The cries pierce my sleep. I wait it out a few moments and listen to determine if they are the cries of a momentary disturbance or if they are the cries of nighttime need. I walk to the room and rub his back. His arm reaches around to touch mine. Finding my hand, he wraps his fingers around mine. The cries cease and in the silence, he holds on and finds his calm again.
Eight months old, I am still his refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. One of the greatest privileges of parenthood is getting to be the peace my little one needs – to be the arms that make everything alright. During the early months when the needs are concrete and specific (food, diaper, sleep), parenthood means being the one to anticipate, notice, and satisfy.
When the oldest wakes now, I venture down to his room the same I did when he was young. Now, though, there are some night terrors where I struggle to break him out of the crying. I hold him close in his little bed and try to whisper those words, ancient and sacred, “Do not fear, I am here with you.”
And yet the words and my presence do not hold the magic power they once did. Right before my eyes, my oldest is growing up. The chubby cheeks are dissipating and his physique is more “boy” than toddler. As his vocabulary grows, he is becoming more and more aware of his surrounding. He is beginning to taste the Great Sadness – the abandonment when Mommy has to go to work, the loneliness when his best friend moves to another daycare, the emptiness when the Christmas decorations are packed away for another year. He is wading into the reality of Life as we know it – that Mommy cannot take away the Great Sadness because Mommy lives within its confines as well.
For years, I was enough. The moments when I was a shield protecting him from the world built up the notion that I have the capacity as a parent to calm every storm and keep the Great Sadness at bay. That foundational idea is what fuels the thousands upon thousands of sites, blogs, books, and talk suggesting there is a way to create a perfect (sadness-free) life for your child. But when the Great Sadness (inevitably) defies the attempts at perfect parenting, we are left feeling both responsible and helpless… fueling the thousands of parenting self-esteem blogs to step in and comfort the blow.
In an attempt to be love-made-flesh for my sons, I will still try to be their refuge and strength – keeping an eye on the waves ahead of us. But I must also grapple with the fact that these days, I need to be teaching my son how to build the boat and step into it. I will take the oars and do my best to show him how to stay afloat – to stay whole and at peace in the midst of the Great Sadness. And as we row, whatever our lot, I will teach him the song that my beloved community taught me…so that we may sing together over the crashing of the waves, “It is well, it is well with my soul.”