I remember the first time my heart broke for one of my babies. The Girl was not quite 18 months and we were at a mall play area fighting a cold winter of cabin fever (sound familiar) with a little organized run around time. It was pretty empty except for two other little boys who were probably about 6 and 8. There was a ball, or balloon or something of that nature. My memory for that isn’t so great. The Girl was playing with it then the boys got it and started a little monkey in the middle game with my precious babe as the monkey.
She was laughing and skipping around, oblivious to the fact that these boys had locked eyes over her head and make a nasty little silent agreement to keep the ball away from the baby and then laughed every time she missed grabbing it.
At first I wanted to scoop her up and run away from these jerks (yes, I thought they were jerks at 6 and 8. Protective mom much?) but I didn’t do anything but watch in agony because I seemed to be the only one of us who realized she was the butt of the joke. She thought she was playing with new friends and was thus unaffected by the entire thing. Pretty quickly the boys got bored of the game and gave back the ball/balloon back to my little lady and all was well. But for those few minutes, I finally understood the saying about parenthood feeling like you wear your heart on the outside because mine broke a million different ways that day.
Little did I know this incident of my early motherhood was a precursor to all that I would feel as my children grew into their tweens. Now, the hurt doesn’t just happen with strangers in a play area, but often from people they know the best, including themselves. Also, the hurt seems to be around every corner-real or perceived, there are daily questions and slights and hits against their armor, sometimes, the worst comes from inside themselves. And they are never oblivious, but instead painfully aware.
The difference now that I’m a parent of tweens, not toddlers, is that I can’t and probably shouldn’t, protect them like I could back then. I can no longer race in to scoop them up and remove them from situations where people are mean. I can’t hug and kiss her enough to heal the hurt. I can’t single-handedly rebuild his self-confidence that inevitably takes a hit when people aren’t nice. I also can’t just presume their innocence either. It’s important that I make sure they aren’t either bullied or the bully, so each story they needs redirection questioning to ensure all angles are seen and then much prayer that they keep sharing, even if I question.
The hate joke in all this is that if you’re doing your job right as a parent, then you will have less and less ability to protect your young ones just as you feel more and more compelled to do so. The world gets harder and harder just as you have to let them go more and more. They need to learn to protect themselves and rebuild their own esteem or at least guard it from attack. They must navigate the difference between bullied and bully and learn to choose well. I can advise. I can model and discuss. I can listen without judgment when they cry and I can hope it all works out alright in the end.
Indeed, parenting feels like wearing your heart on the outside all while trying to build a protective cover around a tribe of tiny hearts that you can never cushion as much as you’d like.
Parenting toddlers is hard. Parenting older kids is worse.