by Barbara Card Atkinson
I was fifty feet above ground level, at the start gates of the carnival Super Slide, when a friend's advice seemed the most ridiculous. As I edged back down the entire fifty feet of the "Up only" staircase, muttering apologies to irritated teenage boys, both my arms wrapped around my son who had been begging to go up but was now screaming like an air-raid siren, I reminded myself to not look down, and thought about her words: "Don't ever be embarrassed by your children."
This helpful friend of mine is a child psychologist, someone who does not have a five-year-old son who yells, "Mom's got a big butt!" while in line at the supermarket, and who hasn't had her stretch marks not only remarked upon but individually counted, loudly, while trapped in a small dressing room, a too-tight sweater stuck halfway between almost off and still on.
Perhaps my friend simply meant that I shouldn't let my children's behavior get to me. What I hope she didn't mean was, "Don't let your children do anything to embarrass you," because then I would be in very, very big trouble.
Charlie revels in announcing his toileting triumphs, and occasionally, his failures. More than one manic moment has climaxed with my dear boy pulling down his pants and waggling his bare bottom at me, an act that would have been boorishly funny if it hadn't also been such a blatant "Screw you." But, you know what? Slapstick is also funny, which Charlie knows.
My concern is much darker. Charlie embarrasses me. He's what my gruff grandfather used to call a "crybaby," in some dark ages attempt to toughen a kid up. A runny nose, which in other child might inspire several nasty, yet discreet, swipes with a sleeve, provokes from Charlie tearful, hysterical cries: "Tissue! Tissue!" always when we are seated in the middle of a crowded movie theater, or three thousand feet up in an airplane, or at a formal social affair. Always. The texture of something objectionable (everything from a fruit he's deemed unexciting to a cracker with not enough crispness), he deals with by running to the nearest container and jettisoning it with fake vomiting sounds and levels of hysteria not yet mastered by stage divas.
The real problem is not that he falls apart; I love his passion. It's that he falls apart with such gusto. When Charlie is sad, or tired, or overwhelmed, or perhaps simply feeling a subtle drop in atmospheric pressure, he cries. He cries often and he cries loudly. I don't worry about it either as a personality trait, which might brand him a "crybaby" by his peers or as a sign of depression, because Charlie also laughs a lot, at least as much as he cries, and his laughs are at least as loud as his cries. His peals of laughter never embarrass me, so why do I cringe when he gets up such of public misery? Is it that I worry about him being branded a certain sort of child or that I will be marked as a certain type of mother? You know the type—the one who coddles and emasculates her son; the kind of mother who is raising a crybaby—another way of saying "sissy"— although no one calls boys "sissy" anymore. Sissified boys are now simply called effeminate or metrosexual or whatever we mean by who aren't "boyish" enough because they cry. Because we let them cry.
I know. He's five. I don't expect him to act as if he were twelve or twenty-seven, or even six, most of the time. Five is a funny age, and by funny I mean old enough to announce that the alphabet song in kindergarten is "lame" and still young enough to need his beloved squishy pillow in order to fall asleep. It isn't his normal childishness that gets me; it's when his feelings affect everyone else. "Manners," said Emily Post, "are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others." Perhaps, then, one of the canons of parenting is the sensitive awareness that our children's feelings are not our own.
I don't like the looks his weeping provokes from strangers at the playground, from neighbors, from my father. I don't want him to be branded a crybaby and, yes, okay, I don't want to be the mom of one. Is it that I am worried that my crybaby boy will become my gay boy? Nope. One, I know they don't have anything to do with each other and two, I'm cool with the gay thing. I'm just not cool with the crybaby thing. I don't, I admit, want to be the apparently crappy mom with the high-strung kid (that's pure momma ego talking, baby), and I also don't want him to drive away friends with his periodic hysteria.
Even though I can predict his moods at least as well as my own, I am still horrified by his displays. I don't like that I am so shallow; I rail against it, but it's true. Self-conscious is another word for embarrassed.
Perhaps not being embarrassed means recognizing that his mood is his, not mine. My son and I, as both my extremely patient husband and somewhat exasperated daughter can tell you, share an emotional weather that can only be described as full-throttle. Here's the thing: I cry—and laugh—at least as much as Charlie does, if not always as loudly. Charlie and I also have similarly placed dimples, eyes and brows the same shape, comparable noses and his-and-her, extremely square feet.
When, on a long, hot Friday afternoon, his sister takes the last green lollipop, his over-the-top outrage makes me cringe. When I wake up, already running late for work and find that my husband has poured himself the last of the coffee, my square-footed stomp to the shower sounds an awful lot like someone else's self-righteous, teary-eyed march to his bedroom.
Maybe that's what my shrink buddy meant. Perhaps I am self-conscious not only because Charlie's meltdowns reflect (according to the momma drive-bys) slipshod parenting but also because I can't always see where his behavior ends and mine begins. "Don't ever be embarrassed by your children," she said, which maybe, just maybe, meant, "Work on your own issues." And maybe my issue is that I'm a crybaby, too.
Barbara Card Atkinson's writing has appeared on MSN Entertainment, in ePregnancy Magazine, Real Savvy Moms, The Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, Literary Mama and also for smaller venues. I also have published pieces on parenting in the books It's a Girl: Women Writers on Raising Daughters and Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined.
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