Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Day 853: Childhood, Defined

One of the unique markers of parenthood is that it gives you the opportunity to actually observe childhood. When you are a child yourself, you are just living your life, aware that you are small, but lacking the experience that informs what is special about childhood. Then, once you are grown, if you choose to have children, you see these once helpless people begin to do things for themselves. You observe a series of firsts, and you take an insufferable number of pictures, and you record the cute things that your children say, and you think back to how it was when you were their age. You juxtapose your own experiences onto theirs. The fleeting nature of time makes you wince, or cry, or hug them tighter. You think about how short childhood is, compared to the rest of life. You use words like innocent and precious.

You spend most of your time being hopelessly wrong about everything.

I took my daughter to school today. I recorded my feelings about leaving her at her first day of first grade. I lamented how sad her brother seemed to be that she wouldn’t attend Montessori school with him anymore. I shed a tear or two. I wished she would have looked up to say goodbye as I waved to her at the same time that I was glad that she was so greedily reading the new workbook at her desk.

I did what parents do. I thought about milestones, new phases in life. I acknowledged that in a blink of an eye that child will be in high school. I considered how absurdly fast six and a half years have gone, and part of me would have liked to hold that image of her tiny six year old body at her desk for a long time.

But only a part. The rest of me is happy for her and glad that she is big enough to do some things she couldn’t do for years, because I know that’s what she wants—to get older, all the time. I know that being little has its disadvantages. I’ve learned some things, perhaps due to the things that happened to me as a child. When traumatic things happen, you either choose to forget how you felt at the time, or your feelings are imprinted so strongly in your brain that it would be impossible to forget them, no matter how long you live. I am in the latter camp, and I can honestly say that I remember at least some of what it felt like to be a child.

It was hard. Now, don't get me wrong. I had a mostly happy childhood, in spite of everything. I was loved and had friends. My home life was troubled and we didn’t have much money but I was never hungry. I was girly, I was a tomboy, I was a lot of things. I worked. I shielded other people from difficult truths and from my own emotions. I kept a lot to myself. I learned how to say goodbye with grace—to people, experiences, old ways of being. But I had no control over what happened to me, and I remember that. I didn’t make big decisions. There was a world and I lived in it, in a small way. I was important, but not in charge. There were so many things that I didn’t understand, that adults didn’t want me to understand.

I don’t remember my first day of first grade, or of any grade. And that is not because the years have taken their toll with my memory. It’s because those days were just not that important to me. There are many, many other things that I do remember. Lenny might remember this day. She might not. Her brother might quickly get over her absence in his daily life. He might not. Their parents chose their reality, but could not choose how they felt about it.

Yesterday, the kids played so beautifully together for hours that I felt that something important had shifted. I figured that those 10 days together in the north woods, with no other kids to play with, must have caused it. And then I heard crying. Mommy, Lenny won’t play with me anymore. I want someone to play with me. And I walked into my daughter’s room, to see her reading on the floor while she ignored her wailing brother. She looked at me half-defiantly. I just want to be by myself.

And I know that—I have always wanted that, birth order be damned, I’m the younger one and I’ve been trying to be alone for 37 years. I’ve wanted to be alone as a child, a teenager, a young woman trying to figure out how to be in “adult” relationships where people actually want to be around you all the time, as a mom. I manage my family’s schedule such that I am by myself (usually exercising—walking, spinning, strength training—such good excuses) for at least two hours every single day. I got it, I understood her.

And I took the book out of her hand. Lenny, this is the last day that you have to play with your brother without worrying about homework or your school schedule. You will play with him all day.

I was being a tyrant, making decisions for her that I knew went in opposition to what she wanted. I expected a fight. She just smiled, summoned up that coddling tone of voice that makes her sound like a grandmother and said, OK Augie do you want to play marbles? I’ll let you have the shooter.

Because she understands. She and her brother have been figuring out how to balance their different temperaments all their lives. They are only successful at it because they love each other so much, and because they both understand, she more than he, how little time they have to be together.

He knows, to some extent. He talks about not seeing Lenny every day, and we assume he means because she is no longer at his school, but really, he means, someday I know we will live in different places. So he grabs what he can. He wants her next to him when he’s eating a snack. I see him look at her lovingly and then check himself, right before he puts her in a headlock. He says Lenny I am trying to wrestle with you.

I am trying to love you.

So she elbows him in the ribs, just like we taught her to do, and loves him back.

They know about the arc of life, and its complexities, just like we do. It’s just so hard for us to admit that they know. So they shield us from their understanding.

Gabe had offered Lenny a test run of our new routine, telling her on Sunday night that we could wake up early (7, maybe) on Monday morning and see how long it took to walk to the bus stop. I have been having trouble sleeping for the past week, perhaps worried about dropping my small child off with drivers I don't know, entrusting three different sets of parents with her after school care. I woke up around 3:30 yesterday morning and was restless. Around 4:00 I woke Gabe up, which is easy enough to do. Around 5, he emerged from our bed naked and went to the bathroom. He came back right away, looking petrified. Lenny’s awake. Both of us thought, oh no, did she hear us? And I asked what she was doing.

She was sitting quietly in bed reading The Secret Garden, one of those classic children’s books where the protagonist is an orphan with a total bullshit situation, waiting for us to wake up so we could walk her to the pretend bus. She didn’t mention hearing anything. She didn’t mention her dad walking naked in the hall.

She spared us, like so many other times. Like the time when she asked me where babies came from, when I was in the middle of writing a piece for work at home. I decided to take her literally. She didn’t ask about sex, after all. She wanted to know how a baby could be inside a woman’s stomach and then emerge into the world. I told her about the uterus, and that babies are born through women’s vaginas. She thought I was insane but ultimately decided I couldn’t make that shit up. She reasoned that because she had a uterus and vagina, she could one day have babies but her brother could not. I said he could have them in the sense of being a daddy to them, but he could not give birth to them like she could. So she asked, so what does the daddy do? He just has to marry the mother?

And I fed her a snack, not yet ready to get into the whole thing. Because what will I say? I’m no good at telling lies. I can’t be one of those parents who talks about fallopian tubes and zygotes and sperm as if any of that bears any resemblance to what a kid wants to know. I can’t be one of those parents who says sex is something you do when you’re an adult, when you’re in love, a man and a woman blah blah. Because none of those things are true. I remember learning the facts of life, from one of those books that my mother read to us. She allowed us to laugh at the funny parts, which was pretty much all of it. I was maybe 3 or 4, my brother 6 or 7, the same ages as my kids are now. My mom answered our questions—the ones we felt we could ask. I never asked the only question I wanted to ask.

Is that it? There has to be more to it than that, right?

Because I knew that I was a child, and my mother was a mother, and she would not know how to answer that question right then. Just as Lenny knew to pretend to go back to sleep and wait a few hours for the test run. Just as she will probably never ask about the rest of the facts of life—we will just have to offer the information. She doesn’t really know, and yet—she does. She’d like to spare us the trouble.

She knows that adults get to do things kids don’t get to do. I always say, who makes the rules? And she says you do, but I make the rules for my guys (stuffed animals). She believes this to be true. She believes I make the rules for Gabe, though I let him make some of the rules some of the time. And that’s what being a parent is—making the decisions, taking that burden on yourself. My daughter wasn’t sad to go to a new school—how could she be? She has been in daycare since she was three months old. I was not letting go of her and entrusting her in someone else’s care for the first time. She made it clear that at first she did not want to go to this school for “gifted” children, as she wanted to be in school with her best friend. Then she changed her tune, saying she wanted to go but not for the whole 8 years. And now, she isn’t saying that anymore—and it’s not because of her new-found love for the place.

She knows she lost. We made a decision for her, and she had no say in it. She had to take the test and pass it, she had to get through the crazy lottery system. But then, we signed the papers and she couldn’t do a damn thing about it. We aren’t alone. No matter what you do—stay at home until they’re six, homeschool until they’re 17, private school, public—YOU are making that choice for them because you feel it is the best one. Parents can tell themselves that their children should make choices, and that’s right. Small choices are empowering. And they are the only ones children get to make, as we shape their lives for them because we know better, because it is our job.

We switch their school or move to a new house in a new town and they see their friends less because they cannot control their own schedules or drive 30 miles. They get over it. Or do they? Lenny still remembers her best friend from her old daycare—and she hasn’t seen her in four and a half years.

Augie will get over not seeing his sister all the time. Or will he? He will accept it, of course, but it will make him sad and his sadness will be real, not a three year old sadness but the sadness of someone who understands that even your most beloved people leave and live their lives without you.

I know I sound dramatic. I should say that I do not believe that children are like adults, or even that teenagers are like adults. But I also don’t believe that childhood is lived the way that parents think it is lived. We think that kids don’t know that their childhood is short-lived—but they do. They know just about everything we know.

When I write a facebook status about my three year old telling me he will listen to me when he’s six, dozens of people "like" it. It sounds so cheeky. But he was serious. He was saying look, I know I won’t get away with this forever. When I’m six, I will be twice the age I am now, and maybe then I’ll start to mind. Of course, he won’t—not really. I never did. I never listened to a thing I didn't want to hear. Now, my parents might disagree. I was very well behaved. I never talked back. But WHY NOT? Because I knew that if I had a track record of being good, I could get away with more later. I did that at home, and I did that at school. At home, I minded, and I did well in school, and I didn’t cause trouble. So I got to drive my mom’s car, and be left alone in the house and go to parties. Hell I got to go to my boyfriend’s parents’ lake house for my 16th birthday—JUST THE TWO OF US. At school, I studied and wrote excellent papers and served as vice president of my class and volunteered—and so I got to wear what I wanted, and I never got in much trouble for ditching, and when I stopped trying entirely I was forgiven.

I can see what Augie will do, because I have done it myself.

How different am I today? How is adulthood that different from childhood? I think it is different in that we learn to keep things to ourselves, we gain coping mechanisms to manage our losses. But the things there are to keep, and the losses--those are really all the same. I still think about my best friend from 1st grade, who moved to the Philippines. I knew when she left that she would fade into the world and I would never know anything about her again. I wrote a story about her, and it won an award. I was seven.

When Augie tells me with pride that he can finally pump his legs while swinging, because Lenny told him to close his eyes, and he does that to concentrate but also because he says he feels like he is flying, I smile. I smile not because he is cute, but because he is RIGHT. When he gets stir crazy and needs some exercise and gets aggressive and out of control, I lose patience with him not because I don’t understand him but because I DO, and because I have learned how to tame myself and I don’t always know how to teach him. When a stranger stops me when I’m ordering ice cream and grabs my hand and says “my god you have beautiful children,” I look at them and not at her when I say thank you. I remember hearing about my hair all my life and how the attention made me cast my eyes down, and I want to say to her “you know, they are short, but not deaf. Why are you saying that to me, and pretending that they aren’t even there? I don’t have children at all, not really. They have themselves.”

They have themselves, and their experiences, which we are powerless to change, no matter how much we’d like to change them. Sometimes I think about the day when I will have to explain to Augie that I had cancer, and what that is, since he has no idea. He was just a baby—it would be like telling a child he is adopted, as if that should be relevant information in his frame of reference. But the thought lingers with me more and more.

Augie has been talking about death. He asks, how old will you be when you die? How do we die? When I die, I won’t see anyone anymore, right? He sits in the car on a long road trip with his “mama” in his mouth, and then he takes it out and asks, out of the blue, “When I am ten, will I die?”

These are questions that I do not answer correctly. Perhaps if he asked about a pet dying, or an old person, I could respond well. But he asks about himself, and I cannot bear it. I tell him not to focus on dying. We all die, but hopefully not for a very long time. We are all young and healthy now. And he nods and looks down, completely dissatisfied with what I am telling him. I ask who has been talking about dying at school, as if he couldn’t have had the thought in his own mind. He makes something up to pacify me. Gabe tries to help, and tells him that there are three ways that people die: They get old, get sick, or get in an accident. Lenny chimes in that you could get struck by lightning, which Gabe classifies as an accident. Then she says, or you could get sick, like

And I shoot my dagger eyes at all three of them and say ENOUGH. WE ARE DONE WITH THIS CONVERSATION. Not even daring her to finish the sentence. She realized, I’m sure, that it was me she was sparing. After all, she couldn’t be sparing Augie. He let it go, then ran up to me, grabbed my face like he does when he wants a kiss, and said “hug.”

I don’t know why I worry about telling him. He already knows.


  1. All children obsess over death around their ages. They all have a realization that everyone is alive so everyone dies and everyone means, well, EVERYone. Including moms and dads and sisters and... themselves. And to have a mom who has gone through what you've been through... well. I'd be more surprised if he wasn't talking about it.

    I do like how you cover so much in one post. How it isn't just about going to school...

    I hope Lenny and Augie have a fun year this year. :)

  2. He was asking me today how old we would all be in three years. He knew he would be six. I told him that his dad and I would be 40. So he said, and when you're 40, you'll die. I couldn't stop myself from saying, well Jesus, I hope not, secretly thinking that 40 is the magic number I hope to get to in order to signal a decent chance of getting a lot older. The kid is too much.