One year is all I have left. Starting tomorrow, I begin to count.
Carolyn Elefant wrote that despite the many things she did wrong as a mother, the one thing she did right was never count.
But one thing that I did right — and never realized til now — is that I never counted. I never counted the number of diapers I changed in a day or how many books we read together at bedtime or how many videos I let my daughters watch during long car trips or long conference calls. I never counted how many nights I stumbled groggily into their room to nurse them at night, or how many minutes I spent rocking them before they fell asleep or how many more years until I was no longer hostage to a 4 pm bus stop pick up. I never counted the time towards when I’d have more because I knew that eventually, instead of counting up, I’d be counting down. Counting down towards the day where my daughters no longer want to share with me everything that they did in school, or where their friends’ opinion matters more than mine or where their problems exceed my capacity to help solve them. Or where they leave home first for college and then for good.
Like Carolyn, I never counted the things I did for my kids. I groused about them on occasion, to remind them of how unappreciative they were when second after getting them the thing they said they most desired, their wanted to know what I did for them lately. But the truth is I never counted either.
When I said “no” to something, which was more than most of their friends’ parents, I didn’t count either. And it hurt to say “no,” though I believed it was necessary and stood firm, most of the time, so that the message would get through. Inside, I wanted to give them anything and everything, but I knew that would teach them nothing. I never counted how many lessons I taught when I only wanted to make them happy.
But today, the counting begins. It will be one year until the day my youngest child, my son, walks toward his future and doesn’t look back. This is the day I’ve been working toward for years, preparing him as best I could to be strong and independent. As much as I will want desperately to run up to him and grab his hand, to walk with him just so I can be there if he needs me, I won’t. It’s the worst thing I could do.
One year from today, I will learn whether my efforts work. I put him on the horse knowing that he would eventually fall off. I did it so he would learn to get back on the horse. I did it while I was still around, to tell him to get back on, to make him understand that as much as it hurt, as much as he was embarrassed and might want to run away, as much as he was afraid, he had to get back on the horse. He made me proud. He always got back on, even when he didn’t want to.
But I was always there, even if only in the background, just in case things got too bad, too difficult, so that I could help and he would never have to suffer too much for life’s lessons. As regular readers know, my son is an epee fencer, one of the best things that he ever chose to do. He learned many critical life lessons from fencing, not the least of which is that sometimes you lose, and that there is a direct correlation between hard work and success.
While he’s done exceptionally well as a fencer, he did not win every bout. Some losses were taken with equanimity. Others came hard, so hard that it seemed as if he just couldn’t take it. And then my big, tough fencer would hide his face in my shoulder, only because he couldn’t crawl inside my body to get away from the loss.
But fencing has some special rules, remnants of the days when it was a gentlemen’s sport. After each bout, the fencers salute each other and shake hands. The failure to do so, even though the bout has already been won or lost, results in a penalty that changes everything. So no fencer can hide from his victory or defeat, and no parent can protect them from the harsh outcome of the bout. They have to face it directly. There is no avoiding the eyes and hands of the victor, no matter how hard the loss.
It would have been so easy to give him all the shiny toys he’s asked for along the way, the things he thought would make him happy and, consequently, make him happy with me. He got more than his share, though less than many other children. Yet he took more pride in accomplishments than in possession. He was proud of the things he did rather than the things he had. But these things were his, and didn’t make him need or appreciate me more.
To make him depend on me for his pleasure was purely self-indulgent. As much as I might have wanted him to appreciate me, to look into my eyes with appreciation and adoration, that would come at the sacrifice of his own ability to achieve on his own. I couldn’t do that to him for my own benefit. I wouldn’t do that.
I could have told him how wonderful I thought he was, even when he really wasn’t. When the other parents told their children they were special, I tried to tell him the truth. There were things about him that made me swell with pride. And there were times when he could have done better. And there were times when he did wrong. He heard the praise, and the criticism, and came to know that praise meant something because it was earned, just as criticism meant something because he didn’t earn praise.
And all of this was directed toward one goal, to produce a young man capable and desirous of achievement without my help or intervention. I changed his diaper when it was time to do so, but in one year, it will be time to watch him walk away. If he does so without looking back, I will have accomplished my goal so that he can accomplish his.
And now I count. I can’t tell you how hard it is to count.