John is a cute kid.
Really. It's not just the insufferable mom in me. My younger sister tells me that his combination of golden hair, dark eyes, and dark skin could land him in a Ralph Lauren photo shoot. We haven't pursued this yet, but with the price of milk and bread, we just might.
Well, one morning I noticed his summer tan was starting to fade, and it was leaving his skin rather mottled. In that way I have of turning every little medical anomaly into a potential catastrophe, I immediately concluded that John has a rare skin condition, you know, the one that Michael Jackson had. For at least fifteen, maybe twenty minutes, I was just sure of it.
And I had this thought: What will I do if the cute kid is no longer cute?
Nearly everyone my age remembers The Breakfast Club, an 80's film featuring a popular group of actors known as "The Brat Pack." The Breakfast Club told the tale of a group of kids in all-day detention. Each character was a type -- the stoner, the princess, the brain, the freak, the jock. If memory serves, there were only two adults, typecasts as well -- the overbearing mother (God love her!) and the clueless coach. The touching message we were all supposed to walk away with was that we are all part princess and part jock, all a little bit freaky and all a little bit brainy.
Dab your eyes now.
Within a family, we have our own stock characters -- there's the Easy Kid and the Smart Kid, young Mr. Moody and little Miss Laid Back. But, as I've mentioned before, labels are dicey things. They change. Or maybe it's the kids who change? I label my kids and then -- surprise!, surprise! -- they no longer fit the label.
Some of these changes are for the better. I remember the day I took the Fussy Baby -- who was, by then, a two-year-old and had morphed into Mr. Mellow -- to the fabric store. He fell asleep on the way. I had forgotten the stroller, so I carried him into the store and laid him on an arm chair. He never stirred.
"Oh, are you a lucky mom," exclaimed a grandma who had witnessed the transfer.
I felt compelled to tell her that Tim was merely catching up for lost time. He barely slept for the first two years of his life.
High Needs Baby became the Mr. Mellow. So mellow was toddler Tim, he spent his second birthday jetting over the Atlantic Ocean en route to Frankfurt, Germany. Dave, Tim, and I spent three weeks touring Europe -- a feat I would not have attempted for love or money with two-year-old Kolbe or John, no way, no how. We took Tim to a three hour Mass at Peter's Basilica Three hours in church with any of his siblings? The Swiss guards would have had me sealed in the catacombs along with the martyrs and saints.
Now, Kolbe was Model Baby. Every night I would nurse him and rock him and put him wide awake in his bed. He would roll over and go to sleep. I was mystified, really incredulous. Night after night, I would think to myself, "Well, it won't work tonight."
By two Model Baby was a force to be reckoned with.
John, like Kolbe, was a good sleeper. By ten months, he, too, was a force to be reckoned with. He threw fits the likes of which I have rarely seen. I'm talking consult with the pediatrician type fits. Now five, John couldn't be sweeter. He has his moments -- please don't think we spend our afternoons polishing his halo -- but Fit Thrower is no more.
And now onto Ainsley, that oh-so-elusive girl, the princess, my little angel. She skipped the terrible twos, but, gosh, three has had some trying moments. A friend of mine likes to say different children wear different ages better. So true.
Most of us have expectations of our children, and certainly we all have dreams.
I remember a conversation I had with a friend years and years ago. One of our boys was just entering the world of organized sports, and, well, it wasn't going swimmingly. Dave was in a season of l-o-n-g hours at work, and sometimes I battled resentment. When I watched this boy struggle to bat the ball or a shoot a basket, a small part of me blamed Dave. If he were home more, we wouldn't have this problem. If they practiced together, everything would be different.
My friend and I sat on a park bench watching our younger sons play, and she shared a bit of her husband's history with me. His dad, it seems, wanted an all-American athlete for a son; he ended up with a talented member of the marching band. The father envisioned a popular class president; his son grew up to be an introverted mathematician.
Unable to lay aside the imaginary son and embrace the actual one, this man went on to physically and emotionally abuse his son for years.
The story made me cry. I cried in sadness for the pain and rejection of a young boy, but also in gratitude for a husband who would never think one ounce less of a son who couldn't pitch a ball straight and fast or dribble a soccer ball down a field. I was grateful for a father who goes on endless Boy Scout camp outs, invests hours innumerable helping the boys carve Pinewood Derby cars, a father who one night spent ninety minutes discussing the Periodic Table with a boy who inhales science like oxygen.
How crucial it is that we lay down our imaginary kids and embrace the real ones God has given us.
We can encourage kids in their pursuits, help them dabble in new hobbies, haul them to violin or travel volleyball or ice skating.
We can require our children do something -- many things, in fact -- make a bed, do their algebra, practice the piano. But we can not force them to love something -- not basketball, not guitar, not God. In the end they are made in God's image, not in ours, and are imbued with passions and purposes wholly independent of us.
And therein lies both the beauty and the peril of parenting.