Connecting with Isaac through Maya Angelou

I’ve been reading Maya Angelou’s autobiographies. I’m sorry to admit I didn’t pick them up until she’d died.

This morning over breakfast, Isaac and I had a rare opportunity to talk alone. John is traveling for work, and Isaac’s camp doesn’t start until 8:45, so we had some unexpected and welcomed leisure to chat.

I told him I’d been reading the stories of a woman who had a son when she was only 16 years old. Back then, women didn’t have as many options: she had to put him in 24-hour/day care and see him only one day a week for much of his young life. Then, when he was about Isaac’s age, he stayed with his grandmother while Maya traveled as a dancer and singer with the European tour of Porgy and Bess, a welcomed career gem that gave her the chance to find her profession and the ability to support her child. She was gone for several months, and they both missed each other terribly. She came home early because her son was not doing well, and her family could no longer care for him. When they reunited, he clung to her and was afraid she would leave him again.

Isaac asked if I would ever go away like that. I told him I would not.

I told him that when I was pregnant with him, I worked very hard to get work that I could do when he slept and, later, use only minimal childcare. I didn’t want to spend 10 hours/day between travel to-and-from work, plus work itself. I wanted to be with him. I was older when I had him, and I had some options open to me that Maya did not.

He closed his eyes. Tears welled up under his eyelashes, puddles that sat there as he spoke.

“I don’t like going to school. I miss being with you,” he said, eyes still closed.

I asked him if he wanted a hug. He nodded, tears miraculously staying put under his inward gaze.

I knelt beside him and held him.

I told him I felt the same way when I was his age. I actually stayed home from school to be with my mom, but I got in trouble. The truant officer came to our house. I told him that parents who don’t send their children to school can be arrested and go to jail. Then we really wouldn’t see each other. We both laughed. We shared a lingering hug before moving on with the day.

We drove to Junior Water Sports Camp, a five-minute ride down the road. He asked me if four-dimensional bubbles were actually black holes. I didn’t know. He thought that was a good question for his Aunt Catherine, who has a PhD and studied black holes.

When I dropped him off, he ran off with hardly a backward glance. We were both sated from our time of connecting over Maya Angelou.

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Authenticity in the wilderness

For Isaac’s first 16 months of life, we rented space from friends and lived with them. 

Amy and Rick had a 2-year-old daughter, Molly, and we shared some childcare (hugely helpful when the baby is sleeping and mom needs a walk, or when the baby is sick, and mom needs to run to the store), and household expenses and responsibilities. We all benefited from the arrangement.

I had yet to go through the “terrible twos” with Isaac, but I watched keenly to see how they parented in the thick of a difficult time. I took mental notes on how to respond to a child having a tantrum. I hadn’t seen it modeled before, or if I had, I wasn’t paying attention. I needed desperately to see it up close and personal, so that I wouldn’t do to Isaac what my mother had done to me as a child: scream, hit, and generally lose it.

One day, on our way out the door together, Amy and I watched as Molly threw herself on the floor, protesting the horrible fact that we were, um, going outside. I felt my own tension rise. We just wanted to leavefor Pete’s sake. Amy appeared calm. Serene, even. 

And then she spoke to me out of the side of her mouth, sotto voce, “I’m thinking things I can’t say right now.”

I felt a huge burden rise off my shoulders. Even Amy, who is so calm and kind to her unreasonable daughter, feels the tension. She just doesn’t act on it.

It was an aha moment. I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t alone in my anger and frustration. I wasn’t a bad parent because I had ugly thoughts that were unspeakable to my child. I could still be a loving parent and not feel good on the inside.

Amy’s frank and authentic sharing over her own inner state made single parenting a lighter load that day.

When we’re in tough times, the last thing we need to hear is that our feelings aren’t valid. The last thing we need to here is, “Oh, just have a more positive attitude.”

We need to hear that someone else has been there, felt the blisters on their feet from the long trail, felt the sore muscles from the backpack. They may be walking gracefully and appear to have it all together, but when they turn back and say, “Damn. This is one hell of a trail, isn’t it?” we are validated. We are not alone. Sometimes that’s all we need to get through a rough patch.

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