From the moment I found out I was pregnant, I felt the
intense desire to protect my baby. I worried when my daylong “morning sickness”
prevented me from eating anything but tater tots and ice cream. When my son was
born, so tiny and wobble-necked like a baby bird, the urge to protect him
intensified even more.
For the first few years of our kids’ lives, our biggest job
is to keep them safe and healthy. We try to make sure they don’t choke on grapes or
stick forks into electrical outlets, or grab their arms just before they dart
into the street. But as they grow and begin to venture out into the world
around them, our roles start to blur.
The other day, I went on a field trip with his first-grade
class. On the bus ride back to school, three girls across the aisle were
whispering and giggling while peering over at my son. Instinctively, I shot
them my Mommy Death Glare but it didn’t phase them. As the ringleader
continued to whisper and laugh while looking straight at my son, I wondered
what to do. My son was glaring back at the girls. I fought the inclination to
leap across the aisle and bitch slap the rude kids.
Instead, I took a deep breath. What is my job here? I asked myself.
How hard it is to let go. But how necessary.
Is it to go all mama bear on the girls? To tell a teacher
and let them handle it? To try and distract him and pretend it’s not happening?
There are so many instances when I just want to insulate my
son from all the aches of the world. I want to shield my son from everything
from the specter of climate change to the violence to the goofy girls on the
bus. I want to help him hold onto his innocence for as long as possible. I
spent those first few years learning how to protect him; as it turns out, it’s
much harder to unlearn it.
Over and over again, I have to remind myself that my
inclination to pad my kids from all the suffering they might experience in the
world is not my job. My job is not to
protect them from every discomfort. My job is to help teach them how to deal
with problems so they can learn to cope with what life hands them. I
repeated this mantra over and over again when we were sleep training and when
I was met with hysterical shrieking as I enforced a time out. And I reminded
myself of this on the bus.
“Hey,” I said quietly to my son. “What are some strategies
you could use right now?”
He shrugged his shoulders, still shooting the girls a nasty
“Well, you could tell them you don’t like what they’re
doing. Or you could ignore them, right?”
He nodded his head.
“Or we could take some deep breaths together,” I added. We
opted for a hybrid of ignoring and breathing, as we sat in silence for a few
moments, staring out the window of the bus. The energy shifted. The girls moved
on, and it seemed my son had, too.
When we got back to his school, I squeezed him tight before
leaving. I thought about how what I witnessed was only one tiny part of his day
that I’d just happened to be present for. I’ll miss plenty of moments when
someone isn’t kind to him, as well as moments when he’s not kind to others. I'll even miss moments when
he makes choices I wish were different.
There’s no way for me to protect my kids from all of life’s
struggles. Over and over again, I remind myself that I can teach them something: What I know about getting through the hard parts, how to speak our truths, how
to take care of our bodies and spirits, how to be resilient.