Loving My High-Spirited Wild Child

by Nicole Jankowski
Originally Published: 
spirited child
Nicole Jankowski

My youngest son is a high-spirited child.

Of course, that is the nice, gentle way to say it. Really, he is wild.

Wild. In every sense of the word, exactly as it’s defined in the dictionary:

wild: wīld / adjective

1. (of an animal or plant) living or growing in the natural environment; not domesticated or cultivated. 2. uncontrolled or unrestrained, especially in pursuit of pleasure.

My son Gabriel is all of those things: uncontrolled, unrestrained, uncultivated. And I am, for related reasons, always tired.

My son’s “natural environment” was the end of my first marriage. He was the last child born of two weary parents who were trying to piece together the last vestiges of a family when underneath our entire world was dissolving. My Gabriel roamed about in our bed, between that ex-husband and me. And I gladly welcomed him in, partially because he was my last baby, the smallest one, the final child, and because with him there between us, it made the space wider between his father and me.

So my son became used to always being there, in the warm shadow of my body, nursing on demand like a lion cub, searching for my breast with his eyes closed anytime he was hungry or merely needed comfort. And as the weeks and months passed, I noticed things.

I noticed the way he was never satisfied, and the way he balled up his fists faster than my older children had when he had to wait to eat or be held. I noticed the untamed sounds he made when he ate, desperate and gulping. And there was hardly ever an end to his hunger; he never, ever seemed satisfied about anything. He always wanted to be held and fed. And while I wanted to give him the opportunity to comfort himself, to learn how to self-soothe, to figure out how to guide his own hand to his open mouth in the darkness of night, I was tired. I had other children and a dying marriage to shoulder. Sometimes it was just easier to pick up that wild spirited child and calm him, just to quiet the noise, just to give me some peace.

So I began to blame myself for the wildness — because it had been easier for me to feed him, rather than let him find a way to calm himself; because I held on too long, for all the reasons a mother holds on to the last baby — the grieving, the ending, the relishing; and because he was caught in the space between a husband and wife who did not know when to let go of one another. So instead of sorting it out, we lay in the stillness of the night, the child we made with the blood that was a little bit his and a little bit mine, sweating and sleeping between us.

But that marriage finally dissolved. And as the years passed, the wildness just grew along with my son.

He was handsome and strong, sweet and kind. He loved his family and his world. But he could not comprehend words like “gentle” or “mild” or “moderation.”

He was a mess, always trailing behind. I found myself repeating the same phrases to him like a broken record. “You can’t jump on the couch.” “You have to sit down when you’re eating.” “Shut the door. Shut the door!” “Where are your boots?” “Why are your socks wet?” And on, and on, and on, until my voice was hoarse, my furniture worn, and my head aching.

At first, I thought the pasture of his roaming, the space of his wildness, had been limited only to our small world — our house, yard, the little cul-de-sac where my children zoomed in circles ’round and ’round on their hand-me-down bikes — until he went to school and the notes came home “From the Teacher’s Desk.”

“He’s very kind. He just had such a hard time sitting still today.” Later that same week, another note: “Gabriel is such a sweet boy. He just struggles with keeping his hands to himself at times.” Looking up from this note, I could see my son, that sweet boy, wolfing down his fourth stick of string cheese and rolling around like a river otter in the middle of the family room floor.

“Oh, Gabriel.” I sighed, into his sticky neck. “You have to stay in your seat in class. You can’t touch everything, everyone. You have to look with your eyes, son, not with your hands.”

He wrapped his arms around my neck and cooed warm breath into my ear. “I will. I know. I try.” And then, as he climbed into my lap, which was almost too small for him now, “There are so many things to remember not to do.”

Sometimes it was nearly impossible to convince him to go to school at all. “What do you do all day, Mama? I wonder about you,” he asked me one morning as we waited for the bus near the snow bank. His line of questioning began to worry me. I began to fear I might turn around from the sink in the middle of a school day morning to find him standing there in the kitchen, having escaped from school like a clever monkey who had broken from his cage at the zoo. Day after day that passed when he didn’t arrive, I breathed out in relief.

Worry, relief, worry, relief — the cycle of love in the wild.

At night, Gabriel always asked to be tucked in last. And so after I had kissed his brothers goodnight, I would climb into his twin bed with him. It was a tight squeeze. It seemed that to make up for my absence, to compensate for having to sleep alone now, he had filled his bed with all the things that were important in his world. There were 11 stuffed animals of different shapes and sizes, finished sticker books, an art project from school, a blanket his sister had cast off and handed down, and a box of Legos. There was barely enough room for him to sleep, so I wedged my body up against him in the bed and felt him slip his body up beside me in that old familiar release.

Maybe it was the sound of his breathing, but every so often, with my son’s dense hair against my face, I fell asleep there too.

Wildness grows in the thickets of time, as my last boy climbed up and out of my bed and into his own little nest. I have tried to tame my spirited child because there is something to be said for fitting in, for knowing your place and settling down in it. Isn’t that what a mother — beast or woman — is supposed to do for her child? To temper the unruly, to guide even the most foolhardy, the most rash of little beasts, so that they will come to safely rest down here with the rest of us, with those of us who do what the world expects us to do.

But here is the secret that I am not supposed to say out loud: I admire his freedom.

His wildness makes him vulnerable and opens him up to a big world. He loves with the ferocity of a creature who has jumped from the rafters and into the dirt but climbed back to his feet every time. He, who has learned to be soothed in the smells of what is familiar. He, who seems not to care that he beats on alone to a very different drum.

He’s small still. There is time left, and even though it’s difficult, even though I am exhausted, we’re taking our time.

There is time still to banish the wildness from the boy.

There is time still, too, to let him roam in it a little longer before the wildness disappears from the boy, for good.

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