At a year old, Cogan is starting to show his personality. He’s open and affectionate. If a stranger smiles at him, he’ll reach out to her to hold him. Last time he saw his cousin, only 3 months younger, he gave him a hug. He hugs his stuffed animals, especially a singing puppy toy. He loves our cat and is learning to be gentle with her. He’s been so determined and persistent in his efforts to learn to walk, not even getting phased when he falls. He gets excited about so many things and has no inhibitions about showing how happy he is. He hands me board books to read to him and turns the pages himself. He’s learning by imitating us: he holds anything phone-shaped up to his ear and makes a questioning sound, and holds my keys up to the doorknob because he knows that makes it open. He points at everything and says, “This? This!” He cackles with enthusiasm and takes off. I love all these things about him so much, and I fear him losing them as he gets older.
When her daughter was about this age, a friend of mine wrote that her little girl was perfect, and so she feared that anything she did wrong could only ruin her toddler’s perfection. I was pregnant at the time and conscious of how clueless I was(/am) about parenting, but I commented to remind my friend that her baby is a human being and therefore imperfect, hoping that this thought would relieve the pressure on her.
Now, I don’t think my baby is perfect. I’m very mindful of his flaws. He definitely has a mind of his own and wants to do things his way. He insists on doing things like climbing the stairs one at a time, holding the bannister (Hilarious.) His drive for independence leads to screaming when he needs a diaper change or tries to climb the baby gate. He’s starting to throw tantrums by throwing himself on the floor or arching his back to resist my arms holding him. He clings and whines. He throws his food on the ground for fun. He still won’t sleep all night and resists any nighttime comfort I try to give him that doesn’t involve unsnapping a nursing bra. He drools buckets, so that his adorable outfits are sopping and disgusting. Clearly, my child is much more imperfect than my friend’s.
But at the same time, I think I understand better now what my friend was feeling. Loving the wonderful, beautiful aspects of my baby’s character means dreading the changes that will come naturally with his growth. I want to preserve his innocent wonder, his curiosity, his persistence, his open-hearted joy, and I know the world will not let me. I wish these parts of him could stay the same always, but I’m not sure to what extent they’re him, his fundamental personality revealing itself, and to what extent they’re just part of the stage of life he’s in. If he changes, does that mean he’s getting corrupted by this rotten world, does it mean I’m messing him up, or does it just mean he’s growing? Curiosity, determination, loving warmth: these are traits I value very highly. Identifying them in my child makes me afraid of raising him in a world that will frustrate his attempts to express them, or, worse, see them as signs of weakness.
The phrase “killing a child’s spirit” makes me sick because I usually hear it coming from entitled parents who romanticize their children’s disruptive behavior and allow them to impose on others, but that’s exactly what I’m afraid of. I’m afraid of the day when rejection or social shame clamps inhibitions on my child’s sweet, affectionate nature. I hope that he always keeps his heart open to others and allows himself to trust, to take the risk of caring. I want him to remain curious and excited about learning and discovering. I don’t want repeated failure to teach him that his persistence won’t pay off. Seeing him shut down will break my heart, and I know it is inevitable because one day he will be twelve.
Around his birthday I felt especially nostalgic for his newborn body, his skinny legs and fragile, weblike hands. I had done my best to take sensory snapshots of him, to imprint in my arms the way it felt to hold him as he was then, and I’m glad haven’t lost that memory yet. This time next year I’ll be missing his unsteady gait, the way he puts the ‘toddle’ in ‘toddler,’ and his silly babbling noises, while being thrilled with his new accomplishments. I know it’s not good for kids to be protected from every disappointment, that making mistakes and experiencing challenging, unpleasant things are what turn us into adults. This world corrupts all of us, and we lose some sweetness, but gain complexity and flavor. Someday I’ll be able to enjoy adult conversations with my son, and I hope he’ll amaze me with his wisdom. What a gift that will be, one that won’t be possible if he doesn’t endure some heartbreak along the way. But for now, I’ll enjoy storytime, finger foods, and the final days of nursing. But not the tantrums. I can endure those if I must, but I can’t enjoy them. Sorry.