It was my son's second big stand-up gig. The first was in kindergarten, two years ago, and he wore a flashing bow tie my dad let him borrow and used flash cards I made for him to prompt the jokes. He was an avid reader, but the symbols of a crazy deer, a frog in a blender and a talking toilet boosted his confidence and speed when he stepped out on stage in front of the grammar-school kids in the audience.
We'd prepped for weeks for that kindergarten debut, culling jokes from books and kid websites, crafting them with better punchlines and tailoring transitions for his crowd. We wrote a joke about the gym teacher, and I think that the way my son said it with a wink and smile in his intonation helped secure his spot in the school talent show.
It was a moment that lasted for weeks. My heart tha-thunked in my chest while he refined his own schtick, swallowed the nerves like a chewable vitamin and smiled to see the reaction fall all around him.
I was crushed when the date was finalized for the talent show, set for the exact time I'd be speaking at a conference half a country away. He gave an obligatory "aww" when I told him, but skipped past it, reassured that his dad would be there and my parents would cheer him on and another mother would tape a back-up in case any family videos attempts failed.
We'd been honing his act so that he'd step gracefully on to the stage and then get the chance to be himself in the spotlight, without the gasp of nerves or unassuredness. And so it was fine for me to not be there -- I knew he'd kill it, and he did. But it hurt me to know his dad, who had not been involved at all in this gig, would be the one standing just off-stage.
That's a tricky thing to admit -- that the other parent will get to be front and center when you've been the one putting in all the love and hours and work behind the scenes. Still, the sinking feeling is there. I wasn't just sad to miss the performance and to be so far away when my son was shining. I was sad the other parent stepped in just for the big moment. I was weepy not to be there on the big day, in the magic moment. Nobody wants to say aloud the selfish things they feel as a parent, but I think too often single moms get all stoic and selfless and fiercely independent and don't just say when this stuff hurts. It hurt.
Fortunately, that feeling was fleeting. The momentary ugh pulled back to reveal my real ahh: I wanted to be right there as I had been all those prepatory hours, as I have been all these crazy years. I wasn't seeking glory or thanks. I wasn't concerned with competing with my son's dad. I was really just achey to see my boy do how he does and to hear the laughter and see the smiles by the moment of happiness his roast beef-pea soup joke and certain brand of wacka-wacka humor inspired.
It all turned out very fine, great even. He felt wonderful about his performance and a kind parent immediately texted me videos to watch as soon as my own speech concluded. It was all good.
And really, I don't need or even want the other parent involved in moments like this. There's a special magic in poring over riddle books and calibrating our own laugh-meters to see which rated-G jokes are actually funny. The part on stage is glorious, yes, but the best part is really the grind before the gig.
Or maybe that is what I need to think because my own career took over that one day my son was on stage. To be fair, I got to be there for the dress rehearsal, I got to see him placed between the sixth-grade singer who belted out an Adele tune and the other kindergarteners who danced to "Tangled" tunes. I clapped for the eighth-grade break dancers and then filmed and beamed as my boy adjusted the mic and launched into his act, index cards in hand. This is the real show, I have looked back on that time and thought.
Until last weekend, when my son walked out into the spotlight for his sophomore stand-up show. It was the church talent show and all acts were welcome, no auditions or rehearsals or expectations. My son was recruited and nonchalantly accepted the challenge. Just a couple days before the performance, we launched back into our comedy prep routine. We needed new jokes, to ressurect some of the kindy classics and to measure once again which punchlines would kill and which ones to slay from the set list.
We spent less time, this time. My boy was ready to do more himself, taking over transitions and even rewriting one punchline so that it was much funnier.
"That's not the right punchline!" I was about to say it when I realized his phrasing and twists had already made me LOL. And let's be honest, kid jokes are far more often chuckle-able than LOL-able.
We went over it from top to bottom a few times the night of the performance and then he told me he was done, ready to go. He let me critique his costume ideas -- maybe not TWO hats, probably should save the wig for another gig, but a big yes on the crazy t-shirt -- and he asked me to write out his set list for him. This time with real words.
I could do that. I could definitely do that. Stepping back a bit felt different and good -- he has the confidence and even the experience to walk out on stage all by himself. I could be his prepping and proud mama from a little more of a distance. Not quite Houston or Miami, but just enough out of reach.
That night at the talent show, the mic was a little too high and he had to step up on his tippy-toes to tell each joke. My video is full of feedback and my mom missed it all because she was sick. But my dad and I were there to cheer him on from a table just off-center from where he stole the show.
Stole the show -- that's a beaming mother describing a three-minute act full of silly kid comedy. But since he won a crazy trophy and helped raise lots of money for a deserved charity and earned so many compliments from our church friends that I stopped keeping count of the kind words, I think it feels like the right phrase.
I liked his "jalapeno business" joke the best. But next, I loved being there, seeing it all from my seat out in the audience. And I wondered if not being there sometimes helps build his confidence that the show can go on even when your mama is not nearby. Because, of course, it can, and it did and it does.
Before my comic son placed the trophy in a prominent spot in our living room and was amped up for days about how great it felt to be back behind the mic, he was on stage with the emcees, who asked if he'd like to say a few words.
"I'd like to thank my mom, who made me practice," he said. "And my grandpa for being here. And to everyone else because it was a really fun night!"
I guess, given that it was in church, he could have thanked God and the academy and it would have been funny and appropriate. It got to me, though, that he acknowledged me for the work, and I will take it as meaning he felt the love, too. I didn't need that gratitude -- honestly -- but I received it into my already full heart. And I felt even luckier and more sure that the good stuff really is what happens at home before the house lights go up.
It's OK to want to be validated for the great parenting moments you have. It's just fine to want to be thanked and seen, especially by your kids. Perhaps this is a natural follow-up to putting our all into the preparation, or just a desire to whisper into the mic or share a corner of the spotlight ourselves. The tricky thing is that it is not our kids' job to thank us. It is not our childrens' other parents' job to step out of the way when the trophy is carted up on stage. It is not worth it to want those performance days for too long.
It is our role to help our kids be the best person they are, or are becoming. This isn't simple or easy, and it's 99% of the time thankless or shoved aside while some other guy takes a big old bow. And sometimes, it means going away, stepping back, taking off and trusting that every little thing will be wonderful (and hilarious) without us there (maybe a tiny bit in part due to all the prep we helped with before we left). This was his show -- and seeing that in action, in person, was pretty prideful for me.
It felt really nice to be thanked. It felt much better to see that kid's wide smile for days. It feels just right to see that trophy staring out at us, reminding us that it was fun from opening to close.
And that tomorrow is the school talent show auditions, and that we'd better be ready.