One thing I hated when I was a kid was when adults would assume an unnatural and high-pitched “kid” voice when speaking to me. We all do this with babies, but it can only last so long before it’s patronizing.
Almost every day, when talking to my son, I try to remind myself to speak to him like I would want to be spoken to, and almost every day, I realize I could do better. It’s not often the baby voice that is the problem, it’s the irritable and grouchy voice that communicates impatience.
The test I run myself through that gives me an answer right away is asking myself: would I ever speak to my friends this way? With friends, it better be worth it if you’re going to show your anger with them. And if you talked in a condescending way, they would either call you on it or just stop hanging out with you.
I try to purpose to not say anything to my own child in a way I would find impossible to hear. I try to never speak to him in a way that would make me lose friends my age. He’s a friend too. Sometimes the person in our relationship that needs to talk more like a grown up isn’t the 5-year-old.
I was reading over my journal entries from this year and found this in August about my son:
He drew a picture of us eating breakfast as a family outside and I almost cried. He drew the details of his milk cup, my coffee cup and glasses, Mom’s banana, and butterflies on our wildflowers. It was sweet.
(These are details that are all the same almost daily. Features of the breakfast scene in our back yard.)
When I told him how much I loved it and held it up for him, he said, “Oops! I forgot to draw the phone.”
He’ll never know what life looked like when phones always before us, and while I can’t change that and am not totally sure it’s a bad thing, it makes my heart sink.
I want patience when my son comes outside with the plate of chocolate cake that he walked across the carpet. He’s smiling because he feels helpful and the cake was my idea in the first place. But all I can think about is that carpet and how he might have dropped it and how I might have had to clean it and how this would have been a nuisance. There he is, as eager to share joy as he is cake, and I throw cold water on it. “Don’t bring that across the carpet. I wish you would have let me get it.” His smile wilts and he says okay and hands it over with his tail tucked.
Why eat sweets and be bitter? Why defend carpet I don’t even like—carpet we’ll be happy to roll up and throw into the dumpster someday because it isn’t our style—and correct a boy for being a boy?
How did he see it? He sat eating chicken until I said out of nowhere he could have cake when he’s done. He gasped; it made his night. His face beamed. And then an idea: I’ll go get the cake so we can be ready. I’ll be the big boy Dad’s always telling me to be when I’m whining about something. Dad will be excited if I help by bringing it out. He’ll feel less “stressed.” He’ll tell me I’m a good helper and smile.
He opened the door and I scowled at him. I told him why it was wrong. I told him to do better next time.
I have plenty of excuses on deck. It wasn’t the first time I was tested today, and work was long, and I’m stressed about family, and the world is weighing in on me, and I’m not meeting my personal goals, and a million other trivial things I’ll have the whole day to fret about when he’s gone. How many times will we sit outside in the early autumn while he’s 5 and eat cake that he was excited to bring out on his own? Not twice. And the one time it happened, I corrected him, because that’s what good parents do, and his face fell. Then I wished he had dropped the cake and broken the plate and ground the icing into the fibers to make a stain that lasts forever if it meant I could take back that scowl.
Please don’t let my heavy brow be a stain on the carpet of your memories, son. Let’s go back. Try again. Carry that cake through the den and open the door and see. I’ll be smiling. I promise.
Maybe next time.
I wish I could parent like a grandparent because they know that love means letting things break sometimes. It means allowing too much sugar, saying yes all night even if they don’t deserve it, acting ignorant of some mischief.
It means remembering you won’t be around here much longer, and in a different way, neither will they.
In the spring, when pandemic wave one was beginning to rage and the fear of the unknown sat upon us all, I saw a robin on my fence. We looked at each other, her red breast shining against the far leaves in the neighbor’s yard, and she flew away.
A few days later I was surprised to see her in the grass, and I knew it was her by the pattern on her wings. She hopped around, stuck her beak in the soil, looked up at me. There was grace in her motion—politeness and gratitude. She seemed kind.
When I started seeing her daily I wondered why she liked our yard so much. Then, one afternoon, she flew up to a high bough on the crabapple tree and landed on a nest I then saw for the first time. A chorus of demand and thanksgiving erupted from the young beaks that drove her labor.
It all made sense now: She was a mother. She spent her day serving. This explained her innate tenderness and the sense that if she could speak she would say something friendly to me. I started talking to her to ease her caution.
The world around us closed to mitigate the spread of the virus; I stayed outside with my family to mitigate our cabin fever. We shared three meals a day at the picnic table, and every meal, we looked on as Mother Robin ran food to her own table. Our boy chattered about dinosaurs; the chicks shouted through the leaves.
One day I watched as a chick chirped and Mother Robin came in response. The chick stuck his tail feathers into the air while she caught his excrement in her beak, flew it away from the nest, and dropped it on the other side of the yard. It was unsettling, but I was impressed by the cleanliness and self-sacrifice.
It struck me: we parents in the house aren’t the only ones constantly feeding, constantly cleaning, constantly being called upon for more and more.
A few more robins appeared in the lawn, smaller and speckle-chested. Wherever they landed, they sat stunned. Flying is intimidating. They let us approach until we could reach out and touch them, but we never did, except for the time I used a glove to get the little one off the fence after he had perched there for more than 6 hours. It wasn’t 2 minutes before Mother Robin landed where the chick had been, food in her beak, throwing glances at me. This was the loudest she ever spoke to me, but still she was gentle. She found him seconds later.
And one day, they were gone.
The young she bore and nurtured and fretted over had flown away to face this world on their own, to escape the feral cats, and to compete with bully grackles for food. Mother Robin apparently had no reason to stay.
Mother Robin, would you believe that an ache came into my heart when you left? And I am a full grown man. It humiliates me to admit that—other men derive pleasure from slaughtering elk and bears for trophies—but it’s true. I miss the peace you brought, which was so out of proportion to your size. For all I know, you thought nothing of me, or maybe you thought I was a threat to avoid.
You don’t know the light and peace you brought to me in this tumultuous year, in a time when I needed it. Your presence showed me we will survive, even if it hurts, and even if we must strain move forward.
You showed me also that we are not alone in the humble toil of caring for offspring. In my duty to bear with the cry for more from those in my nest, I am blessed.
It was not below you to spend your days tending your home while other birds around you lived more adventurously. Hawks chased field mice through the swaying grains, swans drifted across lakes in romance, starlings inked the sky with jet black murmurations—you hopped about our half-dead bermuda, feeding crying babies.
You never complained or showed disdain for your lot. You searched and ran and fed and cleaned, and you looked at me, a menace, with light in your eyes.
I hope you stay warm this coming winter. I’ll be inside doing the same.
Apparently this has been famous for years and it has plenty of cloying images associated with it online that make my emotions wax cold, but the heart of it still golden. I didn’t know about it. Maybe you don’t either.
Be warned: if you are the parent of a young child, it might rip your heart out.
Father Forgets by W. Livingston Larned
Listen, son; I am saying this as you lie asleep, one little paw crumpled under your cheek and the blond curls sticky wet on your damp forehead. I have stolen into your room alone. Just a few minutes ago, as I sat reading my paper in the library, a stifling wave of remorse swept over me. Guiltily I came to your bedside.
There are things I was thinking, son: I had been cross to you. I scolded you as you were dressing for school because you gave your face merely a dab with a towel. I took you to task for not cleaning your shoes. I called out angrily when you threw some of your things on the floor.
At breakfast I found fault, too. You spilled things. You gulped down your food. You put your elbows on the table. You spread butter too thick on your bread. And as you started off to play and I made for my train, you turned and waved a hand and called, “Goodbye, Daddy!” and I frowned, and said in reply, “Hold your shoulders back!”
Then it began all over again in the late afternoon. As I came up the road, I spied you, down on your knees, playing marbles. There were holes in your stockings. I humiliated you before you boyfriends by marching you ahead of me to the house. Stockings were expensive – and if you had to buy them you would be more careful! Imagine that, son, from a father!
Do you remember, later, when I was reading in the library, how you came in timidly, with a sort of hurt look in your eyes? When I glanced up over my paper, impatient at the interruption, you hesitated at the door. “What is it you want?” I snapped. You said nothing, but ran across in one tempestuous plunge, and threw your arms around my neck and kissed me, and your small arms tightened with an affection that God had set blooming in your heart and which even neglect could not wither. And then you were gone, pattering up the stairs.
Well, son, it was shortly afterwards that my paper slipped from my hands and a terrible sickening fear came over me. What has habit been doing to me? The habit of finding fault, of reprimanding—this was my reward to you for being a boy. It was not that I did not love you; it was that I expected too much of youth. I was measuring you by the yardstick of my own years. And there was so much that was good and fine and true in your character. The little heart of you was as big as the dawn itself over the wide hills. This was shown by your spontaneous impulse to rush in and kiss me good night.
Nothing else matters tonight, son. I have come to your bedside in the darkness, and I have knelt there, ashamed! It is a feeble atonement; I know you would not understand these things if I told them to you during your waking hours. But tomorrow, I will be a real daddy! I will chum with you, and suffer when you suffer, and laugh when you laugh. I will bite my tongue when impatient words come. I will keep saying as if it were a ritual: “He is nothing but a boy—a little boy!”
I am afraid I have visualized you as a man. Yet as I see you now, son, crumpled and weary in your cot, I see that you are still a baby. Yesterday you were in your mother’s arms, your head on her shoulder. I have asked too much, too much.