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.