Once, when my younger child was about three, he didn’t want to walk the short distance from the car to our house because it was raining and he didn’t want to get the bottom of his shoes wet. I was carrying a couple of bags of groceries and feeling irritated by his arbitrary rules and systems, so I told him he was fine and could walk to the house by himself. I walked up the steps to the porch and left him on the sidewalk screaming, “Carry me!” over and over. I ignored him and went into the house, closed the door behind me, put the grocery bags down in the kitchen, and went back to the front door to watch him through the window. There he stood, magnificent in his rage: little face wet and contorted with the effort of his howling, his tiny body rigid. Our standoff ended several minutes later when a cyclist riding by slowed at the sight of a crying toddler alone on a wet sidewalk. When he turned his bike around to come back and check on him, I came out and sheepishly retrieved my furious child.
At that time, he was going to a small neighborhood preschool, one of those warm and homey places where the kids spent their days picking flowers and felting wool. A couple times a year the teachers at this school gave parents updates about their kids in the form of letters written to the children. That year, one of the letters written to my son read, “We love how sure you are about what you need and how determined you are to get it.”
To this day, I feel grateful for that perspective of my son, because it showed me a new way to think of the story of him—and also of me. I used to describe this child—the one who tans as quickly as I do in the summer, the one whose hair is as dark and coarse as mine—as “stubborn” and “willful.” I have a few photos of him when he was an infant and in the middle of long bouts of fussing. They are blurry and almost abstract because I took them when he was strapped to me in a front pack, his crying, grimacing face only inches from mine. The photos capture the depth and scale of his dissatisfaction with me, and his full commitment to letting me know.
After that letter from his teachers, and conversations with other parents and teachers, I started thinking of him instead as having “strong ideas” and “big feelings.” He is nine now, unsurprisingly fierce and passionate about what he loves, what he doesn’t, what makes him sad, what makes him scared. He is sure about what is fair and what is not, and righteous in a way that, I have to admit, is intimately familiar to me. Though I didn’t see clearly at the time that we shared something beyond complexion and hair, I can’t miss it now.
Like my son, I have been considered a pain in the ass my whole life. I have been called aggressive, harsh, abrasive, ambitious, demanding, unyielding, sassy, lippy, uppity, a know-it-all. I have been advised to be less emotional, to hold back rather than keep pushing forward, to relent. I have been told to stay in my lane, to know my place, to keep a lid on it— “it” meaning my feelings, my sense of justice, my sense of what I need, my sense of what is needed.
Over the years, I’ve taken some of this advice. I’ve occasionally done what I’ve been told. Instead of pushing all my big feelings and strong ideas out into the world, sometimes I hold them in. I try not to fight every fight. But holding back instead of pushing forward doesn’t come naturally to me, and if I do it for too long, I don’t recognize myself anymore.
Earlier this spring, I held my son in my arms, consoling him after another disappointment in a long line of disappointments, otherwise known as life. He was shaking from the tangle of emotions swirling around him, colliding inside him. As I held him close, I whispered confidently, reassuringly, “One day, your body will be big enough to hold all those feelings.”
But even as his sweet face and little body relaxed, I knew there was something hollow in my words. Look at me: I’m a fully grown person, but most days my body doesn’t feel big enough to hold all that I think and feel. Not even close.
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