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On Letting My Son Fall Down

Photograph by Twenty20

My ten-month-old son has evolved tremendously over the course of the last few months. Where once he was sedentary and mellow, now he is a blur of furious motion and kinetic energy. It's as if he has a little internal motor inside him that won't stop whirring, that is perpetually pushing him forward at breakneck speeds.

Like pretty much everything involving my son, this has been an extraordinarily exciting process. I still remember the sense of joy and pride I felt watching my baby boy sit up for the first time. And after weeks and weeks of scooting around, he went from sorta semi-crawling to crawling with such speed and intensity that if I look away for a moment he's liable to be halfway across the room. He's also recently taken to pulling himself up on any piece of furniture handy, in an attempt to kick-start the process of walking.

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A lot of the joy I derive in watching my son grow bigger and more advanced with each passing day lies in the joy he clearly takes in movement, in motion, in simply in being alive and a party to the world's infinite wonders. But this joy is mixed with a fair amount of pain. Because the moment my son first sat up of his own accord I became all too cognizant that, unless there is something or someone behind him propping him up, then there is a very good chance that the proud achievement of sitting up like a big boy will immediately be followed by the pain that accompanies falling down.

That's the tricky part about sitting and walking and standing. These are essential skills, and yet, before he can do these things easily, he is going to fall down. And that falling down is going to hurt. When he sits up, he's going to fall and be in pain. When he stands up, he's going to fall and experience pain. When he attempts to walk on wobbly little fawn legs for the first time, he's definitely going to fall a fair amount. He's going to fall a whole bunch and break his mother and my hearts' with his insistent, banshee-like wails in the months and years ahead.

Watching Declan's attempts at walking remind me that pain and failure are inevitable and essential parts of life, and that they are in no small part what make success and happiness meaningful.

And I know as a father that there are so many limits to what I can do to keep my son from falling down. I cannot keep him inside a protective plastic bubble. And, although I sometimes daydream about doing so, I can't put mattresses down on every square inch of our condo. I don't want to be some crazily over-protective parent, desperately trying to twist and contort the prickly, dangerous and complicated contours of the world into safe, baby and toddler-friendly shapes.

And I know that not being able to protect my son from all of the bumps and bruises and pain he's going to experience on the journey to walking is but a preview of all of the other painful things I will not be able to protect my son from, as badly as I might want to. I won't be able to protect him from getting his heart broken after falling in love with the wrong person. I won't be able to protect him from the disappointment of not getting a grade or scholastic achievement or award he might want. While I will do everything in my heart to make his life as stable and happy as possible, the world can be a dark and frightening place. I am a person who lives with anxiety and depression and self doubt. That is another genetic legacy for which I am responsible. And it is another piece of the world I cannot control.

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Being a dad has taught me so much. Watching Declan's attempts at walking remind me that pain and failure are inevitable and essential parts of life, and that they are in no small part what make success and happiness meaningful. And I should know as well as anyone that it is our scars that in many ways define us and tell us who we are, where we've been, and what we've survived.

So rather than despairing when my son falls, I'm going to try to think of it as part of the grand gestalt of life, as the beginning of a never-ending process of trying and failing, and walking, and stumbling, and hopefully learning all the right lessons in the process.

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