A few weeks back my wife headed out to pick up some groceries on a Saturday afternoon. Left on our own some rules change without any acknowledgement or discussion ever being made. When mom goes away daddy lets some things happen a bit more, independently.
We were playing in the backyard when Charlie, 5, decided he wanted to come in for a snack and some TV. I probably asked him if he wanted to head in using a movie he’d recently got out from the library. It’s a proven tactic. But Teddy, he wasn’t having it.
‘Are you sure? We can watch Octonauts.’ I offered.
‘No. I’m staying out here.’ He’s 3.
I prodded a few more times and varied the snacks and the programs in hopes of arriving at an agreement, but he was not hearing any of my offers and had no interest in leaving the water table we’d made into a sand table which he was making into a mud table one cup of water at a time. He does that.
‘You sure? I think it’s the Muppet Movie.’
‘I can’t like the Muppet Movie.’ He replied. He likes to play with words, too.
So I came in and I set Charlie up with his ‘cow milk’, what he calls those little boxes of vanilla milk from Horizon, what we all call them by now, I suppose, and a peeled apple and a movie to his liking. By the time I got back out I had already seen through the window that he had started climbing in and around the mud on the small table, clearly with a purpose. Not one discernible by me, mind you, but he was clearly not acting at random.
It was wonderful really. I loved seeing him all covered in mud and happy and engaged. So I brought out the corn muffin mix and makings and sat on the deck at the table where I could see him and his brother. They were at about a 90 degree angle using me as a focal point and they couldn’t see one another, one inside and eating and the other outside making mud.
Charlie is a pack animal. He’d probably be fine now, but if at Teddy’s age I’d let him stay outside he’d have wandered to any sound of other children, or even adults. It’s his nature. Teddy, not so much. He’s different. He’s a bit like me this way. He’s most comfortable while engaged with tasks. Without them he’s bored and rambunctious. Charlie needs others to play with, to socialize with. Teddy does too, but it works best if it’s a project that brings them together. Charlie has to be dropped off to the teacher every day at daycare. Teddy does what he needs to to greet them, the teachers, often grudgingly, then looks to be engaged in a task, blocks, stacking, coloring , puzzles and then he’s ready for me to leave. I get it.
So after I was done and ready to put my corn muffins in the oven I asked one last time if he wanted to join us inside. I knew he’d be fine and I could see him from the kitchen window. Nope. Wouldn’t even look up. By now he had trucks doing work for him, was creating conversations between imaginary workers and was knee deep in the project, whatever it was, and still shoulders deep in mud. No shirt, just swim trunks and mud.
I drifted for a minute while I cleaned the dishes and when I looked up, he had his pants half way down, standing by the sand table mud pit, fully knowing he was just doing what he needed to do.
‘Teddy! Wait.’ I yelled.
That’s just Teddy. I get it.
I’m seeing a lot of myself in him these days. The world and it’s crowds can drive me crazy. Crowds is not really the right word, but it’s the more sensitive one. Because really it’s the people in my life. And they don’t drive me crazy at all. I love them, all of them, deeply. But being with people, connecting and interacting with them, no matter how much I love them, it overwhelms me. By the end of the day my tread is wearing thin and showing and I need to be alone. It can get ugly when I’m not.
I’ve recently heard Teddy, when he’s tired, get angry because something isn’t being said the way he wants it to be said. The way, frankly, that he needs it to be said. He might even be getting the answer or information that he wants and still he is frustrated.
‘Say ‘Teddy get’s the green cup!’ I’ve heard him yell, through tears of frustration.
“Teddy, sweetheart, I said you get the green cup.’ Karen will say.
‘No!’, he will scream from the top of his lungs. He will turn red and it’s a full on squealing scream.
I’m sad to say I’ve said the same things to her in the past. It wasn’t about green cups. I don’t really remember what it was. But watching him there, so frustrated, so tired, so done with trying to connect to people, tired from navigating human interaction, I see myself. I see it exactly. There’s no way he got it from hearing me say it, but I’ve said the exact same things to her. I’ve told her to please say this thing. It’s not anything you’d think, either. It’s just phrasing of common things and it’s brutally unfair and horrible. I’ve said my sincere apologies and tried hard to make amends, but you can’t unsay things that have sunk so deep. So he may not have heard it from me, but he definitely got it from me. This inability to tolerate others when you’ve gone past your limit. This anger that results in outbursts that are all me just trying to gain control in order to get past whatever block is in my head keeping me in this moment of selfish exhaustion and anger.
I’m worried about that anger and what it can make us say. I’m worried about the accompanying loss of control and the subsequent loss of self respect. I’m scared of the way that not having the tolerance for human interaction can keep us from feeling and giving the love we need to receive and give away because we don’t know how to get out of our own heads where we can start to really think ourselves undeserving of these things.
I spend so much of my time writing about parenthood through the lens of concern for Charlie. He’s the first and he’s at the tip of the spear, with us, guiding us and orienting us as we navigate this journey for the first time. But I worry about Teddy just as much. It may not look that way at times as we spend our weekends talking endlessly about him starting kindergarten and all that it will entail, but I do.
You should know that once you figure it out and find people to love and love you, these traits of ours can be helpful. You should know that making the effort to get past all the fears and inner road blocks for the people you love is more than worth it. You should be finding and following your truest interests because your ability to follow through is far greater than you might think. Your single minded focus is a thing that may make you miss out on some things, sure, but in the end that doesn’t make you different than anyone else. We all make choices. Ours are just informed differently than some others.
For the last few months I’ve had the best chance to connect with you. After it’s all over, after the day is done I get to lay in bed with you as you fall asleep. Like me you struggle to get comfortable and you aren’t always ready to go to bed when it’s time. We talk and giggle and once you are comfortable and winding down, which can take an hour or more, you will be quiet for a long time. Until you tell me about something you discovered during the day. You will say ‘Daddy’ very excitedly. I’ll open my eyes and say, ‘Yeah, buddy’ groggily. You’ll be beaming and the light will be bright in your eyes despite them revealing your underlying tiredness and you will recall something magical that you saw that day. Yesterday it was that you and mommy saw a new type of fish at the Science Center. I said that was very cool and you smiled. Then our eyes close again and you like to reach under my cheek and pull my head close to you for one big hug. It feels great and I love it. Then you roll over and drift slowly to sleep.
You are exactly who and how you are supposed to be and you are loved like crazy.