24 November 2009

Why I wanted to stomp a toddler

Sometimes I feel as though I’m about due to burn out on my profound love and constant concern for the baby, but it never happens. I guess I worry about this now and again because, in all other aspects of my life, I have a poor track record for longevity.

Like I can only do something perfectly and/or responsibly for a certain length of time and then I either have to drop the ball in a major way (like putting off an essay for so long that I nearly No Paper the class) when fear of failure sets in, or my resolve to continue something without obvious rewards just sort of fizzles out after a while.

But parenting, mothering especially I think - and they tell you this again and again, but only because it’s true – is like nothing else you will ever experience. It is almost outside experience, and I’m not sure why that is. I think that a lot of what we do in life (hobbies, school, work, socialising), and how much of it we do, is dependant on ambition - a kind of extra bonus to the givens; the things we do for survival, on the other hand, are nearly invisible in Western culture, and we do these things unthinkingly.

I’m not saying that the mothering instinct is purely one of survival (in as much as you can argue that love and sex are more complicated than the furtherance of the species), but it is so very primal that doing it becomes second nature.

Hartley has a limited vocabulary of words he doesn’t yet understand, but he has a language that’s fairly easy to read if you spend every waking moment at his side, as I do. The way he interacts with me and with his father, the way he anticipates food, his milk, a nap, and the way he experiments with the world – it’s all carried out with the same smiling enthusiasm, and sometimes he can’t help but draw a giddy, shuddering breath inward because he has difficulty containing his excitement.

This doesn’t just warm my heart to the melting point – the existence of that spirit in Hartley is so very crucial, I feel, that sometimes I think I would probably die to defend it. It breaks my heart to watch him do his thing in the world outside our home, where everything is geared to make him feel important and accomplished. You don’t realise how much you come to depend on a child’s certainty about himself until you see that certainty threatened. It takes no more than a toddler misunderstanding his happy noise as he reaches out to clutchy clutchy grab at that child’s trouser. Any unkind gesture his natural goodwill might provoke is bound to perplex and even hurt him.

Today, for instance, we were at an overcrowded play group nearby, where there is no barrier between the walking/talking toddlers and the more vulnerable, less mobile babies. I’ve always hated this about the group, and I must track Hartley very carefully or risk him picking up a toy that’s small enough for him to choke on, or getting himself into a social situation with a bigger child that he can’t handle. Sometimes, like today, I will let him approach a child I don’t know because I feel I am being overly protective when I run up to him and pull him out of potential harm’s way.

I should really trust that instinct more, because one boy, who was very possessive of some toy trucks he was holding onto, actually took a swing with his foot in the vicinity of Hartley’s head, when he’d only reached out to touch the boy’s knee, to pull himself up - I know, because I’ve watched him do this a thousand times to family and friends. I guess the boy didn’t know this, and maybe thought Hartley was after his toys. And I know that Hartley looks like he knows what he’s doing, as he’s quite large and also sentient for his age.

But actually, he’s still small enough to believe that everyone he encounters feels the same conviviality, and that the world is nothing more than a series of opportunities to smile at someone, or to try and stand up.

I grabbed Hartley the instant I saw that boy’s intention, and I looked for an obvious caregiver, though one did not emerge until the end of group – a crotchety looking grandmother, not even a mother – when it seemed pointless to bring up the incident, which both parties had long forgotten anyway.

Later, the song-leader’s child seemed to be bullying Hartley, but again I waited it out to see if he could handle himself. The child was old enough to know, I’d assumed, the limits of fending off a baby, and he was in plain sight of his mother. Regardless, he kept snatching away toys, or blocking Hartley’s attempt to get at other toys, and finally rapped Hartley on the knuckles with a plastic noisemaker.

Hartley cried in that shocked, heartfelt way he has of crying when the world unexpectedly bares its teeth, and I swept him up in my arms and held him for a very long time. It wasn’t until about five minutes later that I finally noticed we were still sitting quietly together with the same defeated expression. And then I realised that, actually, I need to work out how to empower him in social situations, even though I don’t feel empowered myself most times.

I’m hoping there’s a book.


Ariel said...

I wish the whole of the Atlantic weren't between us so that Hartley and Oslo could make their own playgroup.

Friday said...

Irony of ironies, hey? Ah well, maybe one day. Chitty chat soon? I've got some Skype minutes around here somewhere...

Anonymous said...

Heartbreaking! I'm going to teach him to stomp on any kids that take a swipe at him. And then I'll stomp on the parents.