The other day, I made my usual trek to my son’s pre-school at around 6 PM to collect my sprightly (and sweaty) little four-year-old. I opened the door as always and stepped inside, peering from left to right. I finally spied my rug-hugger off to one side of the room, standing with two other boys his age he’s known for at least a couple of years. The three of them were having what appeared to be the most deliciously, seriously, and scandalously hilarious tête-à-tête that those school yard walls had ever seen.
And I paused.
Just for a minute, I didn’t let him know I was there. Instead I simply watched. And listened. I watched his bright eyes and facial expressions widen and contort, giving away every single emotion he was feeling. Listened to his nattering, his negotiating, his witty repartee with the other kids. Then he spots me, and he’s a changed boy. Not by much… but just enough for me to notice.
I live for the moment he sees me because it is still (for as long as I can get it) one in which everything is “stopped and dropped” in favour of the mad dash toward my open and waiting arms. But it’s not the first time I’ve come to pick him up and watched him without his knowing I’ve arrived, even going so far as hiding a few times and “shushing”/ winking at the staff. You see, it was about a year or so ago when I picked him up one day that it suddenly hit me: There’s a whole part of my kid’s life – and therefore my kid - that I’m not privy to. A persona, if you will, that he has with his teachers, school chums, and friends (his other peeps) who I can never truly know. And that’s ok – it’s the way it’s supposed to be. But it made me kind of sad to realize. So, from time to time I just watch, feeling a bit like I’m on the outside looking in.
As a therapist, I get it: My presence changes everything. To my kids, I represent the ultimate source of love and approval, but also the ultimate source of power and authority. And psychologically speaking, we all know that power and authority changes behavior in everyone. (Just check out the famous - and controversial - Stanford Prison Guard Experiment if you don’t believe me).
I have always thought that having children is bittersweet. In a way, it’s like a tease. When they are little they shower you with love, affection, hugs and kisses. My 13-month old just can’t get enough of me, desperately clamouring and climbing when necessary to have physical contact with me most of the time, goofy lopsided smile full of unconditional love smattered across his face. Tiresome at times, yes, but (let’s face it) also addictive! They make us the centre of their universe… and there we go, feeling like a movie star again, our brains squirting out all manner of dopamine into our blissed-out heads. All too soon, it starts to change. Hugs and cuddles become harder to get, reserved for bedtimes, scraped knee times, and I-just-emptied-the-bathwater-onto-the-floor-you-got-angry-and-I-need-to-know-you-still-love-me times.
The sweetness can always be there; it just changes. Watching them grow, become more independent, discover all their hidden talents and quirks, seeing them reach their goals, and forming even deeper bonds with them. The bitter is in the loss we feel as a result of the constant change. Dozens upon dozens of tiny little losses. The adorably mispronounced words that become rigidly and correctly pronounced. The school hugs that turn into school drop-offs two blocks away. And one day, a house that suddenly feels unnaturally quiet most of the time.
It’s all good, and it’s part of being a loving and caring parent who understands their role and the ways of life. Namely, that it’s always moving forward – with or without us. My eldest is starting Junior Kindergarten this September, and I’ll admit it’s a little bit sad for me. Whenever these thoughts and emotions hit me upside the head, I just acknowledge the feeling, acknowledge the bitter that comes with that loss through change. And then I gently shift my focus toward whatever the sweet is that’s happening at that moment in time.
There’s always something. Even if I have to get creative some days to find it.