Just the Way You Are

Big-dog-little-dog

Little storms in the door from school, a sullen look on his face.

“How was your day?” I venture, knowing that is a loaded question.

“Terrible! I suck at everything. Everybody hates me. Everybody is mean. I have no friends,” he says, louder than it needs to be. It’s already loud and prickly in my heart. It’s hard for a parent to hear those words coming from her child.

“What happened?” I ask, not really wanting to hear the gory details, but trying to be supportive.

“They said I suck. I can’t play goalie, and I missed a bunch of saves. Then they made fun of my goalie equipment. They said it’s cheap and dumb.”

Even the Tuuka Rask mask? I query incredulously.

“They said I was a ‘try-hard’, that I tried too hard and I still suck.”

Even his best friend? I ask. Not even his best friend had nice things to say. He pulled him aside and told him to leave his stuff at home so he wouldn’t be embarrassed when he didn’t make every save.

In truth, I am not surprised to hear this. This is 6th grade, the grade, by Bigs’ description, which was the worst of middle school for him, now that he can look back on it avuncularly from his 8th grade perch. It’s the apex (so far) of masculinity and identity issues that I could smell from a distance in 5th grade, where there already were brief skirmishes on the play ground for alpha male status.

Did I really believe that Little would be immune from it? Well, maybe I did, a bit. I mean, he’s a pretty socially adept kid. He’s the kind of kid who blends in with all sorts of groups, the birthday party ambassador who crosses a room to make friends with kids from another birthday party and then introduces everyone, and the kid who makes up nicknames for other kids who like to call themselves those nicknames. So why is this happening to him, and what should I make of it?

I once attended a book talk with Natalie Babbitt, who wrote Tuck Everlasting, she said, for 5th graders because that is when kids decide who they are going to be: either themselves – and try to discover, accept, and develop what that really means – or pale imitations of someone else, someone who is athletic, attractive, popular and cool. Someone whose feelings never get hurt, because he never lets anyone know who he really is, and therefore, cannot be rejected.

The cost of this, as I try to point out to Little, is that, if he chose option #2, no matter how many friends he would have, they wouldn’t be true friends because they wouldn’t really know him. They wouldn’t know that he loves babies and little kids, stays loyal to the Bruins – even when they lose – (like this season…), wants a gray, tiger striped kitten with all his heart, once followed the Star Wars trilogy like a religion, has a crush on ———- (do you think I’d betray his confidence here?!), and gets his feelings hurt pretty easily.

After some reflection and a cookie, we try to focus on the positives. He has to at least consider that his best friend might have been trying to help him out without showing his critics that he needed rescuing. Little might have felt things worse than they really were. (Though he insists it was Really That Bad.) And speaking of rescuing, I can’t do it. I can’t fix this. Only he can do it, or at least grapple with the big feelings that come with the sort of interaction that happened during gym class.

After a cap-off comment I make about how this is an opportunity for him to feel some compassion for kids who get picked on all the time, I run out of things to say, and I realize that the rest of this is work that he needs to do on his own.

And as much as I want, in my heart, to ensure that he never feels pain, that’s not possible. He has to live his life, and every human life, inevitably, includes pain. So I will sit on the sidelines and let him do that hard work that every human being has to do, and remind him, from time to time, that he is enough for the world, just as he is.

The Angel in the House

angel

It’s the saddest day of my holiday season: the day we take down the tree. This year, however, before I put the ornaments and lights away, I took a long last look at the angel we put at the top of it each year.

And decided that she would be my inspiration this year.

There’s a backstory to this angel. I brought her home during the phase of my early motherhood shopping years I like to call the “Grab and Run (and keep the receipt)” years. The day we put up our tree that year, I realized that we had no tree topper. So I sprang to my sleigh, and out to Michael’s Crafts I went. As I dashed into the Tree Trimmings aisle at Michael’s Crafts, I scanned the shelf for something – anything – that I could plunk on top of my tree. And then I saw her in her plastic sleeve, her taffeta dress and wings folded and pressed against it. A 50% off sign sealed the deal.

I jumped into line, ten customers deep at the time, and as I drew closer to the cash register, I caught sight of a Christmas star with colored lights that would have matched the small colored bulbs that adorned our tree each year, instead of the angel’s dignified, tiny white lights. No matter: I had a topper for the tree, and I was good to go.

We got home, she and I, and we set about finishing the tree trimming. Bigs was pretty small then – about 3 ½, and of course, he wanted to help. I just wanted to be finished, in all honesty. I had cookies to make for a swap, after all, then all the Christmas photocards to address! My husband clipped the top branch so she could fit on top of it and we plugged her in, where she cast a soft light over her dominion of cardboard cutout pictures, noodle wreaths, and various PBS cartoon character ornaments that were so central to my children’s early Christmases. Nothing matched: she really belonged in a white, silver and gold montage. But good enough, I thought, turning to the next holiday obligation.

“Mommy, is that you?” I heard a small voice say in the living room. “No, sweetie. I’m in the kitchen,” I called out, rummaging through my spice rack for ginger.

“No, Mommy. Look!” Big’s voice became insistent.

I stepped away from the countertop and went into the living room. Big was pointing to the top of the tree at the angel.

“That’s YOU, Mommy,” he said, as sure as he could be.

I was wearing yoga pants; she was in a long, flowing white dress. She had wings; the hood of my sweatshirt covered my shoulders. Her hair was golden and flowed in perfect waves to her back: mine, while blond, was bundled up in an elastic and hadn’t been washed since the day before. Her face was an image of contented joy. Up until that moment, mine was a reflection of how overwhelmed and cranky I had felt all day. But my little boy thought that we had everything in common. He told me that night that I was his angel. I scooped up Big in my arms, overwhelmed by such plain, strong love and approval.

I have heard many kind remarks come my way; I am lucky to be good at what I do for a living, one that I might consider, even, a calling. I fit the description of what most would call attractive. I have a good singing voice, and an even better sense of humor, I’ve been told on more than one occasion. But I doubt, though I may live to a very ripe age, that I will ever hear a better compliment than the one Bigs gave me that night. It was exactly what I needed to hear, precisely the message that I craved, and, ironically, the one that I was walking and busying myself away from, when what I needed was right there in the room I had just walked out of.

There’s a famous Victorian poem, “The Angel in the House”, written by Coventry Patmore about his ideal of the perfect wife and mother. It’s completely unrealistic and describes a woman – his helpmeet- as wooden a character as my tree topper is plastic. The poem is an example of why I think people have angels all wrong. They think that angels represent a standard that we can’t possibly reach. We describe our children, usually when they are sleeping and not actively being themselves, as angels. We put them on pedestals, where we can’t reach them, or they us. They are God’s “wing-men”, and either with Him or relegated to the heavenly host, those who are already perfect – and we believe, too often, that we certainly can’t say that about ourselves. They speak wisely and calmly, are always put together, and never make mistakes.

Kind of like the mothers we think we should be, especially during the holidays.

But angels are, really, messengers. That is what the Greek word for angel, aggelos, really means. And people can be messengers. So as much as I will, even on my most together days, not look or even act totally angelic, I will be a messenger to my family and those I care about, and I will consider carefully what message I give them.

And when I looked into our angel’s eyes as I put her gently back in the tote where she lives for the other eleven months of the year, I thanked her for being the vehicle for the message that Big gave me.