The morning my son returned to school after February vacation, I opened up his backpack to clean it out. Among the stale crumbs, random legos, and broken pencils, I found a handmade card.
It was a Valentine. On the front there was a big heart, colored in a pastel rainbow. It read “To Jayla”.
Puzzled, I opened up the card to find out how my seven-year-old son had mistakenly gotten this card.
Inside, in neat, red pen, it read:
Dear Jayla. Will you be my Valentine? I love you, but I now know you think I am a jerk. I think you are butifull and prity. You are the best girl in the world. I love you. Love, Jack.
On the opposite side from the writing, there was a drawing of a blonde, little girl in a heart. My own heart skipped a beat, as I realized Jack made this card.
For a girl!
Who he loves!
And who thinks he is a jerk?!?
Did I mention my kid is seven?
A mix of emotions flooded me.
The obvious work and care Jack had taken with this card initially impressed and touched me. I was also a little annoyed and slightly jealous that his unsent card to Jayla was nicer than the card he made his own mother.
I felt a little sad for my little boy who had been rejected by this Jayla, whoever she was.
And why does this chick think my son is a jerk? Can we talk about that? I mean, he can be aggressive and obnoxious at home, but to my knowledge, he has never been anything other than well-behaved and “normal” outside our home. Jack is almost always the youngest kid in his class at school, and as such, sometimes he struggles with knowing when enough is enough and we have gotten comments from his teachers that sometimes he is overly “social.”
But no one has ever accused my kid of being a jerk, except possibly his father and me, when Jack is well into his fourth hour of irascible behavior on the weekend.
So, again, why does this girl think Jack is a jerk? Is he being crappy to people? Do I need to have a talk with my seven-year-old about consent and how he treats women? OK, I guess it is never too early for that, so I’ll put it on my list of things to do, right after sorting through the markers, cleaning out the crud on the bottom of the kitchen sink, and changing the sheets.
Or is My baby boy the victim of a bad relationship? Because let’s face it, girls can be pretty mean.
I stood holding the card, then placed it on the counter and finished cleaning out Jack’s backpack.
Jack was in the living room, putting on shoes for school, watching Yoda Chronicles, or some other Star Wars cartoon. He needed his hair brushed. He was wearing “cozy” sweatpants and one of his red shirts with a whimsical Christmas picture on it. He just seemed so young, innocent, guileless.
Where the hell did the impetus for this poignant card come from?
Does my small boy have a private life about which I am totally clueless?
This query led to a sense of guilt for being a working mom, and for spending so much time away from my children. As well as I think I know them, maybe I don’t know them at all.
“Jack,” I called. “Who is Jayla?”
“I have no idea!” he screamed and covered his face with a pillow. I fought between wanting to give my kid some dignified privacy, and the urge to know what the hell was going on in his life. Aren’t responsible parents supposed to be involved?
I pushed forward.
“Well, it looks like you made a Valentine for her?”
He rushed at me, head butted me, and grabbed the card. “Why would someone think you are a jerk, Jack?” I asked, feeling every ounce the nosey, awkward mother, while also recognizing the irony in my question in light of his head butt.
“Because I am a jerk,” Jack said. He disappeared the card into his room, then came back out. Did he look sheepish?
“Jackie, you’re not a jerk.” I said.
“Yes I am.”
“Well do you want a hug?”
“Not really,” he said, but sidled up to me and leaned into me as I put my arms around him anyway. We left it at that, and I took him to school.
When I was pregnant with Jack, someone told me that, as a mom, you grow another heart.
It is true, and pretty incredible, if you think of it. You literally grow another person from scratch, with not only their heart, but all their other internal organs, and every hair on their head. And while you are doing that, you grow this new heart of your own, inside of yourself.
As a mom, your new heart is enlarged, constantly working overtime, especially prone to attack and breakage.
As I drove off from Jack’s school, I began to worry about Jack’s sense of himself. Does he really feel he is a jerk? At seven years old?
What is the world coming to? And how do I fix this?
Maybe in the end, this bothered me most. My husband and I strive to raise our children to be independent, confident, and proud of good choices. For the most part, I feel we have been successful, as evidenced by our children’s strong wills and creativity.
We also have structure and consequences for poor choices. Jack gets “in trouble” at home almost daily for his surly temperament and typical sibling nastiness towards his little sister. But I never thought of this as anything other than typical, or that our responses to his behavior could be affecting our son’s self esteem.
Jack is a highly sensitive child, there is no doubt in my mind about that. He has always been sensitive to any change in his routine, textures, and the emotions of others. But his words on the card to Jayla (whoever she may be) revealed a totally new, introspective, tender side of my kid. At SEVEN! As thankful as I am for that, it also makes me freak out a bit. It scares me that he could be hurt, that at the young age of seven he already takes things so seriously. It also worries me that as a working mom, as hard as I try to be involved in my children’s lives, it might not be enough. And as innocent as I try to keep my kids, it may be futile in this world where they seem to be growing up way too quickly.
It also makes me realize how difficult it can be as a parent to communicate with my children about things I feel are really important– self esteem, respect, kindness, and boundaries– in a rational, relatable ways that aren’t going to freak them out or push them away.
I have to take a second and recognize I might be waaayyy overthinking an innocent and sweet gesture on Jack’s part. This may be something about which I laugh hysterically at a later date (kind of like how I freaked out when Jack was three, and watched 101 Dalmatians for the first time, and I feared he had been scarred for life because I exposed him to a maniacal chain-smoker who constantly called people “idiots” and wanted to butcher puppies).
I realize I am also resorting to some primitive ego defenses of rationalization and intellectualization, or at least Freud would say so. But motherhood is nothing if not primal. Maybe the most primitive thing we do on this earth.
You grow another heart.
Then that heart leaps out of your body and learns how to draw and color hearts of his own.