What have we adults done to deserve them? The children. The pure, enigmatic, creative, spiritual, insightful, always hungry, and sometimes stinky little beings. The tiny humans that will grow to, hopefully, be better humans than we are. Better adults than we are. If we only gauge our behavior in accordance with how we are reflected back to ourselves through their eyes, they can teach us so much. We need to listen more to these tiny humans, or even listen more to our own childhood selves.
But who can remember anything about what it felt like to be a child? What it felt like to be loved unconditionally by your parents. What it felt like to be protected from the scariness that is the world out there. I wonder, now that I am the unconditional lover, the protector, am I doing a good job? Hopefully. And as I watch my own career prospects dwindle in front of my eyes because of it, I wonder, am I doing too much? Is that a thing? Could I have reigned in my love, my desire to protect my children enough to allow myself space in the world?
I reassure myself, as I watch my student debt burden paradoxically grow every time I make a payment, that I’ve done what needed to be done. I did what I had to do for the love and safety of my children. And I expect nothing in return. That’s not exactly true. I do expect respect. I do expect a modicum of love in return. I do expect to see what I’ve put in come out in their interactions with the world.
When my twins were tiny, tiny babies they weren’t supposed to be here. They came into the world 8 weeks early. We had to wait forever for them to hit each of their milestones. The milestone that seemed like they made us wait forever for, however, was the first smile. I can’t remember when you’re supposed to get your first smile from baby (don’t tell my inner judgmental self that I should have all of this on the tip of my tongue from med school), but I remember we had to wait a really freakin’ long time. Months. For months, we fed, diapered, woke up in the middle of the night, endured crying spells that persisted despite everything we did to quell them. That’s all the little beings did: eat, poop, sleep, cry, and demand. And dutiful parents, we jumped to answer every demand.
Then one day, it was like they realized that we, their dutiful parents, were entities that existed outside of themselves. Perhaps they considered that it would possibly be a good thing to acknowledge those entities that had kept them alive thus far. The twins took measure of their parents hearts and souls and decided (after some discussion with each other, I’m sure) that the action of recognition that would bring the most bang for their baby bucks would be the elusive smile.
So that’s what they gave us. A smile. And that smile melted their parents hearts, melted their parents souls even more than they had already melted. I exist, said the mom. I matter, said the dad. And that’s all I ever expected in return. Even today, 10 years on, when said twins are testing their boundaries, becoming their own people, to get that elusive smile in response to something I said or did brings it all back. There’s a reason I’m doing this. There’s a reason I’m doing every single damn thing I do. And that reason is the smile that just appeared, now disappeared. You’d do everything you can to make that smile appear again.
Then the world outside comes crashing down. The world around those precious smilers comes tumbling down all at once (for them, anyway, you knew the guise of a stable society was just that and was destined to come crashing down). You wonder, what did we do to deserve this. We were here, eking out smiles. We were here, fighting for what was right the whole time, just so we could continue to see those smiles. And not only so we could see and protect our precious smiles, but so others could enjoy their own precious smiles as well.
It dawns on you then, that there are people in the world who aren’t doing every damn thing they do to get a smile from a beloved child. There are people out there who could care less if your child smiles or cries. Or lives or dies, for that matter. People that would (and do) profit off the deaths of other people’s precious smilers. And your heart begins to race, not only because you’re angry, but also because you’re scared. You’re scared that you haven’t done enough (but what else could you have done?). You’re scared because for the first time in your 40 years on the planet, for the first time you really realize that the villains in every superhero movie or science fiction book you ever read are real people, not just characters on a page that someone made up to illustrate the possible depravity of mankind if left to its own devices.
But what made you, you? What made you a person who would never find anything good in creating an anti-smile in a child. You were left to your own devices, weren’t you? You grew up, you learned lessons, you got bullied, maybe did some bullying yourself just to feel what it felt like (not good). What is it that prevented you from fully exploring your villainous ways?
Anyway, back to the children. They won’t be children forever. And I have hope for their future. They’ll make it something better. What else can they make of all the shit the adults have put them through in their fragile little lives? School shootings, manifesting in active shooter or intruder drills, coronavirus, Trump being an absolute warthog of a human (I’m sorry for insulting all the warthogs out there). Their parents struggling with debt, questioning their own self-worth, oscillating between drinking coffee and drinking wine just to keep up and slow down, to turn off the thoughts that consume you at the end of the day because society is fucking falling right goddamn apart in front of your very own eyes!
Keep it together, mom. You have to. For the children.
As I look out on the sea of toy Civil War soldiers my son has set up on the kitchen island, recreating some battle or another (and yes, he’s very specific in his kitchen table battle re-enactments), I wonder what really does go on inside his head. Two groups of soldiers: Confederates and Union soldiers pointing their archaic weapons at each other. Does he make them talk? What do they say? Does he know how relevant this battle is still to this day? He must. He sees it play out when he sits with his parents watching the nightly news. Confederate flags flying in northern states protesting abortion, gun control, and most recently protesting lockdown orders to protect the people living in this world from getting a deadly virus. What is it that these people today have in common with those people back then? A way of life? Perhaps. An economy dependent on slave labor? Not likely, as it seems these are the very people who are most being exploited by low-wage (or no) jobs, lack of healthcare, and lack of quality education. Have those people, then and now, been duped by those in power into thinking this is about them? Unequivocally, yes.
I’ve made it a point, when speaking about the Civil War with my son, to always make clear that the frontlines of Confederate soldiers were not the owners of the plantations, were not the owners of the slaves. The frontline Confederate soldiers were the poorest of them. Looking for a hot meal, perhaps a wage, a place to take out their anger at being left behind. Some of those wealthier Confederates that had been conscripted even outright paid other, poorer men to take their place for them in the fight. It’s the same today.
But I digress.
My daughter often catches me staring at her. She says it’s creepy. Half the time I don’t realize I’m doing it. (And half the time I’m doing it on purpose to annoy her.) The reason, in my heart of hearts, that I get lost in looking at her is that I find her (and her brother) to be the most beautiful creatures on earth. My eyes delight upon the sight of her face, the sight of the beautiful, strong young lady she has become and I see her future there. Well, I don’t exactly see her future. I wish for her future. I wish her a future of what the millions of young people who have had to endure what the adults in power have put them through and have put their parents through can dream up. I know they’re dreaming of something better I just know it. And it’s a future none of us can even begin to imagine.
But sometimes my mind turns dark, dystopian. And I think of all the possible ways I can prepare her for a future that’s even more bleak than the present. This scares me. Because I know I will not be able to adequately prepare her. But I know what can. Books.
Books are most likely the reason why the majority of us aren’t freaking out right now. Why most of us aren’t taking to the streets with our Confederate flags, protesting lockdown orders designed to protect us. (Seriously, how would these lockdown protesters have responded to air raid sirens in World War II Britain? “I will not let the government control me. I will not black out my windows. I will not take shelter. I will stand outside with a red target painted on the top of my head.” Ugh. I can’t even.) Honestly, it would really be one thing if the only people the lockdown protesters were endangering were themselves, but unfortunately, they’re putting innocent, vulnerable people at risk in the process.
But where was I?
Oh yes. Books. Books have prepared us for this moment. We’ve read and read so much about so many worlds and so many problems and met so many people, none of which have ever existed outside of an author’s, and our collective, mind. Books are the rehearsal for real life. And not only books. TV shows, movies, video games, stories of all kinds. These are the things we consume that prepare us to face the unexpected. Allow our minds to live through situations and circumstances. Allow us to make up and act out our own stories. Allow us to gauge our behavior before we even have to think about taking any real action at all. Our very childhoods have prepared us for this moment.
So then I’m left to wonder, what happened in the childhoods of those who seek the anti-smile from our beautiful children? Were they not allowed to let their minds wander free through the stories of others. Were they not allowed to make up and journey through their own imagined realities? Were they not allowed to see the infinite permutations their actions could result in? Were they not allowed to envision how things could be beautiful, not only for them, but for everyone? Were they not privileged enough to see what happened when they gave their parents that first smile? Or did they not get the reaction they were looking for? Did that smile not bring appreciation of the beautiful, tiny, helpless beings they were? What a horrifying existence that must have been as a baby, as a child, and must still be as an adult.
I’ve rambled on quite a bit here, but I’m not quite done yet. Near the beginning of the lockdown, during the first week or two, my twins were in the front yard kicking the soccer ball back and forth. The ball rolled out into the street straight into the path of an oncoming delivery truck. My kids are both aware enough to know you don’t go running out into the street after a ball, so they stood at the curb as they watched what they thought may be a tragedy for their soccer ball. But no tragedy ensued. The delivery guy stopped his truck, unbuckled his seatbelt, got out of the truck, and kicked the ball back to the kids. In that moment two things happened. First, my kids were blown away by this tiny act of kindness. “Thank you,” they yelled, smiles taking over their faces. “He’s so nice,” I heard my daughter reflect aloud through the closed windows. At that moment, both the kids internalized the delivery man’s kindness. Whether they remember the moment or not, they’ll remember how it made them feel and they will likely go out of their way as adults to bring a smile to the face of child.
The second thing that happened was that the delivery driver was taken back to his own childhood. Did someone perform a simple act of kindness that impacted him and made him smile when he was 10? Did someone do they opposite and, after internalizing how that made him feel, did he vow to go out of his way never to make a child feel the way he felt? We’ll never know the answer to that.
But I think we’ve discovered the answer to how we can all make society a better place. With every action we take, we can think whether or not that action would make it more likely that a child somewhere in the world would be able to share their beautiful smile with those they love. Idealistic, I know. But actions create re-actions that are amplified throughout the world.
So what can we do to make the world a better place? We can offer our stories, offer our children opportunities to rehearse for the future, allow them opportunities to smile. We can do this by making sure they have quality education, healthcare, good nutrition, ample housing, and love. We must keep fighting the good fight. Be well.