Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Seeing our kids

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

I took my 13 year old to get a haircut yesterday. He'd turned into something resembling an unkempt lion lately (as opposed to the kempt ones, I guess). Seriously. You see the picture. Tell me I'm exaggerating. I could barely stand looking at him, love him though I do. I just kept thinking, "This is wrong. He looks awful. My kids shouldn't look awful. They should look like I care, like I'm paying attention, like they belong to me!"

Sigh. I felt like my father.

The summer after I got married, my husband and I went to Utah to visit my brother and sister. We met up with my parents and traveled with them for 10 days. I got to do all the touristy things I never did while I was in college there and without a car, and it was a great trip. Along with Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park and the Alpine Loop, I will always remember how my father couldn't look at my brother.

Sean had grown his hair long--not quite shoulder length but long enough to stand out in Utah. He had a goatee as well and was working on learning Hootie and the Blowfish songs on his guitar. It was some kind of reckless-musician stage, I guess, and the chance to stand out in an otherwise monotone culture. I wasn't crazy about the hair, and my father really wasn't crazy about it. In fact, he couldn't look at Sean. At all. So he resorted to bribing. He knew Sean wanted a nice cowboy hat (I'm not sure how the accessory fit with the style, but no one asked me), so he told him he'd buy him one . . . IF Sean cut his hair.

So Sean did. And Dad, on seeing him the next day--on actually looking at him--grinned his dimply-est grin, threw his arms open, and said, "My son!" Then he bought him that hat.

I've been thinking about that moment and about how hard it is for parents to not just see their kids grow up and to lose control over such minor things as when those kids get haircuts, but to not recognize them anymore because they can't see themselves in their children.

When Simon was little, he looked just like I did when I was his age. Up until he was three, our pictures were almost impossible to tell apart. And I loved that because when you become a parent, you lose a little (or a lot) of your previous identity. After Simon was born, it was months before I could have a normal conversation with anyone again. Forget normal: I didn't even know how to have an abnormal one. I felt like I'd become suddenly mute and had no idea how to be a mom, no idea how to take on that role and claim or reclaim anything resembling a personality. It was like I had to start from scratch, and those months, while wonderful in the glow that comes with a first child, were also horribly uncomfortable for me. I was lost.

Of course, I "came back." But I came back different. I came back as someone who had to empty herself out literally and figuratively so I could make room for this fat little baby and all the challenges and joys he would bring into my life--challenges and joys I'd previously been unable to fathom.

So to be told, "Wow! He looks just like you!" was a relief. "Phew. Okay. Oh, thank goodness. I'm still here. See! His eyes? His curls? Mine." And then I could more fully pour myself into my new role because I recognized this little boy. He wasn't just a part of me: he was me.

With each of my other children, I quickly learned to find myself in them as well. Owen has my round face. Emma has my smile. Ivan has my nose. And those are just the physical characteristics I see. I recognize my personality traits in them as well, some of which I'll have to eventually apologize for.

Halfway through the cruise we took last week, one of the men at our dinner table pointed to Simon and then Ron and said, "Boy, does he look like his father." I kept my smile pasted on and nodded. "Really? You think?" But it was like a punch to my gut. I wanted to say, "No! He looks like me! Here, let me show you the pictures."

But he doesn't so much anymore. He's a good four inches taller. His feet are a man's size 11 to my women's size 7. His face is becoming broader. And his hair . . . It's long, blond, and curly to my short, straight, and red. Even after yesterday's haircut, it's still long--kempt now, but long.

I still throw my arms open and say, "My son!" every time I see him, although I do it silently so I won't embarrass him much more than I already do. And I look really hard--when I can see his eyes--to make sure I'm still in there somewhere.

But I know, more importantly, I also need to see him.

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