My son is not a baby anymore. Proof came today when he suffered a hurt that I couldn’t fix, that I just had to be witness to – sweating and panicked that I was handling it all wrong. It was a matter between him and the kids he’d saddled up to at the park. It was not the push and pull argument over a toy that is so prevalent in the preschool set, but rather a shut out – a “go away, we don’t want to play with you,” kind of thing. He was undaunted, as I listened horrified from a safe distance away, and continued to try to push his way into the inner circle where he was obviously not welcomed. He is exceptionally friendly for his age, eager to make friends, and innocently oblivious to the idea that anyone would not feel the same way. I tried only once to intervene, suggesting that we go play on the swings, but he would have none of it. It was the first time anything like this had happened, and it caused the searing pain in my chest that is the occupational hazard of motherhood.
One of the kids’ moms caught wind of the situation and very kindly talked to her son about it, but the reality is not everyone is going to get along all of the time. And they eventually did play together nicely, then didn’t, then did again. She functioned better as counsel to me, helping me to remember that this is a scenario that plays out even with adults (the two kids knew each other already; my son was the newbie, and the dreaded third wheel to boot), and also talked about pecking order, power struggles, and all of that. I loved her for all of it, because I knew from what she was saying that she understood, because she’d been there. Our sons are the same age, but she also has another, older son. Even if she has been through this already, perhaps seeing me today reminded her of how it felt when she realized that her first was a baby no longer, and would have to work this stuff out for himself. Because really, even though our first instinct is to protect our babies at all costs, we also know that there comes a time when stepping back, little by little, is what will serve them best. This is the first of many such steps back, I know. I am hoping at some point? In some way? It gets easier.
I smothered him with love and affection all afternoon. At dinner, I asked him what his favorite part of the day was and he said, “When my new friends were saying go away – that was a funny joke.” My forced nonchalance had not fooled him, and he told me what he thought would put my mind at ease. I chose books for bedtime that had to do with friendship, empathy, and also some element of being “picked on,” and persevering. In one particular story I asked him why he thought the man might have been unkind to the fox who had come to his door. He said, “Maybe she was being too loud during quiet time.” When the kids today were playing quietly, my son missed their cue and was loud and boisterous. I nearly choked trying to keep my tears at bay. But that’s good, right? He’s processing today’s events, seeing the situation from another point of view. But good lord, my heart.
My heart. I stayed by his bedside for a second longer tonight. Memorizing his sweet face – those long lashes, and soft, round cheeks. Wincing at his lanky, bruised boy legs, his long arms devoid of any dimples or rolls.
So that’s it. Babyhood over. I think back to those long, sleepless nights – feeding, changing, rocking, repeat. I had been told, but I didn’t believe it then: it goes so, so fast. It disappears in sneaky fits and starts – those tiny teeth appearing, the chubby chins disappearing, the babble turning to words, turning to whole thoughts and opinions. They take steps, looking back at you for reassurance at first, but then slowly, slowly the center of their universe ceases to be you. The next thing you know, they’re running full stop in a gang of kids, without so much as a glance backward.
And really, that’s the way it should be.