Aubrey Hirsch’s previous Loco Parentis columns for The Butter can be found here.
The toughest emotional moments of motherhood for me are always the “firsts.”
My son had an ear infection when he was two weeks old and it was the first time I couldn’t calm him down by bringing him to my breast. I remember thinking, this is the first time he’s coming to me for comfort and I’m not fixing the problem. This is the first time I’m letting him down.
That thought stung, and stung badly. He couldn’t know how hard I was trying to make him feel better. He couldn’t know that I had nothing to do with the pain in his ear. He couldn’t know that it wasn’t my fault. All he knew is that he was in pain and that I wasn’t making it better.
Once the fog of that sad thought lifted, I had another thought. This one was equal parts comforting and terrible. I thought, this is only the first of so many times I’ll let him down. This is what happens now—today, and every day after.
It’s true. I’ve let my son down approximately four million times since that first time. He’s had other pains that I haven’t been able to fix. I’ve yelled at him when he didn’t deserve it. I’ve refused to buy him things he wanted—toys, rolling suitcases, a farm combine we once saw at a mall. I wouldn’t let him run into an active construction site to touch the diggers. I couldn’t conjure up a butterfly when he wanted to see one. I didn’t let him pick up the mangy stray cat that stalks around our yard at dusk.
It doesn’t hurt so much anymore. This is just one more, I think to myself. There will be so many.
Employing this mantra works for other things, too. The first time my son picked up a bad habit from another kid at daycare, I bristled, and then I shrugged it off. This will happen for the rest of his life. He’ll meet new people. He’ll learn new things. He’ll be influenced in ways both good and bad. Today this is happening, I thought. Today, and every day after.
I was talking to a friend recently whose kids are older than mine. She’s starting to have tough conversations with them about some of the evil things that lurk behind all the amazing beauty in this world. I’m not there yet. My son still lives in the cotton-candy bubble of his own experience. He’s never seen real evil and so, for him, it does not exist.
It’s a privileged position, to be able to experience undiluted joy, even for a few brief years. But soon I’ll have to talk to him about strangers, and kidnappings, about mean dogs and mean friends, about sexism, racism, the terrible sins of our country’s past and its present, the way some people are treated unfairly because of the way they look or act or speak or love. When I do so, I’ll try to remember that this is part of life. That today, and every day after, he’ll be confronted with truths about the world that expand his view of what is possible. Some of these truths will be amazing. Some will be horrifying. But it will happen. Every day.
Even though this idea is scary, it is also strangely comforting. It makes these firsts feel less like singular, defining moments and more like the beginnings of long processes that will transform my kid into his own person.
All of these painful experiences: learning your parents can’t fix everything, being negatively influenced by peers, realizing sad truths about our society; these are all things I’ve endured. We all have. I didn’t react to these things like a slug touched by salt. They didn’t dissolve my jelly insides. Rather, they armored me. They plated steel to my bones, reinforced the soft walls of my heart. They sharpened my mind, and my tongue.
When something or someone hurts him and my son’s face falls from curious to devastated, I try to tell myself that today my kid is getting stronger. He’s becoming more independent. He’s trying on these new feelings and figuring out how he can make himself comfortable inside them. He’s turning into the person he’s going to be—today, and every day after.
Aubrey Hirsch is the author of Why We Never Talk About Sugar. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Rumpus, Brain, Child Magazine and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter: @aubreyhirsch.