The best moment of the day is the first one. When you pick up the little one out of bed because he has called for you, insisting you be the first person he sees to start the day. You carry him to the kitchen, retrieve his milk from the refrigerator, then go to the couch. For a few moments, the two of you sit while the beginning of the day rolls through the room. Then he turns to face you, fully opening his eyes. He points to the left side of your face, right below your cheekbone. You prepare for his warm words, his childish garbles, maybe even a giggle. But instead, he announces clearly, and as you will remember later, rather loudly, “Momma has a pimple.”
And he was right, of course. A pimple was exactly what Momma had on her face. A blemish had snuck into the house under the cover of night, and I had spotted it in the bathroom mirror just moments before I lifted my son from bed. But I assumed (or maybe hoped) it would be like other details of everyday family life I didn’t want to deal with — such as the dusty baseboards in our living room — that we could choose to ignore for the day.
Long before this wake-up call on the couch, I should have detected this change in him, this opening to the truth in the world. But I ignored all the signs, the way he would stare a little longer at a perplexing problem: “Momma said she would change the batteries in this toy, but it still won’t start or sing or go vroom.”
He would stand silently with the toy in his hands, and I should have guessed he was working step-by-step through the scenario. In the old days, the toy was the problem and Momma, walking into the room with a 16-pack of Duracells, was the solution. But now, he was starting to figure out that sometimes Momma forgets to buy batteries at the store. Maybe he even suspected that occasionally Momma did not change the batteries on purpose. He would not yet understand this omission was because Momma could only handle one singing toy that goes vroom at a time without pulling all the hairs out of her head. He just knew that sometimes Momma fell short of perfection.
I went to bed believing I could still be a mother capable of no wrong. But when I woke up, I was human — a woman who burns toast, says she’ll be ready to play in five minutes when it will be closer to 10. Who occasionally, unfortunately, has a pimple.
To this point, it has been easy for me to speak for my son. I defined objects he encountered: This is a square. This is a triangle. This square and this triangle with me, you and your dad inside make a home. I composed answers to the questions directed at him: Yes, he is having a wonderful time at the zoo today. Yes, he loves hamburgers. Yes, he wants to grow up to be President of the United States. Or else a professional baseball player. Maybe both.
Now, the power of thought he has always possessed is united with the power of speech and, together, those two forces will be used to express his own individuality, no help from me required.
Some things that come out of his mouth are notes on an imaginary land, adventures that can only happen in a child’s head. Those are beautiful and tender talks we have, about race cars that come from the bellies of elephant puppets and drive onto train tracks so they can get to the cupcake at the finish line.
But the statements he makes that absolutely stop my heart are observations about the world around us that surely I once saw, but slowly, with the years, stopped noticing.
A pimple is much easier to handle than a man who is mean to a waitress in a restaurant or a family that’s mad at each other in the grocery store. My son sees these things and wants to know why they are happening. When he notices that I, myself, am being mean — not to a stranger, because I would not purposely engage in such cruelty — but perhaps even worse: “Why isn’t Momma being nice to herself?”
To a 2-and-a-half-year-old, there is no difference between being frustrated that you’ve forgotten your cellphone at home and being really mad, being really mean to the person you should always save some compassion for: yourself.
And maybe he’s right. Maybe degrees of unkindness are irrelevant because there is no need to get frustrated, mad or angry. The only move that can matter is taking a step forward with forgiveness.
This mirror he holds to the world does not have blind spots. And at first I worried about what this would mean in the outside world. Would he blurt out an inconvenient truth while we were waiting in line at a bank? How do I explain that it’s OK to love Hamburger Helper, but we don’t talk about that love because Hamburger Helper is Momma’s dinnertime secret she keeps in the back of the pantry, away from the ears of her friends who enjoy the pursuit and preparation of organic kale.
But now I see the real challenge is in seeing myself for who I really am, sometimes with the help of his mirror and sometimes by forgoing the mirror and doing the hard work on my own. It’s learning to accept myself for all the forgotten batteries and cellphones, blemishes, dusty baseboards, imperfections and pre-made dinner pouches that make me human. Or maybe, keep me human.
Then answering with more forgiveness, more compassion, more cupcakes at the finish line.