Act I, sc i
[morning, in the toddler’s bedroom]
Me: Ok, let’s get you dressed, so we can run out to the fish store.
4 year old: Which fish store?
Me: The dinner fish store, where we can get dinner.
4 year old: Oh, so the dead fish store.
When we were house hunting, one of the things that attracted me to the neighborhood where we now live was a pond around the corner from our house. Week after week, we’d drive by with the realtor, and there’d be a gaggle of kids with fishing gear in a constant state of motion. They’d be standing on benches and picnic tables, baiting hooks, casting, untangling lines from low branches, or running to see a catch, at the ready to help cut bait or measure a fish. I remember thinking how much my son, in second grade at the time, would love this, imagining a bucolic childhood where he’d be able to meet his friends by the water and drop a line whenever he wanted. Of course, what we imagine for our children often differs from reality, a perennial truth that — call me a slow learner — never ceases to surprise me.
After spending the last four years cajoling my twelve year old son to get outside, go to the pond, bring a fishing pole, see who’s around — and years of him refusing — he went. Just like that, one recent Sunday morning, he got up, grabbed his fishing rod and some bait and took off for the pond. He didn’t have a plan to meet anyone, he just went. And within an hour, I got a text with a picture of a 15 inch smallmouth bass and the message “so happy” (always a man of few written words; but I suppose it’s hard to reel and text your mother). Another hour passed and I got another text with a picture of a catfish with the text “13 inches.”
I texted back, “Who are you fishing with?”
There were other kids at the pond but he didn’t know them, yet they helped each other get the hooks out and, in this case, steady the fish for pictures.
Parenting often feels like a game of three card monte and I am neither swift nor good at card games. Like some innocent, unsuspecting rube, every time I feel like I’m following the social needs and emotional development of my children, there’s a sleight of hand, cards are shuffled and someone ends up in tears (more often than not, it’s me). For years, I’ve worried for them differently at different times. I hope one makes friends, one sees their true friends and one, well, I just hope he doesn’t drop the f-bomb in preschool. The older two want space, push for R-rated movies and explicit music — the 4 year old just wants a grappling hook. My protests are met with eye rolls and swipes of the iPhone illustrating my prudishness; everyone else is allowed, look at Instagram, this is what we need to do to be like our peers. Just when I think I’ve listened and talked and compromised, the desires change, the stakes seem to get higher, and the cards are shuffled once again. I’m left, mouth agape, looking for my original card, drained of emotion (and often money).
It’s all about fitting in, of course, and being accepted: the clothes, the games, the technology, the “likes” on social media. I know, because at 41, these are, in many ways, the same things I seek for myself. Sometimes I think I still ascribe to the philosophical tenet of middle school: acceptance therefore happiness. And, other than the toddler who dresses himself and pretends to be a T-Rex in Trader Joe’s, who doesn’t want to fit in? I want my children to have friends, to feel protected, to grow and expand and even test their limits (well, maybe not too much). But, seeing the fish pictures made me realize what I really want is for them to like their own company.
Apart from my meddling, that’s what my son was doing that day. Amazingly, despite the fact that he had pictures of his catch, not one photo was posted to Instagram. Like all fishermen before him, he was going to rely on the art of the retelling. He didn’t need “likes,” he had a great story.
A few days ago, he was back at the pond, this time with a group of his friends. Despite the fact that this was the kind of thing I’d wanted for him all those times I’d encouraged him to go, once again, I was left a little baffled by his behavior. The boys were living their own version of “Wild Kingdom”: standing at the water’s edge, throwing their catch toward a giant snapping turtle in the middle. Was this behavior normal? Disturbing? Gruesome? Harmless (unless you’re the fish)? Like most parenting things I worry about, I suppose it was a little bit of each.