Young Love is Real Love

Young Love is Real Love

Couple Rear View Love Holding Hands Drawing Simple Line Vector Illustration

By Jennifer Berney

My seven-year-old son might be in love. I can’t tell you for sure because I’m determined not to ask him, and even if I did, I’m not sure that he could answer. But I can tell you what I’ve seen.

Yesterday afternoon, when I arrived in his classroom to volunteer, my son sat next to a girl—let’s call her Abby—a girl who I’ve been hearing about for months. My job was to bring pairs of children to a table in the hallway so that they could complete a special worksheet. I tapped Abby and my son, asked them if they were ready to join me, and when they stood up they were holding hands. The gesture seemed so natural, as if in standing up their hands had simply joined. They walked to the table this way in comfortable silence and as I trailed them I felt as though my own heart might burst. “Do you see this?” I wanted to say as we passed their teacher, but instead I bit my tongue.

I handed each of them a worksheet and a pencil. Their job was to write down the title of a favorite book and draw an illustration. Such a task would normally take my son five minutes, but on this day he could barely write three letters without looking up at Abby and launching into conversation. I’ve seen my son be distracted by friends before, but this was different. They weren’t making fart jokes and erupting in laughter. Instead, they spoke calmly and earnestly, their eyes fixed upon each other.

I can see why my son is fond of Abby. She has a quiet certainty about her. She has a serious face, but laughs easily. Yesterday, as she colored her illustration, I noticed she was wearing an R2D2 t-shirt. She makes declarative statements that I’m pretty sure send my son’s heart aflutter such as “My favorite book is Diary of a Minecraft Zombie.” When I witness their rapport, I find myself hoping that all of his future relationships might unfold as naturally as this one has.

Tim O’Brien in the short story “The Lives of the Dead” writes about a childhood friendship with a girl named Linda, who eventually dies of cancer.

Linda was nine then, as I was, but we were in love. It was real. When I write about her now, three decades later, it’s tempting to dismiss it as a crush, an infatuation of childhood, but I know for a fact that what we felt for each other was as deep and rich as love can ever get. It had all the shadings and complexities of mature adult love, and maybe more, because there were not yet words for it, and because it was not yet fixed to comparisons or chronologies or the ways by which adults measure such things.

I just loved her.

It takes all of my willpower—all of it—to not impose my adult yardstick on my son’s relationship, to not prompt him to officially declare his feelings. Yesterday, after school had ended, my son asked me to walk him to a nearby playground because he and Abby had schemed to meet each other there. As we put on our shoes, I nearly cried out “Do you have a crush on Abby?”

I knew there were so many good reasons not to do this. For one thing I am his mother, not his big sister. It’s not my job to taunt him. For another thing, I don’t want to send the message that any friendship with a girl must be a romance. But also, as Tim O’Brien suggests, by prompting my son to label his feelings I fear I will diminish them. I don’t want to do that. I want to leave room for this friendship to grow in every possible direction.

In spite of this clarity, I nearly asked him anyways, but by some divine grace my partner arrived home at that exact moment. The diversion allowed me to recover my willpower.

I think that so often we treat our children as adults-in-training; we see their relationships as practice relationships, their emotions as practice emotions. I think that sometimes we fail to notice that our children are already whole, that their feelings are as real as our own, that their desires for themselves are as important as what we desire for them. And, as Tim O’Brien suggests, adults are reluctant to acknowledge that children are capable of loving one another with great tenderness and depth.

I don’t mean to suggest that my son and Abby are eternal soul mates. I realize that this connection between them might easily shift or fade. But I do believe that my son might always remember Abby, that the spark between them at this moment might always be source of warmth.

And so, when it comes to my son’s new friendship, I try to keep my mouth shut. As he picks flowers for her in our backyard, I fight the impulse to gently tease him. Instead, when he holds the small bouquet beneath my nose, I breathe it in: rose, phlox, and lemon balm. “It’s a smell-bomb,” my son tells me. “It’s so good,” I say, remembering what it feels like when you first meet another person who feels so much like home.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, Brevity, 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.

Illustration: © gow27












“Special” Sucks

“Special” Sucks

By Jennifer Curran

I lean forward, straining against my seatbelt to catch a glimpse of my little boy’s face in the back of the school bus. His thick lashes rim his wide brown eyes, his mouth is set in a straight line. As the bus rambles along in front of my mud-streaked station wagon, my Mother Vision sees through the rows of bus seats, through the backpacks and bodies of the bustling children, to his uncertainty. I can’t help but be scared for him. I imagine sprinting heroically out of my car and slamming through the bus’s folding doors like a modern day Calamity Jane.

I shake off my protective instincts. Somewhere in the way back of my mind I can’t help but wonder if my child will ever be just a regular little boy whose toughest day includes homework left undone, or choking back green beans to get to the pudding. Some days I would be very happy with average.

Tailing the school bus, I can almost see the noise reverberating off the windows, the hollers and screeches of the other children readying for their first days of first and second grade. They do not make my boy smile. Today, he doesn’t want to smile, play, share, or jump. Not today, maybe tomorrow — maybe not. My boy wants his space, his peace, his toys. He wants his red race car with the yellow flames down the side. It must have “Hot Wheels” engraved in its silver underside because “Matchbox” isn’t his favorite. He can’t read these words, but he knows them by sight. He wants to zoom his cars along the old gold shag carpet of our humble living room with his tinier than average fingers gently resting on their roofs; just him and his metal best friends in his raceway-world.

My boy sits far away from the other kids on the bus, his perfectly shaped nose pressing against the glass as he peers out at the farms rolling by. I wonder if he is looking for the magnificent white horses in the falling-down brown barn we like to wave to, or listening for the dulcet sound of the hoof beats we both cherish. Does he love them only because I do? Does he long to sit on the back of the black-spotted horse with the grey tail and run as fast as the animal pleases, as he leans forward into the wind and observes the world framed by triangle ears?

As I drive behind the bus, I remind myself to call the place — the organization — the non-profit — the one that has riding lessons for boys like him. Special boys.

If the word special doesn’t help on the school bus, it feels irrelevant in the grocery store when I’m carrying my screaming five-year-old over a shoulder out the sliding doors, abandoning our shopping cart that’s almost full with coloring-free, gluten- free, casein- free food — the foods it took me months to discover, whose labels I’ve read, studied, and memorized.

Special is hard. Special gets me scorns and head shakes, and worst of all, patronizing smiles from strangers who should know better. Educated strangers who drop their loose change into the Awareness Canisters and then seem the quickest to judge and remind themselves that they would handle things differently. The enlightened elitists who carry their reusable bags under their arms and are brought to tears when hearing about the autism epidemic on NPR, but can’t bare to acknowledge its truth when it is screaming down the aisles in Target.

I put my pretend blindfold in place so I no longer see the disapproval surrounding us. I crouch down in front of my son and focus my attention on the miniscule chance that he will be able to transition through the suddenness of this change in routine. Fridays are not for shopping. Fridays are for resting and playing. He shields his eyes from the fluorescent glare bouncing back at him from the hard tile of the white floor and the sheen of primary colored plastic wrappings. He focuses on nothing, his eyes wandering the store aisles filled with things he cannot have and all the toys I wish he knew how to use.

Special means appointments, prescriptions that don’t work, wait lists, and therapists. Diets that cost more than rent. Charts, scale ratings, questionnaires, graphs, and independent educational plans. It means late nights scouring the internet for answers and weighing the risks and challenging the chances.

Sometimes I have to put it all aside. Sometimes special boys just need to be boys who revel in a blanket-reinforced fort, boys who dig roads in dirt, and rub their spaghetti sauce-covered hands down their shirts while their mothers feign annoyance.

The bus makes a right turn to my station wagon’s left, leaving me behind a spotlessly clean silver Volvo with the small puzzle piece logo on its sunlit bumper. I stare at it and wonder if the driver has a special boy too. Or if she snatched up the sticker from a convenience store counter because it was free and makes her look compassionate without any actual effort involved.

I approach a stop sign behind the Volvo. I close my eyes and breathe through the urge to slam down onto the gas pedal and smash into the sticker on that bumper. I want to make sure the driver knows my boy is more than a logo, more than a fad or a cause. As I make my solo right turn toward my waiting desk and tiny office, I peer into the rear view mirror and secretly hate the Volvo and its perfectly coiffed driver, a temporary target for my aimless anger. I try to push away my politically incorrect, completely unheroic, fleeting but inescapable, belief: Sometimes, special sucks.

Author’s Note: I wrote “Special Sucks” during a particularly difficult period of time when my son JP was only five years old. I had been on the receiving end of many well-intentioned pats on the head that week and I was aching for some honesty. There are precious few articles or essays that validate the very expected and natural feeling that sometimes, special really does suck. There are days that seem endlessly hopeless, filled with outbursts and meltdowns and exhaustive trips to therapists and grocery stores. Thankfully, there are days of unparalleled joy and hope and progress. Special Sucks was my way of admitting that it’s okay to embrace the bad along with the good, that it’s okay to grieve for “normal” and want to perhaps ram your car into a certain logo or two.

About the Author: Jennifer Curran writes, mothers, works, knits and avoids house cleaning from her little home in Granby, MA.


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