Postcard from the Backcountry

You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.

Mark 1:11

This bungled, bumping journey with you is quite an adventure. Your unique sense of direction steers us into wondrous and uncharted territory. When I pause to look around, I see the strangeness for what it is. The high canopy shelters, the bright blooms startle, the roots hold the shifting soil steady enough beneath our feet. You carry me to a way of knowing I could not have visited without your companionship.
Because of you, I am learning new habits for walking well. As we go, I will pack these ways close and keep them within reach.

  1. Ignore the clock. No one wins any prizes for being on time. Misery cancels out the gold star for punctuality. When we are trying to dress to get out the door for school, moving between your two houses, or just gearing up for the next activity, we can make our way with care. A too-abrupt transition into the chaotic press of the outside world is like stepping straight from the bubble bath into rush-hour traffic. The mind needs to gain its footing. You will have your moment to stretch, to fuss a little, to hear about what waits on the other side of the moment. I can sit with you, touching you gently. Hot cocoa is waiting in the car, I remind you.  The kitty cat was asleep on your bed in the middle of the night. Your Grandpa Bill is coming next week.  A light touch can welcome you back from the unscheduled bliss of your play, your dreams, your lazy wanderings. We will get where we need to go eventually. In the meantime, let’s greet one another and enjoy the hello all over again.

  3. Seek positive intent. When you knocked over the child at the party, I know you wanted something but did not know how to communicate your eagerness. I will try to say, “You were excited about the flag the little girl was holding. You wanted a turn with it. You grabbed and pushed her, but that hurt her. You could say, ‘Please, can I have a turn with the flag.’ If that does not work, come get me and I will help you figure it out.”  Even when you are hitting me, I know you are trying to achieve something. I empathize with this. You are trying to tell me you are disappointed about the pleasure you believe you have been denied. Your hitting hurts, though, so I will help you learn to say “Mommy, I am so angry and frustrated.”  I will let you cry. I will show you ways to be gentle with your big, hot feelings. In training my eyes to look for your positive purpose, I learn to see the intent in other people’s actions, too.  When folks around me behave in ways that strike me as wrong, I remember that they are trying to manage their own complex lives. So many of us walk through our days feeling we have failed ourselves and others, that we have fallen short. Yet, we are all doing our best with the resources we have. I am, too. When I pay attention to the good at work inside confused behavior, my heart softens.

  5. Forgive, forget. Forced apologies are hereby banned. You have had enough with feeling bad about yourself for the time being. Saying “sorry” is only useful if you feel contrite, and we both know you cannot achieve anything as subtle and generous as repentance when you are tied up inside. For now, it is my job to forgive you when you make a mistake, even if you are not ready to admit you made one. I will decide you are trying your hardest, and I will remind you that you are good, no matter how tangled up you feel. We have time to untie the knots.  I will sit with you until we both simmer down, and then we will make our way out of the jungle together.

  7. Apologize freely. True apologies are not an admission of failure. When I catch myself acting with fury or aggression, I will stop and tell you I am sorry. “I really got mad and started yelling when you were kicking the shower door. I’m sorry, Bug. I should not have yelled. It did not help at all. I was actually scared before I was mad. Next time, I will try saying, ‘I am worried about you breaking the glass doors. I do not want you to get hurt.’” My job is to keep you intact and well. When you act out, you have something roaring inside you that needs to be heard or received. At the same time, I am trying to help you get somewhere safe.  I know we can work together to solve the problem.  I can say I am sorry for boiling over. Then I can turn down the heat and train my attention back on you, on us, on the opportunity before us. As I speak my apology and act to guide you to a calm place, I forgive myself. I release my grip on the mistake, and re-commit myself to loving you well. My mind is clear of the fog of self-loathing and hopelessness, and I begin to see options again. I can help you find your words. The path forward begins to lay itself bare.

  9. Come out of hiding.  When I slip into my room to piddle around on the computer, start tapping on my phone, or open the paper, I am not really with you. Long days of parenting and working can drain energy stores and leave me grumpy. My exhaustion manifests as a vanishing act. My sleight of hand does not fool you when we are together, because I am attempting to disappear in plain sight. When I withdraw, I believe I can shield you from the ill effects of my mood. I know better, however, and so do you. It’s no wonder you lock yourself into a suit of armor when you feel dark things. You see very few people giving name and face to their distress. My ducking and avoidance have far more of a negative impact on you than the blahs and blues of my presence. I want you to have more choices than “got it together” and “invisible.” I will try to stay with you, in my ups as well as my downs, and even the flat places in between. If I need to work on a project or take a few minutes to myself, we will discuss it. I can explain what is happening before I shift gears, and assist you in setting yourself up with an activity. You are learning to be perceptive about people and their needs. I can help you by naming my own place in time, talking you through what I expect, and being transparent about my behavior.

You have led me towards these small, immense lessons. I hope to continue to hold them close as we make our way through this tangled landscape. Walking this path is not easy, but it is the only one for us. In your company, I learn to be a better parent. This also means I am learning to be a better friend, neighbor, and inhabitant of this teeming planet.
During this leg of the journey (as with so many others), you are teaching me how to expand my capacity for love. You help me see more clearly, and I see what a beautiful boy you are.

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