About a week ago, my son accidentally knocked a bowl off the counter and, upon hitting the floor, it broke into exactly six pieces. I could try to glue this thing up, I thought vaguely as I deposited the shards into the trash can. I could’ve lined up all the angled edges and pressed them together until they stayed, but there’d always be those faint lines, spidering out from the place of impact, oddly reminiscent of the stretch marks on my belly.
Those, incidentally, are also from my son.
I remember the day the stretch marks appeared. I remember it vividly, because they hadn’t been there the night before, not even a little, and I’d made it all the way to week 36 without any. I’d been gloating about it to my husband, and then one morning I woke up and wondered if a wolf had attacked me in my sleep.
They were startling in their abrupt appearance on my skin. They were angry and red, and they seemed like they should be painful even though they weren’t. My poor, porcelain belly. It looked like it had been dropped on the floor and crudely glued back together.
Of course, I’m not mad about my belly. I’m not mad about the bowl, either. Neither of those things were going to stay beautiful forever. Both broken things made me think, however, as broken things tend to do.
I thought about the value we put on things. I thought about the value we put on our bodies and on physical beauty. I thought about how fleeting it all is and about how much I want to teach my son that none of it matters to me as much as he does.
I thought about the moment I discovered my stretch marks. I remember standing in front of the mirror and hating them and not wanting them. And then I remember accepting them, partly because I had no choice and partly because the baby in my belly was worth much more to me than unscathed skin.
My son didn’t witness that moment.
I thought about the moment he did witness: the moment that the bowl made contact with the floor last week. I thought about how his eyes were on me even before anything was officially broken, because he already knew the outcome there. He knew about bowls and floors. He knew about fragility, and he knew that I liked that bowl, or that, at the very least, it was a thing I wouldn’t want broken.
But now, though I really doubt that either of us were aware of it at the time, he was looking to me to find out the things he didn’t know.
Am I more or less important than that bowl?
Am I more or less important now that I’ve broken that bowl?
Am I more or less loved now that I’ve broken that bowl?
It was one of those merciful parenting moments. I was in a good mood, it really wasn’t that expensive or unique of a bowl, and, thankfully, my immediate reaction that day was to scoop him up and make sure that he wasn’t hurt by any tiny bowl fragments that might have spun into the air. I’m so thankful for moments like that. I don’t always have the right reaction, the reaction that will teach him the thing that I want him to believe about me or about himself.
Those two moments, the one in front of the mirror and the one in the kitchen with the bowl, were like practice rounds. Dress rehearsals with lines prompters hiding just behind the curtains and small, uncritical audiences.
We don’t always get those though, do we?
We’re not always in a good mood. The damage done isn’t always so insignificant. There isn’t always the space to process things quietly in the silence of our own heads. I’m learning more and more that parenting is a thing that needs to be done so incredibly intentionally, even in moments that happen instantaneously and don’t seem to allow for this. I need to constantly be thinking about what I want to teach my son, what I want him to believe about me or about himself or whatever else, and I need to be aware that I am teaching him at all times, not just when I want to be. Not just when I’m having a good day. Not just when it’s easy.
Thankfully, there will be more dress rehearsals. I guess the point of a dress rehearsal is not to do something perfectly once; it’s to engrain the right way of doing things into your head, to prepare yourself for a time when it will be harder, when the audience will be bigger, or your nerves and emotions will overcome you and threaten to erase your well-rehearsed lines from memory.
The next time my son breaks something, even something beautiful or expensive or unique or important, I want to remember in that split second that he’ll be looking at me for my reaction. I want to be able to convey to him that he is more important than whatever is broken. Even though this is absolutely, always true, I can’t just expect that I’m going to communicate it to him unless I’m mindful of it.
And, as with everything motherhood-related, this knowledge needs to be tempered with grace and humility—grace for my imperfect self and humility to acknowledge my imperfect self. Because sometimes I won’t get it right (lots of times, if we’re being honest). Sometimes I’ll need to apologize to my son and explain to him why my reaction was wrong. And sometimes those lessons will be even more powerful than if I got it right the first time.