A couple of weeks ago I found the following note in Fred’s school folder:
Dear Mommy and Daddy,
Today I poked my freind with a paper clip. I am having trubble keeping my hands to my self. I promiss to be better.
The note was, I would soon come to find out, a “note of reflection.” It was to be read and signed by a parent and returned to the teacher.
I sighed at the note, mildly exasperated at both my active 6 year-old and his seemingly over-sensitive teacher.
“But I didn’t poke him with the sharp end,” Fred told me when I probed him about the incident. “I just used the round end and I went like this.” He demonstrated by gently touching me on the back with his finger. He was playing around, as I know he is prone to do. So I wasn’t alarmed so much about the paper clip as I was about the second line, “I am having trouble keeping my hands to myself.”
Every former elementary school teacher flashed through my mind. Keep your hands to yourself. Keep your hands by your sides. The annoyed admonishments were directed mainly at the boys, I remember. As a well-behaved, approval-seeking little girl, I never quite “got” what was so hard about simply sitting still. Even at that young age I equated the lack of ability to restrain oneself a sign of immaturity and yet more evidence of the male gender’s inferiority to girls. (And I have a feeling that some of my teachers did too.) As a woman, I couldn’t quite get those implulses until I became a mother of a little boy.
I’ve found it a simultaneous joy and struggle to be the mom of a boy, and all for the same reason: because he is so different from me. Fred is physically adventurous in ways I never dared to be, and assertive in ways that I envy even now as an adult. He is so full of energy and love for the outdoors and as a result healthier and more robust than I ever was. And for as long as I can remember he has had no problem telling a kid off who’s cut him in line or taken his toy without asking. At the same time, the physical risk-taking shows up as scars, cuts and bruises. How is it that he can fall again and again and not learn to avoid it? I worry about the day we might end up in a hospital ER. He will also sometimes defy adults, whether it is us or his teachers. He will not always do as he is told if he disagrees and he will sometimes repeat an offense because he “forgot.” I worry about him ruffling feathers and getting on people’s bad sides. The joy in mothering Fred is that I see strengths that did not exist in me; the struggle is mothering a child who is becoming a person I was not. It feels unfamiliar and so when he sometimes doesn’t behave as I would have, my alarm bells go off.
I understand that the above qualities don’t only belong to boys, and that this ambivalence can and does probably happen between most parents and their children regardless of gender. I know that I became a very different person than the one my mother had envisioned, and this became hard for her even though or perhaps because we are both women. So often I disappointed her because I didn’t behave as she would have or made the choices that she would have. As a young woman I thought this was selfish parenting; as a mother I am understanding just how hard it can be to let your child be different from you, to trust that your child will turn out well – perhaps even better! – by following his or her own way.
Those notes of reflection are hard on me. Knowing that my son isn’t always the angel in school is hard on me. Wondering if his “misbehaviors” reflectly poorly on me as a mother is hard on me. And yet, I wonder how I would feel if he, like me when I was a little girl, stressed to behave perfectly in school, so terrified of a teacher’s or friend’s disapproval that he couldn’t speak his mind or be himself. Maybe he knows what he’s doing. Maybe he will surprise me. The only way I’ll know is by guiding the little boy who’s in front of us, rather than pushing for the person who’s lived inside of me.