So my dear, sensitive Wombat is filled with trepidation when forced to choose among several breakfast cereals, but throw him in a barrel and kick him down a hill and the kid’s in heaven. (It’s worth watching through the end, I promise.)
The name of the place is Adventure Playground, but I affectionately call it Tetanus Park because, well, look at it.
Now check yourself for splinters because you probably got some just now.
This is a real thing that happens there: Kids who collect ten nails, rusty or otherwise, can trade them in for tools and scrap wood, with which they can build their own un-permitted temporary dwellings with not-to-code second-story railings for other children to play on. It’s a phobic parent’s worst nightmare and/or the perfect place to go when you need to balance the universe for all those times you made your kid wear a helmet while painting.
At Adventure Playground, the equipment isn’t necessarily safe, the paint isn’t washable or nontoxic, and the most official supervision I’ve seen has been a person handing out
optional not-very-strongly-enforced liability waivers at the gate and another person trading kids nails for hammers. Regular, adult-sized, finger-smashing, head-bashing hammers. I don’t know whether to describe it as soooo Berkeley or not Berkeley at all, because while yes, you have the free-living, unschooling hippie types of Berkeley parents, you also have the helicoptering, bubble-wrapping types. I guess the best word for it is “unAmerican,” in the sense that we are a country obsessed with safety railings and worst-case-scenario signage and microfont waivers to protect interested parties from the real present danger: litigious scofflaws.
This scofflaw is not litigious.
And maybe that’s why I love it so much. At Tetanus Park, people are expected to be smart and take care of themselves and their children. If you’re okay with your five-year-old flinging himself down the zipline, have at it. If you’ll let your toddler navigate a spiral staircase built out of discarded cable spools by a group of sugar-high fifth-graders, by all means. Feel free to have fun. Feel free to get dirty and fall off of a ladder and smash your eyebrow bone against a post and pinch your fingers in a rusty hinge and ruin your shirt and get splinters in your rear end. You’re a kid; go get some bruises.
I mean, be smart and make sure your tetanus vax is up to date, but otherwise don’t come home until your hair is full of sand and you tried something that maybe scared you a little. <---Good life lesson, that.
Wombat is a naturally confident kid who navigates most situations with can-do candor and is, within the range of my limited experience of children, quite possibly the most easy-going guy who ever…easy-goed. (Easy-went?) But, holy crap, ask the kid to make a decision–even a minor one with no negative consequences–and you can practically see his gray matter blanch in terror. Picking between a grape or cherry popsicle becomes a dramatic reenactment of Sophie’s Choice, and his mental paralysis is so earnest and intense and completely, comically out of proportion with reality that I might find it a little endearing if it weren’t also freakin’ annoying. It’s frozen flavor-water, not a life partner. Just pick one, dude. It’s melting.
“But I can’t! I can’t choose!”
“Well, then I’ll choose for you.”
“But either choice is good! You get a popsicle/book/T-shirt either way. And you can choose the other option next time. You can’t lose this game.”
“But what if I make a mistake? What if I’m wrong, Mom?”
Oh, hello miniature version of myself. I didn’t recognize you standing three-foot-eleven with brown eyes.
It’s hard to say whether I’m more sympathetic or less so when I see troublesome (or should I say “bothersome”?) traits in my kids that are aaaaalllll me. You should have seen me trying to decide between two similar wire baskets at Ikea last weekend. “Well, this one is a little bit cheaper, but this one has straighter sides, which means slightly more storage volume, and whereas this is more trendy, that means it will look dated in a few years, yet it is more fitting to the style of the surrounding furniture, but, hey, maybe we need to diversify when it comes to accessories and–” JUST PICK ONE, FOR THE LOVE.
When I get frustrated with my kids, how often am I also (and maybe mostly?) getting frustrated with myself? Eureka.
As we parent our kids, how much are we parenting ourselves at the same time? When we see ourselves in our children, are we gentler with them because we wish we had that gentleness for/with ourselves, or are we less patient because we can call out the absurdity of our kids’ hangups more clearly than we can our own? When it comes to something like popsicle-flavor anxiety, are we more sensitive to our like-minded littles (“I understand why this choice is hard for you, sweetie”) or less apt to indulge what we’re afraid might develop from a minor quirk into a permanent hindrance, or maybe even a crippling disorder (“It’s not a big deal. Just pick one and be done [or else dire things will happen/you'll end up like me]“)? I usually find myself wading uneasily between those two banks, hoping that if I’m not helping I’m at least doing no harm. On the one hand, I want to meet my kids where they are, but on the other hand I sometimes want to steer them away from certain places, you know?
It’s true that the things that bug me most about other people are the things that bug me most about myself, and that’s especially true with my kids. I wish I were able to make decisions without turning my brain into a three-ring circus, and I wish I weren’t so gratuitously stubborn. (Hello, Fox.) When my kids are like me in good ways, I know just how to praise and encourage and cheerlead with vibrant neon pompoms the size of full-grown chow chows, but with the not-so-good stuff I’m never quite sure how to handle it. Do I share my coping tools (for Wombat: make a pro/con list; reason out each decision to its logical end and realize that neither option results in you and everyone you love dying a slow and painful death; spend weeks researching a decision online so when it’s crunch time you can just pull the trigger), or is that, in its own well-intentioned way, just enabling behavior I’d rather eliminate altogether? I mean, I want to be helpful while still honoring who my child is, but I also want him to be able to just choose a damn Otter Pop without needing to chart out likely consequences on a sheet of graph paper.
What do you say to your kids? Do you say, “I understand because you’re just like me,” or do you say, “Stop it right now because I don’t want you to be like me”? Do you do your best to overcome your own troublesome/bothersome issues and model good behavior, hoping that’s enough, or do you talk about your own struggles and work through them in tandem with your kid?
I just now realized that in looking for one right way to parent my children through these situations, this post has become a Möbius strip: I’m terrified of making mistakes in how I tell my kid not to be terrified of making mistakes.
When I try to talk Wombat through making a decision, my usual approach has been to show him how likely it is that either choice will be a positive one. All my reassurances are that he will choose wisely, that he’ll be a success, that he won’t make a mistake, that he won’t be wrong. But what if he is, Mom? What if he is wrong? What then? The stakes of raising a child are much higher than the decisions my five-year-old grapples with, but I see now that we’re swimming in the same waters. We’re both afraid of messing up. And we’re not even afraid of what will happen when we mess up so much as we’re afraid of the messing up in and of itself. And we shouldn’t be. Because, let’s face it: we will mess up, and, letting my reason override my fear here, I’ll even say out loud that we should mess up now and then. We need it to remind us that we’re human but also to show us that messing up isn’t the end of the world. We are not the sum of our bad decisions. We can mess up and still be okay.
This is what I should tell him. (This is what I should tell myself.)
As children (as parents), we should all be told, loud and clear and with direct eye-contact (even if it’s from a reflection in the mirror), that it’s going to be okay. We should be told that we’re okay. It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to make choices we later regret. It’s okay to not be perfect. It’s okay to be just okay. It’s okay to just be okay. It’s okay to just be. Okay?
Yesterday was my birthday and I turned thirty-five, and much in the way it takes me six months to write the correct year when I’m dating my checks, I think it’s going to be a while before I let that number sink in. Thirty-five. 35. Five plus thirty. Even now I had to do the math again because it just doesn’t sound right. Doesn’t feel right. Most of the time I still think of myself as in the phase that immediately follows college, forgetting that in the intervening years I’ve moved states, built a career, gotten married, bought a house, had some kids (but not in that order), and it’s actually been thirteen years since I graduated. No twenty-two-year-old would voluntarily share a demographic with me.
I’ve heard real, live, not-paid-actor women swear they feel increasingly confident as they get older–”I don’t care what other people think of me anymore! Shazam! *pierces something*”–but I feel a little backward because the older I get the less sure I am that I have any idea what I’m doing. Growing up, I had a relatively narrow view of the world and a relatively high opinion of myself, so I didn’t worry much about the things I worry about now: fitting in, saying the right thing, being a good citizen of the world, being a good citizen of my community of family and friends, etc. I’m not quite sure why I’m thus afflicted at this advanced age, but I suspect it’s mostly perspective. When I used to look in the mirror, I could focus on myself and nothing more, and most of the time I really liked what I saw. Now, I still like what I see (more or less; the muffin top is not my favorite), but I’m also aware of the whole reflection–myself within a context, against a background of people and places and issues and feelings and many things I can’t control and many others I can, which is sometimes worse.
Maybe I’m just feeling the weight of having to make decisions for a family instead of just myself. Or maybe it’s that the stakes feel higher because time is shorter. Like, there’s lots of wiggle room for mistakes when you’re twenty-two because you have a lot of time to correct them? Or because you’re not evening thinking of the world in those terms because time is infinite and you’re invincible?
What you might recognize as a common dayplanner I call an “exobrain,” and I’m a slave to it. I can’t help but see every day as part of a countdown to some beginning or ending. First swimming lesson. Last day of preschool. First day of kindergarten. Last day of nursing a baby. Maybe it’s just one of those years (have you also found that everything feels bigger when you have small children?), or maybe I’m just allowing myself too much aimless pondering and should get a hobby that’s incompatible with navelgazing. Maybe this is the seed of a classic midlife crisis. Maybe I’m addicted to metaphors.
It’s just…these firsts and lasts and all the moments in between lay over us like the thinnest sheets of tinted glass, and we’re the same but different but the same but different but the same. We’re variations on a theme. We’re ourselves but not. We’re thirty-five but we’re still twenty-two. Still twelve. Still choosing the perfect outfit for our own first day of kindergarten. “Still,” not merely “also.”
Milestones (including all those pesky invented ones) come and go and come and go and it’s not like a swing going back and forth on a stationary hinge but like a tetherball, circling, circling, circling. The ball is the same, but it doesn’t feel like that to the ball as its tether gets shorter and shorter and it senses itself moving closer to and higher up the pole as the speed and g-force increase more and more until SMACK, it hits the pole with a dull clang. Maybe when we die life doesn’t flash before our eyes but unwinds like a tetherball, slowly, showing us everything backward until we’re at the beginning again, experiencing our childhoods in the wide, lazy circle that made every day feel thirty-five years long. Maybe heaven is a return to childhood timekeeping but with the wisdom of old age.
Well! That got morbid! (Yes, definitely a midlife crisis, then.) The thing is, I’m not sad to be thirty-five, just incredulous. Not having my shit together keeps me feeling young, I guess? I’m at least glad I’m able to say, “But I don’t feel thirty-five” and have that be a good thing. At thirty-five, I’m able to be proud of what I’ve accomplished and grateful for the many things that have fallen in my lap. I’m lucky to have made a few excellent permanent decisions (hello, stupendous husband and outstanding children!) and to have the peace of mind to deal with everything else. As the great Cat Stevens once crooned: “I’m old but I’m happy.” There’s still some swing in this old pony.
(Obligatory birthday photo.)