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.