I winnowed my inbox down to 38 messages and while I clicked and deleted messages, I thought about a friend, a close friend, who is going to click and delete her Facebook account soon, and I smiled at the tight feeling I got in my chest. That tight feeling is an old one, and it represents the physical fear that grips Little El. What is the little me so afraid of? Being abandoned, I think. Yes, I know it’s crazy. My dear friend will remain my dear friend even after she leaves the playground and social assimilation zone that Facebook has become for me. She is not abandoning me. It just feels that way to the sad little girl who never really got to cuddle up to her mom or dad.
I smile sweetly at this tight feeling in my chest and I don’t push it away with frustration or irritation. It’s worth listening to the tender melodies and haunting refrains that play over and over again inside my heart when I make and then fear losing close friends. What does it all mean and how do I reassure Little El without holding on tightly, too tightly? I’m learning the answers through my children; more precisely, by taking a step forward and then back when my own children grip me too tightly.
I have three children and they arrived like little Irish triplets, one after another in a very short space of time. The middle child, Jim, came with chubby cheeks and these orb-like blue eyes that light up when he smiles and grow dull and grayish, almost vacant-looking, when he feels sad. Even as an infant, sweet baby James was more sensitive than his big sister and he summoned a side of me that felt foreign at first: a tender, gentle, unconditionally loving side. Before he came into my life, I had no idea how to mother my kids. I loved my daughter dearly, but I didn’t really know how to show her. But Jim. It was different with him. He would gaze into my grey-blue eyes and smile-cry, or cry-smile and I would feel it all inside me, and I knew exactly how to turn the smile-cry or cry-smile into a smile. And that has never changed.
The rub here is that as our children grow, they need for us to teach them how to let go of the arms that hold and comfort them long enough to muster out to the cold, hard real world, and with Jim, this process flattens both of us sometimes. When I dropped baby Jim off at preschool, he cried and cried and his tears hit my heart like angry, hot darts. But I had to walk away. I had to. I would whisper in his ear, “I will return, I promise, I will, and I love and adore you sweet Jim.” And then when I picked him up from his classroom, he would glare at me for leaving him, but eventually he would let go of his resentment and messily climb into my arms, with a gratuitous grabbing of my long blond “Breck” hair.
Jim is 7 years old now, and he still holds a painfully tender place in my heart. He is the easiest of my three children in all ways except for one: abandonment. It is a truism I think that all children (especially male children) must find the strength to leave their mothers and Jim remains a work in progress on this front. I help teach a Socratic seminar to Jim and a few of his first grade mates and a strange thing happens whenever I sit at this round table with 5 little boys and girls. Jim shuts down.
Jim is a talkative, bright boy but he cannot function intellectually at school when I am near him, because his emotional need for me simply overflows his nervous system. He’s terrified that I am going to like the other children better. He is distraught that I will be leaving in 30 minutes. And yet he sort of wants me to leave, so that he can go on being the autonomous and brilliant little boy he is when I am not there serving as his mental crutch. Everything anyone says in that small little copy room enters his brain as a twisted message, heavily symbolic, of the mother sitting beside him who would love, does love . . . him . . . and it overloads his circuitry.
I have tried to talk with Jim, and explain that while I teach, I am there for all five little boys and girls, but will always and forever be there for him. He hears me but his heart screams otherwise. His heart beats and in each upbeat something inchoate cries out, “Don’t leave me,” but in each downbeat sounds the response, “Let me fly.” I cannot push him too hard or too fast. He must find the strength to leave me, knowing that he can, with the setting of his internal sun, always return to me. For now, I can serve as his sun and moon and stars but eventually, he must find his own solar system deep inside, and use it, and not I, to navigate.
Until then, I wait with him. Until then, he gathers tools and knowledge. Until then, I hold on loosely but not too loosely.
And from Jim I am learning how to hold on loosely to my friends and to the people I would love. My mother did not launch me gently into the egg-shaped orbit of my own life. Yet I made it to where I am now. Even if I didn’t realize it (even if I failed miserably at it) I am and always was strong enough to rotate gently, not too tightly, around the friends who people my existence. My friend is not leaving me when she deactivates her Facebook account. It has nothing to do with me. And whatever happens, with her or with anyone else who I encounter, fearing their loss before they are gone warps the present by using the past to strangle the here and now. And so I hold on not too tightly, not too loosely and I let go, not of her, but of whatever fear grips me.