Raising my boy has been like watching my own National Geographic channel. I am fascinated to witness my previously scrawny six-pound newborn develop real emotions fit for the bonafide little human that he is. No one taught him to collapse on the ground when he is frustrated and not able to articulate why. Today, Micah threw a real tantrum. He woke up from his nap and could not be consoled. I tried to hold him but he would writhe out of my grasp to cry louder. So I tried to give him his space but he ran towards me to please pay him attention and at least attempt to comfort him. Similarly, no one taught him to point and weep when mama holds another baby, or to climb onto mama’s lap so that she is forced to return the baby to his mama. At our church nursery one Sunday, a younger toddler was wailing for his mama so I tried to go over and hold him to calm him down and M put his hand on my back, tenderly but firm, like he was saying, “Pay him no mind, woman. Mind your own business and just focus on me, YOUR baby.”
This past weekend, we were picking up our friends, A and N, to visit another friend’s new home. As soon as Auntie N stepped into the backseat, M freaked out. He could not even glance in her direction and even used my forearm to shield his eyes so that he could not see her in his peripheral vision! I tried to let go of my arm once he drifted off into his nap, but he would burst out crying so I let him hang onto my arm for security. Sure, he’s had SEPARATION anxiety, but NEVER this type of “stranger” anxiety. N noted that perhaps M associates her with the weekend I was sent to LA for my surprise Mother’s Day gift. That weekend, he saw Auntie N two days in a row. She had become the lady substitute for mama and maybe, just maybe, upon seeing her again for the first time since that weekend, he thought mama was going to go away again. True, it sounds farfetched because it is very advanced psychology for an 18-month old but it also makes so much sense. (Later, he was playful and friendly with her as we ALL played together and he saw that I wasn’t going anywhere.)
I’ve always been fascinated by the topic of Nature v. Nurture. M loves Korean food, particularly rice and meeyukgook and gheem. I thought that was just the way he was born but then I realized, he ate that stuff, at least occasionally while he was in utero, so he may have developed a taste for it. But then there are other things like personality. Ever since I was a toddler, I was not shy. I was a daredevil, asking to go high atop a Ferris wheel or on stage at church or at Czech gymnastics to tell stories. My husband, on the other hand, was so shy, he would hide behind his mama and be silent in public (not as painfully shy now though). For now, M is a bit like how his daddy was, though maybe not as extreme. He does not talk much in public and takes a while to warm up, though he babbles loudly at home. He loves being in the presence of people but loves to take it all in before engaging.
Seeing M freak out like he did with N for the first time made me think of how so many things shape us. Babies are amazing because they are blank canvases. They are born with their natural temperaments like easygoing or fiery. Then thrown onto that are painful life events, like neglect, or parents who are constantly fighting or eventually divorce. Or positive circumstances like a nurturing, joyful family, great friends, or a wonderful school you thrive in. Even inevitable milestones like the arrival of a sibling or transitioning to daycare after being home with mama could affect one’s original essence. Imagine if I had never come back that weekend. Would Auntie N always remind him of my absence? Or even women who look like Auntie N? And how would my abandonment have affected this young morsel? Would it have muted his naturally gentle and jubilant spirit? Maybe made him generally more irritable or aggressive? Or would it not have even registered as it happened at such a young age, too early to recall as one of his first memories?
Many years ago, my girlfriends and I were having brunch and somehow got on the topic of those early childhood photos we took in school. I told them that when I see those photos of young kids, even myself, especially the progression from year to year, I almost feel like weeping because these blank canvases do not know what’s ahead – dysfunctional families, heartbreak, insecurities, feeling unsafe in this crazy world. One of my friends pointed out that she loves baby/childhood pictures even when she knows what they will go through by the time they are adults, because she views it more as what they were able to overcome and grow from.
I know what she means but as a mama to this still-pretty-blank canvas, I will try my best to decorate it with vibrant splashes of paint more than marring it with ugly stains.