My husband often tells me — sweetly so — that I’m always talking about the park. It’s true, I do melt his ears off about it since I’m always sharing my observations and analyses with him. I can’t help myself; I’m hard-wired to be observant, contemplative, and analytical. A nuisance as it can be in my life at times — queue all over-thinkers in the room — I actually appreciate this aspect about my personality, because as a mom now, it allows me to always be aware of my son, especially as complex words for him are still left unsaid at his age, and emotions and thoughts only felt and experienced.
Keaton is almost 18 months now and he’s only starting to interact and socialize with other children. My husband and I sometimes wonder if the pandemic has somehow affected his social development and his sense of belonging, or lack thereof, in the context of the world around him. I think it’s a fair question that many parents have asked themselves, and will continue to ask themselves, especially as the pandemic progresses to play an unfeeling game of yo-yo. We’re all living in unprecedented, uncertain, and abnormal times when even the thought of our kids being next to each other, can concoct a crippling sense of anxiety and unease. Life’s not normal as we know it, and even our parenting values and styles have had to adapt to fit with the times and circumstances.
It’s hard and it’s heartbreaking. For my husband and I, there’s something unnatural and deeply wounding to ourselves as parents, and especially to our child, that we’ve had to shield him from fellow children and peers and the world at large — and for so long. There’s a heavy amount of guilt and self-blame that we carry on our shoulders on a daily basis for what may come of our child — or had already come of our child — as a result of our decisions and fears. And Keaton isn’t at the toddler age either where we could explain complexities to him as to why he can’t hug or touch other kids or vice versa. All he sees and understands is that he can’t, and that it’s a bad thing because we pulled him away. We could see the confusion and sadness in his eyes, and this burns our soul to no end. We feel ourselves to be monsters.
We’ll never know if we did the right thing or not. Our number one priority since his birth at the start of the pandemic was his safety, thus we kept him home from daycare, and, up until recently, have social distanced him and ourselves from every other human being possible on this planet (save for family members). The decision to withhold our child from other children is so unnatural and inhumane that it’s a crippling experience to behold. But as parents, like every other parent out there, we’re learning as we go. Some parents have been comfortable with their kids interacting outside at the park, and have been laissez-faire since the start of the pandemic. Meanwhile, some parents still aren’t ready for this kind of commitment. We’ve been the latter sort since the beginning of it all, but it’s only presently that we’ve started taking small, manageable steps towards being less cautious. While we’re still vigilant and mindful about keeping our child safe, we’re now OK with Keaton briefly interacting with others outside in the playground. And we’re enjoying this immensely. It feels refreshing. It feels free.
So far, Keaton has had a few adorable and pleasant interactions with other kids — some younger and some older. It makes my heart smile seeing him this way. He’s never been at a daycare or interacted with other kids before, so I felt anxious about how he’d behave and intermingle with them at the park. After all, we could only teach and show him so much; he needed his own life experience. What we witnessed was how gentle, sensitive, and mindful he was with other kids. Today, for example, when he saw a little girl his age, he approached her and waved and smiled so sweetly, and then proceeded to sharing his ball with her. His movement, gesture, and body language — so gentle and kind. Shy, too, but oh so cute. I guess that would’ve been a normal occurrence for the everyday parent who witnesses these things on a daily basis, but for us, it was monumental and profound. It was one of the firsts of him interacting with another child. I felt emotional. We felt so proud of him. We also felt like we did something right in the midst of all this self-doubt. There was a sense of healing and peace that ensued in us.
As time goes by and Keaton begins interacting with other children, I also begin to understand myself better, especially my anxieties regarding parks. For one, as an introvert, the park is literally the bane of my existence. There are so many tiny humans that I must be physically aware of — I call them little COVIDs — that it feels like I’m playing Minesweeper with my feet. (Not that I’m any taller by contrast. I’m a gnome.) Then there’s the inescapable reality of handling social situations that are part and parcel of park dynamics, which is debilitating for my old, tired and introverted soul. This is true when I’m compelled to acknowledge or socialize with tiny humans — and therefore, potentially their larger human counterparts — if my own tiny human approaches them. It’s a challenging phase for me right now as a first-time parent, too, because I’m learning to navigate situations where by my own value and principle, discernment is needed to assess whether I ought to step in and guide my child away from another or not. For example, if I see that Keaton and another little one are expressively open to greeting or even playing with each other, as indicated by a smile or a wave or a physical approach, then I let them be. But if, say, Keaton approaches another child and I see that the child is unresponsive or is perhaps shy or reserved and shows no obvious indication of want of interaction, then I’ll gently guide my son away. Something I’d like to teach Keaton is that while it’s important to always be aware of other people’s emotional landscape and body language — it says a lot more than we think — it’s still not his place to decide or to guess what other people’s intentions are, and that includes whether they wish to befriend him or not. If he’s in a situation where he’s unsure, it’s best policy to not force a connection and to give space for others to exercise their own agency.
It’s strange to say, but even if as an introverted parent I’m thrown into situations that are uncomfortable for me, paradoxically, I do find peace and healing in it, because I understand that I’m learning and evolving in the process. Even more strange of all, and perhaps the sweetest note, is that it’s actually my son who’s the one holding my hand and bridging me with others and guiding me to live life more daringly. It’s through him interacting with other kids that, I, too, feel open to and interested in also interacting with their parents, and therefore with the world at large. Sometimes there’s nothing more to it than simply addressing that my child was interested in their child’s activities, which often garnishes warmth and smiles. Frankly, it feels good. It feels good to feel myself part of something greater than myself — a community. In spite of myself and my introversion, I love most of all when we share smiles and laughter with other parents, and when I see Keaton and another child sweetly exchanging connections, if but for a brief moment in time. I think what this pandemic and the postpartum period has done, is made me forget how to open myself up to the world and to assert myself in society the way I had pre-COVID and pre-motherhood. I’ve lost confidence in myself along the way. Now, I feel like I’m getting back up on my feet again and learning alongside Keaton, and there’s something ever so raw and human about that. This little guy, so small in stature, is already my wise teacher; and I have much to experience.
Every time I try to take a photo of Keaton or “Chou,” I always end up getting a photo of him in motion instead. He’s just too quick for me to take a still photo of him. Yet these photos, where he’s in action and being himself, are indeed the perfect kind of photos because they’re authentic and true to the moment. In fact, they depict who he is very much: a little guy in constant motion in such a big world. It’s no surprise that I have countless photos of the back of his head, which I find so cute and funny, especially with his one big curl.
“Chou” is French for cabbage. We’ve been calling him “Petit bout de chou” (little cabbage) since he was a baby.
These days, I enjoy frequenting the coyote park with my husband and Chou. It’s actually a nature trail next to a lake — not exactly a coyote park — but we like to call it as such because we know that sometimes, though more rare, there are coyote sightings, which, although can be a worrisome phenomenon, is actually not that odd of an occurrence given how, for a long time now, they’ve been coexisting in the city amongst us. (I still laugh when I think of the couple who brought a coyote home thinking it was a dog, and bathed it.)
This trail is currently my favourite place. We’re lucky, too, because it’s so close to us, so while it’s walking distance from our home, every time we tread there, I always feel as if we drove a long way to hike somewhere in the mountains. And that feels expansive. I have my husband to thank for discovering the trail out of curiosity. I’ve lived here my whole life and have walked in the vicinity numerous times, but never have I thought to venture to that side of the lake. And now, I’ve discovered someplace wonderful: quiet, serene, and full of possibilities. (Except when a dog appears out of nowhere and slobbers all over me, thinking I’m a chicken of some sort.) I can’t wait to see it in the autumn with my family. Romantic!
Keaton loves being there; he’s always been a nature boy. He loves brushing the trees with his fingers, picking up leaves, and grabbing branches and walking with them, as if he were an elderly gent. The only paradox and bummer for us is that he’s at the age where he wants to be held constantly. Do I blame him, though? I think it’s pretty smart. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be held cozily by mommy and daddy, and feel that much closer to the towering trees and sky? Though, if that’s really his intention, he better choose daddy to carry him, because at gnome height, mommy is not going anywhere far, or high, with him.
Chou is now over 17 months old, and he already feels like a mini adult. How one little guy — I actually hear he’s quite tall from fellow parents — can harbour so much responsibility on his little shoulders and can be so perceptive, and at such a young and tender age, is beyond me. The other day, I didn’t have my wedding ring and when he found it on the kitchen floor, he looked worried and rushed to my husband to show it to him, as if to say “this is mommy’s,” and then he ran over to me in the bedroom and handed it to me and gestured to me to wear it — that it was important for me. My heart expanded. He’s always been wildly analytical and detail-oriented since he was a baby, and very in tune with our emotions.
This little guy is always trying to analyze and understand the people he loves and his surroundings. He tries to understand how we feel and why, and how things work. For example, when he was just a baby — not even at the crawling stage yet — rather than playing with the toy at hand, he’d obsessively flip it upside down and back and forth to understand the mechanics of it; and if he sees that we’re doing something technical, he’d try to emulate it, too, with his own toys. Yesterday we got him a bike, which he approached slowly with gentleness and appreciation, but as we expected, rather than riding it, he enjoyed flipping it most of all to see how the wheels and structure worked. He also took daddy’s tool, which he studied intently, and tried to tighten the seat himself with it.
He makes us laugh often because he’s just his own person, and we’re constantly in awe of him. (He makes us cry and tear what little left we have of our hair, too, to be sure.) We love how amazingly helpful he is, most of all. He even makes coffee for us in the morning. He knows how to open the Keurig lid, pop the pod in, close the lid, and press the strong and largest size buttons. He also loves to bring the cleaning supplies to me when he knows I’m cleaning. He’ll even sweep the floor next to me, with his own mini broom, as if to copy me whilst also giving me moral support.
We also love that he’s very communicative and expressive. If he’s hurt, he’ll communicate to us where his “bobo” is on his body and proceed to show us where he hurt himself. For example, the other day, he hit his face on the corner of the kitchen table and he went to show us the exact place of origin. Also, if we hurt his feelings, he’ll let us know by expressing it to us using his unique sounds and gestures. In a similar vein, he’s very meticulous and detail-oriented. He’ll tell us where objects go if they’re in the wrong place. The funny part is when daddy can’t sleep on his side of the bed — not because he’s mean or doesn’t want to share — but because he knows that daddy belongs in his big adult bed, so he’ll roll him off and away!
Little Keaton has little quirks that are adorably unforgiving for the faint of heart. So far, I can see that he’s very perceptive, obsessive, and resilient like me, and very energetic, distracted, kind, and social like his father. I know that if he learns to embrace his strengths and weaknesses as two sides of the same coin, and to embrace the light and dark parts of himself and to channel them healthily, that he’ll be OK in life. I hope he remains true to himself as he gets older. Self-awareness and self-knowledge are key to his personal evolution, if he’s to assert himself as a wholesome individual in the world; and as his parents, we wish for nothing more than to provide him with the tools and confidence to navigate the maps of his own soul as he grows and walks through life independently.
As parents now, our job is plentiful, dynamic, and multifaceted. It’s continually learning our son — who he is, how he works, his temperament, and his joys and pains — and continually learning ourselves as individuals, as a couple, and as parents. It’s also continually learning and creating our role within the social fabric of society, whilst also providing our son with the tools to find and create his own place within this social strata. Daily parenting, whether done through conscious efforts and actions or through our own unknown subconscious makeup, is often times an under-appreciated and low-key yet mountainous task, and the effects are deep and long-lasting.
Although most parents wish to raise good individuals in society, in practice, the seemingly clearly defined line between raising kind, compassionate future adults and creating wounded and hurtful individuals is so thin and complex, it’s enough cause for pause and self-reflection. We all hold the future of humanity in our hands, and it’s both empowering and dangerous — especially the latter if we’re wounded and not self-aware. Anyone can teach their kids what to do, or how to behave or share or be kind. That makes for well-behaved children. But character and critical life skills are more complex to cultivate — they reflect our own personal evolution and who we show ourselves to be as individuals, and therefore as parents. To be able to think critically, to be able to feel others, to be able to discern between contexts, to be able to exercise discipline and strive for personal excellence, to be able to learn oneself and to admit fault and defeat but still rise from the ashes — these are the traits of warriors. Self-mastery is a mastery of life itself.
I think the best gift we could give our child and future children is our self-awareness as individuals. My husband and I tend to discuss our role as parents, the evolution of our relationship, and our strengths and weaknesses. We’re constantly evaluating and re-evaluating our identities, and our opinion of ourselves and each other. For us, it only makes sense: there’s no growing without being aware of or coming to terms with the dark aspects of ourselves, and continually so. If we wish to cultivate the best version of our child(ren), then we, too, must cultivate the best versions of ourselves first and foremost. Yet for individuals like us who constantly keep ourselves in check, it becomes a blessing and a curse in day to day life. The playground, a seemingly innocent and relaxing place, is a prime example of our constant hyperawareness because we’re constantly aware of ourselves and our behaviour, and of other people’s behaviour — even if they’re not aware of it themselves.
The park or the playground is my arch-nemesis. While I take my son there every day in order for him to exert his energy and to learn to co-exist with other children, especially since he’s not in daycare, and of course, for him to have fun, it’s actually a highly stressful environment for me. I’m constantly on high alert because for one, my son is a tornado of sorts and is bound to fall or hurt himself; secondly, it’s a pandemic, and no matter what anyone says about kids’ superhuman immune system, no, I’m not going to risk him catching the virus. Moreover, as someone who’s hypersensitive and hyperaware of my surroundings and other people, all the stimulation at hand is a lot for my brain to deal with. Considering safety and handling interactions, while it tends to be a normal and mundane everyday occurrence for many people, is an exhausting feat for me. Not only is my natural aptitude towards human psychology a big enough burden for me already, but it’s also my nature’s desire to take care of other people, that makes me feel the weight of the world on my shoulders.
Taking care of others in this context is synonymous to me being aware of them and how they’re feeling, especially when I’m at the park with my son. I’m always reading other parents’ body language and emotional landscape. Often times, people have contradictory thoughts and emotions without even realizing it on a conscious level, and give themselves away through their microexpressions and body language; and it’s important for me to catch that in order for me to better accommodate them. (I guess it’s human decency.) The park is an interesting environment where order and chaos co-exist peacefully and subtly. It’s also a fickle place where one could feel one’s faith in humanity being restored one day, and shattered the next. It’s a sweet sight when Keaton and another child lock eyes and muster a shy smile and show interest in each other. It’s also a pleasant experience when I exchange smiles and interactions with fellow parents and have light conversations with them. I live for these fleeting, yet humane moments in time.
One of the most genuine moments for me is when I see Keaton waving at other children and curiously observing them. He frequently does it when they turn to leave and can no longer see him, which is amusing because he can be quite shy about it. I also find it super adorable when he follows a fellow child — often times older — and watches what they’re doing. I habitually let him observe, and after a while, I’ll hold his hand and take him away, and explain to him that the child is doing their thing and that it’s mindful to give them their space and privacy. (Unless of course the child clearly is fascinated by Keaton, too, and wishes to interact.) It’s always important to me to observe and assess children and their parents’ body language and level of comfort. Again, it’s another jarring experience for me, because while I appreciate my son’s experience that’s very natural to him at his age — that is, learning another child and observing their activities — I can’t help but also take the other child and their parents’ experience into account. This is why simultaneously parenting my son and naturally being in tune with the world around me — more so than normal — can be so taxing.
Sometimes, it’s also heartbreaking for me when I see my son waving at a fellow child for want of a brief interaction, and it’s overlooked. I understand it’s without malice, but it’s still sad for me nonetheless, especially when I see how Keaton knits his eyebrows with sadness (even if he tends to move on rather quickly). As time goes by, I’m already beginning to see visceral moments that are shaping Keaton’s self-image and his understanding of the world at large. Everything, big or small, has an enduring effect. Keaton is so young and the playground can be a brutal and ruthless teacher — and an asshole at that (excuse my language). Yet for my husband and I, he’s never too young to learn boundaries or to learn that other people needn’t like him or wish to befriend him, and that it’s their choice and right. But that it’s his responsibility to himself to live his truth, and to have enough self-respect and integrity to stand upright even if the ground beneath his feet shake and shatter. This is self-love and self-respect.
Even comments from the most well-meaning of strangers and passersby — and said long and repeatedly enough over the course of his life — can affect his sense of identity within the social world. Something I don’t appreciate is when strangers greet him and expect him to be a smiling kid who waves back at them like a happy clapping seal. My personal favourite is when a neighbour, through no mean intention, would often say, “Oh, he doesn’t look too happy.” While I don’t feel like justifying my child’s social persona to other people, much less strangers, I now feel comfortable telling them, with my own smile and politeness, that he’s simply analytical. And frankly, I like that about him very much. I like that he assesses a person deeply before deciding to smile at them, or to even like them for that matter. Society tends to reward those who are extroverted, social, outgoing, and friendly. And as a parent now, I see that it starts early, and in very subtle ways. A child gets comments from a well-meaning stranger (who’s more pitifully untactful than anything else), is demeaned by a teacher for being introverted or quiet, or is told to be someone else by a parent who’s self-absorbed and downright ignorant.
Keaton isn’t even one and a half yet. Yet I could already feel and see how the harsh realities of life and people are already playing a role in his life, even if he’s just a mere nugget. There are those who stop to say hello to him and to appreciate him wholly with the utmost presence. (His cuteness is often cause for happy smiles for passersby.) I could feel the warmth emanating from these kind souls, and I’m very thankful for them. They’re the majority of those whom we stumble upon, and it always makes my day. Then there are those who also stop to say hello and to appreciate his cuteness, but also expect him to act the part of their preconceived notion of what children should be. In his lifetime, there will be those who will guide him to his light, and those that will dim his essence. This is a fact of life in all its beauty and imperfections, and it’s his job to carve his place and make peace with the context of the world — and to do so with the utmost conviction and integrity.
I think, what it is for me right now, is that when I look at Keaton and see how smart, kind, and gentle he is, there’s a level of pre-emptive sadness I feel for the imminent loss of his innocence as he grows older and experiences life in all its rays. No, I never wish to shield him from the world in all its beauty and pain. I actually wish for him to learn in the midst of adversity — it’s the only true way to build character, strength, and determination. Yet where I feel sad, is in knowing that one day there’s going to come a time when he may feel broken, and I can’t help the pain I feel in knowing this, because I’ve been there — we’ve all been there — and I love him so much. I do know, though, that when the time comes, I’ll be his pillar of strength and the compass for him to search his own soul. I hope that when the tide passes and the sea finds its calm again, that he’ll be able to look at life again with newfound innocence. From a place of having died and rebirthed, and of having loved and lost. From a place of wisdom, acceptance, and growth. From will and choice itself. And that’s when he’ll know he’ll have become a man.