The heart is a leaping, sinking, flying, slapping thing

When we stepped into the Children’s Museum this morning, I immediately scanned the room for a familiar face, and breathing a sigh of relief, spotted the birthday girl. A tall girl with straight brown hair,  kind and with a constant serene expression, she stepped forward as my son approached her.

“Hi, Rowan!” she said cheerfully, and took the hot-pink giftbag he held out to her.

“Happy birthday, Maddie,” he said, and she replied, sincerely, “thank you!”

My heart leapt.

I noted the girl next to her. I knew her name; knew most of them now by sight. She was in Rowan’s class too.  Pale, with long, white-blonde hair.

“Say hi to her, too,” I prompted him.

“Hi,” he said, waving at her. No response; she didn’t make eye contact, even though he was right in front of her.

My heart sank.

“I don’t think she heard you,” I said. “Get closer.”

“You might have to say her name,” said my husband, knowing full well that Rowan is even worse with names than he is. Again, I knew the girl’s name, but held my tongue.

“HI,” Rowan said, again, louder, waving his hand inches from her face.

The girl looked past him, then grabbed Maddie by the hand, spinning her around to run to another room, talking a mile a minute, giggling with delight.

Again, I know her name, and will probably never forget it now. She is the arch-nemesis. Like the girls in my school when I was his age or older—the shiny blondes whose moms let them grow their hair down to their butt. The ones who willfully ignored me.

What a thing to pin on a 6-year old! But there it is. Every time someone shuts my child down, the child I’m so desperately trying to encourage to talk to people, to say hi, to ask, “do you want to play,” it shuts down a part of my heart. I’m that kind of mom. I take it personally, for him. I don’t think I would if it wasn’t so painful to watch him “interact” at a function like this.

Other kids run. Pound up and down the slanted halls, from room to room, pouncing on each piece of play equipment as comfortably as they would any possession at home. They scream and shriek. The girls giggle in gaggles and the boys bellow. But Rowan, my tall and gangly tip-toe-walking baby, lags behind. He stays on the outer edge, quiet, observing. He can’t keep up, doesn’t know how to join in, let loose, or blend in. His tallness and his glasses that magnify his already large eyes, and hair longer than any boy in his class make him stand out. He bounces when he walks, has huge hands and feet and is skinny as a rail. He often wags his right hand or pointer finger in the air when he’s excited. He has never barreled, never careened, never bolted or flung himself into or onto anything, except maybe his bed when he was mad at us.

So when Maddie was warm to him, it mattered so much. As it did when, soon after, a short, precocious girl named Adaleh found him. She’s built like a fireplug. Those kinds of kids are always so confident, it seems, maybe because they’re thicker and closer to the ground.

“Rowan’s here!” she exclaimed and grabbed him by the hand. We stepped away, let them play together but looked around corners from time to time to see what they were up to.

First Adaleh got into a little car at a play gas-pump, and asked Rowan to fill up the tank. He struggled to get the heavy, old-fashioned handle off the pump, so I helped him, then he couldn’t quite get the nozzle into tank’s hole, so Carl helped him with that. Then it was his turn to get gassed up. Adaleh helped him pull his long legs into the car, then buckled his seat-belt for him. Tiny Adaleh had no problem doing any of those things herself. When it was time to get out, he struggled again.

She then led him by the hand to the “salon,” where she helped him into a spinning chair, pulled a vinyl cape around his shoulders, and proceeded to “wash” his hair with the sink extension. Then she shouted, “my turn,” and put the cape on herself. Rowan stood there with his hands clasped, then slowly and hesitantly grabbed the shower head and touched her head lightly with it. I wanted him to be freer, more confident with his movements, but I pulled back, still warmhearted.  Carl and I beamed at each other; it was enough just to know Adaleh wanted to play with him.

We walked around on our own then for a bit, checking in on occasionally. Sometimes he was on his own, sometimes with others. He gravitated toward an older kid with a crewcut and glasses, and sat down next to him in the airplane cockpit, an exhibit he remembered and liked from a previous visit.

I climbed in behind them to listen.

“Where to?” the kid asked. “Jupiter, Saturn, or Mars?” He was maybe ten or eleven. He reminded me of one of those kids we would have called nerdy in school, not really comfortable in his own skin among the “cool kids,” but, when left to his own devices, very vocal and incredibly confident. I was grateful for him.

“Saturn!” Rowan replied, excited for a trip to his favorite planet.

“Hang on,” the kid said, then gripped the steering wheel and began shaking the cockpit violently, rocketing his pudgy body in all directions.

Rowan beamed, and my heart flew.

“That’s some turbulence!” I said from the back of the plane.

When it was time for cake and presents, Carl and I hung back once again. We were the only parents, besides those of the birthday girl, who had stuck around for the duration of the party. I imagined everyone else dropped their kids off, knew they’d be fine, and came back two hours later. But neither of us were comfortable knowing that at any given moment, Rowan could be alone, wandering around the expansive museum and its maze of rooms, not talking to anyone or feeling like he could join any particular group of kids. For the most part, I was happy not knowing where he was, but also knew that he didn’t want to “lose” us, as he said as much at one point, sticking his head though a little window in a makeshift theatre, where Carl and I sat in tiny chairs, watching a group of girls clomp around in open-backed princess dressed pulled over their play clothes, bowing and re-bowing on the stage. We clapped for them, and I hope that someday, it’d be my son we were clapping for, fearless in performing, even if just make-believe, in front of strangers.

Less than a week ago, Carl and I had sat in equally tiny chairs, across from Rowan’s teacher at conference time. She told us that he’d shown so much progress and was doing great in terms of language and vocabulary, but she wished he’d have more confidence. How do you do that? How do you build confidence in a child who is so stubborn and resistant?  We’ve been trying, and it’s been hard, but we continue the only way we know how—encouraging him, telling him how proud we are, and just showing him as much love and patience and acceptance as possible, while often gritting our teeth and spinning our gears.

We’d met with her and a team of special educators a few days prior to that, a group who’d been observing and working one-on-one with him for a few weeks.  I’d listened while they’d confirmed that he did not qualify for special education, nor did they think he had a disability, nor was he on “the spectrum.” He was just underconfident, under-developed, and maybe a little uninterested in just about everything. They had some “concern” about every little thing he did, from the way he held his pencil to the way he caught a ball, or walked or jumped or sat on a swing or put his snowpants on. And I did my best to listen and understand and accept, but as they spoke I began to cry. Because I love him so much and just want him to be happy, and worried that he wasn’t, and that he felt inadequate or lonely. I thought, “he’s only five years old, why must they demand so much of him? And I also cried because I remembered what it was like for me.

I didn’t struggle academically—quite the opposite. But I struggled emotionally, and socially. But I also remember not really caring that I didn’t have a lot of friends; in fact, I preferred being alone. And I was woefully uncoordinated. I tripped over my feet and felt self-concious about every single movement my body made. Even now, even when I’m comfortable with my physicality at home, I get frustrated at myself for stupid little things I do awkwardly, or wrong. And I know he feels me putting myself down, even if I don’t say anything. I think I sigh a lot.

He often says to me, “It’s okay, Mom, don’t you don’t have to struggle.” And that’s what makes me heart ache so deeply for him. He’s so affectionate and funny and open and observant with us at home. And I don’t think his teachers see that, nor do the other kids. He frequently puts his arms around me and says, “You’re so cute,” or “I love you with all my heart.” At home, we see who he really is, and that’s why it’s so hard for me to hear that he’s struggling in anyway at school, because there’s no one around to fully appreciate his warmth, his tender-heartedness, his zest for silliness.

Back at home after the party, we opened up a little pink goody-bag from the birthday girl’s parents.  Inside, amongst a mess of candy and stickers, was one of those slap-on bracelets that teachers were in the process of banning when I was in junior high, because kids were so distracted with them. Apparently  the world has forgotten about that.

I held it out flat. “It’s a bracelet,” I said. “You slap it on your wrist, like this.” I demonstrated, then straightened it out again and handed it to him.

He held it gently in his right hand, wrong side up and sort of sideways, and tapped at his opposite wrist with it.

“You have to be fast, and forceful,” I said. “Like this.”

I slapped it onto his wrist. He struggled to pull it off, then struggled again to straighten it.

“Listen for the click,” I said, feeling my patience wane. He continued to struggle, then got frustrated. I straightened it for him, then watched him once again attempt to slap the thing onto his wrist, while holding it too gently and at the wrong angle and slapping away fruitlessly at his arm until he gave up. I felt my chest clench at the thought that if my kid couldn’t operate a slap-on bracelet, then buttons and buckles were solar systems away.

There’s no good way to wrap this up—I have no ending thought or answer that makes any of this easier or more bearable. What I do have is the sweetest little boy in the world, for whom I want boundless love, patience and acceptance from the entire world, in every aspect of his life, as ridiculous as that sounds. I realize he has to experience rejection and criticism both in order to grow and as a matter of course—not everyone is going to love or even like him, not everyone is going to have patience for his loping strides and his tendency to take forever to explain something—usually something to do with Spiderman or video games. Just because I think he’s wonderful doesn’t mean he is—he’s just a kid and so are they all and they all have issues and strengths and weaknesses, but when you’re MOM, and your kid is the one that matters most, everything that comes with them feels so much bigger. I don’t know that I’ve explained myself or my child or my feelings very well with this post. There are multiple stressors in our life right now and I have a tendency to let them all sit on my shoulders until I feel like collapsing under their weight. Then, if I just take a minute to pick each one up individually, I realize they’re not really that heavy. I guess that’s what anxiety is.

Hi, My name is Molly and I’m the anxious parent of a child with anxiety.

And we’re working through it one birthday party at a time.

After I wrote this, Rowan told me, out of nowhere, that he loved the party today and would like to go back and “ride the rocketship” again. And we will. 




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