By Laura Diamond
It was a Sunday, filled with the promise of flaky warm croissants and bursting red strawberries. We walked toward the Farmer’s market in town, my younger son Emmett concentrating mightily on bouncing a ball. New and delicate stuff, this dribbling. The ball got away quickly; two or three bounces then he’s chasing it into the bushes. But he had decided that he liked basketball, and he was determined to figure this out.
I watched him retrieve the ball from the neighbors’ newly-planted pansies, and my every cell vibrated with the effort not to scoop him up, squeeze him and tell him he’s scrumptious. But I controlled myself.
I wish I had controlled the next impulse, which was to innocently bestow encouragement and praise: “You’ve really improved in basketball!”
At once his face darkened and his spirit shriveled. He stopped walking, dropped the ball, crossed his arms, stared daggers at me and said through red teary eyes: “You hurt my feelings.” He resumed walking, but without the bounce and joy from before. “I wish you weren’t my mom. I wish you weren’t alive.” His words didn’t cut me nearly as much as knowing the depth of the hurt I’d caused him.
Parenthood is too powerful; it’s so easy to screw up. With one well-intentioned sentence, you can shift a morning, change the hue of a day, sear an indelible memory. When I was a teenager, my dad used to joke whenever he’d do something odd or possibly irritating, “This isn’t going to send you to the psychiatrist’s couch years from now, is it?” I can still see his impish smile and hear his voice as he asked the question. Only now, through the lens of parenthood, I think I hear a pleading behind the laughter: “Please say I haven’t messed up too badly; please say you’ll weather my mistakes.”
When I was a new mother, with one fragile infant in my charge, I attended a weekly parenting class with religious devotion. Between sessions I’d collect my questions and concerns, desperate to have wise Tandy Parks weigh in. I still carry her advice with me, most of it embedded deeply in the whirls of my brain. But one piece of wisdom resides in the accessible upper reaches of gray matter. It is this: Children don’t need perfect parents; they need “good enough.” She was letting us off the hook for the mistakes we’d all make.
As for Emmett, there was nothing I could do or say to take back my unintentional wound. Only the sight of his older brother Aaron waving croissants from across the street lured him from his melancholy. Sampling the strawberries and oranges on the farmers’ tables took his mind off our sorrowful walk. By the time we headed home, arms laden with fresh goodies, I hoped he had forgotten.
His face was calm as we neared our house. And then we got to the fateful square of sidewalk, next to the pansies, and he was reminded of what was said there an hour earlier. He stopped walking, his face fell, crushed anew by the memory of my words. Then he spoke, his voice a quiet mix of understanding and regret. “It’s okay that you said that, Mom.”
I don’t know in what sense he meant it was okay. Okay, he forgave me? Okay, he’d still let me play with him, read him books, kiss and hug him as much as possible? Okay, he’s willing to overlook my flaws? Willing to accept his own? I knew better than to push for an explanation. I was just glad that he was talking to me again.
A week later, walking home from school, he heard me tell the mother of two little girls racing past us in matching sparkly sneakers that they were “so cool.” His steady voice down by my hip said, so quietly that I had to ask him to repeat it, “How come you never say that me and Aaron are cool?”
This can’t be. I am an effusive mom! I am, aren’t I?
“I don’t?” I leaned down and asked him.
He needed me to lay it on thick. “Well, I think you’re the coolest ever. Amazing and awesome and cool and wonderful. And I love you so much.”
And so he reminded me, again and again, that the little moments that constitute our days—the ones we don’t think twice about—are rich with meaning. Tonight at bedtime, after stories and kisses and hugs, I wished them sweet dreams and asked, “Did I tell you enough times today that I love you?” They sighed and rolled their eyes, but I saw the glimmer of contentedness on their faces as they relaxed into their pillows. I give thanks for the child who told me he needed more than I was giving. I give thanks for the teacher who said it is okay to make mistakes. I give thanks for parents who worried about the effects of their own mistakes. And I am a convert to the religion of overabundant gushing; I’m praying that too much will be enough.
Laura Diamond is the editor of Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood, a collection of true stories about motherhood “that enlightens and inspires, evoking tears, laughter and, most of all, the YES of recognition.” More of Laura’s essays can be read at Laura Diamond Writes On…