Sometimes a whole day goes by and it’s not until bedtime that I get to recognize my child–the real, genuine him that’s hidden behind a 6-year-old’s bravado, consisting of loudness, exaggerated physicality and frequent repetition of the word “butt” deliberately pronounced with an emphasis on the last consonant. Some days I don’t get to see my Ben at all, and I was beginning to suspect that he evolved (as he would put it, in Pokémon terms) into someone else.
Tonight I got a soul-filling glimpse of my boy, the one who corresponds to my expectations. As the protocol dictates, I was lying in my son’s toddler bed, waiting for him to fall asleep. Things looked promising when he was lying beside me completely peaceful, and I listened to his rhythmic breathing. I held my own breath, as mothers do when freedom is so close we can smell it, when I heard a small voice, honest and genuine, small and low:
“Mom, I’m scared of Grade One.”
More of a question or a plea than a statement. Or so I thought.
I validated his feelings, but immediately shifted into the well known parental default fix-it mode and read him a few comments praising his new teacher from a Facebook parent group that I’m in. Then we talked about the friends who would be joining him in the same classroom when the school year starts. I did all of that instead of just listening to him.
I was trying to fix it because I remember being scared. I remember feeling beyond scared. I remember feeling anchorless as the frame of reference that I was used to was pulled from underneath my feet, and I was left there to figure things out on my own. On the first day of school, we were learning how to read the sentence, “Hello Grade One!” a sentence consisting of letters I never practiced reading before. I could read and write before I started going to school, but the letters I could read were in a different language. My parents were immigrants and decided to teach me their native tongue, uncharacteristically practical in their assumption that a child’s mind is agile enough and will stretch itself to absorb a new language in no time. While they were right, and I’m eternally grateful for my multilingualism. It made for a very uncomfortable first day of school, so much so that my body turned against me on my way back home, and I could barely make it there fast enough.
When my child expressed his fear to me, I—in a move that would make Sigmund Freud himself proud—full-on projected, reacting to my own memories and the obvious biographical parallels. Yes, my child is also the son of immigrants. I ended up leaving my home country and relocating to North America a few years ago with my husband, but we speak English to our kids, and Ben reads and writes it. He is also not a stranger to the environment he’ll be spending most of his time in come September. My son’s senior kindergarten teacher took his class on a few visits to the schoolyard during school hours. He’s been playing there after hours and on weekends ever since he was a toddler. Having attended preschool in the same facility, he knows some of his teachers and all of the building’s secret passageways. This is nothing like my situation so many years ago.
I often worry about my ability to properly bond with my son; it seems like gender and geography often get in the way of finding a common ground. In this moment, I missed an opportunity to create a different kind of bond, one based on listening. Instead of seizing the opportunity, I unintentionally made this about me and my own experiences instead of him and his feelings. I didn’t need to find a solution. I needed to let him speak instead.
Tomorrow when my son wakes up, I won’t be perfect. I’ll miss some other new, important cues, I’m sure. But we will talk about Grade One once again, and I will ask the question that children ask their parents so often: “Why?” and then this time, I’ll just listen.