When I picked Charlie up from day care a couple of days ago, the kids were out on the playground. He and two particular friends can usually be found raising a low-grade preschool kind of hell, and that day was no exception; the three of them were rocketing around in the snow brandishing impotent bendy twigs. "They're not allowed to run with sticks," a teacher explained, "but we didn't think those qualified."
They did qualify, however, as mighty badass weapons in the kids' imagination. (The effect was spoiled only a little by the borrowed girls' purple snow pants Charlie was wearing, his own having been forgotten at home. It was spoiled much more by the fact that he hadn't bothered to slip his arms through the straps, so that the pants billowed around his ankles, hobbling his maneuvers considerably.) Turns out they were playing army. What that means, I'm sure Charlie and his friends don't truly know. But they knew enough to point their sad little branches at each other and get all shouty about it. I'll admit it: it was actually kind of cute, this fumbling aggression, in a "he thinks he's people" sort of way. But we don't use weapons, I reminded him, and we don't even pretend to hurt other people. "But what about bad guys?" Charlie asked in an aggrieved tone, as if I had just demanded that violent criminals be allowed to roam free, gaily marauding their way across the countryside, unhindered by a four-year-old poking them tentatively with three inches of flexing newborn pine. But while I am soft on crime, I'm notoriously tough on refusal-to-drop-stick-as-directed. I confiscated his weapon, hustled him along, and tried not to laugh as he told his friends sadly, "This army has to go home now with its parent." Stand down, Corporal Greenwood. Stand down.
All well and good for Charlie to want to participate in this paramilitary youth movement, but it baffles me. Military service entails two of the things I most abhor: getting up early in the morning and being shouted at. I'm pretty sure if Charlie ever tries to enlist, they'll run a blood test, examine his DNA, and find my laziness and lack of respect for authority so entangled in every strand that they'll laugh him out of the recruitment center. Or maybe tell him to try the Coast Guard.
Speaking of being shouted at, I gave Charlie a time-out a few evenings ago. He'd stalled and protested and argued about washing his hands before supper, which, I mean, kid, what the hell? We do it dozens of times a day. "You'll never make me wash my hands!" he declared, refusing to be led over to the sink. And, hey, if this is the colorful plastic stepstool you want to die on, fine. "No supper until you do," I told him in a tone of polite regret.
And then the shouting. At...at me! A barrage of what would have been invective if the poor kid had known any. (Note to self: Have mercy. Teach the child a darn or two.) Feeling fairly zero-tolerance about the whole hollering-at-adults thing, I delivered a harsh and unforgiving justice in the form of a time out, three minutes' hard time to be served on the back stairs.
The worst part for Charlie was that Paul and I started eating without him. He could see us from where he sat, and it drove him bats. I am trying very hard to raise a polite child: he may end up an unregenerate stick-poker, but by God, he will be courteous in the stabbing. So it amuses me to think that he was at least as offended by the rudeness as he was by the ostracism. "You never start eating until everyone is at the table and ready to begin," he raged, a young Emily Pissed-Off Post. I have to remember this, I thought, next time I'm flailing around for consequences. Next time, if I really want to make him crazy, I'll have him compose a handwritten invitation to some function or other. And then I won't acknowledge it. No, I know, even worse: I'll tell him maybe.
And! Speaking of getting up early in the morning! Which we were not, really! But I wanted to talk about babies. A baby. Ben specifically. Now, babies in general, however enchating they may be, are also an enormous pain in the ass. (I know, stop the goddamned presses: LOCAL MOTHER DISCOVERS BABIES INCONVENIENT, CUTE.) But as babies go — as wake-you-up-cry-a-lot-oh-God-please-stop-its go — Ben is easy. While he is not yet sleeping through the night, he usually naps nicely during the day. He's smiley, playful, and easygoing. He visibly enjoys things: baths, meals, seeing the cat, being taken out in the cold, lunging unexpectedly for my coffee mug. And he's gotten very good at a little game I like to call There's Something on Your Head, in which someone puts something on his head and he utterly fails to notice it. Easy.
Ben's babyhood is making me a little bit wistful about Charlie's. I have a keener sympathy now for the baby Charlie was now that I see how pleasant infant life can be, socks on head notwithstanding. Charlie was miserable for the first several months with colic and reflux, sick and sad, tended by anxious parents who didn't know how to help him. I wish he could have had it easy, too.
And! Speaking of didn't have it easy! Charlie has known for some time now that his birth was somewhat irregular. We've taken him by the hospital in Norwalk where he was born. We've shown him some pictures of his NICU days, the ones where he's sporting a simple feeding tube or nasal canula — none of the hardcore arm-board bili-mask times, but the less upsetting ones. He knows he was born early, and that he spent more time in the hospital than most babies do, and I thought that was pretty much it. I thought we'd been matter-of-fact.
But then at breakfast the other day, we were talking about my coffee and how highly I prize its mild but noticeable stimulant effect, and how caffeine isn't generally good for children, because let's face it, nothing wonderful ever is. "But you were given some when you were a tiny baby," I allowed, and explained why he'd needed it.
"Because I'm special," he concluded, not smug like that sounds but sweetly. And, ohhhh, did I jump on that. You are special, I told him, but not because of that. You're special to us, just like every child is special to his or her parents, and there's no one exactly like you but we are each unique and marvelous, and blah blah blah until hello, Fred Rogers, you magnificent sweatered son of a bitch, now put down that sneaker and help meeeee.
I think — I hope! — I did enough to convince him that the circumstances of his birth weren't anything but an accident, and his recovery from same anything but the best, most random luck. But it made me wonder how other parents in similar situations handle it. Because while I do in many ways believe what I told him, there's a secret part of me that feels that he is special for it, even if only to me, in my awareness of how close he came to not-being, and my gratitude that he is. So how do you tell your kids their stories while keeping them from twigging? Because I'm pretty sure that "special" shit won't fly too high in the army. And probably not in the Coast Guard, either.