Last night we had to sit down with one of our sons and break the world down for him a bit. We’ve noticed this child has started to do things just to be cool. For now it’s nothing alarming, mostly just wanting to wear all the “right” clothes. He layers on his accessories like he’s never heard the phrase “less is more”. Bless.
If one of the kids has a friend over this child is known to say things that are so clearly wrong -last night it was telling a friend that tofu was a fruit-only to try to sound smart. He also claimed to have finished a book his siblings had already finished so that he could watch the movie with them. With just one question about a main plot point in the book it was quite obvious he hadn’t read it.
Even just a few weeks into school we are starting to see a pattern where he’s finishing his tests and work in class as fast as he can or not bringing work home to study at all. Though his intention is to look smart/cool, it all crumbles when he receives a D on his test. His friends might not know about his terrible grade, obviously, but he momentarily forgets that his mom has 24 hour access to his grades online and that she checks it roughly once every hour knowing he is not a kid who will be able to skate through school on his smile and good humor alone.
In some respects I believe this is typical behavior for boys his age. The struggle between the illusion of independence from parents and the obvious dependence on the parents is real. It is, of course, the human condition to want to be liked and admired. I don’t even believe this in itself is a terrible thing. More often than not when other parents or teachers talk about this son of mine they mention how kind, caring and respectful he is-all attributes built from the same place his desire to be liked is housed. A double edged sword indeed.
But it’s also typical orphan behavior as well. This charismatic son of mine did what the adoption community calls “mommy shopped” for almost 2 years before we met him. His desire to be loved and seen as cute/cool went spectacularly in Ethiopia, every time a friend of ours went to Ethiopia before us they gushed over his adorableness and his friendliness. As soon as I was able to make public his photographs I received an influx of emails from people who had traveled the previous 2 years saying roughly the same thing, “As soon as we got home my husband and I prayed about going back for him. If we could’ve gotten the resources together we would have. You are so lucky!”
I remember when the kids were little being physically exhausted roughly all the time. Trysten and Dailah slept through the night since they were 8 weeks old (don’t hate) and the boys have all been phenomenal sleepers since we brought them home as well so I’m not really referring to the sleepy fog. I’m talking about being physically exhausted in the way that, when Zach got home, I basically threatened him within an inch of his life to not touch me. I so vividly remember being a human playground and often the only one able to comfort an upset child.
As the kids continue to get older I’m no longer physically exhausted, the tables have reversed a bit in that department-I’m typically the one smothering them when I’m feeling a little low or needing some personal connection. Parenting older kids feels so emotionally exhausting instead.
This thing with our son has stirred up some heavy reminders of when I used to be so concerned with being cool. I never did it in the ways he is doing it: I didn’t ever care much about what I was wearing or being the smartest in class. But I did care about my status as an athlete, always having a boyfriend, being liked by as many people as possible.
I’ve done some pretty terrible and painful things to other people and to myself in the name of “being cool”. One of those things I did when I was roughly the age of my son that still haunts me from time to time. My best friend in elementary and I had decided to be locker partners in middle school, we had bought the mirrors and other things in which to adorn our shared locker. But that summer I started hanging out with someone else more. She seemed so cool and didn’t have the elementary baggage that my other friend had (by the way, none of this is on the middle school friend-she continues to be one of the kindest, most compassionate people I know) so a week before middle school started I called my elementary friend to let her know I was changing things up and would no longer be sharing a locker with her. How she forgave me for that (and many, many other things) over the years and continues to be a friend I have no idea.
And honestly, as I got older, the stakes were higher and so were the MIstakes. The need to be loved and adored was so acute I hurt people so deeply that some, rightfully so, haven’t forgiven me since.
Last night I related all of this to my son and told him, “Do you know why I fell so hard for your dad? He showed up to our first date in clothes from Goodwill and shoes made of duct tape. He was the first person I ever knew to be so completely him all the time. Your dad has never put much thought into what people think of him and yet people love your dad. They are so devoted to him because they know the person they are claiming their devotion. They know it’s not going to shift and change depending on the season-your dad is your dad-take him or leave him.”
Then I reminded him that we aren’t expecting an overnight success in his ability to just be ok with dropping the masks and showing the world just who he is. We are ever evolving humans after all and, though Zach has inspired me to drop all of my masks since the day I met him, I continue to struggle with the old demons from time to time. That struggle is the reason I got “I am God’s beloved” tattooed on my collarbone-it’s a daily reminder that no matter how badly I’ve effed it all up (and woof are there some doozies in there) I am so completely and incomprehensibly loved.
And so is he. Because, as I told him, the people who will be put off by the real him were never meant to be in his life in the first place. And the people drawn to him? Those will be the people who will live and die for him. Those are the only people he needs to worry about doing right by.
I slept so poorly last night because I just kept thinking of ways in which I could save all of my kids, this son in particular, from making the same mistakes I’ve made in my life. I longed a little for the days when I was terrified of outlets and steps rather than BIG feelings like self acceptance and people pleasing gone too far. The risk feels greater now, the repercussions heavier. It’s impossible to know whether I’m doing the right thing as a mom now that my kids are becoming fully formed young adults before my eyes but every night I fall asleep knowing I did my very best and will apologize in the morning for the ways in which I fell short.
The risk is indeed greater but so is the reward. Getting to know my 5 on a personal level is one of the coolest experiences of my life. It’s so humbling to watch them wrestle with the same things I did at their age and so gratifying to watch them beat the beasts that took me so much longer to conquer.
Last night I looked my son in the eyes and said, “God made you so perfectly, son, I am so in awe of how wonderful you are. I love you so much there is absolutely nothing you could do to stifle that and nothing you could wear to make that love any bigger. Let’s show everyone else the son I get to see-they will be awestruck by the awesome.”
He smiled and went to bed and as he did I realized I was talking to myself, too.