One of the most important events for me as a parent was when my neighbor, Zach, invited me to join him, his son, his friend, Mark (now a friend), and his friend’s daughter, on a camping trip. The location was Frozen Head State Park, Jonah had just turned two, and we had never camped before. More broadly, Katie had taken on more responsibilities as a parent than I had. Reasons indefensible or partially so, that was the case, and I am thankful we have now comprehensively addressed (I’ll let Katie contend this if she wishes, but I think it’s true!). Back to the story.
We arrived at the campground (and the playground next to the creek), he woke up, and, if I recall correctly, jumped, out, and started to play. He was already buds with Zach’s son, and made quick friends with the daughter of Zach’s friend, Mark. My first and primary memory of the trip is of the kids playing with toy cars and tractors and splashing in the creek. I was, of course, the only one responsible for many things I relied on Katie for: changing diapers, figuring out how to keep Jonah from getting multiple changes of clothes wet, and so on—and the normal camping tasks of setting up the tent, making meals, and trying to keep clean and tidy.
As it got dark, Jonah kept pushing trucks around, playing, and laughing. 9 pm turned into ten pm; it was getting late. Sometime around ten pm-ish, I remember asking Jonah if he wanted to head to bed; he said no. I asked again, and he declined; the other kiddos were tucking in. I started to feel a bit of anxiety coming on. What would I do if he refused to go to bed? Would I drive home (more than an hour away, and not a super easy drive) and return the next day for our gear? What would I say to Katie?
Jonah asked to go in the car, and I—now I don’t know why—said yes, we could sit there for a few minutes. I remember sitting in the front seat and him in the back, and then him asking words that I can’t forget: “What’s that noise?”. I didn’t know; it could have been wind coming through the mountains; it could have been trucks or motorcycles on the road in. I said they were motorcycles, and Jonah paused and then pointed to the tent and said one word: “Bed”. We headed to the tent; I recall an overwhelming sense of relief, happiness, and calm. We did it. He fell asleep.
After, it felt like it was on. The coming fall, Katie was in the heart of graduate school and it was COVID. We hiked a lot — practically every weekend throughout the fall. We camped. Later, we backpacked; we kept backpacking, hiking, biking, running, playing soccer, and playing basketball.
At the same time that I felt like whatever I wanted to do, I could do it with my little guy with me, things weren’t always breezy. My parents told me I seemed to be a bit hard on him, especially when pushing him to try or do something new. My son recently made a bracing remark: “Why are you always making me do things?”
We were camping just a few weeks ago when it looked like it would rain. My son commented that he thought it was going to rain; I said I didn’t think so, but then start to rain it did. Next, he said it looked like a tree would fall down due to how windy it was. I responded, again, that I didn’t think it would, but to my surprise the small tree nearest where we were camping somehow keeled over, the top breaking from the trunk. I was a little spooked! We ducked under cover to wait out the storm. I started to wonder about driving home, but it was already really stormy—high winds, heavy rains. My son wasn’t scared, surprisingly. He watched a cartoon on my tablet, but the rain didn’t stop, and so we started playing. I’m someone who likes to be outside, and inside play hasn’t been a strength of mine, but I picked up one of his stuffed animals and played with him.
Over time, his stuffy and mine got names, and he started to talk like he was his stuffy. Eventually, he said that his stuffy was running away from home because his parents were having another kid because they didn’t love him anymore. Time seemed to stop for me; he’d never said anything to me suggesting that he was nervous about there being a baby. Moreover, he hasn’t really shared his feelings directly (or not) about this kind of thing with me. It felt like a portal; I didn’t know what to do. I said—through my stuffy!—that he would always be special as his (stuffy’s!) parents first kiddo and that his parents would love them both the same. I don’t remember what happened next, but I remember thinking that he seemed okay with the response. We played more, but it felt like something had changed. I think before bed he told me he loved me.
There’s an obvious parallel between me pushing further, my son scared, and me (and him) having to slow down, me scared, with each of us opening up to the other unexpectedly. I think we’ve built on him opening up to me, since; something opened up in me. When we went to a kid’s mountain bike race with friends, he got scared, and I told him it was okay if he didn’t race, instead of pushing, pushing, pushing.
What’s the moral of all of this? Maybe: there’s a time for pushing and a time for slowing down. It’s hard to parent; it’s hard to be a partner; it’s hard to love others and to be loved, but it’s good to.