The thing I do most often as a mother is compromise. And I’m not talking about all the compromises I make with my boys about sharing toys and breaking up fights and whose turn and which snack and we have to run this errand but we’ll get that for dinner, and I’m sorry this Friday you’re at Daddy’s but we’ll do movie night Sunday instead, and bedtime battles and who showers first and how many pieces of Halloween candy is the right amount.
All those compromises combined are nothing compared to the other ones, the harder ones I find myself making over and over, compromises between the demands and desires of two formidable opposing forces: My heart and Time.
And Time is a relentless opponent, a real bitch. She doesn’t match a parent’s heart stride for stride, she outruns it in a flash with no warning and no apology, just off to the races and you’re left there in a cloud of talcum powder holding an empty infant car seat with the soft bell thingy still dangling from the handle while you watch the baby who is now a toddler unbuckle the belt from his “big boy” seat and scamper out of the car practically on his own.
You’re amazed and thankful, and you love the growing independence and the “I do it!” You really do. And you mostly hated the cumbersome infant seat anyway, dammit. So you adjust. You choose to not think so much about the wide-eyed gummy smiles you used to be treated to when you opened the car door and unclipped that backwards-facing seat and he saw you again for the first time. Mama’s face! Here I am! The sun and the moon and the stars right there in one smile. Two.
You concede the intoxicating hit of Johnson & Johnson’s lavender baby lotion scent you used to get off the top of his downy-soft infant head because you have to, because there is no infant head anymore and there is no night-night lavender lotion routine. There is a dodgy, grabby 2-year-old now, full of discovery and testing limits. That’s what you get instead, that’s your compromise. And it’s great. It’s beyond great, it’s amazing, the way he spells out every sign you pass in the car. “S-T-O-P this spells stop!” his sweet voice sing-songs from the back seat, and you smile your sun-moon-stars mama smile at him in the rearview mirror, even though he is looking out the window at the world.
As a parent, you constantly give up something you loved more than you thought you would, something just weeks before you couldn’t imagine not having anymore, and you find the good in the new/bigger/older/different. You compromise, and you’re happy.
Then Time glances back at you with her sneering grin before sprinting ahead, and you both know another compromise is right around the corner, because it always is. Because that’s what you’ve come to understand about parenting. More than how to get them to brush their teeth or use the potty or mind their manners, you’ve learned most of all how to give up one beautiful thing after another that you will never get back, in favor of some other beautiful thing you will likely only have for awhile, too.
So you give up rocking him to sleep, feeling his milk-buzzed body sigh and go limp in your arms, but you get wondrous bedtime book conversations about how many animals could really fit inside a mitten.
You give up the efficiency of carrying him quickly into the store at your pace, but you get the milestone of him walking beside you instead, his whole tiny hand wrapped around just one of your fingers, his legs pumping fast to keep up.
You give up all the scrambling into your lap and snuggling he used to want to do, but you get all the impromptu puppet shows and block tower unveilings and “Mommy look at this!” feats of strength and creativity his busy little mind and body can manage.
You give up minding him and his brother in the bath, but you get a little time to yourself in the evenings while they help each other with showers.
You give up kissing him goodbye at school, but you get the swell of pride in watching him carefully hold his green froggy umbrella over the head of a classmate so she won’t get wet on their way inside.
The hand that used to be only big enough to hold one of your fingers grows to hold two, then three, then your whole hand, and then one day you realize you’ve somehow given up “Take my hand!” for “Look both ways!” And now you’re letting him look and wait and cross and be safe ahead of you, even though you’re right there, right there, your legs pumping fast to keep up.
It is wonderfully heartbreaking the way life keeps pushing forward.
Earlier this year my 10-year-old, Kostyn, stopped wanting goodnight kisses, then kisses in general. Hugs yes, kisses no. So I obliged, respecting his personal space and boundaries of affection. But he and his little brother knew I still kissed the tops of their heads late at night when I re-tuck them in one last time before I go to bed. I whisper “I love you” into their ears and pretend my words enter their dreams. It’s my thing, my compromise. And last week Kostyn asked me to give it up.
“Mommy please don’t kiss my head anymore, even when I’m asleep. That’s so germy. Gross!” he said, turning his face toward the wall and pulling the covers higher. As I contemplated the idea of just patting his head or simply leaning close to him from now on, something cracked inside me. It was one compromise too many, and my heart had had enough.
“No,” I said defiantly, like a child, not really to him but to Time, that bitch who was stealing my little boys from me every single day, replacing them with older, stronger, fascinating people I adore getting to know, but taking their little boy counterparts I already knew by heart.
Kostyn looked at me, his eyes angry.
“What does it matter to you?” I asked defensively. “You’re asleep! It’s just a tiny peck on the top of your hair, you don’t even feel it or stir in the least.”
“But it’s my head and I don’t want you to kiss it,” he said.
I was quiet for a moment, silently hoping he’d see the pain on my face and give in. He didn’t. “Fine,” I said, not sounding fine. “I won’t.”
I got up and left the room, then stopped in the hallway. I needed him to know that something could be fine with him and fine in general even if it didn’t feel fine to me. I took a deep breath and walked back in, sat down on his bed. He looked up from his book.
“It really is fine, OK? It’s just that this is hard for me sometimes,” I said, looking into his 10-year-old eyes and seeing his 4-year-old cheeks. I explained to him how I used to hold him and hug him and kiss him all the time when he was little and he loved it, how I used to know everything about him, almost like I was on the inside of him, because he was linked to me. He came from me. And now it’s different, and different can be even better, and what he wants now is perfectly OK, but it takes me a minute to adjust, to understand.
I told him I loved him and respected him and would always be right here if he wants a hug or a kiss or a question answered. Anything. I’m right here.
We hugged, and I left feeling better but a little broken, like I’d given up something without getting anything this time. This wasn’t a compromise. This was just one more thing I had to leave behind in the unrelenting parental march toward the future.
Then the next evening we were talking about our days, and I told them both I’d had some constructive criticism at work and was having a hard time with it, that my confidence was often easily shaken and I needed to regroup.
Kostyn, sitting on the couch with a book in his hand, looked at me with kind eyes and said, “Aww, Mommy, you can walk in the shadows, but don’t live there.”
His eyes got wide, possibly because he saw mine getting wide, and we smiled at each other. He blushed a little. “I don’t know why I just said that,” he stammered.
But I did. I knew it was Time, cutting me some slack with an easy point, a shot at the foul line for the elbow to the gut she’d given me the day before. She was helping to even things out a little bit. Just for now.
Thank you, I thought. There’s my compromise.*
So, I am giving up the easy affection of my oldest child from years gone by, and I miss it terribly, this precious thing I once thought would never end. But I am getting the wisdom of the ages in my own son’s voice, the unfolding of a beautiful mind right before my eyes. It is magical, and I will take it with awe and gratitude.
[*Plus, I still get to whisper “I love you” straight into his dreams. Please don’t tell Time. We parents need to stick together in this illogical race we desperately want to win but never want to finish.]