My little guy is going through something.
He’s been sad and clingier than usual and each morning during drop-off at preschool I have to pry his tiny little fingers off my legs while tears stream down his face. I know I am not supposed to, but I usually end up crying too. His explanations of what’s making him sad range from “Ethan hits me,” referring to his best friend at school, and “I don’t like the toys in my room,” to “I don’t want to go to space because I will miss you.”
First, I wanted to rule out the serious stuff. I talked to his teachers and they reassured me that there is no hitting or other serious conflicts between him and Ethan, other than the usual playground stuff. And in the mornings when Sam is sad, Ethan is the first to come over to give him a hug. I feel confident that he is safe at school and that his teachers would tell me otherwise.
My husband’s been traveling a lot so I am sure that’s a huge factor in how Sam feels — it’s a huge factor in how I feel. Combine that with the emotional turmoil of being four and whatever group dynamics are playing out with his group of friends and school, and I think that’s enough to make adults sad, let alone a little boy.
But I guess this is the first time or the first crisis when I feel at a loss when it comes to helping him through it. Until now when he was going through a growth-spurt or teething, the solutions seemed obvious — more naps, more activity, a little Advil here and there. But this is serious business, the emotions raw and tangible and I am in constant fear that this is the exact moment that I mess him up for life.
Sam is a talker, so we talk about what is going on — when Dada is coming and going, how long he’ll be gone, what fun stuff we’ll do when he gets back. We talk about what it’s like to miss someone. We talk about work and why Dada has to travel for work. We talk about how I am definitely not going anywhere in the near future. We talk about his friends, his teachers, sharing, telling a friend when an action is upsetting. We talk, talk, talk.
Then we cuddle. I let him sleep with me in bed while by husband is away and during afternoon naps he falls asleep on me, his sweaty little head nestled on my breasts, his hands clinging to my hair. We read together. I make him his favorite lemonade with honey and let him eat gummy snacks after dinner. We play in the leaves and listen to cheesy pop music in the car while he plays air guitar. We visit his grandparents often. We make up stories about animals that live in our back yard.
And yet I feel like what I am doing is not enough. That I am not enough. Whatever I am doing to help seems to serve only to cover up the emotions deep within, not solve them. But can I even do that for him? I mean, whatever it is that we do at home in the evening, during the day Sam has to go out into the big world and deal with things on his own. I can’t be there for him all the time. He has to learn to stand up for himself on the playground. He has to learn what it’s like to be excluded and how to deal with it. He has to learn how to resolve conflicts, how to find new friends, how to ignore the unpleasant ones. He has to learn about work and responsibility, about missing someone you love, about adjusting to the coming and going of daily life. I know that all of these are important life lessons, but it breaks my heart that he has to learn them.
It seems too soon.
I’ve been trying to think about how I deal with stress and I realized that what he misses are experience and perspective — again, not something I can provide for him. Sure, I comfort myself with chocolate and wine when I am stressed (that’s grown-up for lemonade and gummy snacks), but I also know that eventually whatever is going on will pass. I know that getting up every morning, putting one foot in front of the other, does help time move along. But how do I teach that to him? When I tell him that the trips will end, that each day at preschool will fly by and we’ll get to spend a three-day weekend together, does he believe me? What proof can I give him that this really is how it works?
My husband thinks that I should be firmer, more strict — Sam is a smart boy and knows that his tears reduce me to tears. But it’s not like he gets whatever he wants when he cries — he still has to go to school, still has to brush his teeth, take a bath, and do whatever else he is supposed to do. And be firmer how? Tell him not to cry? Punish him for being sad? What will that do? None of this is his fault.
I know that this is just a rough patch, that just like with everything else when it comes to kids, this too shall pass. (See, I told you!) I decided that I don’t mind being labeled a “softie” and I don’t mind letting Sam’s tears influence my actions. If an extra cuddle or a night in my bed make him feel just a little bit better, if having those comforts help ground him even for just an hour, who am I to deny him?