First three photos by Declan; last photo by Sue
“When I approach a child, he inspires in me two sentiments;
tenderness for what he is, and respect for what he may become.”
There were times when I carried you in my body that I stopped to wonder what kind of child you would be. I thought you’d be active because you never stopped moving. I thought you’d never be content in one spot because you were constantly pressing against the confines of my body. And of course I imagined you’d grow to exhibit some of your dad’s traits and some of my own because that’s just the way genetics work. Guesses on my part and, turns out, I was right on all counts.
But I also wondered how you would look and behave. I imagined a carefree little scruff, running around in board shorts and flip-flops as boys do in our neighborhood. A boy with shaggy, sun-streaked hair not unlike mine and a mischievous personality not unlike his dad’s. To be sure I imagined you as a boy at nine or ten who would breeze through the kitchen and out the back door with his skateboard, shouting behind him, “I’m just going to Ethan’s and then we’re going to the beach and maybe I’ll stay …” Gone before I could call you back to explain or tell you to phone home if you wanted to sleep over.
Our first year with you was one of learning to meet your basic needs. And trust me, it took your middle-aged, self-involved parents a whole year to learn to do just that with any sense of confidence. But this year, these past twelve months, have been all about getting to know who you are. About your wonderful little body and your growing abilities and your lovely character.
So about that body, your particular presence in a room or the back of my car or at the dinner table. The curve of the back of your head as you focus on pressing two Duplo blocks together. The way you still cross your smooth little legs at the ankles when you sit in your booster seat. The fact that at just over three feet (93 cm) tall, your feet hang off the edge of your sleep pallet at daycare and teachers tell us that you are now too long to fit on the diaper change table.
You are cautious in new surroundings, tentative when you first try something new. But once you have the basic idea, you go at it with no hesitation at all. You throw and kick, run, jump, dance and climb with such enthusiasm, and my secret hope is that, like your dad, you will carry that confidence and ease throughout your life.
That caution and then the gusto? It pretty much defines your approach to most things. Daycare teachers point it out to us as if they are letting us in on some great secret, but we notice it almost every day of our lives. The way you hide your face in our legs when you meet a person for the first time, only to be sitting in that person’s lap ten minutes later. The way you treat all new foods as poison, only for that item to become the VERY BEST FOOD IN THE WORLD the next time we offer it. The way you’re still not sure about jumping off the smallest of steps but don’t hesitate to butt-slam in half an inch of bath water.
This past year has been difficult at times. Last winter it seemed you caught every bug moving through your daycare center: a week of coxsackie and three weeks of rotavirus, pink eye, numerous stomach and flu bugs, and more than your share of ear infections.We had no idea you’d get sick this often in daycare. No idea what weeks and weeks of interrupted sleep would do to your dad and I. This past year in the toddler room, you also had a steady turnover of caregivers, each sweet and attentive in her own way, but somehow falling just slightly short of what we had hoped. Your nose not wiped when we arrived to pick you up, your hat not on your head outdoors even though the sun was still strong. Thank goodness there were those who exceeded our expectations — who held you close on their chests when you were feverish and teething. Who taught you the cha-cha slide because they knew how much you love to dance. Who taught you how to count to five in Spanish with perfect pronunciation before you were two years old!
And nothing has thrilled me more than watching you learn to speak. Your mother, the word geek. I feel like the proverbial Yiddish mama bragging, “Oy, that child of mine — the things he comes out with!” As if you were pointing out something as simple as a ball. But no, with you it’s all “helicopter” and “alligator” and “strawberry jam” and “Tau’s yoga mat.” You come out with this, matter-of-fact, and your dad catches my eye and raises his brows, like, did he just say what I think he said?
You are now stringing three and four words together at a time, using phrases to ask and answer questions and tell us things you feel we ought to know. You are very much into verbs and adjectives and prepositions all of a sudden: “Lady doing?” “Baby crying!” “Lotsa, lotsa stinky poo!” “Airplane up high!” “Go away, flies!” And now you are starting with the broken sentences. “Tau … owie … head. No touch owie … Tau no touch owie.”
Recently your dad starting throwing in a few South-Africanisms — teaching you to shout, “Hamba birds! Hamba!” Meaning go away birds! And it is clear that you understand what this means because the other morning I heard you sternly tell a little girl who was encroaching on your territory at the breakfast table, reaching in to sample your Cheerios, to “Hamba!” Clearly, it’s time to start being selective about what we teach you.
That said, my favorite thing in the world is watching you with your dad. I knew all those years ago when I married him, that I was fortunate. Big time fortunate. Because he is a rare man, raised by parents who had the foresight to teach their sons to be doers. Caring, considerate doers. Nowhere has that been more evident to me, all these years later, than in watching your dad raise you. The patience and the care and the tenderness, even when I know that he is bone, stone, dead-on-his-feet tired.
Last night, after getting up at 6:00 a.m. to ride fifty miles on his bike and then hosting a party for a dozen of our friends and doing all the clean up afterwards, he sat with you late at night and rocked you as you cried and cried. We thought you were teething again but it turns out you have another ear infection, one so painful that you woke every couple of hours crying and took a long time to get back to sleep. I had just come down with a cold and so he insisted on getting up with you throughout the night. So that I’d be able to get up and go to work today.
As you grow up, Tau, you’ll become aware of a great debate in our world. The one about men and women and equality and child rearing. About who does the dishes and the laundry and who gets up night after night with the sick kids. And I have a feeling you won’t quite get it. You just won’t understand. Because your father? He is one of those men who does what needs doing. He sees something and just does it, because he cares about your comfort and mine.
One of the benefits of your dad and I both working full-time and parenting full-time is that you are equally close to both of us. When I think back to your birth, I remember feeling that it was not all that different having you in my arms or inside my body. That I felt just as close either way, and that having you out of my body didn’t seem to create any distance between us.
But there were times in those early weeks and months that I was so overwhelmed by the demands of your small body on mine that I handed you over to your dad, who held you and rocked you and played you music for hours at a time. Held you close as he could. And now that you are more independent, that closeness is still there with the two of you, no stronger or weaker than what ties you and I together.
And if I am proud of one thing, Tau, if we have done one thing right, it is to demonstrate that closeness, day by day. To tie a cord, tight and yet loose enough, around the three of us.
On this birthday, my boy, we have only strong hugs for you. Strong hugs forever.
Mom and Dad.