It’s Saturday morning, and I’m trying to warm myself from the inside out with a mug of lukewarm coffee. We’ve just returned from watching my oldest play football in the unforgiving air of late October, observing from the sidelines in our bag chairs, using our two youngest children as human blankets to shield us from the cold.
When that alarm sounded at half past seven, I wanted to stay in bed and steal another hour of sleep, but that strawberry blonde downstairs was ready to play football – and I am his cheerleader. That is my job.
I’ve had lots of jobs, but none have brought the worry and guilt this one has. None have come as naturally either, and I need to remember that. I need to give that voice, that knowing part of me, the respect it deserves. I need to let it speak louder, cheer louder, than those other voices, voices that perpetuate the self-doubt and sweaty, fingertip-tapping, hand-wringing uncertainty of motherhood.
Last summer I was sick with worry. My oldest was hitting that magic number, the big fiver. Questions about Kindergarten and when to start him were our sole topic of conversation those few months, and though we had already reached our decision to enroll him that fall, we were having a hard time with it.
I realize now that most of my concern was wrapped up in what other people would think. Everybody seemed to have an opinion – our family, our friends, random strangers with whom I felt obliged to share our current dilemma – but then again, I had opened that door.
Parenting is tricky business, and slowly, I am learning that, every once in a while, it’s best to leave that door shut. That is not to say I don’t call our family and friends on the regular for help or just a pat on the back. “I would just go straight to the ER.” “Put him in a warm shower.” “Maybe try some apple juice.” “Yes, you are doing a good job.”
I need them and their affirmations (desperately at times) but the people we lean on for wisdom and “attaboys,” won’t be the ones handling the fallout if the wrong choice is made – if our kid uses his friend’s boogers as a morning snack, or worse, if he doesn’t have any friends at all and ends up popping pills and running a gambling ring to try to fit in – because these were the scenarios running through my mind last summer. Some sprang from my overactive imagination while others snuck in from the outside, those well-meaning folks I had invited in.
At only four-years-old and with that big fifth birthday still a long way off in November, my kid was smart. He knew his letters and numbers. Identified shapes and colors. He could count far past the mandatory benchmark of 30 and was a master at puzzles and patterns. But he could be shy and tended to shrink inside himself when taken outside of his comfort zone. Maybe I was wrong.
The crowd got louder, the voices insisting my child was nowhere near ready for school. And try as I might to take their input with a bucket of salt, those words stuck, impossible to quiet when the principal called to say our guy was, according to the testing and panel of teachers, social workers and himself, ready for Kindergarten – providing his father and I consented.
I had known he was ready. Our first born was off to school…then, the doubt came back. How could all those people be wrong, those spectators on the sidelines with a different view?
“You don’t want him to struggle.”
“It’s so much better to be the oldest.”
“You don’t want him to be the youngest.”
“You only get them for so many years.”
“If nothing else, you have to do it for sports. Give him an advantage.”
“If it was a girl, maybe, but since he’s a boy, wait another year.”
While I might not have agreed with all of these sentiments, I understood them, but none of them felt like they applied to this kid. I could picture him in that Kindergarten classroom. I knew that’s where he was supposed to be, but then again, what if he did struggle? What if he was too shy? What if he had to repeat a grade? What if he would resent me in ten years when everyone else had a car and he was still rocking a ten-speed?
My husband, on the other hand, is much more pragmatic. Ignoring my laundry list of hypotheticals, he offered, “All we can do is make the decision we think is right, right now. We make this decision for this kid,” he said. It was really that simple – so we did.
I’m here this fall, a full year later, to say our guy did just fine. Some days we needed to cheer louder than others, but overall, he killed it in Kindergarten and charged into First Grade excited to see what was next. Now, I pick him up in the afternoon and he chatters on about this friend and that friend and football at recess and who traded Cheez-Its for Teddy Grahams and Junie B. Jones and “cómo estás” and “hola” and how he loves to write. “I just love to write, Mama.” The sweetness of those words.
He’s just fine for now – and all we can do is deal with the decisions that are in front of us right now, keep watch on his well-being right now. To try to account for the twists and turns we cannot foresee around the bend will drive us to exhaustion. To try to parent him like the family down the street would be an affront to our own abilities. It would steal away the energy and confidence we need to give these ever-changing babies our best, which I guarantee looks different than their best.
Sometimes it’s hard to hear our own voice above the noise, but with each challenge that we’ve been thrown, we are finding our way with each kid. And what’s best for the first one, might not be what’s best for the next one – just as what’s best for our kid probably isn’t what’s best for Dick or Jane or little Billy.
That is okay. We can do very different things and both be right because we weren’t given the same choices, the same tools, the same experiences, the same knowing sense of direction…or the same kids. Imagine if we could all embrace this idea and be cheerleaders for one another like we are for our children, even when we guide those children in opposing ways.
I’ve lucked into a handful of friendships like these since having babies – friends who breastfed into the toddler years while I supplemented from the jump, friends who pureed their own baby food while my kiddo sucked on a Cheetoh, friends who delighted in the sweet relief of an epidural while I held tight to the animalistic adventures of unmedicated delivery. We applaud each other for sticking to our own path, and my kids (and my sanity) are so much better for it.
And the Crowd Goes Wild
When we’d brought that big five-year-old to his first football practice at the end of August, he hid behind my legs and had to be coaxed off of my body and onto the field. I stood there, rocking back and forth as mothers do, watching as he stood off to the side, the other boys, bigger boys, tossing the football to one another, laughing and shouting. My guy looked at the muddy grass, waiting for the coach to signal that the pre-practice free-for-all was over and he could safely join in, find his place amidst the chaos.
I shifted my weight from left to right uneasily, reliving the pain from my own youth. Where do I go? Who do I talk to? Where do I belong? I saw the uncertainty on his face and started to question our decision once again. My husband, never having experienced the pain of insecurity, (this is not an exaggeration) was concerned. “I think we made a mistake, B” he whispered, and I knew he meant it.
Each practice, though, our kiddo inched closer to the group until, at last, he found his place. It was not easy. It hurt a little – for all of us – but again, how much glory is found at the end of an easy path? I would say “not much.” My husband, who naturally excels at anything involving a ball or stick, might not agree.
This morning, I watched my guy snag a shovel pass out of the crisp fall air, wrap his little hands around a frozen football and zig-zag his way past bigger kids, older kids, trying to steal one of his bright red flags. They couldn’t catch him. My guy, the youngest one on the field, the one who peeked out from behind his mother at that first practice scared to let go, ran into the end zone for a touchdown.
I watched him jog back across the field, his half-grin all but covered by high fives and hugs from his teammates, my voice drowned out by the other parents cheering from the sidelines for my little man. He’s come a long way since the start of the season, reluctantly pushing himself onto that field, and now I can barely drag him off of it.
Did we make the best decision all those months ago? Today, it feels like we did; tomorrow could send us back into a cloud of doubt. Either way, as I sit here slowly shaking off the cold from our early morning, I am grateful for the persistent cheerleader amid the shouts of the crowd. Had we kept him home another year, had we listened to the voices that weren’t our own, we would still be warm in our beds, asleep and oblivious to the glory this day held.