The Bulldog and The Builder

By Anna Mitchael

On being the mother of brothers

I’ve had it up to here,” my 4-year-old declared. His hand was under his chin, pointing at the collar of his favorite Angry Bird pajamas. One of those Angry Birds is named Chuck, and sometimes my son will run top speed through the house squeaking, “Chuuuccckkkyyy!” I know he means the bird, but I always flash to that creepy wax Chucky doll that starred in horror movies during my high school years, when I was trying hard to be cool and the cool kids watched movies that gave me nightmares. Which probably brings us to why my son knows how to say, “I’ve had it up to here,” with such emphasis.

His brother has been attacking his Lego ship. This would seem to be a small offense. By definition Legos are made to come apart and go back together again. But he gives his ships lots of time and love. He designs them by hand, then gingerly exits his room with the creation balanced in his two little human cups. So when he wails about the broken ship, instead of telling him to suck it up, I remind myself how it feels to spend an hour putting together a lasagna that people dissect before requesting chicken nuggets.

The truth I can’t bear to tell him is that these ships are just the beginning. His younger brother is only 1 1/2, but when he wants something, he goes after it. He has these extra large, open, laughing eyes, so it’s easy to miss the steely determination. But I am his mother. I have been playing with him every day since he was born, and I love him in a way no other person on the planet will ever be able to replicate, so I can say this — that child is a bulldog in pastel baby blue clothing.

And so here is the dilemma. As much as I want to protect my oldest son’s sensitivities, as much as I understand how it feels to be a little too raw to the world because that’s how I am put together, too, I feel a fierce determination to also protect his brother’s single-handed focus. I know all young children reach for what they want. But I’m talking about something different, an extra layer of certitude and fire that some people would find off-putting or too aggressive but, quite frankly, makes me jealous.

For 36 years I have been stoking a (wo)man-made version of that spark. I have spent more hours than I want to admit giving myself last-minute, “You’ve got this,” speeches before I walk out the door to go on a date, an interview, to have a baby. On a rational level I know the world can be my oyster, but I came out of the womb examining that oyster, turning it over, figuring out which way to best proceed and then having to summon strength before I gather the utensils to pop it open. If my youngest was born believing he could shuck that sucker with his bare hands, then I will do everything in my power to preserve that sensibility. Not to mention, save him hundreds of dollars on self-help books.

But I am not the mother of just one son or the other. Both are in my charge. And so when my oldest has had it up to here, I take a deep breath and then tell him, like I have so many times before, that we’ll just start it again from scratch. I distract him with talk of a stronger, better-than-ever boat hull and then start lining up the colored blocks.

Because what is true for Legos is also true for getting through the days as a child or as an adult — aren’t we always taking apart and rebuilding, trying to get somewhere better than where we’ve been.

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