Parenting is a schizophrenic series of moments.
In our worst moments, those flustered frazzled furious ones, we can delude ourselves into wishing our children were different. If only she didn’t have such an intractable will. If only he didn’t fall to pieces over such tiny things. If only they were as well-behaved as it seems like other people’s kids are.
But in our better moments, we know better. When I am my most lucid self, I am convinced beyond words, beyond logic, beyond pragmatism, that I would never want my children to be different. That in fact, I would be deeply depressed if they magically morphed into perfectly adjusted, perfectly well-behaved, fundamentally altered people.
The other day, this realization wrapped itself around my heart like a warm embrace.
My family of 4 was at a state park on Memorial Day weekend, just after a fun family convergence with my oldest brother, his family, and our parents. Everyone else had left following a picnic and an Appalachian Trail hike. I wanted to get the kids in the creek to play before we headed home. I’ve been trying to find occasions to play in the water since our 5-year-old has been up and down lately in his willingness to get wet.
The previous weekend, at a different state park, we enjoyed a memorable, sun-kissed afternoon at a lake beach. We built a sand castle with a moat, we waded into the lake, and our idiosyncratic Greyson surprised us by embracing both the sand and the semi-murky water with open (sunscreen-slathered) arms. Which felt like progress.
But on this day, Greyson wasn’t nearly as amenable. He waded tentatively into the creek for a minute, but then he balked and got a bit agitated, insisting on being held. Once he decides he doesn’t want to do a thing, there’s usually nothing we can do to persuade him otherwise. Maybe it was the slightly colder water, or the movement of the mild creek rapids nearby. It’s hard to say since, just like some adults (but unlike his dad), he’s not usually good at clearly communicating his feelings and fears.
I was in one of my aforementioned better moments, thankfully. The beauty of the state park, the pleasant enjoyment of our family meet-up, and my overall recent clarity made it easy on this particular day for me to gladly pick up my boy and hold him while I waded further into the creek. I briefly tried to dip his feet into the water again, but he wasn’t into it. He clung tightly to me. I was happy to let it go.
And in that moment, while holding my tall and wiry little boy, I was overcome with an intense surge of parental love. And I said to Greyson with great feeling, “Do you know something, buddy? I love you so much, just the way you are. I would never want you to be any different.”
Uttering those words aloud made their glistening truth even more real. And it meant the world to be able to say it right into his ear, with his head resting on my shoulder and his little arms wrapped around my neck. The words that I hope he can vividly remember me saying for as long as he lives. I whispered them like an incantation. Like a sacred oath. Like a reminder for both of our beating hearts.
That our loved ones, be they our kids or our spouses or our friends, don’t have to modify themselves to qualify for our love.
That in fact, love is nothing at all unless it’s unconditional.
And besides, how many more years (or even months) will my 5-going-on-6-year-old gladly let me pick him up? As every parent knows deep down, the cat’s in that cradle. Little Boy Blue, the man in the moon, and Harry Chapin knew what was up.
All we have as human beings are these holy, fleeting moments.
And all we have as parents are our children.
Just the way they are.