I baby Austin.
I’m sure that doesn’t come as some huge surprise, a shocking admission of illicit behavior or anything. I mean, who wouldn’t, right? There is a preciousness about him, a sacredness that makes me want to hold him and cuddle him and coddle him. And he is the consumate mama’s boy, absolutely choosing me over all others at all times. So he asks to be held and I hold him, he beckons and I come, he cries and I’m immediately there to make right whatever is wrong.
But this is not really doing either of us any favors. He has a learned helplessness that only rears its ugly head with me and Mark. He’s great with babysitters, great with his grandparents — independent and funny, easy-going and easy. But with us, he’s helpless and needy, clingy and babyish. Not all the time or anything; he is still the confident and active little boy I’ve often described. But there is a part of him that we thought he’d outgrow which instead is becoming more and more deeply ingrained in his personality.
It’s hard to know which came first — is this an actual outgrowth of all he’s been through? Pain and discomfort, separation from his parents at his scariest moments? Or have we caused it, by hovering over him, by willingly and happily giving in to his every whim? Or might it just be the way it would have always been, cancerous background or not? Of course, we’ll never know the answers to those questions. But I do know that he craves my physical presence; he wants to be touching me, holding me, whenever I’m near him. He sometimes asks to hold my hand in the car, which sounds sort of sweet but certainly isn’t safe as I reach back awkwardly to stick one hand in his while driving with the other.
I’ve realized that I am good at letting him take physical risks. I let him climb the play structures without my hand at his back; I let him race headlong down the steep part of the yard, which often ends in skinned knees. I pride myself in allowing this degree of recklessness. He falls, cries and gets back up again, as resilient as ever.
But I do not let him take emotional risks. I don’t want him to have to tough it out when he’s scared or afraid. I think a lot of parents of my generation are the same way; we don’t want our kids to feel alone or abandoned when they need us most. It is, after all, our job to protect and comfort them. But I also know that he will never gain any emotional resiliency if I don’t let him, or force him, to find ways to protect and comfort himself.
I trace a lot of this back to his treatment days when I was still nursing him. I nursed him because, not only was it the only nutritious thing he could keep down in the three days following each Friday’s chemo session, but also because it was the best way to soothe and quiet him during scary and painful medical procedures. He literally drew strength, emotional and physical, from my very body. And sometimes now, I feel as if he is doing the same thing — that he is sucking me dry, draining me emotionally and physically with his need, and with my inability to not jump when that need is expressed.
All of this has been heightened by my time here in Chautauqua, as it is only I he clings to and only I who can provide the comfort he requests. My mom has been watching us and trying to figure out how to help and how to help me guide him to greater independence. She pointed out that I often try to encourage him by assuring him that I’m present. “It’s okay, Austin, mommy is right here. I’m right next to you, you’re safe.” She suggested that instead I try to empower him to feel good and safe and okay with himself, as in, “It’s okay, Austin. You’re doing great on your own. You can do this.” So this is what I’m now trying to do, give him the power to comfort and protect himself.
I know many of you have backgrounds in child psychology and social work and related fields and so I welcome any bits of wisdom or insight you might throw my way on this.
On a lighter note, those of you who laughed at the photos of us on our Jamaican pony adventure, will appreciate the fact that I took the boys on a drive through the countryside today, during which we stopped outside many a farm fence to get out of the car and watch the horses and cows, sheep and donkeys. You should have seen the shocked delight on Austin’s face when we actually heard a rooster crow. “Daaaht cool,” he said in his deep and breathy Dietrich voice. After we commented on how beautiful it was, hill after rolling hill of green, I asked Braedan if he thought he might like to live out here and without missing a beat he said, “Nope.”
You can take the boys out of the Heights, but you can’t take the Heights . . . well, you know.