In the comfort of his home, within sight of his Mama and Papa, his confidence and abilities shone. He wasn’t even two, but he used complete sentences to convey the utmost importance of the airplanes flying by, the blue cheese he craved and the trucks he needed to drive around blocks he’d lined up. Utterances were constant, play was complex. There were puzzles to be completed and playgrounds to visit. He’d cry if surprised by the jet-loud roars of our food processor, so I’d try to prepare him for it’s use or wait until he wasn’t around. Otherwise, he rarely showed anxiety at home. It felt easy to respect his needs.
Though aspects of his development were advanced, he wasn’t challenging himself physically as much as his peers. He didn’t walk until he was 15-months. Likely the perfectionist in him, genes courtesy of yours truly, waited until he would not stumble. Slow and steady, calculated and predictable. He observed his toddler buddies ride their balance bikes, climb ladders and zoom down big slides. He developed pretend play routines instead. His playgrounds were bakeries and kitchens, chocolate shops and coffee shops. These themes probably also had something to do with his mother.
Outside of our home, loud noises, new people or unpredictable kids made him nervous. Hiding behind us or begging to be held, I quickly learned to expect a tug on my pant leg. “Mama, pick me up!” was repeated incessantly until he was safely in my arms. We couldn’t leave him with anyone besides his familiar grandparents. Even with them, we had to sneak out after they provided ample distraction. Every other place we dropped him off paged us back to rescue him. They could never get him to stop sobbing.
At a friend’s son’s second birthday party, he didn’t leave my lap. As things wrapped up, moms encouraged their tots to gather on porch stairs for a picture. I plopped my boy down in their midst, ignoring the discomfort I read in his tense body. I backed away to see if he’d adapt, but of course, his lower lip proceeded to curl downward and he sobbed. I knew he would. I only tried to make him participate because I didn’t want to disappoint my friend and I felt like I needed to show the other moms I at least tried. I retrieved him from the stairs feeling pangs of anger and humiliation. Why wasn’t my kid like the others? Why couldn’t I just chat with the other moms while he played?
This was the first of many times I’d realize my expectations for him in public were different than they were at home. Simply because I wanted him to reflect a certain way on me.
After months of holding him up while other kids jumped into play and rarely getting to drop him off somewhere for a break, I grew to resent this pattern. I also started to worry. Would my little boy always be this needy? Did I baby him too much? Is attachment parenting a surefire route to timidity?
Eventually I began redefining my hopes and expectations. I was learning a new way that I needed to trust his natural development. Just like he learned to walk and talk, roll and and hold a spoon, I needed to believe that his emotional journey would progress in it’s own meaningful way.
Thankfully, as years passed he grew more comfortable without us. He attended preschool with ease. He remained hesitant to participate in most activities beyond that, particularly if they were physical, and we respected his wishes. As a five and six year old, this meant kindly saying no to offers to go to rock climbing birthday parties, join soccer teams, or play at bounce houses.
I began to accept that he may never play a team sport. I began to embrace that he savored his time doing math problems and building towers more than playdates. I grew to love that he preferred to play with girls, engaging in complex play routines instead of climbing trees. I started to let go of my fears of him regularly feeling lonely and isolated.
There was grief in this process. I longed for aspects of motherhood that I didn’t think I would ever experience with him and that was disappointing. I simply began to walk more firmly in the knowledge that it would be far more devastating for him not to be true to himself. Or not believe he’s accepted for who he is.
My boy keeps surprising me. This past year he jumped right in to his new school despite having only one friend in his class. He eagerly participated in physical games at recess and in PE. He tested for his yellow belt, even choosing to continue sparring after being punched in the face. He happily attended a rock climbing birthday party. Harnessed in, he grabbed the holds and climbed right up without hesitation. As he neared his limit and needed to rappel for his first time, I saw how scared he was. I anxiously anticipated him melting into a pool of tears and loud sobs. Instead, he worked through the fears with with just a little encouragement from the coach. I could not believe it. Any of it. I went to that party envisioning us watching all the other kids from the sidelines, while he felt disappointed by his fears. Instead, he kept climbing higher and higher, confidence growing with each summit. I picked my jaw up off the floor.
Carried by World Cup excitement, he agreed to soccer camp. It was a huge hit and he begged me to go again before summer ended. At his request, he also played on a team this fall. Despite being the new guy with the least amount of experience, all he wanted was to be on the field. He even enjoyed playing goalie. Balls whizzed past his face by request! It has been wonderful to be shocked by his growth.
I know little to nothing about what’s coming ahead as a parent. These changes in him may swing the other direction. I can certainly count on parenting being unpredictable. Generally, it seems the challenges will surround my ability to grieve and accept. My ability to deal with my own expectations and fears. My ability to cope with the noise, chaos and mess that my energetic (may-as-well-be-on-stimulants) monkeys leave in their wake. Hopefully my ability to make a mean batch of cookies will temper it all a bit.
Every few months something happens in which I have to consciously examine whether or not I’m respecting their journeys and honoring their paths. How much do I believe in their natural emotional development? It seems that only my fears speak against trusting it.