By Jennifer Berney
The basic need that my son was expressing was apparently the one that was most urgent to him: he wanted to be witnessed, to be seen.
At two years old, when my younger son began putting words together, his first complete sentences were all variations on a theme.
“Watch this, Mommy!” he would shout over and over as he frog-hopped across the living room floor or threw a ball into a hoop. When the action was complete, he always asked, “See that?” his voice crackling with pride.
Once my son had these sentences, he used them hundreds of times every day, and I thought about what it meant that he wasn’t saying “feed me” or “hold me” or “keep me warm.” The basic need that my son was expressing was apparently the one that was most urgent to him: he wanted to be witnessed, to be seen.
Now that he’s approaching three he finds more creative ways to remain in my line of vision. When I make dinner he often struts into the kitchen, demands to be held, and then physically turns my head so that I must look him in the eye.
Because of both his age and personality, my younger son refuses to be invisible. But my older son, who is seven, can sometimes fade into the shadows. He spends hours sitting alone in his room building Legos, or lying on his top bunk reading comic books. In our house, he’s often a friendly background presence rather than a force to be reckoned with. Because his little brother steals the show so often, I often worry that I sideline him, that I don’t actively see him the way he needs to be seen. It’s easy work to tell my older son I love him, to hold him tight when he’s near, but sometimes those words—I love you—feel inadequate and hollow. Sometimes I suspect that to convince him of my love, I must first convince him that I know him.
Two weeks ago, his first grade teacher gave me the opportunity to see him with new eyes. It was parent-teacher conference week, and on the day of our conference my son and I walked to school holding hands. It was a rare moment for us, one where he and I could be alone together, free from his brother’s toddler antics.
When we sat down with his teacher, she laid out a folder of his work and told me, “Your son pays close attention to detail.” This wasn’t a thing that I knew about him, but once she pointed it out, I could see it everywhere. As we leafed through the pages of his folder I noticed how tiny and careful his letters had become. I noticed the way that, in his self-portrait, the sky was not just a line of blue at the top of the page—it actually met the ground.
But there were other things worth noticing in my son’s self-portrait. He had drawn himself not as a giant smiling face but as a tiny shadowy figure at the bottom of the page. I remembered a video I had seen years ago that demonstrated how much children’s self- and family portraits revealed about the way they saw themselves in the world. If my son, when asked to draw himself, could only summon something tiny, then clearly he needed some building up.
That night as he soaked in the bathtub, I dug through his school folder to retrieve a hand-drawn book his teacher had returned at the conference. “Will you look at this with me?” I asked as I sat on the bathmat and showed him his own work. He straightened his back to look over my shoulder. I pointed to every detail I noticed—the fluttering fins on the goldfish that swam inside a fish bowl, the disco ball he’d drawn on the page with the dancing canary. My son nodded and giggled, impressed with his own sense of humor. He pointed out details I had missed.
Once both of my sons were in their pajamas I kissed them goodbye and left the house—it was my partner’s night to put them to sleep, my night to meet a friend for adult conversation.
When I returned that night the house was quiet, dark except for a fake candle—a battery-powered tea light that flickered on the coffee table next to a glass of water. I thought nothing of it until later when I settled on the couch to read and I noticed the water glass was full. Between the water glass and the tea light was a tiny illustration. It was a picture of my son and me standing together beside a candle, holding hands.
Some part of me was humbled by son’s deep generosity. I wasn’t sure that a parent-child relationship was supposed to be so reciprocal. I had given him ten minutes of my undivided attention and he had returned my investment immediately. He had thought about me and my after-hours quiet time, had pictured me on the couch with a book reaching for a glass of water. I had seen him, and in return he saw me too.
I looked closely at the picture and considered it. The paper itself was tiny, but in this illustration both my son and I took up the full width of the page. Were we big or were we small? I couldn’t tell. I only knew for sure that we were the same size as the candle that lit us. It strikes me now that he perfectly captured the magic that happens when we witness each other, when we take the time to look and narrate what we see: we stand in the glow of that other person’s view, and know not just that we are loved, but why we are loved, and how.
Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, the Brevity blog, and Mutha. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.