Remember These Open Arms As You Grow Old, My Sons
I was sitting in a coffee shop the other morning when I was swept away by the blissful energy of a woman and her four-year old girl as they breezed past. The girl danced circles around her mother’s legs, clutching two teddy bears that outsized her tiny arms. The sweetness of her pink rubber boots and twee voice doused the shop of bleary-eyed, earnest suits with candy-coating.
I watched enviously as she lapped up her mother’s words “whaddya want kiddo?” I jumped earnestly along with her as she screamed ‘muffins, juice, cake pops, banana bread!’ My temporary refuge from e-mails and five-alarm fires at the office seemed a sad existence in relation to the unrestrained joy of mother and young child.
The thought was bittersweet. Momentarily I was transported in time when my boys had their first taste of apple pie and ice cream, making humming noises ‘mmm,mmm,mmm’ as they stuffed their faces. I remembered falling asleep with them on my chest; each of us drifting off to the sound of the other’s heart beating.
I sat in stillness with my coffee half-raised to my mouth as I tried to siphon whatever droplets of glee I could from the mother-daughter exchange. It occurred to me my eyes were welling up.
My kids were young like that once, they hung off me like a jungle gym. They danced around my legs, clamouring for nothing more than my undivided attention. For the most part they got it, but now I wish I’d been less annoyed by the constancy of it at times. Back then I couldn’t imagine how emotional I would feel as I do today, seeing this mother and her child.
I could never have known how insufficient memories are as a surrogate for the experience. I wish I’d made more efforts to soak it up, especially now that their mother and I are divorced; the time I have to amass more wonderful glimpses of their childhood before they grow old, halved.
My kids are twelve this year. In no time their mother and I will lose the honour of having exclusive reign over their heartstrings. What an honour it’s been. I know I shouldn’t cling to the idea of their childhood; they’re still my children, no matter how old they get.
But I can’t help it. They’re not little children anymore. They don’t dance around my feet. It’ll never be the same. A part of me wishes that phase could have lasted forever, but the deepening voices, soaring heights and hair in places only adults possess it mocks my selfish fantasies.
As teenagers they will look to the outside world in friends, achievements, and experiences for feelings of efficacy, security, and validation. It fills me with trepidation for them as I recall how often in my teenage years I wanted to curl up in a ball to avoid the tyranny of days overflowing with lessons in humility. I also remember feeling a strong urge to look away from the tether of parents and family to figure out on my own how to keep my chin up, even with egg all over my face and my fly undone.
The view of that arduous journey into their own lives is heart-wrenching from where I stand as a parent. I want to be their biggest booster as they run into the murky world to carve out their niche. It feels somewhat forced.
Yay. Yaaay! YAAAAAY!
They’ll be teenagers soon!
I feel like the head cheerleader rooting on a band of thugs shaving off my arms with a pocket-knife to steal my watch. I don’t really want teenagers. No offense, but I am no fool. I know they’re just not going to be ‘into me’ – their parent.
Well, metal has nearly hit bone. The glistening, unconditional twinkle of my little boys is already sometimes tinged with traces of skepticism. They’ve found things to interest them that have nothing to do with me. On days I drop them at school my kids turn and run at the sight of my lower lip quivering. ‘Rotten, good-for-nothing zit-faced friends drawing them in,’ I think to myself. ‘Who needs friends? Friends are unreliable,’ I quip, half-heartedly under my breath.
When did my kids become such turncoats? What a couple of ungrateful jerks! Then I catch myself being a childish ass, punching air, kicking dirt in a futile bout of frustration. My twenty-three year-old self mocks me for having become a soccer mom, and a wallowing idiot.
I have my reasons for being disconsolate at times: when it’s not my weekend with them and I can’t tuck them into bed for another five days. I can’t laugh them to sleep with armpit farts or tummy zurrberts. They barely fit in my arms any more – and soon I will fit better in theirs. They don’t get jazzed about movie night like they used to.
Just today I said “HEY KIDS WANT ICE CREAM!” and they both said, ‘nah, it’s too early.’ Too early?! It was noon! Three years ago I’d have had to hire a cowboy to lasso my kids so they wouldn’t run in front of semi-trailers and city buses to get to the ice cream store.
Now, there’s things on YouTube they’d rather watch. Alone. In their room. Without dad around. I’ll bet they’ve already discovered porn, probably by accident. But still. Girls. A formidable foe who lurks, who will steal the affections of my homies away from the one who matters most. Me.
The sparkle in their eyes as they looked up to me has, at times, turned to an exasperated roll of the eyes. They don’t have to look up, either. Part of me wonders if their respect for me wanes as they watch me struggle with their drift away from childhood. Then I realize, I don’t care, and continue crying because I know I couldn’t stop even if I wanted to.
I wish it wasn’t necessary to just let them frolic into the world of adolescent throngs who crudely mimic the craven, selfish, conformist habits of the adults around them. I worry about their emotional well-being among peers who lack ethical scruples; who can’t temper the cruel excesses of the individualists’ creed rammed down their throats by our culture. It’s in my bones as a parent to believe their emotions will be safeguarded only when shrouded in my arms.
And yet, I am also aware that, for all my good intentions, I may have already left deeper scars than a bully or an unrequited love could ever leave. I didn’t mean it, unlike those rotten kids out there. I was winging the parent thing, for the first while at least, until I realized I needed to educate myself.
I think I’ve come around now. I hope their memories betray them, because there are truckloads of mistakes to hold against me, to tar me as a hypocrite, should I forget myself and over-react to something they’ve done that’s out of line.
The little girl in the coffee shop makes me aware that my children are still on the fringes of a blissful world of childhood innocence, but on the cusp of stepping with both feet into the jungle that kicked the shit out of me. I want to spare them the perils in that journey. I want to keep my lovely limbs right where they are: safe and happy.
Yet I realize they can’t broaden their perspective of the world if their father is clutching them tightly to prevent them stepping in with both feet. They can’t fully savour the wealth of experiences the world has to offer if I’m still taunting them back toward their childhood with ice cream and Sponge Bob re-runs.
My mind is defiant as I am confronted with the reality I have no choice but to let them go a little. The age-old rift between parents and teenagers crystallizes as I consider this. I resent the fact they’ll seek influences elsewhere and won’t automatically see my opinions, tastes or ideas as necessarily authoritative.
They’ll have tastes and preferences that won’t mirror my own. Already my son loves Katy Perry. How did that happen? Doesn’t he know his father hates pop music because it sucks? Then I remember: he’s twelve. Katy Perry to a twelve year old boy is more than just about music, isn’t she?
My children are going to make mistakes and feel chastened by the consequences as they try on various identities to learn what works best for them. As I watch them struggle to succeed or blissfully jump into abject failure it will be hard to stop myself from stepping in and taking over. I’m like any parent, I’d rather avoid seeing them fail, but this sentiment too easily transforms into me trying too hard to manufacture their success. I’ve already had to stop myself doing tough homework assignments and science projects for them. Man, I hate seeing them struggle.
It is hard to watch from the sidelines as my child slips on easily-spotted banana peels, but I know from my own upbringing in a family of nascent critics how profoundly the hand-wringing undermines a child’s feelings of autonomy. It doesn’t matter that the advice, constructive criticism, or other moral support is well-intended.
They begin to internalize too much interference as implied criticism. The risk is they’ll come to second-guess themselves. They will lay blame for planting the seeds of doubt about their own instincts squarely on the over-bearing parent. That could come back to haunt me, so I need to learn a little hands off.
A few years ago my son came home from school intimating he was having an issue with a bully at his school. In seconds my mind was filled with ideas of kicking the shit out of the kid, shoving my fist in his father’s face, and enrolling him the next day in the Kung Fu class I taught. The wisdom of non-violence from my Buddhist practice was easily brushed aside by the vision of my child suffering at the hands of another.
The one thing I didn’t do was simply ask him how he felt about the situation and what he wanted to do to resolve it. Thanks to my son, that would-be bully is, five years later, now in his circle of friends, while I still look at the kid with a hairy eyeball.
The experience was the first time I realized the volatility of my emotions where my children were concerned. It gave me extreme insight about how empty the parental invocation of “doing what is best” can be tainted by projections of my own childhood angst onto them.
It’s startling how old wounds you thought had healed burst open as you find yourself reliving some torrid chapter of your childhood through something happening in your child’s life. Next thing you know, you’re reacting as your thirteen year old self in the same situation, not as the parent of a child who may see things totally differently.
I’ve got to keep my eye on that raging bull. I had a lot of emotional wounds that took a long time to heal. I had a lot of well-deserved “fuck you’s” left unsaid. I don’t want to be the roll of quarters in my child’s fist swinging at MY old ghosts. I don’t want to use my children to become masters of my own failed aspirations.
I also have to assume my children will experience hardships of the nature I faced differently than I did. They aren’t miniature versions of me, after all. I think I’ve done a bit better than was done to me in establishing the foundations for a more balanced emotional reaction to life’s undulations.
I’ve been a warm father. I tell my sons I love them every day. I think it’s etched in their mind. I think they’ll deal better than I did when shit hits fans along whatever path they’re on. It’s quite possible they won’t even see some of the things I perceived as horrible in quite the same terms. I was a bit of a brooding child. My kids aren’t. I hope I had something to do with cultivating that lightness. We will have to wait and see; and hope.
It’s disturbing to me to have to fathom these issues. The first time I can’t fix their mental anguish with a Slurpee or a night of popcorn and Kung Fu Panda my heart will die a little. There have already been some hurts for which there is nothing I can do but listen and lean in with a hug. Things like the divorce of their mother and father, the tearing to pieces of what they understood as a ‘family.’
This is when I am awash in the desire to stop time. To somehow keep them like that little girl in the coffee shop; to see to it they stay forever small enough to remain in my arms where I can protect them. I want to be the ultimate fixer for their problems, which is relatively easy when a child’s biggest problem is that they misplaced their teddy bear.
There are bigger problems ahead, and it scares the living shit out of me. I’ve got to be brave. I’ve caught myself already inadvertently seeding their relatively blue skies with storm clouds of negativity that stem from my childhood, not theirs. I’ve got to buck up.
But I never want them to go so far into the grown up abyss that they no longer feel the warmth of my unconditional love for who they are breathing them forward. I don’t want them to be seduced by ideas about the world being indifferent, harsh, and cruel.
I never want them to be far away from the promise of a parent’s non-judgmental presence when it is needed most. I want them to know there is no place better than my open arms to take refuge, should the need arise. Little children can’t even imagine another place aside from their parents for solace, but as they grow older, the urge to resist that impulse grows out of the need to cultivate independence.
This idea – independence. The lie our increasingly Social Darwinist culture breeds in young adults; especially young boys like my two sons. We are inter-dependent. Those who are ‘self-made’, who believe they are independent don’t realize how much their self-reliance came on the backs of others. I don’t want those others to be my innocent children.
The rest of us take the idea of independence too literally, trying to deal with life as if we really believed it necessary to do so alone. It’s bollocks.
Everybody needs someone else. That is the beauty and the bane of humanity.
I hope to instill in my sons the innate wisdom of the little child in this regard; to keep them habituated to looking in the right places for warmth and love to ward off life’s rougher edges. It doesn’t have to be me, although I hope it is. It just needs to be someone who genuinely has their best interests at heart.
Children have no qualms about seeking out mommy and daddy when they’re in despair. Adults need that kind of presence in their lives. I want to be that presence in my boys’ adult lives.
Some parents joke about when their kids will leave the nest. It’s no laughing matter for me. I want my sons to always know there’s a place for them with me, no questions asked.
I don’t want them to forget the feel of my arms around them as they grow old and fly away. So I will go now, and hug them, hoping to make it impossible to forget.