Watching my children figure out love is scary as shit. I catch my breath sometimes as I watch them in their classroom or in the schoolyard, hear them talk to their friends about "girls." It is a long and arduous road, I think, good luck. There aren't enough gold stars in the world to make it easier.
And there is nothing I can do, short of telling them when they treat me rudely or call me ugly that this is not going to stand them in good stead if they ever hope to have a girl love them. "I will always love you, regardless of what you do or say," I tell them, "but other people might not. You might, actually, have to be nice."
I say it, but I'm not sure it's even true. A few weeks ago, a little girl in Oscar's class came up to me at pick-up, a little girl I had taught to do cartwheels in the park, who had pushed herself hard, kept at it until she succeeded.
"Stephanie," she said, looking up at me with big eyes, "Today, Oscar asked me if he could tell me he hated me," she said.
I smiled. "Really...and then what happened? Did he tell you he hated you?"
She nodded, slightly smirking. Oscar stood, silent, next to me.
"Well," I said, leaning in conspiratorially to whisper to the sweet little girl, "I'll tell you a little secret. Usually, when boys tell you they hate you, it's really because they love you."
With this, Oscar blushed a deep pink and hit me and the little girl started a little happy dance. Something in her twinkly eyes told me she knew it all along.
Last night, I got confirmation on my theory. As my boys lay in their bunks, reading, I heard Oscar ask Eli, "What girls do you kind of like like, you know, like a friend, like they're nice..."
"I don't know, you say first," Eli said.
"No, you say first," Oscar said.
"No, you," Eli said.
"Fine," Oscar said, as usual, giving in as is his due as the youngest.
I stood halfway down the stairs, not moving an inch as to to make a sound, listening. Not surprisingly, it was this little smitten girl in the schoolyard, the one he'd told he hated.
I wish I understood why we are so often forced to say the opposite of what we feel, why we are compelled to hurt the ones we love. It is as if we are angry at them for making us feel out of control, for making us recognize that we are not complete within ourselves after all, that we rely on others to see who we are.
In Existentialism and Human Emotions, a little light reading I picked up this morning, Sartre offers that "The other is indispensable to my own existence, as well as to my knowledge about myself. This being so, in discovering my inner being I discover the other person at the same time, like a freedom placed in front of me which thinks and wills only for or against me." Such is the discovery, Sartre says, of inter-subjectivity.
I think, really, we'd rather this not be the case, rather that we could go it alone and be just fine. I think that must be the reason pre-pubescent kids push off their nascent feelings of love as abject hatred. They are not ready, quite, to see themselves fully, not ready, certainly, to recognize someone else. I suppose it happens for different people at different times, this readiness for love. For some people it is early, others late, some never. It is no easy thing.
I try to elicit my boys' feelings about things so that, later, at heartbreak time, they will be better able to share instead of turning to substances to blot out the feelings they cannot rid themselves of. But it's hard for them, even now, even with a mother who is such a loudmouth, such a sharer. Forcing them is an impossibility and will likely backfire in the end. All I can do is pray and teach them tactics that sometimes have helped me, like writing in a journal or making real friends who might be there to lend an ear when the time comes.
Mostly what I get when I ask personal questions, questions about their feelings, are defiant responses, like "Poop" or "Farts" that tell me I have crossed the line. I have to laugh, take the cue. They'll talk when and if they're ready. And, maybe, if they're lucky, they'll be able to talk in a real way, in an open way, with the one they love.