I had to look inside myself, which was kind of like looking into my high school locker: moldy half-eaten sandwich, a few loose Starburst candies, heaps of notebooks and burrito-stained gym clothes obscuring the few things of value. Sure, there’s a book of Sylvia Plath poems and a valid bus pass, but good luck finding them while avoiding that festering tuna salad from yesteryear.
When I looked inside myself, it took a second to clear out the debris. Also, I usually forget the combination to the stupid lock.
All of this inner turmoil was catalyzed by one simple moment, just picking up my 2-year-old from day care. He went to put on his shoes and socks, struggled mightily, finally succeeded, after which he looked at me, paused for a beat and started bawling. He lunged at me for a hug and I knelt down to look him in the eye.
“I’m scared,” he said, sobbing. Me, too, dude. If I wanted to see someone overreact to one of life’s challenges, I could just look in a mirror.
My child, facing a difficult task, got through it only to melt down completely. It’s happening, I thought. This kid needs chewable Xanax.
Hoping his day care teacher didn’t notice, but knowing she had, I grabbed his coat and hustled him out of there.
Driving home, I was baffled. I mean, you would think irrational crying jags related to under-achieving would be right up my dark alley, but this one had me stumped. I knew he put on his socks and shoes after naptime every single day, but I was uncharacteristically early that day, and I happened to be there. Had I thrown off his game? Did he have performance anxiety doing this important task in front of Mom? Have I already passed along some deep, depressing cultural pressure to earn love through accomplishment?
The day after the shoe debacle, the day care lady snagged me as I turned to exit.
“We have to talk about what happened with the shoes,” she whispered gently. I knew she was right.
According to her, the problem wasn’t in his skill level, but in his confidence. “You need to tell him that you know he can do it. He doesn’t think you believe in him. You don’t trust him, so he doesn’t trust himself.”
That’s when I looked into the rusty old locker of my soul and realized; she is right. I wanted to think it was some Montessori mumbo-jumbo, but I knew it was the truth.
When I saw his little hands struggling with the heels of his tiny socks, it looked so impossible, getting them up, closing the Velcro on his sneakers, the whole thing just looked too hard, and I was pretty sure I was going to have to jump in and help him. The truth is, I didn’t think he could do it, and he sensed that, and he got scared and wept.
“But, you won’t pass the bar,” said my mom to my brother, moments after he announced he would be applying to law school.
He passed the bar on the first try and has been a lawyer for years, but you see how this runs in my family, runs like a kid with inside-out socks.
Since the day care talking-to, I have kept a watchful eye on myself. I convince myself to believe he can hold onto the swing chains without falling, no matter how high I push him. I convince myself that I believe he can spear pieces of broccoli with his fork, or hang up his coat, or turn pages of a book.
Fear of those you love failing isn’t mean or belittling or dismissive; it’s a protective mechanism. That doesn’t make it right. If I don’t have confidence in the little things now, I could project the idea that I don’t trust him to tackle big things later. So, I guess I have to trust myself to at least fake trusting him. Locker closed.
Teresa Strasser is a Los Angeles Press Club and Emmy Award-winning writer and the author of “Exploiting My Baby: Because It’s Exploiting Me”( Penguin). She blogs at ExploitingMyBaby.com.