By Rachel Pieh Jones
Short men make better husbands, and make up in wisdom what they lack in stature, says self-confessed small man, Adam Gopnik.
My son is fifteen years old. He is still shorter than me but for the first time since birth he has passed his twin sister and I suspect I will be next. He has always been thin and wiry and a scrapper and now he is stretching out long and lean.
I spent the first roughly thirteen years of my son’s life being bigger, faster, and stronger than him. And then one day, I wasn’t. Well, still bigger, but barely. I remember the moment it struck me clearly. We were swimming at my parent’s lake and he wanted to dunk me. I had a meeting soon and didn’t want to get my hair wet but I could do nothing to stop the onslaught of octopus-like arms and legs and teenage laughter. Before I knew it, I was under the water and he was victorious.
The other day I told him I have a goal of being able to complete three full pull-ups. He laughed at me. Laughed at me! And then went and did fifteen without even breathing hard.
Now I stare at him in awe. I made that, I think. Obviously not all by myself but I played a major role in bringing this human into the world and now I can no longer physically control him or even catch him.
Now he is the one who carries my heavy suitcase in airports, he is the one who hauls 20-litre water jugs, he is the one who unscrews glass jam jars for me. It is totally awesome.
He is also teaching me new things, like how to throw a rugby ball, and he offers me tips on improving my soccer game. I need a lot of tips.
When women are pregnant and we picture our unborn children, we imagine them as infants. Maybe as toddlers. But we rarely picture them as full grown men. We spend the early years of our parenting shaping them into the men we want them to be but then one day we turn around and they are that man.
A voice comes from the living room and we wonder when a man stopped by to visit, except that is our son and there is hair on his face.
An arm scoops up a bag of groceries and we wonder when biceps grew on toddlers because aren’t our sons still toddlers? Won’t they always be toddlers?
A rugby ball comes hurtling at our heads and we wonder when the infant we breastfed developed such aim and power.
When did this happen? How did he get stronger than me? Faster than me? Bigger than me?
I suppose the past fifteen years is when this happened. I didn’t miss it, I marked every inch on the wall. But somehow I never comprehended what it would feel like to become physically smaller than my son.
It makes me feel dizzy, old, and powerful. It makes me hopeful and humble and inspired about his generation. It helps me appreciate roots and history and it feels like a weighty responsibility – to give a young man this strong to the world in a few short years.
It also makes me wonder, how does he see this development? Will he lose respect for me? I know he wants to be taller than my husband and me, he is aiming at several inches taller, as though by sheer force of will he will pass us.
My husband and I are the same height, 5’6″. We don’t have high height expectations for our children, though I suppose subconsciously we expect at least our son to pass us by. And we would both be happy for him to do just that. Height, especially for men, is fraught with social baggage.
According to this article in the National Geographic, physical height is associated with power, a sense of vulnerability or paranoia (if lacking in height), leadership ability, even financial situations:
“Taller men are perceived as having higher status, stronger leadership skills, and as being more occupationally successful than average or shorter males,” Jackson wrote in an email interview. Men of average or shorter height also suffer in the realm of social attractiveness, which includes personal adjustment, athletic orientation, and masculinity. Her caveat: “What NONE of these studies establish is that it is HEIGHT per se that is responsible for these benefits or characteristics associated with height (strong leadership skills, self-confidence, professional development).”
While it is true that height has been proven in exactly zero studies to actually correlate with these positive characteristics, the fact remains that this is the culture we live in. A culture that values height, that associates height with strength and positive leadership qualities and physical prowess.
While my son continues to hope that one day he will look down on his parents, we are more focused on preparing him for the cultural context into which we will launch him one day. That means developing leadership skills, building confidence, encouraging his academic pursuits. Oh, and we tie buckets of cement to his ankles and drape them over the end of his mattress at night to encourage the bones to stretch. Okay, maybe not. But I do feed him well, if that counts for anything.
And for me, for this mom who is watching my son pass me by? I’m not worried. I’m not worried about him losing respect for me or his dad as he grows. I’m not worried about the physical strength he could exert over me. I’m not worried about him never growing taller than 5’6″.
He is strong and gentle, intelligent and creative and no matter what height he reaches, when he offers to carry my suitcase, I’ll admit: It feels pretty awesome.
Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. She is a contributing blogger at Brain, Child. Her work has also been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.