It’s just me and my five-year-old this week and there is an almost awkwardness to the absence of the rest of our household. It feels like a room that’s been removed of its furniture. Simpler but strange.
There is a mental binary I use to categorize people, my own personal astrology, which groups people into potatoes and forks. I am a potato and my son is a fork. I feel this tension when we are together, when there are no other potatoes or forks around to diffuse things. What is the fork going to do but stab, and who is the fork going to stab but me.
I’m not rending my garments over it but I have had some moments this school year of wondering where in the hell I got off deciding I was equipped to parent. My son needed things I couldn’t give him because of our circumstances, but he also needed things that I could give him but was too tired to give him. Or I just didn’t feel like giving him. He is a fork, he would ask directly for what he needed, the way I taught him, the way he is naturally inclined to do anyway. And I would say, Buddy I just can’t right now.
School has been a black box of mystery this year. The bus picks him up and brings him home and I don’t go in the classroom and learn the faces of his peers and I never have passing conversations with his teacher where I glean intel. He thankfully doesn’t have homework (can you imagine) so the information I have about kindergarten is what he chooses to tell me.
Sometimes I am able to ask things in a way that produces information, but usually I sort of zone out and ask him “how was school?” over and over again until he tells me I’ve already asked him that. I am embarrassed and reminded of the spaced-out half-considered questions adults used to ask me. If I am more focused, I can remember to ask him if he played with certain friends. Sometimes he will unknowingly drop a scrap of gossip about the home life of one of his friends and I will savor it like a forest animal licking morning dew from the leaves.
In case I am making our relationship sound strained or complex, it isn’t. Frankly, he is obsessed with me. He draws pictures of me, wraps his limbs around me, pets my hair. If he could sleep next to me every night, he would. He thinks I am strong and funny. He descends the school bus steps and shouts “Mommy!” as he runs to the porch. I note that the windows on the bus are all down and everyone can hear him. He doesn’t care at all. Sometimes to be a potato stabbed by a tiny beautiful fork is the most precious thing you can imagine, especially since you can imagine how soon it will cease.
I don’t see much of myself in him. I see a lot of his dad in him, even though his dad is a potato like me. His enthusiasm, his high energy, his stubbornness. Yesterday from the shared quiet of him watching TV and me sitting beside him looking at my phone, he offered that he didn’t do any work on his insect model because he didn’t know how to get started. There were too many pieces. He was behind.
Last week, he had his first homework assignment of his life. He had to create an “outline” for his insect life cycle project, which if you are a kindergartener means answering four questions by having your parent look up the answers online. I synthesized the life cycle questions into age-appropriate sentences and let Desi spell them out himself. His outline looked shitty, because a five-year-old did it, which is how it should be.
Desi had picked a mayfly for his insect because they only live for one day. He is drawn to the macabre, maybe not so unlike his mom after all. He was asked to bring some recycled materials from home to make his insect in class, but I assumed the teachers would provide some structure for this. It is actually a lot to ask of a group of five- and six-year-olds to make a specific sculpture from a pile of miscellaneous trash. Desi stalled out. He didn’t know how to start. Everyone set to work around him and he panicked. Unbearable for a fork.
I am no stranger to the impossibility of task initiation. Nick and I have no formal diagnoses but our minds are unruly. I think of my brain as a dog whose owner is asked politely to leave obedience school because the dog is hopeless and is causing problems for the other dogs. Then, Nick and I took our bad brains and created a new brain from busted parts, a chop shop situation. All children are imaginative and distractible (right?) so I had never really thought about my son’s personality as pathology. I pinned the thought to consider later, and told him I had an idea.
Together we made a plan for his mayfly model. I broke down the mayfly into all of its parts and Desi decided which materials would be best suited for each part. He drew a map of sorts, indecipherable to anyone but him, and I folded it into his backpack this morning so he can work alongside his classmates today with more confidence.
I am writing this now to avoid initiating a task for my actual job, because I am in an eternal marriage with my bad brain. If I couldn’t give him a more durable brain for the world we live in, I am glad that I can share with him some ways I have found to cope. And when I see my own struggles reflected back to me through a child, it seems unkind and even outrageous to call mine or anyone’s brain “bad.”
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