A recent Saturday morning with my son was a treasure: he invited me to play Lego with him. I made a pot of tea and brought it over to the living room rug to join him in the middle of the Lego piles. He was nice enough not to say anything about my violation of our house rule forbidding food or drink in the living room. I dug through the plastic tote full of parts to pick out the pieces that looked interesting to me. Instead of picking out his own blocks, my son watched me intently. As I started to put the plastic bricks and tubes together I felt nervous under his scrutiny. After a moment he kindly showed me how to get two awkward pieces to fit together and complemented my aircraft design. I relaxed and settled into our time together, both in our pajamas, enjoying the quiet of the morning before anyone else was up.
However, it was all I could do not to turn into the nagging mother as I watched his desperate-to-pee dance. Reminding him to go to the bathroom would have spoiled the mood, so I said nothing except to ask for construction advice. For a little while we were just building buddies in a world of spaceships and robots, not talking about anything in particular, but enjoying being together.
It’s special to find opportunities like this with my children when we can just “be,” or when our conversation can meander without purpose or direction. What a treat to find moments when I don’t need to remind them of a chore or to get ready to go somewhere. Car rides, when I’m not too preoccupied with driving in traffic, are great chances to touch base, tell jokes, sing, and hang out together. So often, though, my impatience gets in the way. When I pick them up from school, I’m anxious to hear how their days went. I probe them for information, even knowing that the surest way to have a kid clam up is to ask, “How was your day?” It’s so hard to resist the temptation to extract details, even when I know that the stories do come out eventually if I just give them time. On the other hand, sometimes I might be so distracted by my own thoughts or by the need to get to our destination that I misunderstand or don’t fully listen to my children’s comments. I sometimes answer too quickly without waiting for the full story or fail to grasp the importance of what they tell me.
When I was about 12 years old, I initiated a car conversation with my mother about the book I was reading at the time, Judy Blume’s Deenie, about a 13-year-old girl diagnosed with scoliosis. As a budding teenager the part of the book that most grabbed my attention was not the back brace the title character had to wear, but the make-out scene between Deenie and her boyfriend. Being naïve to the world of boyfriends myself, I wanted to talk with my mom about what I’d read — the descriptions of kissing and petting were exciting and seemed really cool. I must have got my mom on a bad day, or else she was distracted by something else. All I remember about the conversation was that she reacted angrily and expressed strong disapproval of the character, saying that her behavior was inappropriate for a girl her age. A door was regrettably and unintentionally shut during those few moments in the car, and I never brought up sex with my mother again after that. Something else must have been on her mind (she doesn’t remember the conversation) for her to react in such an unexpectedly sharp way. I think about this incident now that I have my own kids and realize how easy it could be to put up walls simply by overreacting or by being unaware of my kids’ attempts to reach out.
Mothers’ roles are complicated. We’re usually the ones who keep schedules on track, issue gentle reminders, anticipate everyone’s needs, and dispense advice, all the while attempting to keep lines of communication open and staying connected with our kids. It takes particular skill to negotiate the fuzzy line that defines our roles as manager, parent, and buddy, while offering gentle guidance or responding to what our kids really need from us. I’m pretty good at building bridges with Lego. But who knows what bombshells my kids may drop on me during our car conversations. I hope my own children are more forgiving of me than I was with my own mother — this job isn’t easy!