My oldest son turns six this weekend.
Certain ages are watersheds—well, as a pretender in this often awkward role as parent, every age is a watershed—and I can well remember being six. It was the year my parents split up, the year my dad moved from place to place until finally leaving town. I was one of those kids who was certain that I’d done something wrong to drive my father away, and the high-water line of that adult-level guilt left a mark right here.
One of the first lessons you learn as a new parent—and my friends warned me about this, but I didn’t or couldn’t acknowledge the fact until I was in it—is that your child arrives as her or her own being. You can look for yourself in your child, and you will certainly unearth scraps of you and your partner’s components, but the essential mix—the core design—is already in place the moment you embrace your child for the first time.
Yes, the nurturing that you will apply will certainly shape and evolve this child, but that’s the best you can do or hope to do. Shape. Guide.
My son has inherited from both his parents a vibrant, all-consuming imagination, and along with that voracious creative energy is a corresponding self-doubt and anxiety (not to mention a quick-trigger anger and a habit of cursing…yep, guilty). It’s heartbreaking to see a child in battle with himself when he has barely gotten himself out into the world, and yet, the challenges are already lining themselves against him. Already.
Some days his resilience is shocking, some days his frailties are wounding. As one of his fierce protectors, it’s often difficult to know how to coach him when I dealt so poorly with the same challenges when I was his age.
To grossly over-generalize: You can break parents into two large groups – the first is the group who had children as a natural extension of the familial love and support they themselves received as children. The second group feels drawn to this endeavor because their own childhoods were fraught with discomfort and pain and there’s a wrong to be righted there somehow.
Being part of the second camp (surprise), I was one of those who contemplated not having children at all. I didn’t want to fuck it up. I didn’t want the burden. But falling in love with someone can open portals that never opened with anyone else, and the choice to have children just became a certainty. You soon realize that the love you have for your partner is nothing like the love you have for your children, which is such a basal, feral creature that there is no separation between your love for your kids and yourself.
Amidst that churn and swoon of intoxicating irrational feelings, you are supposed to stay calm and lead by example. Right.
But that’s the task. Whether he and I want to acknowledge it or not, my son looks to me as an example (an example for how to be, or an example for how not to be, but an example nonetheless). As I (still) struggle with an overactive imagination, a tendency to be anywhere but in this present moment, a sometimes debilitating fear of…well, what have you got?, I am a model for how my son will comport himself in this world. God help him.
Six. Only six. Already six. For what it's worth, son, I’m here.