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The Most Important Thing to Learn in Life I Learned from my 22-Month Old Kid

January 21, 2013

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting – well, sort of.  Since I don’t have much free time during the day anymore, my mind prefers to reflect throughout the night; as of late, its favorite time is somewhere between 2:45 & 3:15 in the morning.  And it likes to go on and on and on.  The most random crap runs through my head at that hour.  But one topic that seems all-pervasive is Ryan.  Whether his tantrums are normal or a sign of something more serious.  Whether the other kids at school like him (its hard to distinguish toddler behavior from bullying.  Truly.).  If he’s learning how to not be an total jackass (because seriously, isn’t that the goal of the parent of any 2-5 year old?  To not have the jackass kid?).  If he’s feeling loved enough at home now that we are both away from home for roughly 12 hours of the day, and only see him for maybe 4 hours total (and that’s on a good day) in a 24-hour period (which then leads to a whole train of thought in and of itself…but I digress).

Anyway, I worry about the kid.  I don’t want to be the helicopter parent, but now I see how that can happen.  I just want to put him in this bubble from all things evil.  I want to shield him from all the bad stuff in the world: sadness and loneliness and cruel people and fish Fridays.  I know that’s not real life.  I know that’s not good for him.  But seeing that crushing disappointment take over his tiny face when his block tower falls makes my heart ache.  I can’t imagine what it’s like when it’s real crap and real disappointment or heartache or loneliness.

If you know us at all, you know that Ryan’s first year of life was not easy.  He was 5-weeks early; he wouldn’t stay awake, let alone nurse; he lost the ubiquitous 10% of his body weight in his first few days. He wouldn’t nap; he wouldn’t sleep.  He was not a smiley, cuddly, giggly baby.  He was serious and focused and demanding.  He knew what he wanted and he wanted it FIFTEEN MINUTES AGO, MOM!!!!!  His godmother even joked that when you first came upon Ryan, he would study you quite seriously, trying to figure you out, and after a moment or two, he MIGHT smile at you.  She said it was like  he was deciding whether or not you deserved it and you had to earn a smile from him.  And there was nothing you could do to get a smile from him; he and he alone made that decision.  For a person who craves feedback, it was a long, unsatisfying time.

You see, Ryan taught me how to love.  And not in that “love at first sight the second they put him in my arms” kind of love.  No, between my incredibly demanding baby and a doozy of a bout with post-partum depression & anxiety, it was more obligatory at first than anything else.  Because while I would have loved to curl up in a ball and lament the life I’d lost, this tiny little being who had turned my life upside down needed me to do EVERYTHING for him.  And so I went through the motions, everyday, of providing him what he needed.  And he never, ever gave me any indication that I was doing a good job.  Long past his ability to discern me from anyone else, he didn’t reach for me when he was distressed.  He rarely smiled and giggles were even more difficult to come by.  He showed very little interest in anything I tried to engage him in.  He constantly cried and whined and just never seemed happy, like other babies I’d seen.  He said about 10 or 15 other words (including Daddy, Elmo, and Patricia, his teacher’s name) before he said Mommy.  For the better part of his first year, I felt like I was doing a terrible job…and every indication from him pointed to yes, that’s exactly what I was doing.

Ryan made me work for his love.  He made me fight and claw and scratch my way to it.  Just like his godmother joked that you had to earn Ryan’s smile, I had to earn his love.  I didn’t just receive it, like so many other mommies do from their little ones.  I had to love him when he was doing anything but.  I had to love him when he was unpleasant and difficult and unwielding.  He made me prove to him that I was in this for the long haul and no matter what he did, he wasn’t getting rid of me (God, please don’t let that be a premonition).  And now, as we near the end of his second year, I can say it was worth every effort.  Hearing him say, “Mommy hand.  Mommy, come” when he wants to take me somewhere is irresistible.  Seeing his face break into a huge grin (and he’s got a GREAT smile that lights up his entire face – it’s just awesome) whenever I pull up to the house or come out of our bedroom or come home from a run makes MY heart smile.  And when, after a horribly long day of work, he sees me down the hallway at school and he breaks free of his group and comes running toward me, arms stretched, yelling, “Mama!”, I don’t remember a single minute of that long, difficult year.

There’s that saying that nothing worth having comes easy.  That’s exactly how I feel about Ryan.  He’s a challenge: he’s independent and determined and willful and fierce.  He knows what he wants, which doesn’t always align with what I want from him.  I anticipate any number of battles as we navigate the toddler years, and then again the teenage years…and many in-between.  But he’s also sweet and affectionate and funny and smart (so damn smart.  I’m in so much trouble.).  It was a long fight, but I earned the right to bear witness to the unfolding of this amazing little personality.  And I’m a better person for it.

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