The birds and the bees

When my son was thirteen months old, I took him back East to meet his cousins, Aunt and Uncle. One night, in the middle of this visit, ensconced with my son and three nieces in a cozy bed, my oldest niece suddenly looked at me and said in a perplexed tone, “Tanya, he’s so cute. But I just don’t get it. How does the baby get out? Is there an operation and does it hurt or does the hospital give it to you? I mean, how do you get a baby?” A little flustered as to how to answer, I wound up telling her that it takes part luck and part biology to make a baby and that she might want to talk to her mom about the specifics.

Over the next month, this conversation kept creeping back into my mind. As my thoughts swirled around the topic, I couldn’t help but think about how I couldn’t remember not knowing how babies are made. Soon after, I decided that I would talk about this subject with my son at a very young age in a low-key manner. Fortunately for me, I serendipitously soon found a Dr. Ruth pop-up book that explained this very topic.

And so, between the ages of three and four, we read this book innumerable times. Before bed, in the mornings, and at nap times, we learned how to spell S-E-X, what it’s all about, and how it works. By the end of this phase, I had developed a pretty good analogy for explaining how babies are made.

In the shortened version, I would tell my son that making babies is isn’t too different from making a cake. You need some ingredients, an egg and a sperm. And, just like when we’re baking, the ingredients need to mix together to make something new. The mom’s uterus is the oven, with the only difference being that instead of an hour, it takes nine months before a baby’s ready to come out and be enjoyed. Most importantly, though, just like when we make a cake, it’s important to make sure that you love the person you have sex with since it makes the experience (and the baby) all the sweeter. And then, adopting the philosophy of spray and pray, I fervently hoped that my son absorbed the main messages.

A couple of years ago, my seven year old son casually approached me as he was getting ready for bed and calmly stated that “A lot of my friends think hugging and kissing is disgusting, but I don’t get it. It’s just a natural fact of life. Right mom?” “Right.” And with this quiet declaration, I knew that my son had indeed retained one of the valuable tenets that I had espoused to him.

As I watch him grow older, quietly but steadily approaching teenagehood with all of its precarious uncertainty and novelty, I hold on to the hope that he will keep his heart open, make his emotions visible, and dare to take emotional risks while treasuring himself enough to only share his intimate self with one he loves and who can reciprocate in measure.

Being your own true self

Like most kids, when I was young I was just me. And, quite frequently, between the time that I awoke and the time that I went to bed, my own true self went through quite a few metamorphoses.

Sometimes I was an introvert, reading and dreaming for hours on end, content to be in a world full of endless unimaginable possibilities.

Other times I was extroverted, charming the adults around me, entertaining them with my wild costumes depicting my imaginings of who I was or desired to be in that particular moment, orchestrating performances that my friends and I would put on at preset times, or planning wild adventures and escapades that my friends and I could carry out in the safety of our neighborhood. And it was in these moments that I was able to lose myself and be as outrageous and fully myself as I could imagine.

As I grew older, went to school and entered conventional social relationships, the imperative to conform and fit in started to enter into the equation. Overwhelmingly, the message that I received was make yourself smaller, be inconspicuous, fit in.

Over time, this message sank in. In spite of my many teenage antics, by the time I was in my mid-twenties I was more ‘normal’, operating successfully within well-established social boundaries. By the time I hit thirty, I was an outward success: I had a successful consulting practice, was married, a homeowner, gave frequent dinner parties for my many friends and family, and was well on my way towards building a family of my own. And I was completely miserable.

Slowly, it dawned on me that throughout all of my endeavors to fit in and create the perfect life I had lost my own self. One by one, out of a desire to make others around me feel more comfortable, I had shut the doors to the rooms that allowed me to have a rich inner life and opened the possibility of being more than I already was.

When my marriage ended and I had to step outside of the known boundaries that I had carefully created for myself, I suddenly found the keys to some of my inner rooms that I had forgotten existed. As I opened the doors and explored their landscape as if visiting an exotic land for the first time, trying on various treasures that I came across, I realized that fitting in is not all its cracked up to be.

And, to my surprise, I found that being true to my self had its own rewards. Suddenly, I hit my stride. People appreciated me for me, not only silently accepting me for who I was but demanding that I allow my full talents and personality to emerge. In effect, encouraging me to be the person that they knew I could be.

As a parent, I find myself constantly struggling to avoid shaping my son into the image of who I think he should be. The overwhelming message that I want my son to absorb is that, as long as he is not harming another, he can be whoever he wants and that dreams don’t merely belong to the realm of fantasy. And so, I try to stand back, remove the obstacles that lie in his path to clear the way so that he can become the full version of who he is meant to be. By encouraging him to play large, meet the challenges of his own desires, and explore the rooms to his own inner mansion, I hope to one day be pleasantly surprised when he becomes something more than even I could have dared to imagine.

Being in the moment

Often, when I’m hanging out at the park with my son we’re with other parents and their children. Inevitably, as the kids play, we comment on their natures and, invariably, based on the characteristics displayed in that particular moment, someone starts to make predictions about what each one will be when they grow up.

Watching my son play in the sandbox at the park, I marvel at the fact that he can spend hours moving sand from pail to pail, enthralled with the possibilities that each grain presents, as if each movement were truly a depiction of the sands of time. And it strikes me that this is not the only activity in which he is capable of completely immersing himself, wholly absorbed as if nothing else exists in the world. For him, unlike us grownups, there is no past and future, only the here and now.

Reflecting on this, I’m reminded of a poster that I had on my wall as a child that stated “Happiness is as a butterfly, which if pursued is just beyond your grasp but if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” Although I must have read this particular poem countless times each night for numerous years and could recite it off the top of my head, it’s only recently that I’ve begun to absorb its message.

Now, on quiet spring evenings when I sit on my back patio sipping wine while watching my plants enjoy each stage of their growth, I marvel at how in their stillness they’re actually morphing into the shape they’re destined to be. And I think about how, for myself, it’s now the moment that’s precious instead of the end destination. Be it moments of pure happiness, utter dejection, wild abandon and elation, or mere indifference, I’ve finally come to the realization that it’s only by experiencing the process of life in all its incarnations that I’ll be able to grow and evolve. And with this realization has come the freedom from trying to capture the future by trying to take care of every eventually through preemptively forcing things into nice little boxes that can be neatly categorized. By being in the moment, I now find myself more open to doors in the present that I would not have noticed at an earlier time, bypassing them as a result of assumptions that they are irrelevant to future that I’m supposed to have.

This change has been in large part as a result of being a parent, and I know that I’m forever indebted to my son for teaching me this valuable lesson. I also know that as a parent, one of the ways that I can repay my son is by helping him to hold on to this gift of being in the moment so that as he grows into adulthood, not only does he evolve into who he is destined to be but he enjoys all of the individual moments that make up the journey, treasuring the magic of each unreplicable experience while exploring the possibility that each presents.

A special talent

Years ago, when I was in grad school, I used to be a night owl. Routinely, my friends and I would go to bars, drink, stay up late, and, throughout it all, yak it up, talking about nothing and everything under the sun. The world was still new to us and we were trying to find our place in it.

One night, at my neighbour’s house, over a drink that lasted until the early morning hours, he asked me what my special talent was. Stupefied by the question, I asked him what he meant. As an explanation, he told me that everyone has a special talent. While some people have an obvious talent, like juggling eight balls at once or breathing fire, others have quieter talents like being able to ease over an uncomfortable silence with grace or make others shine in the most ordinary of situations.

At the time, I was unable to answer his question but, as testament to its power, it stayed with me for over a decade as I intermittently tried to wrestle an answer to it for myself. As I grew up and slowly found a place where I was comfortable in the world, I realized that I have several talents. Although none stand out, screaming to be noticed, they are my strengths and I now try to play to them, instead of focusing my energies on trying to mitigate my weaknesses.

Recently, I read an article about how most organizations and people try to fix their ‘deficiencies’, focusing most of their efforts on this endeavour while taking their strengths and assets for granted in their efforts to succeed. Looking at this from a flip side, I wondered what the world would be like if people worked on their weaknesses while accepting them for what they are, and played to their strengths and talents instead. In imagining such a world, I can’t help but think that it would be a richer, kinder and happier place where people are more tolerant of themselves and that which they fear in themselves but recognize in others.

Looking at my son, I sometimes notice how he is hesitant to try things that he can’t do perfectly the first time, fearing that just doing it isn’t good enough. And, I sometimes worry that his innate desire to succeed at everything while knowing that he can’t will cause him to close off doors before they’ve fully opened out of a fear of failing that’s derived from his own unarticulated assumptions of what he ‘should’ be able to do.

As a parent watching these silent moments unfold, I remind myself that my job is to encourage my son to try different experiences, to persevere in the face of disappointment at his own lack of success, and, in the end, to recognize when to close a door and focus his energy on opening others and work on ones that are already ajar. For I hope that by trying different experiences his world will be enriched, both by an appreciation of what others are capable of and a development of self through the often unexpected moments in which he finds himself able to do something he himself previously labelled as impossible. Equally true, though, is the reality that I know: by accepting his own limitation and capitalizing on his strengths while developing his covert and overt talents he will be more successful and happier with himself wherever he finds himself in the world while being appreciative of the varied and complementary gifts that others can offer.