Because of Me

NB“Do you wish you’d never had me?”

My fork stops in mid-air. My eyes dart to my left to meet your dad’s; his arched eyebrows confirm I haven’t misheard.

You sit across the table from me. Your plate of food is mostly untouched, as usual. Your eyes aren’t sparkling with a joke, though, and you’re not preparing to launch into yet another silly story. Instead, you gaze downward, where your fingers twist together in your lap. Your voice fades with the question until it’s barely more than a whisper, as though you regret asking it the moment it’s left your lips.

“What? Nathan, baby, why would you ask that?” There’s panic in my voice, and I wonder if you can hear it. There are tears pricking my eyes, and I wonder if you can see them. What are you thinking, sweet boy? What have I done?

Your thin shoulders shrug, and at last you raise your big brown eyes to meet mine. They are sheepish as you mumble, “Well, I do talk too much sometimes.”

Oh, baby. You do, of course. You talk so much that your food gets cold, and I have to heat your plate up mid-meal almost every night. You’ve been going non-stop during this very dinner; it’s the reason your pasta is still untouched while your sister is plowing through her second helping. Your chatter is the background noise of my life: getting ready in the morning, on the way to school, on the way back home. I’m convinced the reason that Ellie barely talks at 20 months old is because she can’t get a word in edgewise. You tell me everything and nothing; I know the plot line of every show you watch and whose name was on the board for misbehaving in class. You narrate everything you see and make up songs about the silliest of things. And questions … so many questions. Your days are filled with endless queries, about everything from why the moon is in the sky during the day to why girls can’t pee standing up. On a trip once, your big cousins decide to keep track of the number of questions you asked in a day. They gave up when they reached 107 before the end of breakfast.

Clearly, you’re correct in this moment of self-analysis. How do you even know you talk too much, though? What sort of five year old has that kind of self-awareness? There’s only one answer, and it’s breaking me right in two to acknowledge it. Because of me. Because I snap at you to eat your dinner. Because I cut you off mid-story and tell you to get your shoes on; we’re running late again. Because there’s an edge to my reply when, for the 10th time in five minutes, you say “Hey Mom, can I tell you something?” You’ve internalized my frustration. You’ve catalogued my rolled eyes, heavy sighs and exasperated tone and come to one conclusion: there’s something wrong with you.

Yes, this is all my fault, and in more ways than one. The irony is not lost on me; you certainly didn’t get your loquacious nature from your father, after all. You are your daddy in nearly every way, but your non-stop chatter, well, that gift comes from me. There’s a pain settling like a boulder in my gut. You are sad, because of me. You feel like we regret you, because you’re like me. Oh, Nathan. Nothing could be further from the truth. You’re the best thing I’ve ever done. Watching you do you – it will be one of the simplest and greatest joys of my life. I must fix this. How do I fix this? 

I clear my throat, as though I expect that to dislodge the pit in my stomach. You’re watching me, waiting for me to make it all better, but – for once – I’m at a loss for words. I hesitate, searching for an epiphany that doesn’t come. At last, I decide on honesty, and a confession.

“Yes baby, you do talk too much sometimes. But do you want to know a secret?”

Your eyes light up. You love secrets.

I do, too, buddy. I’m the reason you talk so much, you know – you got that from me. Just like you got those beautiful brown eyes from your dad. I talk more than I should, especially when I’m nervous. I probably wear people out with all my words.

That’s why I could never regret you though, why dad could never regret you: you belong to us. You are part of us, and we are a part of you. You are perfect, just the way God made you. We love you, all of you, just the way God made you.”

I watch you take in my words. I pray for them, as they find their way to your mind and your heart. Believe me, I breathe. Slowly, you smile.

“You talk a lot, too?”

“Alllllll the time, buddy,” your dad chimes in, giving you a knowing glance. Your smile becomes a giggle, and my sweet and silly boy is back again. I feel the tension leave my body, though the guilt remains. I will do better, I silently resolve. Never again will you question your value because of me. Oblivious to my inner turmoil, you pick up your fork and, at last, begin to eat.

After dinner, I catch you before you rocket out of the kitchen. Setting aside the dishtowel, I sink to my knees to give you an extra long hug and a kiss and tell you how much I love you.

“I really love you too, Mom.” Maybe it’s because you know I need it, but you linger in my arms; your face presses into my neck. You let me hold you, as though my hug can make up for the hurt. There’s forgiveness in your embrace, and I let it make me whole.

At bedtime, Dad and I both snuggle in bed with you, a rare and special treat. You are lying between us, and you’ve pulled our hands to your chest and folded your own underneath them. I look at them sandwiched there: dad’s, mine, yours. Your small hands, nearly hidden between ours, hold tight to each of us; the tie that binds. You are ours, sweet boy. You are us.

We could not love you more.

Season of Should

 

Should. It’s such a shitty word. “Should” ignores accomplishments in favor of a towering to-do list of impossible tasks and unforgiving criticism. I should spend more time playing with the children. I should stop playing and get that proposal completed. I should shave my legs. I should call my mom. I should work on math with Nathan. I should read more books with Ellie. I should be able to pee alone. I should cook dinner. I should be a better wife.

I didn’t used to be such a should-er. There was a time, B.K. (before kids), when I moved confidently. I worked, I wifed and I friended, without giving much thought to the paths I wasn’t taking. Even when Jon and I made the decision to get pregnant, there wasn’t any waffling. But one quick (and fun!) month and a positive pregnancy test later, the season of should began.

Should I be worried about those three, okay four, beers I had at the cookout last Saturday before I knew I was pregnant? Should I scale back at work? Should we increase our life insurance policies? The first time I walked into Babies R Us, the shoulds hit me with such force that I nearly hyperventilated. When week 36 rolled around and we found out that Nathan had stopped growing, requiring a c-section for his safety and mine, the shoulds were shouting.

I should’ve been more careful. I should’ve drunk less coffee. I shouldn’t have eaten that piece of sushi.

Five pounds of dark-headed perfection couldn’t shake the should monster. He was fine; I was fine – and yet the shoulds still haunted me. It’s as though I failed at my first task of being a mother, at bringing him safely into the world. He made it, but it should’ve been better.

Here I sit, five years and another child later, and the shoulds still linger. But on a good day, I can feel the tease of a shift in seasons close by.

It started 15 months ago, when I was down to my last few days of maternity leave following the birth of our daughter. Instead of going back to work, I quit a job I didn’t enjoy, the one I dreaded returning to. This also meant that we cut our income nearly in half. I fully expected panic and self-doubt to set in, but the shoulds were surprisingly silent. We scrimped and penny-pinched and ate way more spaghetti than I cared for, but within months I’d lined up a part-time job that let me work from home as much (or as little) as I could manage.

The dynamic in our marriage shifted dramatically; no longer were we equals in the workforce and on the home front. Suddenly, Jon was the breadwinner, and I was doing the lion’s share of the cooking, cleaning, laundry and childrearing. For someone as fiercely independent as me, that should have chafed. It should’ve led to arguments and resentments, but instead it just felt … right. While it’s not always an easy choice and some days are downright awful, there’s still an overriding peace that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be at this moment of my life.

In this role, I’m realizing my own strength battling the shoulds when it comes to my children. Take my daughter, Ellie, for example. She should be able to fall asleep on her own every night. We probably ought to bite the bullet and cry it out or ferberize or babywise or some such. But when I hold her close and rock her gently, she falls asleep within minutes. The whirlwind toddler is gone and my baby is back in my arms for a few brief moments. For once, I’m not telling her no and redirecting; I’m giving her exactly what she wants, and gladly. On the heels of the hard days, she and I both need those minutes to fall in love with each other again.

As for Nathan, I learned the other day that he should be able to draw a recognizable stick figure – head, body, limbs, facial features. What he draws most closely resembles a potato with toothpicks jutting out of it (he’s mostly his daddy, but I’m afraid I’ll have to take credit for his art skills, or lack thereof). While he may be lousy at drawing them though, he sees people more clearly than anyone I know. Our conversations at bedtime frequently turn to who was alone on the playground that day at school and why and always end with Nathan’s resolve to invite that child to be his friend the next day. His gentle heart can’t bear another’s loneliness. Being empathetic and kind is effortless to him, and my heart comes near to bursting when I see how well he loves others. A perfectly-rendered stick man could never bring that joy.

That’s the thing about children, though– milestones and shoulds and checklists don’t mean much to them. They revel in what is, without a thought to what could be. They’re perfectly content with who they are. For all that I’m trying to teach them, about letters, numbers and how to treat others, my children are handing out lessons of their own in the school of motherhood.

Perhaps that’s the reason for my newfound confidence, for my release of how things should be and my embrace of how things are. When you spend your days with two little people who are constantly saying new words and learning new skills, you realize how quickly it’s all slipping by. There’s not enough time to both celebrate what is and mourn what isn’t. You’re forced to make a choice … although there was really never a choice at all.

These days are too brief and filled with too much joy, too much love and far too much grace to be held captive to the shoulds. I’ll embrace today and pray for tomorrow, but as for yesterday – I’ll hold tight to the good and let the rest fall away.

When your heart is filled with the light of what is, there’s no room for the darkness of should.