Now that I have older children, my friends and I marvel at our once-little people who truly are becoming young men and women while we watch, complete with long legs, increasingly wizened eyes, and the subtle nuances of puberty shading their school picture portraits. “They’re becoming real,” we say in hushed tones, remembering when they were all cooing balls of pudgy thighs and wispy hair. “They’re like real people.” They surprise us with their insights, they laugh at the same jokes we do, and they don’t fit under our chins so well anymore.
This year, my 40th and my oldest child’s 12th, has been a real turning point, every bit the milestone it promised to be both emotionally and physically for both of us. When he and I share a joke or even a companionable silence in the car on the way to his volleyball practices, I find myself thinking, he’s not the only one transforming.
The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces.
I have been a parent for a while now, and I lived through four newborns and toddlers. My hair has fallen out and grown back, though not quite exactly the same way, and now I am slowly but surely spotting grays. My belly bears the stretch marks of swelling four times to harbor life inside of it, my feet are flatter and wider from bearing the weight, and my knees make sounds that make me worry. In many ways, I am stronger than ever, as any mother carrying the responsibility of children is, but there is no doubt that my seams are starting to show.
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
But I try to remember that my seams show only because I have now been well loved. I have slept upright with a baby burrowed into my chest and I have spent nights with my body wrapped around a feverish child who only wants me. I have stood in a preschool classroom doorway and been greeted by a running, sweaty, beaming child who flings herself at my knees. I have read stories by lamplight on bottom bunks to a child stroking my arm, and I have waved to a little boy smiling up at me, swallowed whole by his baseball uniform, and hoped against hope he might not strike out this time. I have been hugged fiercely by children at summer camp drop-offs and waited to cry until I was out of their sights, and I have been awakened on Mother’s Day by tiny people clamoring to give me their construction paper flowers on popsicle sticks and a box of chocolate. Their love has been my fuel when sleep and energy were in very low supply, and their love has changed me.
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit. “Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
It has hurt sometimes. There have been slammed doors and rolled eyes, “I hate yous” and snubbed hug offerings. When it has hurt the most, though, has been when I have had to watch my children struggle or endure pain, knowing I could not fix it. Those are the heartaches that make me feel like I might break open and spill all over the floor, the gut punches that cause me to lose my breath. Yet those moments also bring the Magic.
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.”
My friends and I, we are warriors. We are growing older alongside our children, learning as much as they are about life and love and who we want to be when we grow up. We’ve faced hard pregnancies and traumatic childbirths, NICU stays and too-short maternity leaves, therapy screenings and devastating diagnoses. We have ended marriages and we have taken the chance to love again. We’ve battled cancer and watched it attack and on occasion take those we love. We fight for our health, running races and accomplishing physical feats we never imagined we could. We are gaining wrinkles and losing our eyesight. We are, in fact, loose in the joints. We feel a little worse for the wear sometimes.
“But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
But we spot each other, across the room at the pediatrician’s office, or standing in the back of a classroom at Open House night at school, or in the stands at the Little League game or the sidelines of a Robotics competition, or in the next car in the car line at pick-up, and we understand: it’s all part of Becoming Real, of being a Real Parent.
We need only to look into the eyes of our own parents – to see the years of wear and tear, of love and magic, of life – to know it is true.
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