By Wendy Rhein
I’m not sure what happened, or really, when it happened. In June I had two little boys -7 and 2 -and now, I have one little boy and one Big Boy. It all started innocently enough. He wanted to make his own breakfast. He wanted to help me chop vegetables for dinner with the serious chef’s knife. And then it grew. He asked for his own music in the car instead of the ‘kid’ music his brother likes to sing; his own MP3 player would be the best option for everyone, he claimed. And then he asked to pick out his own school clothes since I may not get what he wanted. Including a sports coat because that’s what older boys wear if they need to be dressed up. He wanted to run into the drug store by himself to get a gallon of milk. He stopped wearing a shirt to bed.
All of this was fine with me – cute even. Until last week.
School started last week for us and we were all atwitter for the first day of second grade. I drove Nate to school because we had missed the orientation day and didn’t have a classroom number. He insisted that I needed to walk him all the way to class to be sure he was settled. My baby, my eldest, still needed me.
As we walked up the sidewalk teeming with happy parents and shiny-backpacked little ones, Nate suddenly stopped walking, turned and grabbed me around the waist, enveloping me in a tight hug that seemed to surprise us both. It brought an immediate and intimate smile to my face, thinking he needed the reassurance and the closeness that a hug from Mama can bring.
And then he let go.
I walked him into the melee of the entry hall of school with the vice principal loudly and unsuccessfully encouraging parents to drop off their little ones and let them make their own way to classes on the first day. I tried to hold Nate’s hand in the crowd so we could make our way through the now familiar halls. He wouldn’t hold mine. I resigned myself to putting a hand on his shoulder as we nudged our way passed crying mothers looking at the backs of their new kindergarteners for the first time. Out of the crowd, Nate walked in front of me, not next to me, pointing out the music room, the art room, stopping to say a fast hi to friends as they drifted off into different rooms. First day anxiety running high – will he have friends in this new class? Would he (we) like the teacher? Did she (me) pack a snack for the bus?
And finally we land in his classroom at the end of a long hallway. He walked in, one of a handful of kids in the room, and walked right up to the teacher and stuck out his hand. I swelled with pride. That’s my boy! Shaking his teacher’s hand and introducing himself! She welcomed him and told him he could find his desk and put his supplies away. And he was gone. Not a look, not a lean, not a glance back at me. He put his things away, said hi to a couple of kids, put his new pencil box and Star Wars composition book away, and started to work on the welcome form on his desk. I stood there, feeling like the awkward one, waiting for him to run over, give me a hug and ask if I’ll be at the bus stop that afternoon (a request he makes daily that I daily have to refuse) but he never did. After a couple of painful minutes, I walked over and leaned down and quietly said “Ok honey, I’m going to go now. Have a great day.” He would hug me now, I thought. He always hugs me when I take him to school.
“Bye Mom. See ya later.”
That’s it. That’s all I got. I’m not even sure he made eye contact. I walked out of the room with stinging eyes, feeling both proud and sad. My baby was gone. This big kid, who didn’t want to be seen hugging his mother, had surpassed the bear-clutching, sweet-faced boy who had so care-freely leaned into me with the full confidence that I’d be there to hold him up, because I always was. I knew this day was coming and once I could get beyond my own loss I cheered him for his independence and self confidence. He is growing up the way I wanted him to, the way I had worked so hard for him to, despite my own doubts of raising boys on my own. We really are doing fine, more than fine, we’re doing well. But time marches on. It is time for us both to let go a little more. Another inch here, another step away there.
At bedtime he was once again on my lap, telling me all about his day, snuggling his bristly-haired head under my chin, arms wrapped around my shoulders. I told him how proud I was of him for striding into second grade and he said he was a little scared because he didn’t know the kids in his class. We agreed to develop a secret handshake to say goodbye at school that will translate into I Love You, but just to us. I’d tell you about it but it is our secret, my big boy and me.
By: Wendy Rhein
My 7-year-old is more mature than I am. Maybe it is because he hasn’t been hurt or jaded or twisted as I have become in my 43 years. Maybe he is just a better person than I.
I have long suspected that he is an old soul who has more kindness and generosity of spirit than most children his age and certainly more than many adults I know. His intensity and sensitivity continue to amaze me.
The latest evidence of this was found in his announcement that he wants to write a letter to his father.
Following on my comments last week about keeping the door open to their relationship, I think he’s decided to give that door a hearty knock.
They have not seen each other since Nate was a toddler. Nate understands and accepts that his father lives in another state and is not part of our family but the questions have been coming more frequently lately about who this man is, what is he like, and would he like me. The last one is a gut twister.
He says he’s been thinking about it and the first line of the letter will be “hi dad, this is Nathan. I’m seven years old now.” He wants to tell him about his school, his friends, and what he wants to be when he grows up. He wants to tell him about how he loves to build things and how he is training to be a ninja. He wants to say that he hopes his dad will write him back so they can be pen pals and maybe someday they could meet.
I support the letter and yet had to warn him that his dad may not respond, and that if that happens it will be ok to be sad. He rolled his eyes and said he knew that, he just wants to try it and see what happens because even if he doesn’t write back, his dad would probably read the letter and know more about him. (See, this is the wisdom I’m talking about – he can’t control the response, only what he puts out there, and that’s ok.) When I wondered aloud why he was choosing to do this now, he said that he’s seven now and he knows a hundred people, but not his own dad.
My immediate reaction was to panic. He’ll be disappointed. He’ll be hurt. He will take it personally when his father ignores the letter. He will be crushed, then resentful, then angry. He will decide that men abandon people who love them and are not trustworthy. (And let’s all say it together: PROJECTION!) But maybe I will be pleasantly surprised. Maybe Nate’s optimism can override my pessimism. I can hope for the better response instead of planning for the worst. Being pen pals with his dad will fill the need he so rightly has for a close connection with a man who should be not just his father but his dad.
I have always said that the door is open for them to connect. I have purposefully kept in limited contact with his biological father and have long encouraged a connection between them but the adult in their relationship has chosen otherwise. I cajoled, I yelled, I threatened, I disappeared, I cried, I flippantly dismissed. I always said that some day, Some Day, he was going to open the door to see this tall, lanky young man with beautiful brown eyes standing on the other side of the screen demanding to know where the hell he has been his whole life. And he would have to answer for his absence. I never thought that would happen this quickly. Or with this kind of love and compassion of a young child, just wanting to know if his dad liked to build stuff out of Legos too.
One of my greatest fears is that as Nate gets older he will choose this man over me as the person he loves more than his cherished poster of all the US presidents. I could close the door, I know. I could destroy his image of this man who would be his dad with my own tainted memories. But I need to be the parent and make decisions that I believe are in his best interest, even if it means that one or both of us gets hurt, again, along the way. He deserves that from his parent.
By: Wendy Rhein
This passed weekend we celebrated Nate’s birthday with three of his buddies. In typical Nate fashion he wanted an event unlike any other. That dream was translated into an afternoon picnic and romp at an old battlefield fort, now a national landmark. Each of the four seven-year-old boys had his own compass, his own canteen, and a bandana to tie over his head as they explored and played spy games around Civil War era cannons.
As we trekked to our picnic site from the car, each kid carrying something we needed, one of the boys asked Nathan about his father. Before Nate could answer, the same child turned and asked me, “Nathan doesn’t have a father, right?” I replied that yes, he does in fact have a father but he’s not part of our family. Another boy chimed in, “yea, that happens. Same with my cousin, except he has two moms now.” Yes, I said, that’s a family too. “Yea. And sometimes parents have to leave. They can’t stay married even when they love their kids.” Yes, I said. Sometimes that happens too. The third boy asked Nate, “so where is he, your father?”
“He’s in another state. I don’t see him. But my mom keeps the door open just in case we want to see each other when I’m older. Right Mom? (with a big smile on his face and a slight leaning into me) You keep that door open.”
I could not have been more proud in that moment. Proud of how these boys talk to each other and to me. Proud of how they can acknowledge how their lives are different and the same as other people’s. And incredibly, abundantly, and gratefully proud of my own child’s confident response.
Yes, love, we keep that door open.
No fears, no worries, just the honest truth.
And off they ran, this band of brothers, to tackle the fantasies of invisible enemies and “us versus them.” It gave me hope that the “us” is widening and expanding with each year as these boys and others like them grow into men.