This morning my 16-year-old son Jack asked me, “How would you say I grew up, Mom? Was I poor? Or privileged? Or what?”
Good question I thought, not attempting to answer the question. I often tell myself that our kids have had it good. But I also know we’ve struggled. So where does that leave us? How do I answer his question—how he grew up?
So, I went with the roof.
“Well honey, you always had a roof over your head.”
Immediately, he says, “Yeah, I wasn’t really poor, but I did wear other kids’ clothes?”
That he did. Every bag of clothes that came my way, I piled into categories by age. If he was three and someone with an 8-year-old gave me a bag of hand-me-downs, I boxed them up and put them on a shelf drawing a large number “8” usually with a black sharpie at one end of the box.
There were times I used rubber bands and safety pins to hold different things together, usually clothing. There were times I drove a green van given to us for free by my in-laws with missing seats and seat belts. There were times that I left them with a babysitter while I worked my part-time school counseling job. There were times I rushed in, or out of, the house to make the day work without dropping to the floor for the mandatory 20 minutes of uninterrupted playtime at least once a day with my baby. There were times of frenzy, times I wasn’t patient, times I didn’t listen, times he didn’t get what he needed.
I did what moms do.
I worked, cooked, cleaned, coordinated umpteen playdates, prepared beds for story time, and bathtubs for bath time. Every day was a ritual in my head of checking all the boxes: home-cooked meals—all three of them. Check. Outside time. Check. Bathtime with an attentive mom sitting close by blowing bubbles and singing songs. Check. Storytime. Check. Followed by lay-here-forever-waiting-for-you-to-actually-fall-asleep-before-I-try-to-sneak-out-and-wake-you-and-have-to-start-all-over-again. Check.
When Jack was 10, we realized we’d spent a decade with a 2-hour bedtime routine. We’d trained him to need it. Need us. From baths to brushing teeth to pajamas to books to sleep. We were there. John and I passing each other in the hallway as we swapped from one boy’s bed to the other. Every night. Never not there. Not when friends were over. Not when we were tired. Not when they made us angry and we wanted to get rid of them.
Was he, he wants to know, privileged, or poor, or what?
He was loved.
I know that much. So, loved. So very loved. Too much, not enough, both, probably depends on the day, the month, the year. He was my primary focus the second he was born. “What does he need?” and “How will I give it to him?” took up the most space in my heart and head.
Jack grew up giving the most amazing hugs I would melt into, and for that moment I could not figure out where my feet were or how to touch the ground. Every day he played fearlessly with the world like it was one big friendly adventure. He was beyond exuberant, super smart, and ready for fun at all times. He was also challenging, born to be somewhat contrary, and had an intensely difficult time saying okay.
He was, and is, a justice seeker. What he believes, he believes deep in his bones and blood, and there is no one, or nothing, that will stop him. It’s his gift. There is no doubt. He recently said, out of the clear blue, “When I know my ‘why,’ look out!” I did nothing but smile. I know the truth in that one short sentence like no truth I’ve ever known.
Jack grew up being read to, held, and chased.
He grew up with a mom who was glued to him. And that’s the problem. He doesn’t want me to be glued to him. I didn’t know how not to be. I wanted to be there. I wanted him to know I was there. I wanted him to not feel what I felt as a kid when my dad left. That darting around pain that you don’t see coming and can’t avoid. Absence where love should be. I didn’t want him to know what that felt like. I didn’t want him to know what being alone felt like.
So, I just scooched up beside him and stayed there. I pushed my toes under the blanket and touched his toes. I butterfly kissed him every single night. We were nose to nose, and I was dripping with nostalgia for all those moments that seemed to be forming one big, beautiful childhood.
But I also freaked out. I also lost my mind. How did he grow up, really? He grew up with a mom who was trying to navigate the holes left behind from her childhood while giving him one he would look back on fondly. I wanted him to have everything I didn’t. A juxtaposition that gave him more than one kind of childhood. He was loved by a mom who was trying to have herself together but didn’t always.
I decide Jack didn’t grow up privileged or poor. And he didn’t grow up just loved.
He grew up with a mom who tried her darndest, still does, and always will.
He grew up being given everything we could give him knowing it wasn’t enough, not always. He grew up with love and pain for when we got it right and when we got it wrong. He grew up with our wholeness and our brokenness. With our richness and our reality. No matter how hard we try, we are still inadequate, messy, lopsided humans trying too hard to make up for what we can’t make up for.
Until we are here. At this point. When we’ve done what we can. And we call it what it is. A life loving each other the best we can. A childhood we can look back on and call loving because we did the right things and the wrong things with love.