His little newborn legs puckered up underneath his diapered bottom as the bouncy chair vibrated, ensuring he slept just a little longer. In his red velvet shorts and suspenders he was ready to make his debut at Daddy’s work Christmas party, just three weeks old.
I soaked his little white shirt with my tears simply at the sight of him. I snuggled his blanket up around his sides gently tucking him in. Oh, how I loved him. How I wanted happiness for him. My heart broke with the tenderness, naïveté and the desperation of wanting so badly to do it all right.
For nearly twenty-two years I have made a practice of scooping up ordinary moments and rolling them around in my mind. I savor them by way of listening to the space around me, feeling the air, smelling life. I am proud of my intention of stopping time momentarily in attempt to remember the layered textures of their childhoods and in turn my own life.
If you would have asked me on that December evening as the white Christmas tree lights sparkled around his little jaundiced face what I wanted most in the world for this child I would have broken open with emotion. I would have told you above all else I wanted his happiness. I wanted him to be safe from harm and to achieve his dreams.
Twenty-two years and two more boys, later perhaps the most valuable lesson I have come to believe is that what I wished for was not ill-intentioned–no of course not–but it was neither realistic or healthy. Happiness, ease, safety without struggle … they do not provide the constitution my son’s need in this world to not only survive but to thrive.
Looking in the rear view mirror on the years they were mine–and focusing on the years I have left with them mostly under my umbrella–I am reminded of the ordinary ways in which they have taught me that my wish for happiness was incomplete.
Coop was six weeks old when he tried to roll over for the first time. They’d told me he’d be several months old before he even tried–in fact when I reported he could roll over at his two month appointment the doctor didn’t believe me. Until he flopped like a walleye in the bottom of a boat during his exam. The first time, though? The first time was a failure. In casting his body over from belly to back he caught his arm underneath his little back preventing him from flopping solidly where he wanted to be. Tears of frustration and fear exploded from my lil guy. I wanted to help, I wanted to untangle him and show him an easier way.
His daddy firmly (but kindly) said, “He can do it, let him try.”
Coops didn’t roll over that night, but the next day he did. And oh my heart is there anything in this world better than your newborn baby’s smile? Pride. I saw with my own eyes his first moment of pride in himself. I saw his first breath taking moment of his own acknowledged success.
I would have missed it if I interfered.
Jacko’s little legs couldn’t turn any faster. He was six years old and we’d gone to Mackinac Island for his birthday over the long Labor Day weekend. He brought along his favorite little blue bike and as we traveled around the island, a menagerie of grandpa and grandma and aunts and uncles and cousins and brothers and sisters, little Jackson sweated and pumped and spun his legs on a bike a quarter the size of everyone else’s. I wanted to give up and rent him a bigger bike. I offered to get a second seat on Daddy’s bike since Aiden was already behind mine. I offered to stay and get ice cream while everyone else biked. I offered every solution I could see to his problem.
The kid rode his bike over eight miles around the island without a complaint, often in front of the pack. Peddling at a Fred-Flintstone-pace his tough little legs worked. His trademark, toothless, sideways smile true and genuine–if not completely exhausted–at the end of the day. I got to witness his absolute pride in doing something it seemed no body thought he could do, I got to witness his mastering a small corner of his mind.
If I’d rented a bigger bike, or bought the ice cream as I suggested I would have missed the hug from my sweaty, toe-headed, big eyed boy that screamed grit. I would have missed the gift he gave himself by not giving up.
As decided he wanted a new desk to do homework on in his room. I suggested we could go shopping and see what was available, but he had a different idea. He drew up a small plan, he took some measurements and headed to Grandpa’s barn to build his masterpiece. Certain it would be easy. Certain he could do it.
When the task proved to be a little harder than anticipated, he asked Grandpa for help. He humbled himself–by his own initiation–enough to accept help and to learn what he needed to know to finish his goal. A couple days later? Mission accomplished. He built a desk.
A year passed and As decided he needed a bigger desk. Again, he took measurements. Again, he drew out a plan. Again, he set out for the barn–this time eager to build it while Grandpa was away. He wanted to do it himself. He wanted to show us what he learned the first time around. He brought me down to visit his progress and I was amazed at his skill with tools, his ability to measure precisely and to cut safely, but more so–his ability to adapt when what he planned didn’t go exactly right. Because no matter how many times you measure, sometimes the cut just ain’t right!
The desk, an updated “L” shape, sits in the corner of his room. A reminder that being humble is important and a lesson that the more difficult the path the more fruitful the seed of pride will become. He loves that desk. Far more than any desk I could have purchased.
There is a difference–and a profound connection–between happiness and perseverance. Between happiness and overcoming. Between happiness and humility. Between happiness and grit. Between happiness and loyalty. Between happiness and resilience. Between happiness and hard work. Between happiness and discipline. Between happiness and pride. Between happiness and self-worth. Between happiness and belief.
What I really want for my children is for them to be gritty, to be resilient, hard working, loyal, disciplined individuals who know how to believe, how to persevere. What I really want for my boys is for them to discover their faults through failure and struggle and to learn to love themselves in spite of their screw ups. I want them to be humble in defeat and humble in success. I want them to learn that happiness is more aptly defined by honesty, resilience, pride, humility, grit, tenacity, perseverance and is a direct function of overcoming, and sometimes simply enduring struggle, sadness and pain. That the beauty in happiness can only truly be felt when the will to achieve it despite obstacle comes from the depths of your soul.
Of course, we can’t go back. I can’t change the times I helped too much and didn’t allow them to suffer when I should have. I can’t fix when I prevented them from risking failure to ease my own anxiety–no matter the potential pay off to them.
What I can do is continue my own evolution, my own slow dawning realization that the struggle is where happiness is planted. That risk turns dead soil into rich dirt when a man is allowed to toil with his land, using grit and perseverance and earning pride. I can remind myself of the lessons they taught me themselves, through their own tenacity. I can know beyond a shadow of a doubt that to grow they must be broken, to reach higher highs they must experience lonely lows. Lows in which they alone can save themselves. Lows in which they know although they have to do the work alone, momma is always, always in their corner.