Category: growing up

H is nursing and twiddling the other nipple.

“It hurts mama when you touch my nipple like that, love,” I tell him. I’m serious, but I decide to be light and playful about it, making a game of chasing his hand away from my breast as he deftly outmaneuvers me. It is fun and we laugh, but my expression must betray the discomfort I feel. Nipple twiddling hurts.

He stops parrying and searches my face. “Are you sad?”

“Yes.” I tell him. I am not sad exactly, but I do not like the nipple twiddling.

“Oftentimes I help you, but oftentimes I don’t. I let the sad feelings go out themselves,” he coaches.

“You let the sad feelings go out of my body on their own all by themselves?”

“Yeah. Sometimes it takes a little and sometimes it takes a long time. And then you aren’t sad anymore.”

He nestles back down and peacefully returns to nursing. There is no more twiddling, and whatever feelings I had been having do, indeed, leave my body all by themselves.

I am ferrying cupfuls of water from the cabana kitchen to H, who sits with his feet in the jacuzzi. He pours the contents of the delivered cups into the churning water with deliberate slowness, and then jerks his arm with a flourish so that the remaining water arcs through the air before falling like rain.

“More, more,” he implores, handing me the cup. I return to the kitchen, making silly faces at him as I pass the observation window in the hallway. His mouth moves, but the words hit the glass pane between us and fall silent on the floor.

I pop my head back through the door of the jacuzzi room. “What did you say, sweets?”

“Hard to wait,” he says, his tone and volume conversational. He sits calmly, swinging his legs, looking at me expectantly.

Hard to wait. I hear those words, and suddenly H is two again. He is in the living room, frantically pulling at the mesh fireplace curtain, having a hard time waiting for milk. He wants it now, right now, and I am in the kitchen in the middle of a task. Waiting even a second is a challenge, and the frustration of it careers through his body and out the tiny but strong fists jangling the metal curtain, the sound of which I imagine matches the feelings bouncing around his insides.

I am struck by the contrast between H at two and H at three. He is having a hard time now just as he was then, but I would not have known it except for his report. His calm, composed behavior hints at qualities – an emotional self-awareness and nascent ability to choose his reactions – that he did not possess as strongly a year ago. How satisfying it is to watch H’s growth unfold as it has, organically and in its own time. He hasn’t been on his own – I have modeled and coached –  but there’s been no schedule we’ve adhered to, no calendar that pushes him to learn politeness by this date, how to use the toilet by that. And how reassuring, too, it is to come upon these moments. When there is no road map, no formula to follow, no step-by-step instruction manual that will ensure that this child will grow to be a kind, compassionate, fulfilled adult, these moments can feel like guideposts: You are headed in the right direction. You may not be able to see or feel it always, but you are. Keep going.

The path is not linear, the things he learns to do and to be shift in and out of focus as he finds his footing. Sometimes he uses a new tool ably, unleashes a new skill as if he’d been doing it all his life, and sometimes his efforts fall short and it can appear as if nothing had been learned, no gains had been made at all. And this – him learning to sit with the discomfort of his feelings and knowing that he can choose, if at all, how to act on them – is a huge, lifelong project for most of us. I anticipate that there will be plenty of times still that H lets me know vocally and intensely how hard it is to wait – he is three, after all – but he is working on it. And he is blossoming.

“Yes, hard to wait,” I tell him with a smile. “I feel that way, too, sometimes.” And I go to fetch another cup of water.

Fragments of small, shallow hand prints in kinetic sand, like trilobites. A palm. A mitten-shaped hand, tops of fingers missing. A thumb splayed out to form a perfect L. The sand fossils dissolve into one another upon being tenderly transferred to the sandbox. Once impressions. Now a pile of sand.

It is all so fleeting.

A young girl clambered out of a play firetruck at the Children’s Museum, her swollen eyes red and overflowing with tears. She sobbed as she teetered toward an adult standing nearby keeping an eye on both the firetruck and the play Metro bus parked next to it. The woman silently and calmly put her hand on the child’s head when she came close enough, then let her arm drop when the crying child moved away. The loud, unhappy tears continued as the girl moved close then away, close then away, close then away from the silent woman.

H stopped in the middle of refueling the bus to locate the crying person.

“Girl is crying,” he told me.

“Yes, the girl is crying. It sounds like she is upset. Mama is not sure why. I didn’t see what happened.”

He went back to working the gas pump, occasionally looking with concern in the direction of the crying girl.

Later, while having milk at the museum, he said, “Girl is crying.”

“Yes, sweetest, the girl was crying. She was having some feelings.”

H was silent for a moment.

“Just like H has some feelings,” he told me.

“Yes, just like H has some feelings. Just like mama has some feelings. Everybody has feelings. She was letting her feelings out of her body with tears. Sometimes letting the tears come can help you feel better when you are sad or angry or upset.”

Much later, at home, he said, “Girl is crying.”

“Yes, sweetest, the girl was crying. She was upset.”

“Having some feelings in her body. Letting out with tears,” he explained.

“Yes. She was having some feelings. She was letting them out with tears. Sometimes letting the tears come can help you feel better. She was crying, sweet pea. She was.”

As I sat with him on the couch, I felt like a weight had dropped in my body, pulling my shoulders down and all of my internal organs back where they belong, where there is silence. How profoundly settling it is to watch him knit himself into the fabric of collective existence by using his understanding of his own experiences to reflect on the experiences of others. He is growing the roots of empathy and the start of an ability to cultivate the respectful, peaceful relationships that this world so desperately needs.

Sometimes I feel anxious about sending H out into the world as it is, but I realize that despite my fears, real and imagined, I can’t keep him from it. He has to fly. The world needs his concern about the sadness, upset, injustice, and cruelty he sees, and the world needs his gentle soul to soothe it.

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.

Your baby does not want to be held in cradle to nurse at bedtime anymore. You have always started bedtime this way, ever since he learned to nurse, but the last few times you tried he has latched for only a second or two before throwing himself back in your arms. He wants to nurse lying on the bed, and so you do. You nurse on the first side murmuring Wherever You Go: My Love Will Find You as he twists and kicks his leg into the air. He unlatches and rolls away, but does not race to the foot of the bed like he used to and resists less when you pull him back. You nurse on the second side, singing Taps, then Simple Gifts, Over the Rainbow, and Stewball. Sometimes he unlatches and relatches. When he unlatches and rolls away unsettled you switch to the other side while continuing to murmur and hum. You switch back and forth until you lose track of how many times it has been, and then he rolls away and lies quietly babbling to himself. You rub his back. He rolls around before finally settling on his tummy, and you rub his back some more as you watch him drift off to sleep without the help of nursing.

You look at him sprawled out asleep on the bed. You see the baby from the NICU, the baby you brought home from the hospital, and the baby you had just before he turned one, but all of these babies exist only in your mind’s eye. The baby asleep on the bed next to you is a little boy. He is your baby, but he is not really a baby anymore. The reality of this hits you, and you almost cry. You feel the tension of holding simultaneously the sadness of letting go of the baby he used to be and the joy of watching him grow into the person he is to be. It is not the first time you have been caught in this in-between place. The sweet and the bitter, the happy and the sad, the pulling close and the letting go collide often in parenting H. As you watch him sleeping, you bounce between joy and sadness before your mind comes to rest on the little boy next to you, not as he was or will be, but just as he is.

Some Things I Want to Remember About the Toddler* I Have Right Now

The way he hooks his left arm around my right when I hold him. That he gets excited about the bucket swing at the park, opening and closing any kind of door, and the morning light cast on the walls through windows and blinds. The way he navigates while in my arms by shifting his weight and pointing his tiny index finger this way and that. His laughter. The not so subtle way he pulls at my shirt to let me know that he would like some milk right now thank you very much. The grand jetes he does while nursing side lying. The way his arms thrust from his body and his legs scissor in and out in full body expression of his excitement. The seriousness with which he studies his board books. The way he flips onto his belly and races with laughter to the foot of the bed to practice pulling up, over and over, at bedtime. His open mouthed kisses. The warmth of his head against my cheek as we settle together in bed. That he is, even though a toddler, still my baby.

*H is a toddler. A toddler!

Some Things I Want to Remember About the Baby I Have Right Now

The sweep of his red-tinted hair across his forehead. The thickness of his feet. The way he curls into me as we nurse side lying, one tiny foot resting on my thigh, the other pressed into my abdomen. His milky baby breath. The way he reaches around himself to touch my leg in the middle of play, as if to make sure I’m still there. The fullness of his cheeks. The way his right eyebrow wrinkles when he furrows his brow. The way he curls his toes toward the soles of his feet. The way he lifts his arms away from his torso when I ask “Up, up?” The way he ever so slightly reaches towards me when he is held by someone else that lets me know I am home to him. His large hazel eyes. His delicate pincer grasp. The way his breathing slows and his arms fall from his body as he nurses to sleep. His easy, wide-mouth baby smile. The weight and warmth of his body in my arms. The downy softness of his hair against my cheek.

One day you look up and realize that your baby doesn’t spit up much anymore. He still does occasionally, yes, but not near as often as he used to. When did that change? One month ago? Two?

You’re not sure, but you suddenly miss that baby. It’s not the spitting up you miss, although you had grown quite accustomed to and comfortable with always being covered in spit up. It’s the other things about that baby – the way he always rested his heavy head on your shoulder when you held him. The easy way you could flip him around to nurse at the second breast. The way you had to support his head and neck when you sat him up to burp him. The way he raised his arms, as if in salute, while you patted and straightened his back to help him burp. The deep ferociousness of those burps when they finally came. The deep slate blue of his newborn eyes.

You feel nostalgic already for the not so distant past. You revisit it, but you don’t stay too long, because time doesn’t stop. And you don’t want to miss the baby you have right now.

I was studying H’s hands while nursing him to sleep tonight. He has rubber band wrists, dimpled knuckles, and little hammocks hanging on the palm side of his fingers from the knuckles to the first joints. His hands are small and deliciously plump.

I thought about my impressions of his hands when he was first born. His pinkie fingernails were so small that they could barely be seen. They were, of course, visible, but they were very, very small. His thumbs also seemed impossibly small. Holding his hand felt like holding something fragile and delicate.

As I was studying H’s hands tonight, I marveled at how huge his little hands have become. And that it’s all because we nurse. Amazing.