“Oh,” Charlie said with a disappointed look on his face as I started to open the box of graham crackers for his afterschool snack. “I thought you said you would buy the cinnamon ones.”
“Sorry, Charlie-bear.They didn’t have the cinnamon ones. Do you want these?”
“Not really, I like cinnamon.”
“Well, these are good too, and we can put some Nutella on them,” I said brightly.
“It’s just that all the time I tell you I like cinnamon and you said you would buy them and you didn’t. You never buy the things I like.”
This exchange went on and on for several minutes, until I slammed the red box on the counter and shouted, “Maybe you would like to have NOTHING for snack then! How does NOTHING sound?”
My seven-year old slumped in his seat at the kitchen counter, his eyes filling with tears, and I fled to our seldom-used dining room to seethe. Late afternoon sunlight streamed through the windows, and I looked past our front porch to the wooded ravine in front of our house, to the rich green leaves of the trees, speckled here and there with the deep red and gold of early fall.
Usually, I write about Jack and autism, but I also live with four other small people who confuse and terrify and exhilarate me just as much as he does—some days even more. Glennon Melton, one of my favorite bloggers, has a phrase that perfectly captures my own experience with motherhood: brutiful, a combination of beautiful and brutal.
Because delivering a person out of your own body and kissing their sweet newborn ears and eventually their tender scraped knees is, well, beautiful. But then there’s the soul-crushing, energy-draining side of it all: endless laundry and explosive tantrums and the wrong graham crackers.
I find all of my children challenging at times, but Charlie? Well, some days I just can’t figure this kid out. We don’t mesh, if you will. Some days our personalities repel each other like two magnetic ball bearings, fighting to roll down the same cracker-lined path.
He is the covert accuser, the never-quite-happy child. If you ask him if he had a good time, he almost always answers, “Yes, if only….” If only we could have stayed longer or left earlier, if only there was one less math problem, one more scoop of ice cream, five minutes more until bedtime.
Several times a day I find myself sighing, “Oh, Charlie.” And behind the sigh is the unmistakable subtext: oh Charlie, why can’t you be happy? There are never enough lucky marshmallows in the charms and usually too many raisins in the bran for my middle child.
And this enigma is wrapped in the cutest little-boy package you’ve ever seen. With big brown eyes and dark hair, Charlie is a carbon-copy of his handsome father. Slender and small, he looks adorably impish and innocent, and he’s always on the move, usually with a football cradled to his side or a game of chess tucked under one arm, asking “Who wants to play with me?
Last January, Joe and I went to Cancun for a dental conference. And although I dragged my feet the entire plane ride down, I wound up learning some really valuable lessons, from the concept of be-do-have to how to make a margarita with fresh lime juice. On the last day of the trip, one of the speakers talked about our inner child; a younger, littler version of ourselves who perpetually lives within our minds and our hearts.
Since January, I’ve noticed that nothing brings out my own inner child like motherhood. And I don’t mean the fun, let’s play another round of Candyland and jump on the couch inner child, but the smaller, scared, insecure Carrie.
Growing up, there was a fair amount of conflict in our home, and when I was in the third grade I had a very specific incident when I felt unloved, unworthy, ashamed. I felt abandoned and terrified. And now, as an adult, I panic during moments of extreme conflict and distress. I feel frantic and the 8-year old Carrie steps out of my 38-year old psyche—all red denim jeans and plaid shirt—and she points her small finger at me and says things like see you are not important you do not deserve good things you are not lovable.
If I could talk to little Carrie, I would tell her we are valuable, we do deserve love and respect and kindness. I would tell her we have overcome that rainy spring day in the third grade and we are stronger. (I would also tell her for heaven’s sake, stop wearing those red jeans. They are hideous.)
Standing in my dining room, feeling the sun warming my shoulders through the window, I let my thoughts wander. I thought about Charlie sitting two rooms away at the kitchen counter. I thought about how, in many ways, my middle son is the glue that binds all of our children together, how he bridges the gap between the older two boys and his younger sister and brother. How he is always the one to organize the family bike race, the dance party, the indoor game of hide-n-seek.
I thought about how his gift has always been to teach, to show, to coach.
I remembered how a week before, he and Henry were building towers in the playroom with brightly colored cardboard bricks. As I breaded pork chops in the kitchen for dinner, I could hear Charlie explaining to his little brother how to stack them higher and higher, larger ones on the bottom, smaller ones on top, that’s right Henry we’re almost to the ceiling, and their squeals of joy when the blocks tumbled down around them. Over and over again he built those towers with his four-year old brother, tireless and patient and enthusiastic.
I know my kids will have their own inner child who trails behind them in life, reminding them of a moment when they, too, felt less, small, unworthy. I cannot prevent it. Somewhere along the way, either I or a friend or a teacher will help shape this ugly little version of themselves. But, sitting at my empty dining room table, I realized that I didn’t want Charlie’s inner child to develop in the kitchen because his snack didn’t have cinnamon. I glanced down at my jeans–new, from the Gap–and noted they were blue, not red.
With that in mind, I walked out of my hideout and back to the counter, to tell my son the things I wish I could say to the little girl wearing red denim. That regardless of what kind of graham cracker I remember to buy, he is important and kind and a valuable part of our family. That every day his smile lights my spirit and his deep brown eyes melt my heart.