We were out the other day, in the only fashion we ever are these days: frantically. Meaning that we always seem harried and frazzled, the kids are usually yelling, fighting or otherwise in some state of discontent and Greg and I are doing our best not to appear about ready to explode, start yelling and say, “That’s it! We’re leaving!” packing everything back up and storming off in a noisy huff. We’ve been making a pretty good effort to still “get out” to some extent since Miles was born and still do some of our regular summer activities with the kids. One thing our city does, which a lot of cities do in the summer, is to put on a summer concert series entitled “Jazz on the Ave” which happens every Wednesday evening and draws gaggles of people. Jazz fans. Needless to say Greg and I are not nearly cool enough to really fit in with the crowd (especially not with the small chillens) but we do our best.
We had just set up our lawn chairs in an anxious flurry and I went to throw something out in a nearby trash can and, of course, Ruth and Joel both had to follow me, Joel nearly in tears because I was walking away from him and it was loud with people everywhere. I don’t know what happened, some sibling scuffle, Ruth took his hand and tried to direct him back to the chairs or something, whatever it was, set Joely off into pout-ville, where he’s become a regular visitor of late. If anyone so much as looks at him sideways since Miles was born, he gets all despondent and gloomy and pretty much just stays glued to the spot until further notice, a big scowl on his face.
I needed to go back to the car because I forgot the baby blanket I was going to use as a breastfeeding cover (god forbid anyone accidentally sees an unedited nipple) and I was in the process of trying to coax him back to the chairs so that Greg could keep an eye on him while I was gone when an older lady next to me noticed Joel and said, “I just love her boots!” That’s right. People old and young, women and men, jazz fans and heavy metal enthusiasts alike constantly mistake my son for a girl. It’s the flowing golden curls, the fact that he often dons his sister’s outfits and the fact that, clearly, if he was a boy, we would have buzzed his hair short, dressed him in army fatigues and a shirt that says “100% BOY” just to be sure no one made the TERRIBLE and embarrassing mistake of calling our SON a GIRL (tongue in cheek, ya’ll, but the gender bender issues with kids is one I am constantly exploring…people’s reactions to as well as the feelings that crop up within me in response to their responses). “Yeah so does he,” I said, “clearly. Wearing them in the middle of summer and all…” I think she missed my pronoun, but that was fine. I should elaborate that Joel was wearing a pajama t shirt, a diaper and Ruth’s giant winter boots with flowers on them. If you think I gave a damn about his outfit, you’re mistaken. I couldn’t care less. The lady continued to look on adoringly at Joel who stared us both down with a big frowny face. I offered, “Terrible twos,” which people usually give validity to, nod knowingly and commiserate, even though I secretly think 3 is much worse and compared to Ruth’s meltdowns at five, nothing Joel has in his arsenal is even comparable. “Doesn’t help that there’s a new baby brother,” I added, acknowledging Miles strapped to my chest in an ergo baby looking like a freaking backwards hiking backpack, with all the straps and doo-dads on the thing. Ready to conquer Everest with this thing. Then she hit me with the best advice I have ever been given in regards to new babies and sibling rivalry. She looked at Miles, then back at Joel, said something like, “Mmmmmmhhhmmmmmm,” in that wise older lady like way, and then she said, “Gotta spread that love THICK, mama,” still looking at Joel with a faint, knowing smile pulling at the edges of her mouth.
And I swear, it was like an egg cracked open in my head, that sensation you can get sometimes when you finally realize the true nature of something that has baffled you for a long time. The truth. Often easy, and so clear when you finally catch on. Duh.
Thank you cool old jazz fan lady, wherever you are. I seriously owe this lady a lot. Because the general consensus and what most people would have said in so many words in that situation is some version of, “You’ve got to show your kids who’s the boss, Tony Danza style. Don’t let them get away with anything.” Thank you, jazz lady, for making my role so clear. For waking me up to the reality of my situation. My kids need me. They need my love and understanding now more than ever. So, it doesn’t matter how tired I am, how run-ragged, how stupid and annoying Joel’s behavior seems, not to mention inconvenient. I need to stretch myself that much further, to spread my love THICK, not to withhold it. Thank you for reminding me that it’s love, not intolerance, that’s going to soften Joel’s hard edges and get us all through this adjustment period intact, and, in fact, stronger, closer, and more confident in the love that our family is built upon.
It’s strange, the places that we find the best advice, the small utterances of strangers that can crack open our problems and make everything so clear sometimes. I have no idea who this lady was, I don’t even have a clear picture of her face. But her words will stay with me forever, and the way I felt after she said them, like a burden on my heart had been lifted and shed behind me, a rumpled and useless thing.