Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A little reflection goes a long way

Lizzie and I have figured out a fantastic new game. It involves me standing up, my growing bundle of blubber and drool sitting in my arms like a Lazy Boy, and watching as she presses her feet hard against the mirror attached to my bedroom wall. And then, we laugh. A lot.

Before you go thinking I’ve gone off the entertainment-by-way-of-a-newborn deep end, let me back up a bit.
A few weeks ago, Lizzie discovered her toes. It was as if she had found out the world’s best toy was actually connected to her body. All the time. Just imagine! Her whole face smiled every time she rocked—much like a top running out of spin—from side to side, clinging to her toes and babbling with glee. It would seem nothing could top this magic….until yesterday, when we realized that with the help of the full length mirror, we magically created two extra sets of toes to play with…and ah, how we passed the time today, feet against glass, just admiring the 20 stubby little piggies from all angles.

The humidity this afternoon was killer, like someone turned on a giant sauna and forgot to set the timer. My entire neighborhood was moving in complete lethargy—even more so than usual for a post Fourth of July Monday—because the air was so thick and damp and we were all soaking in our own sweat. As I type this, I am giggling at mental images of people stepping out of their homes, buck naked, to sit on cedar benches and sauna-tize in their front lawns.

Okay, maybe I am off the deep end.

But I digress. Today was hot enough that I was happy to stay inside, happy to let Lizzie spend almost an hour (an infant eternity, really) playing with the toes on her feet and the toes of her reflection.

All this time in front of a mirror got me thinking (no, not about the fact that I have not showered in three days or that my glasses are bent beyond hope or that I don’t even remember where the little make-up I own is actually kept). Looking at Lizzie as she examined herself with both deep curiosity and obvious trepidation, I began to think about my role in guiding my children as they grow, and how much it feels like their successes and struggles are mirrors of my mothering abilities.

Sounds a bit egocentric right? Perhaps, but its roots lie in this simple truth: I have a nine year-old. I am quickly discovering that something happens between years eight and nine; a shift that begins to transform your imagination-living child into a person who wants to talk about the grocery list, how to solve the kitchen ant problem (with no harm to said ants of course) and the upcoming election (okay, maybe that last one is all his mama, but we’ll go there another time). Don’t get me wrong, Noah still loves to invent games of spies and trolls and sorcerers. It’s just that there is something more grown up about him everyday, some awareness in me that we are halfway through Noah’s time in our home, and that the next half will be about him coming into his own, which inevitably means differentiating from Justin and I.

I will admit to being an overwrought parent when it comes to imagining my children’s future selves. I spent too many years in psychology classes not to fret over what metaskills I am providing poor foundations for or what untapped talents I somehow smushed or ignored. As time goes by, I am beginning to understand that one of my biggest challenges as a parent will be to celebrate the people Noah and Max and Lizzie will grow to be, without pushing my own agenda or aspirations for them.

How does one do that? How do you hold the mirror up to your child and allow them to see an authentic reflection, clear of parentally driven dreams?

Just before drifting off to sleep tonight, I asked Noah about his orange—his happiest moment—of the day. He looked at me with his faded blue eyes, scrunched up his freckled nose, and then, as if a thought was beamed in from one of the crickets making such a racquet outside, he slapped his hand to his chest and said, “when I got to skipper the pixel today and we did a jibe-ho. I just really love sailing mom.” I’m no nautical savant, so I don’t totally understand what he is talking about, except that he got to drive the boat he was assigned to for the first time during a tricky (I think?) move.

I do not miss the potential metaphor of the moment. We celebrate by having him describe, in painstaking detail, how the thunderheads rolled in from the northwest while he was doing a triangle pattern in the middle of the harbor and how he kept his cool as he steered his crew back to the docks safely.

“It was like the clouds crept up from behind the point, mom, and suddenly, wham! It started to pour,” he says, his voice building with drama and volume.
“And so I took charge. I looked at our instructor and said ‘we need to get back on shore. This could be dangerous.’ And you know what he said mom?”
“What Noah?”
“He said everything is dangerous to some degree. And so I said,” a pause here for effect, “Not love. Loving someone isn’t dangerous at all.”

My little boy looks at me as if he has imparted a very grown-up epiphany and that I will, in return, now express my gratitude. His posture is pin straight as he sits in his bed, the key move for Noah when he’s impressed himself with his word choices. I look at him, this shirtless waif of a child, who crawled into bed in his boxer shorts. My thoughts quickly move from “wow, he likes sailing. His dad used to race sailboats professionally. Maybe this is his calling, maybe he’ll be in the America’s Cup someday…how can I help make that happen?” to “thank goodness he still believes in love without heartache. Now how can I help preserve that?”

Some days Noah wants to be the president. Some days he wants to be a Lego engineer. And most the time, if I ask some far-flung request for him to tell me what the future will hold, he looks at me blankly and says, “I have no idea. Can I have chocolate milk with dinner?”

As I listen to him spouting sailing terminology, the heavy curtains of sleep begin to pull at his eyelids. A warm breeze dances in and he yawns, patting my knee.
“That’s ‘jibe’ mom, as in j-i-b-e.”

He understands that while he is sleeping, I’ll be googling words like that so that I can talk to him intelligibly by morning about this week’s latest passion. And he’ll love that I do that, just as I did when the thing that was to be his life’s calling was hip hop dancing. Or electric guitar. Or comic book creating.

Perhaps the role of a parent is to simply hold up the mirror and stand behind our children, out of the way but still in plain view. I keep picturing Lizzie’s reflected toes, matched perfectly against her real ones. And I hope against hope that for all of her years, she will smile as she did today when she looks at herself, because in the end, the people I want each of my children to grow up to be are, well, already standing before me.


Zach said...

This was a great blog. I think this was the best one yet. I'm going to take you up on your offer on helping me with my fund raiser.

castaway said...

What a fine writer ... and a great Mom, too. Nothing easy in the parenting biz, and it never ceases! A child ceases being a child one day (well, sort of), but a parent is always! The heart breaks, the mind ponders, sometimes fearfully, at every age. Thanks for taking up the blog!

Amy said...

Love that last line. Beautiful.

Amy Hanek said...

You gotta love reflective teaching...

Laurie Rodak said...


"In the end, the people I want each of my children to grow up to be are, well, already standing before me"

How inspiring! You should submit the whole entry to a parent magazine, it's very well written and moving.

Thank you for stopping by my blog, it's updated every Thurs so feel free to visit again.

Janet said...

I love the mirror metaphor. Love it.

Heather said...

Awesome! Isn't it wonderful watching them grow and find a new level of maturity!

Midwest Mom said...


Thank you for your wonderful writing and for sharing this golden moment. It is so amazing to me, sometimes, that I am raising little people who will be big someday... And I want to memorize those times when they give me a glimpse of what kind of big person they can become.

I have a feeling your children will love reading about themselves through your eyes. I know I did.

Best to you and your clan,

Beck said...

My nine year old is suddenly very grown up, too, and it does make me very wistful for the easiness of the baby years.

womaninawindow said...

What a fine piece of writing and what a wonderful boy you have. Let's hope he's able to keep his views on love for a very long time. Sounds a little like my boy.

Thanks for coming round my way the other day.

Christine said...

love without heartbreak--doesn't it make you just want to bottle and seal that sweet, sweet moment forever?

cathy said...

When am I going to read my cousin's first novel? I love your writing style whatever the subject may be. It goes way back to what your wrote for Grandma Kate. Keep it up cuz.

Thea said...

How beautiful! Thanks for finding my blog, so that I can read yours. I definitely enjoyed your post, and it sheds new light on the hours I spend in front of the mirror with my newborn, making faces with her and giggling.