Sometimes it seems like my house is carpeted in eggshells. Artistic temperaments galore means emotions run high, opinions are fiercely defended, personal space is like a forbidden treasure. Each of my children has a distinct personality, but all of them are marked by a decided bend towards extreme sensitivity. Even Alice, the only person I have ever met who laughs after she sneezes, has taken to sobbing after a scolding and asking "Why don't you like me anymore, Mommy?"
I used to find this irritating. It's hard to live with a bunch of people who act like...children. It's easy to feel manipulated, and with all my adult knowledge of the world at large bouncing around in my skull it can be hard to shrink my consciousness down to appreciate the grievances of a small child with a limited world view. But I must. Because once upon a time, I was a fragile ego-ed tiny person with a volatile sense of right and wrong, who walked around full of gaping wounds that no demands of "toughen up" could ever heal. Like physical wounds, they could only heal with balm and time.
I recently realized that nearly every single thing I criticize my children for is something they directly inherited from me (not "learned from.") This deep sensitivity cannot be disciplined out, or shamed out...it is the product of a heart that beats,Â a brain that thinks, and a soul that searches... deeply. It is a gift that I gave my children, not a character flaw. I have been working on reminding myself of that whenever I bristle at their demands, their heartbreaks, their ire when things are not as they should. The fact that I bristle should be evidence enough that this constant reactionary state is something they come by with the most brutal of honesty.
I learned that lesson again today with my five year old son. While he is, for the most part, a practical thinker, he also has a tendency towards fogginess. He is so deep in thought that he frequently bumps into things. His shirt is always backwards, except for the day he got his head stuck because he tried to stick it in his SLEEVE. "You've got to THINK, Son!" is aÂ frequent admonishment...coming from a mother whose own legs are bruised from ramming them into the train table and who has lost her wedding ring for approximately the 400th time in the last nine years.
When you tell the boy to think, he rapidly descends into a dark, desperate place. A depressed kindergartner is an unsettling sight. He weeps. He wants to live in garbage. He wants to die. It used to make me angry. Because nothing is more disturbing that seeing all your darkness in the mirror. This sensitive boy does not need me to tell him that he messed up. He knows it better than I ever could. He needs me, in all gentleness, to direct him back towards the sunshine. To give him a hug. To brush his tears away.
We were tested again this Sunday when there was a big dinner at church to celebrate the coming our our new pastoral family, The Doningers. There was a huge sheet cake from Donut Bank for dessert, half chocolate, half vanilla, trimmed in blue icing, Linus's favorite color. The children alternated taking bites of food and playing outside. When it was time to go, I was making my goodbyes while Hugh was buckling the kids up in an effort to hurry me along. When I reached the car I heard the familiar sound of piteous sobbing. It seems that Linus had asked for a piece of cake, and Daddy, not a sweet-eater, had offered him half of his rather large slice of vanilla. Later, just as Daddy was moving people at the door Linus asked if he could please have a piece of chocolate, and Daddy agreed but in the hustle and bustle it slipped his mind until we were all out in the car driving away. I had seen the cake on the way out and there was no chocolate left.
To an adult, to weep over a lost slice of cake seems preposterous. My friend Liz always called bakery birthday cake "ghetto cake" in self-deprecating humor. She loved it, but she knew it was nothing to write home about.Â I could build an entire house out ofÂ the shortening I have consumed from all the "occasion" cake I have eaten in my life. I tried to tell my sweet boy "There will always be cake." But I knew, to a five year old, a GIGANTIC cake with BLUE ICING was a never-to-be-repeated wonder of the world.Â "I want THAT cake," he cried.. He had idealized that cake, and no other cake would do.
There was a time when I would have been angry. How stupid this would look to a child in Ethiopia? Some fat, spoiled, rich American kid whining about the wrong cake? But I am carrying 32 years of life experience into that assessment plus thousands of voices from every media outlet, every adult I ever knew as a child, every parenting book I have ever read...they are all talking over each other in my head. He has had five short years and I am asking him to assess his behavior based on what I know.
Instead, we hugged him. We told him we were sorry that there was a miss-communication. I did gently remind him about the other children in the world who had so little compared to he, and that I hoped he could think of them when the tears had ceased to flow.Â I told him he could lay down with me and watch a movie. The tears eventually went away, and no more cake was mentioned.
When I got up from my nap I went downstairs and found on the kitchen table a small plate wrapped in foil. I had forgotten that this was not the first cake brou-ha-ha that the McKinney's had experienced that day. Miss Alice had also come undone because a grownup had given her a slice of vanilla, which she ate, but what she really wanted was chocolate. I cut her a sliver, and being three years old, she threw a three year old fit, because she wanted a BIG PIECE. I was content to ignore her but my mother struck a deal. If she ate the sliver of chocolate cake, Grandma would cut her a larger slice of chocolate for tomorrow.
I called to Alice and asked if she would mind sharing this prize chocolate cake with Linus. At first she objected, but I reminded her how badly he had wanted to try it. She has a compassionate heart and quickly ran to tell her brother the amazing news. There was CAKE! Chocolate cake! They could split it!
Before I handed the cake to Linus I bent down to his eye-level and told him my opinion of the whole matter. "The Lord heard your cry for cake before you even made it, and arranged for this cake to come to our home. I want you to remember that, and thank him. He cares for us, and provides for us. And I want you to be grateful that you live in a place where you can have a good lunch, and cake for dessert."
I have eaten hundreds of slices of bakery cake. But this one I will remember. This one...was special.