"Mommy, I don't want you to go to your volleyball practice."
"Mommy, don't play the guitar with your friend. I want you to sit with me and watch TV. "
Here is the thing: your children -- gifted, challenged or just run-of-the-mill sweethearts -- have minds of their own. They have opinions and they express them, right from the get-go. When they are 6, like my son, Tal, they have already known for some time that other people in the world around have ideas of their own, and that those ideas do not always go well with their own.
"Mommy, I'm your friend, play with me, not with other people."
"Mommy, I don't want to stay home with a babysitter! Don't leave me."
They break your heart, children do. But as they get older, your children not only have to contend with the idea that their parents' life don't evolve solely around them and their hearts' desires, but that they are better off when they truly grasp the separation between themselves and others.
At the beginning of this school year, I was invited to join a team that plays a variation of volleyball, which I believe is called Newcomb Ball. There's a big school league for mothers around the country. My days as a basketball player in the Israeli army and as an amateur tennis player were years behind me, but I jumped at the chance to diversify the routine gym/yoga/pilates I've sank into since becoming a mom.
As it turned out, Newcomb was a delightful game, and the team turned out to be a sort of a supportive community that people often wish for but seldom find.
But for Tal, my going out after his bedtime wasn't palatable. If he was awake when the babysitter arrived, he would protest and cry. He objected to the fact that I'm going to play with other people. This rang familiar, as last year, when visiting friends in England, I used an afternoon when Tal was watching CBeebies -- the BBC children TV -- to play with my musician friend, Shani.
When Rastamouse was over, Tal came into the music room and demanded we stop playing. My friend was about to set down her guitar, but I told Tal that we want to play one more song.
"You are welcome to sit and listen, or go and play in the other room, it won't be long."
But he insisted. And I did, too. And so he went to the other room and cried. I swallowed hard, but we finished playing one more song. It was a difficult thing to do, and very atypical of me, but I felt there was an important lesson not just for my son, but for me, too. It wasn't about control of me over him, or him over me. It was something that we both had to get used to; Tal's mom is a person who does things that do not always relate to Tal.
Going out to ball practice called for a different medicine, since this was to become a routine. I really couldn't play very well if I left my child crying with a babysitter. I wanted Tal onboard and
I thought he was mature enough a year and a half after the music incident.
I talked to him, and he asked to come to the practice with me, but I explained that it would be past his bedtime. He complained, moaned and whined, like a regular 6-year-old. And then, looking at our dining table, where we do so much more than dining -- writing, coloring, playing -- my eyes fell on a seal I made from white clay that week. The seal also had a baby seal sitting next to it. I like making smooth animals from clay; a hippo, a polar bear, a round Finnish dove.
I grabbed the little figurines. Mother seal had something important to tell her baby seal, and Tal needed to hear it as well.
"Baby seal," the mother said in a deep, quiet voice. "I want to go play with my friends a water ball game."
Tal's head shot up from his drawing and he stared with bright eyes at the little clay figure. I held my breath, but he didn't say anything. I had to make another move, and I decided to take the plunge and not censor any emotion.
"But mommmmmy!" the baby seal squeaked, "I don't want you to go!"
Mother seal tried to calm her baby, but he kept crying and complaining, so she turned to Tal.
"Tal, you and baby seal don't like your mom and me to go to play with our friends."
So mother seal started, very patiently, and very quietly, to converse with Tal, with Tal's mom and with her own baby. She asked the children questions about their objections and fears, and she supplied some answers -- very short, very simple and not ambiguous.
Tal took part in the conversation, and at a certain stage, offered comfort for the baby seal. At the end of this five-minute exchange, he has agreed to the offer mother seal had put on the table:
That he would go with me to ONE practice, accompanied by his babysitter. That from then on, he would agree to stay home with the sitter without crying. And that I arrange a mothers-children game he can take part in. If there's an early league game, he can come once, too.
It was amazing to see how involved he seemed; the seal family was real for him, because it was relevant to him, and because the emotions and thoughts expressed were very real to him. Especially important were the "bad" feelings.
Two days later, he came with me to practice and behaved admirably.
Then there was a practice, and Tal was upset again. He didn't want me to leave. After a long negotiation, I brought out the seals and they sat by his bed.
A week later, I tried to leave for a game, and this time, he became really upset. He cried and coughed until he almost choked. I soothed, I pleaded, I promised and scolded and finally, I went out the door. Soon after, the babysitter texted me that he had fallen asleep without crying. Only when I came back home from practice did I remember that I forgot to take out the seals.
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