Last night, I snuggled a baby who doesn't belong to me, talked to a grandmother, discussed the state of Chicago Public Schools with another mom I'd just met, and watched as my played games and hit a pumpkin pinata and bobbed for apples and laughed with kids much older than he is and flashed raised eyebrows of delight at me from across the room.
We were at the Tae Kwon Do studio's Halloween party, and there, costumed up in his Captain Rex outfit, his hair sweaty and doing knife-hand strikes at plastic boards, he was so completely himself. I love this studio and all it has brought to my boy and me. The lead teacher is a young man with Bieberized hair who jumps astoundingly high and interacts with the kids with kindness and structure and rules and compassion. He is gifted and the kind of man I'd like my small child to grow up to be, the kind of man I think he really needs as a presence in his life.
I've worked hard to teach Lil E strategies for soothing in the midst of chaos, ways to ease those 9 p.m. worries that creep up when he should have long ago been asleep. He doesn't want to leave me, he misses his dad. He wants to be more and more independent, he longs to be a baby snuggled on my lap. He's walking lines. He's in a tug of war. He stands between moments of development, two homes, intellect and reason. There is a lot going on in his head.
Last night, he was focused on being one of the shortest kids in his class.
"I have this problem," he whispered to me. "I'm the shortest of anyone in my class, of my friends, IN THE WHOLE WORLD. I will never be tall."
This worry, I understood. But as a girl, it didn't feel nearly as fatalistic and terrifying as it seemed to be to Lil E in that one moment in the car.
I explained that kids grow at different rates, that if all the kids in the country were lined up in a row, according to his pediatric percentiles, he'd be right in the middle. I told him about the boy I went on a date with freshman year who was shorter than I was and now is even taller than grandpa. I assured him he'd grow up, possibly even tall, likely taller than his dad and maybe uncle. But all that talk wasn't helping much. He sunk down in his car seat, making Captain Rex helmet in his hands seem even more enormous.
"Every person feels worried and sad," I started over. "Every one of us lays awake at night with our brains moving fast when we really need to sleep. We all have things that bother us that we can't do anything about right then. Lots of people feel wiggy inside over this, or they get angry and make bad choices because they don't know how to handle those worries."
He stopped me there. He needed proof.
"DO YOU?!" I hate to admit, but I do savor these tiny moments of questioning of my seeming-invincibility.
"LIKE WHAT!? TELL ME!"
"Like I worry about when I will get to the grocery store and that I might forget to send your field trip money. I get scared I won't make it through my race. I wonder what will happen in our lives. Lots of things."
"This is why it is important to learn how to calm those thoughts, so we can sleep and move on in our lives and have the ability to slow down our brains," I went on.
"So we don't make bad choices? Like hitting someone or lying?"
I nodded this time.
"In our house, we do yoga because stretching our muscles and taking deep breaths helps to release those worries. It's why I run, because when I am sweating and working hard, I don't have the energy to be so worried."
"So, what can we do to help you ease your mind about being short or anything else? Shall we do some deep breaths?," I asked.
He was quiet, but only for a brief moment.
"I think I will go to Tae Kwon Do and kick and jump and that will help me let go of my worries," he said definitively.
"Deal," I swore.
And with that, I parked the car, he grabbed ahold of his helmet tighter and we went to the party.
He thrives there in the discipline and exertion and respect and focus that it demands. He is not a kid caught between two very different ways of parenting and two very different homes. He is not the shortest kid in all of the world, forevermore. He's not worried. He's just whoever he is in that moment -- sometimes the one doing a stellar and surprisingly high jump-front kick, sometimes the one who is distracted by his own reflection in the mirror, sometimes the one sweating happily under his Tiny Tigers headband, sometimes the one sweating happily under a polyester Star Wars costume.
Whoever he is, whatever has been reeling through his mind, he's happy there. And so am I.