Two nights ago I went to bed quite late after a lovely family movie night (Moana), and found myself sobbing over a small stuffed chicken. I’d been losing sleep over chicken all week long, ever since we’d been unable to find him as we left for school on Monday, but this was the first time I’d cried about it. I lay there in bed fully cognizant that it was, frankly, ridiculous that I was crying over a lost toy when there were so many more horrible things going on in the world that were worthy of tears, but I couldn’t stop.
Parenthood is so strange and complicated and powerful. I become more and more aware of all of the baggage (both useful and burdensome) that we carry with us from our own childhoods, and even things that our own parents carried into ours. I have a thing about stuffed animals, I always have. I struggle mightily to view them like other toys and to this day if someone steps on one I wince and want to rescue it. I can’t explain this phenomenon exactly, and honestly I wish it weren’t the case. I’ve always hated The Velveteen Rabbit (do any children truly enjoy that story? Do adults?), and when we became parents I tried to avoid stuffed animals, because I knew that once we had them I’d never be able to get rid of them. But then everyone else started buying the kids stuffed animals and now we have dozens that no one plays with stuffed into bins and cradles all over the house.
Jonah never really got attached to a particular stuffed creature; he didn’t really have a comfort item per se (well, besides me). But Jude and Vivi like dolls and stuffed things more, and when Jude got this small yellow chicken in his Easter basket from Grandma Sue this past spring, he took to it. He’s taken it to school on a number of occasions, it travels with us, and he sleeps with it often (though he’s perfectly able to sleep without it, so it isn’t the kind of comfort item that many children end up with). He doesn’t necessarily ask for it every day, but he has been known to say, “I love chicken so much,” and it’s as adorable as it sounds.
When we went to Northern Michigan this past August, chicken came with us. When we stopped to eat lunch in a town somewhere between Traverse City and Mackinaw City, Jude insisted on bringing chicken in and somehow we left him. We were about 20 minutes away when suddenly, from the back seat, Jude yelled, “chicken!” There was panic in his voice. We turned around immediately, called the restaurant, and they retrieved chicken from the table and kept him safe for us until we got back.
When chicken turned up missing this week, I kept thinking of that restaurant and Jude’s panicked realization from his car seat. I also thought about my green pillow. When I was tiny I had a small green pillow (known just as “green pillow” much like chicken is simply “chicken”) that I took everywhere.
When I was still quite small it was lost somehow. Every night when my parents put me to bed I would ask them to look for green pillow, and they would assure me that they would; this must have gone on for months. I don’t know whether they actually looked for it, but probably not because I believe they told me eventually that it was left at a hotel. My parents have talked about this loss for as long as I can remember, but I don’t think that I’ve ever asked them how they felt as I went through it.
My dad has been writing these stories for me lately, memories from his youth about all sorts of things. (I’ll write about that another time, but it’s via Storyworth and it’s wonderful). I’ve noticed in his stories that seemingly small things, anecdotes that others might breeze past, still carry tremendous hurt for him.
We travelled to Kentucky Dam Village at Kentucky Lake and stayed in a cabin Tuesday night before heading to Iowa on Wednesday after breakfast. I recall this because we kids were given the opportunity to buy a souvenir of our trip. I picked out a straw hat with a red plaid hat band with the rim turned up all around. Not your typical souvenir but it was what I wanted. I think we bought it on Tuesday. Wednesday morning we had breakfast in a resort log type cabin restaurant that seemed similar to today’s Cracker Barrel but was a local establishment. We finished breakfast and hit the road for Iowa. I don’t remember how far we had gone when I realized I had left my hat at the restaurant, I just knew it was too far to go back.
Reading this broke my heart for the small boy in the story, and I can tell by the way my dad tells the story now that there’s something about childhood sadness in a moment like this that just hangs on and shapes you. There was this one too.
While in Peoria, I went fishing with my brother and sister and the other kids on the river and I caught my first fish. It was small but I was so proud. Bud and Frannie had just returned so everyone was at the cottage and I remember running up from the river to show everyone my catch. It was a small mouth bass and I recall Bud and my dad telling me it was too small and I should have thrown it back. My mother then pointed out to me that it was young and its mother was probably looking for it. I was crushed that I had taken this small child fish away from it’s mother for all eternity. I just bawled and ran out of the house and hid behind the large propane tank and cried and cried. I will never forget that day.
Do you ever wonder what your children will remember and what will truly shape them? My dad is so sensitive in such a beautiful way, and I know that I get a lot of my sensitivity from him. When he told me the fish story one day recently before having written it down, he cried. That moment hurt him so deeply as a young boy, and sometimes I’m overcome with fear that the mistakes I make with our kids may scar them in ways that never quite heal. I feel like I make at least a dozen potentially significant parenting mistakes every day.
I listened to a podcast awhile back (edit – found it thanks to Kristin) and the episode involved a scientist who also happens to be a parent. The scientist was talking about how much we change over time, not just in personality but every one of our cells. They were also talking about memory. We have memories of significant things that have shaped us, but every time we recall those memories we corrupt them in a way and they change ever so slightly. So even memories of our most significant times begin to change along with our cells. But memories from our very earliest years, we can’t recall those later in life. Most of us can’t remember anything from before the age of four or so. And so the researcher concluded that perhaps that’s one thing that stays with us as we grow. Those very early memories are incorruptible because we cannot recall them and inadvertently alter them, so perhaps they’re always there and always the same.
As the week wore on and chicken still hadn’t turned up, I felt heavier and heavier. Every day I’d comb the house again, go through baskets at preschool drop off just in case he’d been left there, ask the teachers to keep an eye out, and I started to worry that something terrible might have happened. Had he fallen out of the minivan and been left in a parking lot somewhere? With my stuffed animal neurosis that was more than I could take.
In families with multiple siblings it’s easy to feel like there isn’t a lot that truly belongs to the younger one(s), and that feels especially true when it comes to Jude. Vivi has such a big personality that she asserts herself and everyone knows what she likes and what makes her uniquely her. But Jude? He’s so easy going, so easy to please, and he’s happy to play with Jonah’s toys and take Jonah’s hand-me-downs, and to tag along with the things Vivi loves. There are so few things that seem truly special to Jude and that are his alone, and chicken was one of those few. Despite the fact that Jude didn’t seem all that concerned about chicken’s absence (save for a tiny bit of upset on Monday), I could not let this go. Maybe in the back of my mind I knew that this was more about my baggage, my sensitivity, my worries about not giving enough of myself to each of my children, my attachments and losses, than it was about Jude’s. But I couldn’t let it go. An ocean of parental guilt washed over me when I thought that perhaps my carelessness had contributed to chicken’s disappearance.
At 11:30 on Friday night as I lay in bed sobbing there was no way that I was simply going to sleep. I got out of bed and grabbed a flashlight and began looking everywhere, again. Kristin seemed bewildered by my emotional state and need to find chicken, but she was incredibly gracious and took up the search alongside me. I went out to the van, I searched the basement again, Kristin searched our bedroom closet and Jude and Jonah’s drawers, we both went back into Vivi’s room where Vivi and Jude were sleeping (and where chicken is most of the time) and started going through everything again in the dark. I put my hand inside of the blankets at the bottom of Vivi’s mattress and felt something fuzzy: chicken. I pulled him out, whispered to Kristin, and then collapsed into her lap and cried.
Is this even the tip of the heartbreak-iceberg for any of our children’s lives to come? Of course not, so it’s the sort of episode that makes me wonder if my heart is even cut out for something as emotionally wrenching as parenting. Glennon Doyle Melton has a quote that I love: “We think our job as humans is to avoid pain, our job as parents is to protect our children from pain, and our job as friends is to fix each other’s pain. Maybe that’s why we all feel like failures so often – because we all have the wrong job description for love.” I know that I can’t protect my children from pain, and that doing so wouldn’t really equip them for the world anyway, but it doesn’t stop me from wishing that I could. I hate to think that my oversensitivity might leave them sobbing over a stuffed creature at midnight decades from now, or that someday they’ll recall a mistake I made or words I chose poorly with tears in their eyes.
The next morning, Jude danced into the room where I lay in bed with Jonah. He was holding chicken and he was smiling, and in that moment everything felt lighter. One tiny crisis had been averted, only a million more to go.