, pulling, and cutting and make a plan for him to call me again after dinner.

When he calls back, the entirety of our conversation is, “Mama, I am all done talking,” and he hangs up before I can say much at all. It is hard to know for sure whether the sadness has passed or whether he is soldiering on despite it, but he feels comfortable enough to stay with his father. I know in my heart that this is a good thing for both of them.

It’s hard not to worry when our children are in emotional distress, hard not to want to take the pain away for them. But what he needed most was my presence. He needed me to be with him, to be completely present with his feelings without attempting to cajole, talk, or distract him out of them. He needed me to bear witness to his hard time and be okay with him just as he was. Nothing was wrong, after all. It was just real life.

Still, sometimes real life breaks my heart.

Deep red berries strewn on pebble-studded pavement. Cement gray walls. Black trimmed white cotton t-shirt over blue and yellow and green plaid shorts. Gentle early evening light. Impossibly long 3-year-old legs planted behind sparsely vegetated branches. He plucks berries, tells stories. White striped midnight blue shoes travel on busy feet carrying out scenes plotted in his imagination. Magic unfolds. This is joy.

The news travels a circuitous route. Stomach drops. Stunned but not surprised. Thoughts race, collide, will not stop. I leave my body. World keeps spinning as I watch through thick glass, sounds muted. I sit, I stand, I walk, I smile, but I am not fully here.

Park bench. Man in neon yellow watches man in neon orange cut concrete. They trade places. Green upon green upon green sways in the breeze. A thought. After all the therapy, after all the meditation, after all the Buddhist readings, after all these years, I think the point is to escape this pain. If I were enough, if I were lovable, if I were good, this pain would not touch me.  If I were good, I would not be spinning. Agitated. Angry. Feeling out of control. I would not feel those ways, not now, not ever. But. I remind myself. Pema. You are the sky. Everything else – it’s just the weather. Children on merry go round shriek. The scales fall. This is not me. Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. I can sit with it, watch it. It will go. It is not me.

Blood red shirt. Aqua and blue and white plaid shorts. Sweet, gentle heart. “Sit. I made some space for you.” I recognize this as a sweet moment, but do not yet feel it fully in my body. I know though. This pain is survivable. It will not consume me. The capacity for joy will return.

Light yellow ochre and alizarin crimson skin on cool white sheets. Long day is over. I breathe. My body feels spacious. We snuggle and read and reminisce and sing. Bed full of grace. I can feel it again. This is joy.

“Wrap H up,” he requests as we walk home from the grocery store. The lengthening winter nights have crested with the Winter Solstice, but it is still middle-of-the-night dark at 5:30pm. I pull H into my ams and wrap the edges of my down coat around his body. Street lights send yellow pools of light down on us, illuminating our path at intervals large enough that they do not drown out the dark.

“H is cozy,” he tells me. He pushes his arm down into my sweater.

“Hi, H,” I say.

“Hi, milk. And hi, mama,” H replies.

“I have to tell you something,” I whisper to him.

“I love you,” he whispers back.

“Yes, I love you,” I say. I can feel a hum of joy filling my body, and I close my eyes to make an etching in my heart of this moment.

I want to keep it as a balm for the quiet sadness has settled in my soul these past days. It is a sadness for which I have plenty of explanations, but instead of analyzing it or thinking the feeling away, I have invited it to sit quietly with me, carrying it as gently as I carry H. I am hoping that this sadness will reveal its lesson in time or simply ebb into the vastness of the universe when we are both ready to part. Until then, we travel together, the sadness, H, and me. Perhaps the extra companion is what makes this ordinary moment glow especially warm. The weight of a growing toddler in my arms, the warmth of his small body pressed against mine, the playfulness with which he approaches the world, the dearness of his voice, the whispered I love yous, these tiny sparks shine especially bright in comparison to the darkness of the path I have been walking.

I notice the joy jostling with the sadness to make room for itself. I notice both feelings settling in my body. I notice that that both can exist simultaneously, that there is room enough. Perhaps this is one of the lessons the sadness is here to bring. That the heavy feelings will not consume me, that it is possible to feel all things at once, that remaining alive and open to the present moment, even though it can bring enormous pain, means experiencing more joy than I ever knew possible.

The nights are shortening and the heavy darkness of winter will soon give way to a light that will stretch itself into the the nooks and crannies of a beautiful city. Maybe it will be that way, too, with my soul.

“Are you waking up?” I ask H as I enter the bedroom. It is his first nighttime wake up. He has called out for me.

“Yeah,” he mumbles in his sweet toddler voice.

“Where are you?” I ask him. My eyes have not yet adjusted to the dark of the room.

“I’m on the bed,” he informs me.

I love the guilelessness with which he answers my questions about such things.

“Where are you?”

I am patting the bed carefully, but I have not located him yet.

“Are you waking up for milk?” I ask to fill the time between now and when I lie down next to him.

“Yeah. I’m waking up, because I am waking up,” he explains.

I smile at his circular explanation.

“I am waking up a lot,” he says.

My smile grows wider and spreads to my heart. He does wake a lot. I am not sure if his statement comes from self-awareness or from stringing together words he knows from other contexts in a way that happens to fit the truth. Either way, in this moment, he has found a way to expand the space in my heart yet again and even more than I knew possible, just by being himself. When I feel the vastness of the space in my heart, as I do now, I step more easily into the expansiveness of the universe and all of the possibility, wonder, and peace that comes with feeling connected to something larger than oneself.

H does wake a lot, and while I vaguely recall how good a night of solid, uninterrupted sleep feels, I am grateful for the lessons in the wake ups. This child, like all children, knows nature and spirit, and I am so lucky, at any hour of the day or night, to have him as my guide.

I want to hold up to the light words and actions of mine that don’t sit right in my gut, the ones that leave me feeling heavy and sad.

I want to face those words and actions and sort through them with an explorer’s curiosity about what I might find. What do they signal? What was the external landscape like? What were my emotional reserves at the time? What changes can I make to help bring my speech and behavior in line with my core values next time?

I want to do this with gentleness and respect toward myself, with a healthy sense of boundaries.

I want to acknowledge and take responsibility for those words and actions with the people who find themselves on the receiving end. I do not want to hide from the discomfort of the feelings and pretend that nothing has happened between us.

I want to do this with gentleness and respect toward others, with a healthy sense of boundaries.

So tomorrow I will say to H, “H sweetest, I have something to tell you.”

“I love you,” he might tell me, because he has taken up ‘I have something to tell you’ from me as an invitation to play at figuring out the vastness of my love for him.

“Yes, sweets, I love you. And there’s something else. I was frustrated last night. I was not patient, and I did not use words in the gentle, respectful way I want to. I did not like my tone. I used force when I need not have. I am sorry, sweets. Mama will do it differently next time. And I love you.”

“Mama don’t love H,” he might say, because this is part of our play.

“Yes! I love you! I can’t deny it! We don’t have to talk about it right now, but I can’t deny it!” I will say in an exaggerated, playful voice, doing my part to uphold the game.

He might laugh, as he usually does, and we might go round like this for a while.

Or he might want to talk about what happened at bedtime, how H wanted to walk and mama picked him up. About how H didn’t want to brush teeth and mama got frustrated. About how he pushed the brush repeatedly from his mouth to tell me things in his sweet, sweet voice and how mama said no no no with a stern voice. About how mama tried for the briefest moment before she thought better of it to wrestle H into stillness. About how mama held firm on one book even though H kept asking for two. If he wants to talk about it, I will tell him about a part he might not remember, how sleep came fast, one of his small legs thrown over my thigh, one tiny hand, palm face up, nestled next to his head. I will tell him about something he couldn’t know unless he heard it from me, about how I see all the ages he has been when I watch him sleep, how he is at once little little and in the NICU, a newborn at home, an older infant, a toddler. About how I try to imagine him in the future, at four, seven, sixteen, twenty-two, twenty-nine, thirty-four, forty. About how I can feel our whole lives spiraling out from where we are, making larger and larger circles until it contains everything that is and ever will be.

If he does want to talk about it, we will likely talk about it countless times, wearing smooth the rough edges of what happened with our acknowledgment that it did and the comfort of knowing that we love each other still, that neither of us has left the other, that we remain steadfastly in it together, each witness to the other’s growing.

This is what I want. I do not always live this process, and it is often not completely comfortable when I do. So I take deep breaths, and I work on cozying up to the discomfort for my own sake and for H’s, so that it becomes easier and easier to live in integrity and to pass that skill along to H, too.

Every other week for the past eight months, H and I have taken the elevator from the parking garage to the main lobby of the hospital where he was born. Every other week, we have walked through the lobby to reach a second bank of elevators. There used to be a dome in the lobby’s ceiling where we would pause for a moment to hear our whispers amplified and ricocheting in space as others strode purposefully around us. In that spot now stands the information desk, above which hangs, from the patched over dome, a Calder-esque mobile that looks blue, purple, pink, or some blend of those colors depending on where you stand in relation to it. The gift shop, which we pass on our right, has also received a makeover. It may be more open to the lobby now, although I am not sure, having never paid it much heed before. Predating these changes, but not our visits to the hospital, is a Starbucks where we sometimes stop for a treat on our way home. Much has changed in eight months.

Our return trips to the hospital started 21 months after H was born, 19 and 1/2 months after he came home for the first time after his birth. Every other week, we have returned to the hospital for physical therapy to support his gross motor development. After passing through the lobby, we have taken an elevator from the second bank to the sixth floor and headed west, and every other week, I have paused at the first T in the corridor and looked left before we turn right. At the end of that hall, in the opposite direction from Pediatric Therapy Services and visible from where we stand, is the NICU. Hidden somewhere in the labyrinth of wings and corridors in the direction of the NICU is the postpartum room where I spent two nights before being discharged without my baby. As we make our way to playing with H’s therapists, it is impossible not to think about the circumstances under which H was born and spent his first 41 days.

Recently, we have stepped up to twice a week visits: weekly physical therapy for gross motor support and weekly occupational therapy to keep a watchful eye on sensory issues that might hinder play and learning. The unintended consequence of this added support for H’s development is that my encounters with the NICU and the flood of memories and feelings that follow have quadrupled. Perhaps because of this or perhaps because the time just seemed right, I found myself one day explaining to H that we had been in this place before, much before we started coming to play with Kathryn and Cameron.

“We’re almost to Kathryn,” I told H. “If we went the other way, we would be going to the NICU. That’s where mama and H were for a while after you were born, when you were little little.”

H’s gazed followed my pointed finger. I could tell that he was taking this in, perhaps not quite sure what it really meant, but incorporating it into his understanding of the world as best he could anyway.

We often stop at the T in the corridor now and talk about the NICU and our early days together. It has been a part of my story for the past 28 months, and it will always be part of his. It is worth acknowledging and honoring with conversation and explanation, with words and with silent pauses that allow us to reflect together on where we’ve been. It is his birth story: You were born early. We were here, in this place. Mama had to go home while you stayed. Mama was with you as much as she could be, all the time, except when she was eating or sleeping. You were always in mama’s heart, as you always will be. Our conversations about his birth and our time in the NICU allow him to weave new words into the story of his existence, creating a beautiful tapestry of where he has been, who he is, and who he is becoming. It was an indescribably hard time, but from it beautiful things have grown. No mud, no lotus. We need to talk about the mud just as much as we need to talk about the lotus.

H has since brought up the NICU twice in other contexts, once when I referred to his hands as little little and once seemingly out of the blue. He has once requested to go left where we usually turn right, and we talked to the nurse stationed at the NICU’s front desk. H watched the NICU doors open to admit a young mother, and I described to him how I used to scrub my hands and arms each time I went through those same doors to see him. I pointed out, through the windows behind the reception desk, the room he was in and talked about how his isolette was last in his row, near the windows. Then we went to play with Cameron. I have a suspicion that it will not be our only visit to the NICU.

I can talk about and visit the NICU with much more ease now than I could when H was a newborn. I can still feel achingly sad when I think about the experience, and talking about it can bring tears to the surface easily. But the pain is not so raw, the wounds not so tender, because I’ve had the space and time to process and grieve the unexpected experience of H’s preterm birth and all that followed. I know I will never be done grieving it, but now I know that the grieving is survivable and that it can sit comfortably alongside all there is to celebrate about H’s existence . It feels good to be able to touch the experience without so much charge and pain and to have the mental and emotional space needed to help H understand that time in our lives. I couldn’t have done it then, but I can now. Much has changed in the last 28 months, and it’s not just the hospital. I’ve changed, too.

No mud, no lotus. We need to talk about the mud just as much as we need to talk about the lotus. I’m glad it’s easier to do that now.

Today is World Prematurity Day. Visit the March of Dimes to learn more about premature birth and how it can be prevented.

First we had to find the perfect place for brushing. Not this room, that one. Then he had to be lying down, just so, in the spot right next to his grandma. No, wait! On his grandma. Then he needed just a little bit of toothpaste in his mouth before we could start. Just a little bit, and mama don’t help! H hold it himself! I am fairly certain that he wanted suck all of the toothpaste from the tube directly into his mouth, effectively bypassing the brush. He was not, however, in possession of the tube, and after a brief negotiation, he settled on the cap, with which he created an impromptu game. He pushed the cap into his grandma’s mouth, as far as she would let him, and then she popped it out. In he pushed, out she popped. And again and again. It was fun. I could tell by their laughter. There was, however, little brushing.

I observed. I made informational statements. I made polite requests. He rolled toward grandma, the cap game ongoing. He closed his mouth. He opened his mouth, only to start talking before I could get bristle to teeth. He clamped down on the tooth brush, his mouth a well guarded, gated community of sugar bugs. I was gentle. I was patient. I set a limit with empathy and respect. Still, there was little brushing.

Then I was frustrated. I felt it well up suddenly, building pressure as it rose through my body. I wanted to jump out of my skin. I wanted to run away. I wanted to yell. I was skittish and desperate to do something, anything to release the discomfort of the restless energy that had colonized my body.

“I am getting frustrated, sweet pea,” I told him, working at keeping my tone even. “I am going to take a break in the other room for three seconds. When I come back I will be ready to finish brushing your teeth.”

He looked at me intently. I wondered if he was feeling the intensity of my feelings. I hoped he was not feeling hit with it, the way I can sometimes feel hit by the emotional energy emanating from others.

I went to the kitchen. I took one drink, then another, of cold oat straw tea. I breathed in and out deeply, and then I went back to his grandma’s bedroom, where I had left them on the floor together. We finished brushing teeth without struggle or incident, and I consciously slowed my breathing again to align my body with an intention for a gentle, relaxed last stretch of bedtime.

Our bedtime routine has shifted and changed over time within a comfortable, familiar framework as he adds and subtracts elements, discarding things we have long done in favor of improvisations that stick. I have found myself improvising, too, the two of us riffing on bedtime, responding to one another’s flourishes, running with the music that delights us and gets us to our destination.

One night, I found myself taking measure of him. It’s a riff that I have made a permanent part of our bedtime routine. Almost without fail, he sits up and reads our last book after I have read it to him, turning pages, sometimes reciting the text, sometimes pointing out characters and objects, sometimes lost in his own reverie. He reads, and I memorize him as best I can. How his cheeks are still round and full like one of those vinyl baby dolls, how large his eyes still are, how small his nose. I feel how easy it is to wrap one hand around his upper arm. I imagine his deltoid, how small it must be underneath his baby soft skin, wrapping around and inserting into a humerus that matches the length from the heel of my palm to the tip of my middle finger. I push up the long sleeve of the pajamas he wears now that summer has turned to fall so that I can see his wrist. It feels so delicate in my hand, like I am holding a newly hatched baby bird, and magnifies his smallness. His feet seem so big now, but they are a fraction of the size of mine and a fraction of the size they will be when he is grown. He has outgrown the clothes we were given when he was born that were sizes ahead of where he was, the clothes I looked at then and swore would never, ever fit him. I could not conceive that he would ever be so big, not in a million years. And yet here we are, those once too big clothes now too small. He has grown so much since he was born, yet he is still so small.

I took measure of him the night we struggled with brushing teeth. I studied him so that when I closed my eyes his image flashed in front of me as from a projector, until the looking put things in perspective. I had wished that brushing teeth had not taken half an hour. I had told myself that I wanted that time back to spend on something more enjoyable, but there was something darker underneath that wish. The brutal truth is that I wanted it back so that I could do it over, because some small part of me was sure that if only I had been different, if only I had been better, we would not have struggled. If I had been better, he would have brushed teeth with joyful ease and enthusiasm. I felt bad that I had had to step out of the room, that I had not been able to remain serenely unruffled through his resistance. The truth is that I was burning with the shame of feeling not good enough as a mother.

Studying him, I could feel all of this melt away, and I could see both of us and what had transpired in a more nuanced, generous way.

He was tired. He had had a too-short nap that day. We had spent a total of about two waking hours together, which is much, much less than usual. He had experienced more than the usual number of transitions from person to person and house to house. I was tired. It had been the day of one of our longest separations yet, something that may be as hard or harder for me as it is for him. I had nearly cried on my way to work, and then again in front of a second grade class. We had had only a sliver of time to reconnect before it was time to brush teeth.

He is small. He has taken in and learned a remarkable amount in just over two years. He is working on self-regulation and boundaries and learning how to be an independent and interdependent human being. He does well, really, really well, at this stuff, and he is allowed to be exactly where he is on his path. Immediate, easy compliance is not what I would want from him at any rate, even if it would sometimes make teeth brushing easier. Wishing away the struggle and resistance would short circuit his learning, keeping him stuck in place, and dishonor his wholeness as a human being.

I am bigger. I have taken in and learned a remarkable amount in forty years of life. I have things that I am working on, I am growing still, and I do really well, sometimes, and sometimes I stumble. Sometimes I find myself sprawled out on rough ground, having taken a spectacular nose dive, but I am learning that it is all okay. Perfection is a cloak I am working on shedding. It leaves no room for me to be exactly where I am on my path without harsh judgment and self-recrimination, things that short circuit my learning, keeping me stuck in place. It dishonors my wholeness as a human being.

There will never be a point at which either of us are done learning and growing, and in this process, there will always be struggles and successes, steps forward and steps back. Here we are together, two souls having met for a time, growing and learning together. And sometimes struggling to brush teeth.