Before you go off and do anymore growing up, I have something important to say. This birthday letter is different because it isn’t about praising you to the Heavens or giving thanks that you are healthy or even about how much I have loved you from the minute your were placed in my arms five years ago, all squawky and mad.
It’s about the fact that our relationship is about to change.
I doubt there’s anything significant from the year of being four or even much from being five that you’ll vividly remember, so I periodically write it down, because I have a feeling a lot of what I’ve been through raising you this year is a precursor to what I always will. And if it is, I’ll need a good head start preparing.
This year with you has been primarily about un-training myself to be your friend. Getting tough. And take my word for it, Matthew, it has sucked from your end all the way to mine. I can tell that this year will really be the first that I’m more parts sworn enemy of yours than the best, best bud I’ve always been. That’s just the natural course we’re on. We’ve reached that age.
You are five. I know, I know. It sounds like such an unblemished age still, but this is where you test the boundaries of where I’m willing to go for you. Yesterday, we couldn’t go to Build-A-Bear for your birthday because I told you ahead of time that I wanted to take you, and you knew that I was excited. Something about expecting you to behave makes it all the more difficult for you to do. It always has. It’s like performance anxiety or something. (The month of December is torture for kids like you. Or, maybe just you – hell, I don’t know.) In any case, sometime during the day, you told me that you didn’t love me anymore because I would not let you leave your room until it was clean.
You are five. You are five, with a vengeance.
And even though there are so many gorgeous things I’m celebrating about this new age with you, (too many to list parenthetically) that part of it really has sucked, buddy. I know it hasn’t been easy on you, learning how to take direction like a responsible young man; learning how to respect my wishes like I have some divine power of you. I tell myself that it’s hard on you because you have the heart of a leader, and you can’t help it if big things like that take some growing into.. Then again, people tell me I have a tendency to exaggerate when it comes to you, and that’s probably true.
I have to take their word for it. I’ve never been so biased, or so protective of anyone as I am over you. I don’t even know why because it doesn’t feel like you need it. It has to be that mother/son phenomena, because there is something so unabashedly fierce about the way I want to protect everything in you that is natural. I have a hard time seeing any innate quality with which you were born as less than a gift. I just do.
But that’s no way to parent. I mean, me feeling that way about you is not something I can help, but it is something I have to try sometimes not to always act on. Your better interest relies on me being a rock for you in ways that are not always fun. I demand, for example, that you treat everyone with the same level of respect that I demand of them toward you. And oh, how you have fought me on it. But I have lovingly, dutifully fought back. I tell you it’s all in the name of some ‘love’ you don’t understand. Love, to you has always been a soft place for you land; a warm place for you to retreat. It’s always been comfortable and nice and easy for you to accept. This part of love is a pain in your ass. But this part of love is what you need to grow up strong. This part of love is something I refuse to fail you in.
Confucius would have a ball with you. You have the hardest time swallowing this cockamamie idea that other people deserve more respect than they have to give you just because they were born a few generations ahead. It’s already our biggest issue, this problem you have with authority. I actually think it’s endearing for you to be so bravely confident in your own way, mostly because I’ve struggled to have genuine confidence all my life. But I promise, your teachers won’t. Or, for that matter, any of the women in your world who will succeed me later on in life.
So I squint my eyes, and I do you a favor. I try to see past the rose colored tint in my glasses, toward a truer you. Don’t worry, this doesn’t change anything. I’ll always sing your praises to anyone within earshot. And I’ll always do it where you can hear me, just to make sure you know. And I’ll whisper in your ear first thing in the morning and after you’ve fallen asleep at night for as long as I can, that you are mighty and unbreakable and capable of such wonderful things because I believe them, because I’m your mom. I will still be that safe and comfortable and ever-accepting place for you to retreat. But in this next phase of life, it may not always look like it.
When those times come… When I fight against you, son, understand something. Understand that I never really am. When it feels like I am fighting against you, trust that I am fighting for you, with you, ever at your side because I am on your side – always. I will protect those good and courageous and righteous parts of you with all of the ferocity of a mother protecting the life of her only son, because I will be.
Of course, there will come a time when I will have to back off. I promise to.
Don’t get excited. We’re not there yet.
This year, I’ll begin to teach you things that are hard for you to understand, things that sometimes cut against your natural, headstrong grain. I’ll try my best to do it in simple terms and baby steps so that none of it is too much for you at once. But I’ll do it in a way that is less tolerant than you approve of. And I will be a rock, unyielding to guilt and tantrums and tears and threats and slippery tactics I know, at a certain point, you’ll have the balls to pull. You are compassionate and you are emotional, which will probably make you a very easy person to trust. But you are still your father’s son — so opposite of me, with a win-at-all-costs, unapologetic confidence. And I’m ready for that, because these past five years have taught me that I’ll need to be. You are a deadly combination of your mom and your dad. (You’re welcome.)
Today you are five but that won’t always be the case. I’m laying a foundation this year, for the way I want to parent you at 12, at 17, at 21. It won’t always seem from your perspective that there’s a method to my madness, but my goals in parenting you are pretty simple. I want to nurture the natural you: be it mind, body or spirit. You were born with so many strengths, inner strengths that can break a man if he lets them. You are already so fearless, smart, strong, handsome, compassionate and loyal. A big part of my job will be to have you see that other people can be too.
My world has always revolved in so many ways around you. Soon you’ll learn that the real one doesn’t. That’ll take some getting used to, but it’s okay. I’m not going anywhere.
From this day forth, I promise to make it look like I’m standing two steps back, while always staying three steps ahead. I promise to let you be every age, exactly the way you were built to: with a vengeance. And I promise to love you fiercely, whether your ornery ass wants me to or not. Always.
Happy birthday, my big-hearted baby boy. Let’s do this.