Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Post Pajama-Day Stress Disorder

It was nearly time to leave for preschool, and Nick was still in his pajamas. I had made him a good breakfast---with fruit, always with fruit---and he was eating slowly, pouring syrup over his French toast, rubbing his fork around in it, like he had all the time in the world before we had to leave. I told him he had better hurry, that he still had to dress. He looked up at me over a dripping forkful and said it was pajama day.

Pajama Day
Now, you have to understand, I didn’t know Nick as well then as I do now. I knew little boys aren’t always paragons of veracity, not because they mean to do anything wrong, just because the truth doesn’t always fit into their plans, and they haven't yet figured out that in the long run they can get away with more if they tell the truth most of the time and save the tiny distortions (or whoppers, depending on your point of view) for really important escapades. I assumed he just didn’t want to hurry through breakfast or maybe thought it would be larky to go to preschool in his PJs. He was, after all, showing his theatrical tendencies by then.

Like any sensible dad, I made him dress and took him to preschool, a lovely little church school with teachers who all looked like the Virgin Mary. And Yea Verily, it was Pajama Day. All these little towheads running around in fuzzy bear slippers and nightshirts. To Nick’s credit (and this is the way he is to this day), he didn’t say “I told you so,” but I was so ashamed for doubting him, and for the prospect of his being subjected to the ignominy of being over-dressed (a particular shame of mine, having grown up in the very proper South before moving to L.A.), that I rushed home and got his pajamas for him.

I’ve never forgotten that day. No, more than that, I can still feel it. Ridiculous, isn’t it? And it’s not just that day. There was the time Chris had a bike accident on his way home from school. He was riding on the sidewalk and got hit when he crossed an intersection. He didn’t do anything wrong, but somehow I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was my fault. I was the one who’d suggested he use the sidewalk for safety. If I had told him to ride in the street, would the car have seen him? Would he have been safer?

Nick is the child who cured me of spanking. I am embarrassed to admit it, but I swatted my kids once in a while. Nick just wouldn’t put up with it. He was about four when he told me it was wrong to hit someone. The way he looked at me, and the moral clarity of what he said, was withering.

I still remember my mother coming after me with a belt and me jumping up and down like it was game of skip rope. She was the sweetest woman in the world, and I'm sure she didn't crack more than once or twice, when I no doubt richly deserved it, but when I grew up I used to tease her about it. After my gentle but firm scolding by Nick, I realized how cruel I had been to her, how much she must have hurt for that loss of patience in a lifetime of kindness. My grandfather said to me once that some days he lay in bed and regretted every mean thing he had ever done to his children.

There is something about being so completely responsible for a little life that is almost too heavy a burden to bear. Not in the bearing, but in the putting down. When you’re in the middle of the struggle, there’s little time for recrimination. There’s always a new day, a new set of decisions, a new chance to do your best. But when you lay the burden down, when they go off to college, say, you have time to think about it all, and that’s when the second-guessing creeps in. If only…

I’m having a light case of that now. Chris and Nick are just off to college and the aloneness is setting in. Meg and I are busy and happy, but there is no little boy to fix breakfast for; that part of my life, which was so much of it, seems far away. The memories are sharp and clear, but they don’t refresh as often. To be in that life, I have to be in the past, and for some reason it’s hard for me to go back there without wanting to have done it better. It was my job to keep them safe and help them be the best they could, and every failure, even the little ones, comes back to me in memory with the same gravity of a Jemima Puddle Duck dithering away from the nest while the fox eats her eggs.

There is hope, though. I no longer have those feelings about my first three children: Cord, Grant and Ashley. They’re all well into adulthood, in Cord’s and Grant’s cases with families of their own. It has been many years since the last of them went off to college, many years since they started making their own decisions about their lives. At first I wanted to help them decide what jobs to take, that sort of thing, but they wanted to make their own choices, and they did. So began the process of liberation, for both child and parent.

These days, when something bad happens to one of my grown children, I feel empathy, concern, but not guilt. It has been a long time since I thought about whether making them rake pine needles in the back yard was a form of torture banned by the Geneva Conventions, as Grant maintained. A long time since I wondered if my neglect was responsible for the death of their little black and white Dutch rabbit.

So now the waiting begins anew. I have only to be patient. As the years go on, Chris and Nick, strong young men off to make their way in the world, will free me from my melancholy by gently resisting my feeble attempts to guide them. Caring for them as if they were still children is a burden I would gladly take up again, but one I know I must set down and walk away from.


  1. :-(

    And this line is lovely:

    The memories are sharp and clear, but they don’t refresh as often.

  2. Wonderful! When I think of my own mistakes in raising my son, I remind myself that our children make mistakes too. It is human. And once they realize that even parents make mistakes, perhaps it is not so frightening when they make their own as adults.