By Zsofia McMullin
This is how I imagined my son’s childhood when he was just a twinkle in my eye: we live in a big house with a huge yard, maybe a pool. There’s family around us, lots of family. He has two younger siblings. He rides his bike with the neighborhood kids and likes school well enough. He is easygoing and adventurous. In the evenings he hides under his blanket with a flashlight to read history books until it’s way past his bedtime. Everyone’s healthy.
Here is the reality: Sam is an only child. His father is in frail health. He had a heart attack when he was 39 and we worry that he has passed on to our son a serious form of rheumatoid arthritis that makes his shoulders slope, his joints stiff and sensitive to weather changes. We have a small family and we live far away from most of them. We are about to move into a condo, with no yard, no pool, so that we don’t have to worry about maintenance. The neighborhood kids leave him out of football games and call him a baby when he gets upset. He is afraid to ride his bike. He struggles with anxiety at school and bad dreams keep him up at night.
Of course, kids grow up in all sorts of ugly circumstances and I am not naïve enough to think that my kid’s life would not include hardship—the regular childhood kind and the more serious stuff to come later. I am also fully aware of our privilege, of all of the opportunities we are able to give him. His life is probably pretty average, if not above average, filled with plenty of childhood joys from late-night ice cream runs in the summer, to long Sundays of reading and playing, to swim lessons and vacations with cousins and summer camp by the ocean.
But I can’t help but worry about what I am unable to shield him from. Or rather, I can’t help feeling sad for all the things I imagined his childhood to be, but now know it won’t. I want to tell myself that adversity will give him strength, will teach him adaptability, will give him character or the confidence to tackle whatever life will throw at him.
And yet, I am also his mom and just want to make the bad stuff go away.
I wanted to be there when his dad collapsed on the floor in pain and Sam had to ride along with him in the ambulance to the hospital. I want to be with him when his classmates make fun of him at school or when anxiety overwhelms him and he cries in frustration. I want to make it so he wouldn’t have to move and change schools again. I want him to not have the knowledge of what it’s like when someone he loves dies. When he was a baby and we were up together in the middle of the night, snuggled close in the rocking chair, these are the kinds of things I promised I would protect him from.
This gap between what one imagines parenthood to be and the reality of what it is reminds me a bit of marriage. As a newlywed you think you will never become one of those couples—the couples who don’t have sex anymore or who fight about money. Until one day you find yourself doing just that. You are not sure how you got there, because you promised—you promised—it wouldn’t happen. But here you are.
It feels like the honeymoon period of parenting is over. At six years old, my son is not a baby who can be carted around and who will feel content as long as there is a warm breast with milk at the ready. Now he notices everything—when there is tension in the house, when one of his parents is upset or angry, when scary things happen in the news and he catches a fragment of our hushed conversation. Now he knows bad things do happen and he is worried about when they will happen to him—to us. “Sam, you don’t have to worry about this,” we tell him, but he worries anyway. There’s no way I can stop it.
In an ideal world, he wouldn’t suffer from anxiety or be raised without siblings. But that’s how it’s worked out. So instead of the perfect childhood provider I imagined, I am finding myself becoming more of a life-explainer. Life sucks sometimes. It’s hard and confusing and painful and you don’t always get what you want. But how do you find the good parts in every crappy situation? How do you move on when you have been beaten down?
I grasp for answers, trying to use what I know. But my coping mechanisms don’t always translate for a six-year-old—he can’t exactly go to happy hour with his coworkers and let off some steam at the end of a frustrating day. I stumble a lot as I try to find what works for him, what brings him comfort. We talk. We read. I give him space to play, to vent frustration, to express the scary thoughts in his head. We get help from professionals when we need it. And I just tell him—and myself—that in the end, whatever imperfections dot his childhood, they won’t really matter. He will grow up fine. He will find his people. He will find his passions. It will be okay.
Zsofia McMullin is a writer with essays in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Butter, Scary Mommy, and several other publications. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People where her Pushcart-nominated essay “This Body” appeared. She blogs at zsofiwrites.com and she’s on Twitter as @zsofimcmullin.