Me and my tiger hawk.
I heard a thing on NPR the other day, a book review of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” It's been making the internet rounds and lots of bloggers have jumped on it. This isn't a post about how she's right or wrong. Her book is a memoir, about the journey she took as a mother, and I'm not one to judge her choices. I want to talk about what struck me most about her book: the idea that Chinese parents assume strength, not fragility, in their children's psyches and persons; that the harder they are on their little ones the stronger they will become; that they'll rise to the challenge, grow emotional and intellectual muscle.
In the counseling world, we call it resilience. It's what we console ourselves with when we come across horrific stories about abuse, neglect and pain: People are resilient. They'll be ok. And it's true. Wars, disasters, epic genocides, they all happen every day and the human spirit rises up and marches on. We find the beauty in the little things, the happiness in a lover's eye, the joy on a baby's face, a dog wagging its tail.
So, in that sense, I agree with Amy Chua and the Chinese assumption about children. They are strong because we are all strong and it's exactly what I've been assuming of Hawk these last few months, and especially the last week and a half now that he's at school.
When we assume excellence or strength of our children -- and back it up with confident actions such as patience, understanding and a willingness to let our kids "get it wrong" -- we are planting the seeds of courage and confidence. I know that having his parents suddenly in two completely different places has shattered Hawk's understanding of his universe, but I also know that he can adapt and not be a broken kid because of it.
It kills me that "this is his life now" (as my mother likes to point out), but it's true. It is. He has a mommy in one place and a daddy in the other. Occasionally we're all together. But mostly we're not. Hawk's emotions run high whenever there's a transition or even when we're together. Rooster and I have had long discussions on how to handle the raw energy Hawk exudes during these times and instead of squelching it, we redirect it, let it run its course, or simply make sure he feels plugged in to us.
Hawk's strength is borne out of the fact that he has no buffer, no façade. What he feels begs to come out and if I, or Rooster, tell him it's wrong I wholeheartedly believe that at that point we will be harming him. Teaching a child to deny his feelings is a one-way ticket to Shitsville as an adolescent or young adult.
It's not easy to let a 3 year old run circles around your ankles when your sister calls or when you're trying to have a grown-up chat with his father, but rather than yell at him and scare him into submission I remember that he's upset: none of this is normal for him, yet; and: he's 3. I set consistent boundaries. I tell him to chill out in his room with his blankie and his paci while Mommy finishes chatting with Daddy. I don't let him sneak out of his room instead insisting he stay within the bounds of his room.
I feel like a hard ass when I do this, but giving him solid fence-lines will make him feel safer than buying into (and losing) the little battles he so loves to engage me in, particularly because his life (our lives) are so helter skelter right now. So when I heard about Amy Chua I related, though on a very distant level. I am the hard ass in this whole process of rebuilding our lives. I demand strength from everyone and insist on firm boundaries, believing in the end that I am laying the foundation for a strength of will and self in my little boy.
And it seems to be working.
He is open, loving and trusting. He likes people. He's cautious of, but not put off by new situations. He tells me he wants to be alone to cry. He tells me he'd like company while he cries. He knows he is the master of his body and who gets to touch him and when. He understands what it means to be loved and to love. He likes to be in a bad mood occasionally. He relishes his freedom but easily acquiesces to the rules.
I am not perfect -- oh fucking God am I not perfect, let me be very frank about that -- but I am trying to build a human being who doesn't hate himself, who believes in himself, and who loves others. And I am going to fight tooth and nail to get that job done.
I got one out of those three when I left adolescence and I paid the price for all my self-loathing and nonacceptance and I can see clearly what I needed from my parents as I grew up: 1) a sense of self-worth born out of trusting myself, that what I felt was indeed acceptable; and 2) that I was not responsible for my parents and their feelings. Hawk has two parents who are hurting and stumbling right now, but if we start to doubt his resilience, his strength in all these matters, I believe we'll be tripping him up later.
When the life of a family breaks apart it is the duty of the parents to protect the emotional worlds of their children. The kids had no part in the break up of the marriage, it's not their responsibility to hold it together, to make the parents feel better, to not react. So I'll do my part to protect Hawk from me and my own emotional spills, but I will also expect him to be as strong as his little 3 year old self can handle. I will be sensitive to his limits and to his capabilities, but I will always shelter him from me and the other adults in our lives.
It surprises me that I expect so much from him, much like Chua's "tiger mother," but I feel I am doing him a service. We all need someone to expect something from us lest we expect nothing from ourselves.
I am my own version of a natural/attachment parenting tiger mother, and Hawk is my little tiger hawk: brave, strong, and real. And later he will reap the rewards of his own strengths and successes.
This last image is the one I lead with yesterday. It's the moment that Hawk realizes something is different. Mommy and Daddy are gone. He is on his own.
You might be surprised to know that I didn't cry. Somewhere between filling his cubby with his nap time things and dropping off his lunch then walking to the adjoining playground space I did crack. Just a little.
I sucked in through my teeth, turned my back on Rooster who was beside me, and stared at the bare limbs of a small tree, the bright gray sky a bare palette behind. I swallowed hard and thought, "You can do this," and walked back to my boy whose excited hopping was causing his hand-me-down pants to slip.
I rolled over his waistband and let him in through the gate. We said hi to the teachers we'd met over the previous weeks and the director came to talk to us to reassure us that if Hawk was distressed when we left they would be there for him.
Naturally Hawk was already playing with the tractors he so loves and didn't think anything was amiss. I called him over to give him a hug and a kiss and he did so sweetly. Then Daddy.
Then we left. And, well, you all know the rest.
What you don't know is how barren I felt as I drove away. How lost.
I went to a coffee shop to kill some time before an appointment, came home, went to another appointment, then to another coffee shop; and listed through the hours. Tick tock. Tick tock. Tick fucking tock.
The timing is right for this, divorce or no divorce, but I wasn't banking on having every other aspect of my entire life also different when my baby moved on to the next stage of his development. And yesterday marked the dumping of the last vestige of my old life.
It is irrevocably gone.
All of it.
Every single piece.
In four weeks my entire life has been heaved over my head and thrown.
I couldn't wait to go pick him up at 5. I missed his little face and energy and the way he likes to say, "I do love you, Mommy." It was like I had been lost at sea all day and he was my lighthouse. My 3 foot tall, gassy, funny, tempestuous, darling, inquisitive, demanding, loving little lighthouse.
It's a testament to something -- the universe, my parenting, Hawk, I don't know -- that when I called the school at 2 to check in the director told me that Hawk had only cried those couple of minutes and fell right into step with the other children, even calling him over to play with the tractors. He got his own lunch, picked a place to eat, and fell asleep immediately at nap time.
He felt safe there away from me and without me, I thought. The boy is securely attached. I'm doing my job right.
And when I finally arrived at the playground he was standing feet from the gate looking away. I called to him and he ran into my arms, an enormous grin splitting his face. He was sopping wet from his butt down, his shoes muddy. The cuffs of his shirt were stained and his hands were filthy. He looked amazing.
"You came back!!" he shouted gleefully and squeezed my neck tighter.
"Of course I did, baby, Mama will always come back." I stood up and said, "Let's go get your things. It's time to go."
"Ok!" he replied and he ran off like he actually knew what he was doing. A little boy, not a baby. He took me to a back gate and then a teacher met us and set up his outside cubby. He'd picked a green cover and a silver pen with which to have his name written. I've never seen him looking more proud of himself. He had a cubby! She explained that it would hold outside things. He nodded and sprinted off around the corner. I followed.
Little elfin picnic tables were scattered about under a canopy. "Where did you sit for lunch, baby?"
"Right here!" he announced with a pat to a teeny little bench.
He expertly opened the back door to the house and we gathered his things; his backpack from the (elfin) kitchen table, his blankie from his indoor cubby. He was so fucking happy to be running around in his new place with his mommy. I could just feel it radiating from him.
I'd brought some spare pants for him knowing they'd let the kids play in the mud and rain and I peeled off his sodden ones and wrapped him in a warm blanket in his car seat. I took pictures of his hands. Proof of his glorious first day at school. My heart was at once broken and soaring.
Traffic was bad and we chatted for a while. He had played with Kaylie and Andrew and a boy whose name he couldn't remember, but had worn a red shirt. He had also, "Pwayed and pwayed and pwayed." Then we sat in silence.
"Do you want the radio on?"
"Do you want to talk about your day some more?"
"Do you want to just chill for a while?"
"Yes. And I'm hungry. I want food. And I want to go back and pway some more."
It's true that I am alone in all of this, but I at least have the great pleasure of navigating all of it with him under my wing. My sweet, sweet baby Hawk.
Hawk is in yellow.
This is the moment he realizes we're gone; before the tears and sobbing, after the elation of being there with his beloved "Scoops."
Rooster bore the brunt of his three-year-old terror of being left behind since his car was parked close to where Hawk was standing.
I walked stiffly to my car, out of sight, willing the sounds of sobs out of my ears and my own out of my throat. I stood morosely by my car and waited as Rooster rolled by.
He rolled down the window, his face splotchy, his eyes red, "Yeah, that sucked."
"Yep," I said. "It'll be ok."
He nodded and drove off.
I climbed in my car and watched as a teacher came to comfort Hawk. He stood there as she offered gentle consolation for 2, maybe 3 minutes. Then he was out of my line of sight.
I drove forward so as to turn around and leave and I could see he is back at the tractors; hunched over diligently scooping away.
I'm gonna be ok.