These are the phrases I often say to you, and what they mean to me. You’re only four, so when you’re older you can tell me if any of this came through.
I love you no matter what
I hope you’re not surprised to see this one at the top of the list. For the past few months, it’s been the last thing you hear before going to sleep. After we brush teeth, read Mr. Putter books or look at the world map, turn off the lights, and snuggle up with your favorite Bunny, I pronounce this last part of our ritual. You whisper back “I love you no matter what too”, though I doubt you know what that really means. Maybe someday.
What I’m really saying is, I accept you as you are. Even when I’m mad at you, even when you’re ashamed or sad or being selfish or doing something you shouldn’t be. Even when you’re ecstatic, or you knocked your brother off the jungle gym again, or you demand to have the peas picked out of your pasta because today you feel allergic to green.
Branding advice says that mottos are important because people only pay attention for a few seconds. Most of what is communicated is lost. Leaders have to repeat everything over and over, so a company can’t have 17 values unless they drill the employees daily. But a motto, a single idea, can be transmitted pretty reliably. If I could only tell you one thing, it would be this: I accept you as you are. There’s nothing to do, nothing to change. I won’t always be happy with you, or proud or even there for you. But that’s about me, not you.
Yes, little monkey?
One of the great joys of parenting is pet names. Your favorite is “little monkey”.
My dad likes to tell me how creative Russians are with pet names. Any name can be the root of a vast tree of nicknames. Take Alexey, my birth name. Only a teacher or judge would call me that. The shopkeeper lady might call me Alyosha, the first step up the name tree trunk. My parents and friends in the yard would use Lyosha or Lyoshka. Lyoshenka, up in the furthest branches, is my grandma’s favorite; Leshunya is reserved solely for my mom (unless I’m late for dinner, then it’s Alexey Grigorievich!).
With you, our deal is that you call me Papa. Not Dada or Daddy or any of that. Papa is more unique and softer, more pleasing to the ear. In return, you like when I call you “little monkey”. You still respond to the occasional Zaychik (“bunny” in Russian) or other variations. But when you wanna ask to go play outside or how long before Grandma comes to visit, you lead with “Papa?” and I know what you want me to say.
Not now, I’m on a call
Ok I admit it: I’m not Superdad. I do other things besides spending time with you all day. When you sprint upstairs to our guestroom/office and jump on the foam mattress because your brother’s going to sleep and there’s no one to play with you, I’m probably in the middle of something. Now you’re jumping up and down impatiently, silently mouthing “Papa I want to tell you something!” as if I didn’t know, as if it’s not a daily thing for us. I try to pay attention to my meeting while holding up a finger off-screen asking for patience. It’s futile.
Sometimes, you storm in in tears while I’m on a 1-on-1 call with someone I’m hoping to hire. That’s the triple whammy. My mic is pretty good at cutting out background noise, but it’s no match for your high-pitched wail. I briefly wonder if the person on the other end has kids (mentally violating EEOC interviewing guidelines), and whether that makes them more or less likely to judge me. “What a family-friendly workplace,” I hope they’re thinking, and not “how do they get anything done?”
I excuse myself to deliver this line to you. It doesn’t help (is anyone surprised?).
Then I scoop up your small sweaty body and hug you. I prop you up against me on the chair next to my standing desk. You hold me and sob quietly while I try to continue the interview, hitting the Mute shortcut after every sentence.
I love you no matter what.
How would you feel if …
You’re at once the most grown-up and the most selfish that you’ve ever been. If I wrote a list of top things you say to me, “I want …” would be at the top.
It’s incredibly frustrating. You are so articulate and sensitive, yet all you think about is what you want. When you were younger, somehow it was more ok. Now that I sometimes spend 30 minutes debating with you about why you should get yourself a cup of water without my help, it’s not.
The other day you knocked your happily-playing brother off the jungle gym. He screamed, his whole face deep red and tear rolling down his cheeks. I couldn’t believe eyes could make so much water. But you acted like nothing was wrong.
I pointed it out and you didn’t get it. You couldn’t explain in words. But when I asked “how would you feel if he pushed you off the bar”, you showed me your angry tiger: face scrunched, eyes narrow, fingers curled into claws, and a growl in your throat. Where was that ten seconds ago?
Worse, you’re teaching him that this is how he should play with you.
Still, I love you no matter what.
Go wash your face
Thinking back on life can make it seem like a collection of highlights: a first date, a graduation, a baby’s first steps. But in the moment, its a thousand typical Tuesdays that fade together in memory. So too with parenting. Not every moment with you stands out as special. Sometimes we just have shit to do. Dress, undress, eat, clean up, go here, go there, go to the bathroom, go to sleep.
You’ve mastered most of these, but there are gaps. You don’t fall over when you walk … most of the time. I don’t have to remind you to go pee … except before we go out. And you can even pull the wobbly plastic stepstool up to the cabinet to reach the cheddar bunny snacks from the top shelf … but you refuse to wash your face after eating them.
“Go wash your face.” “I don’t want to.” “It’s dirty.” “I don’t waaaaant tooooo.”
“What’s going on in your mind?,” I scream internally. You know facewashing is coming – we do it after every meal. And you know resisting won’t work because it didn’t work the last dozen times you tried it. “The longer you take, the less time for playing,” I say. Why do you still threaten to turn a typical Tuesday into Ruby Ridge?
Putting up a fight must meet some need for you. Someday I hope you understand yourself well enough to explain it to me (most people never get there). In the meantime I grit my teeth, let out a long breath, and mentally go through my catalog of options. We don’t have all day.
“What book should I read to you after you wash?”
Do you understand? Is all this working?
I don’t say this one out loud because it’s not something you can answer. But this is what I really want to know. I know I can’t do it for you. I’m sure my parents had a list just like this, yet I didn’t internalize these things until I was ready (and I’m still working on some). All I can do is repeat the important stuff and model our family values and wait and hope you absorb them.
All these phrases point at my ultimate desire for you: to skillfully co-exist with and thrive among other humans. As my grandma likes to say, “I’ll love you no matter what, but I also want to respect you.”