Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Hugs and Hurts

Of all the innocently honest things that have come out of Peter's mouth since he learned to talk, I heard one of the most hurtful earlier this week: "I not hug Mama!"

Our typical morning includes an extended dressing routine that starts with Peter hiding from me under his comforter and shrieking with laughter as I lift up its corners and playfully squeeze bits of him. I finally whip the blanket off, tickle and kiss his tummy, dress him as the giggles subside, and stand him up on his bed to snap his pants. Then he leans into me, wraps both arms around my neck, and melts into me in a warm, sweet hug. I hug him back for as long as he'll tolerate, and then I swing him around off the bed and onto the floor, and our day begins.

A few days ago I had a freckle removed from the skin just below my collarbone, since its irregular shape and color had bothered my doctor. It's not especially painful, but the area is covered with a self-stick bandage the size of a fifty-cent piece. I hadn't given a lot of thought to its appearance, and hadn't made any real effort to cover it up when I got home.

The next morning, though, when I stood Peter up on the bed and held out my arms, he hesitated. I reached out again and said, "Peter! Give Mama a hug?" And he dropped his little bombshell. I wilted a little inside, but smiled and repeated, "C'mon! Give Mama hugs and loves!" He still stood there, frowning, and finally reached a finger toward my bandage and said, "I no like it." My smile slipping a bit, I hitched up my neckline and asked if that was better. He said that it was, and gave me a stiff little embrace before wriggling down to the floor.

It shouldn't have bothered me, and I feel silly for even admitting to it. But it did. It bothered me a lot. I am 33 years old, and I have come to a measure of acceptance of my various physical imperfections, although admittedly not enough to quit looking for that perfect pair of jeans that magically takes off ten pounds. I no longer fret about the shape of my nose, my interesting hairline, or the irregular shape of my eyelids that makes artful eyeshadow a lost cause. I am at long last starting to grasp some of what all those nice counselors tried to explain to us in middle school, that it's what's inside that counts.

But even with this lovely grown-up maturity, there is still something that shoots past all the careful constructs of logic and philosophy when someone says, "I don't like you because of how you look." Even if it's temporary. Even if it's silly. Even if it's a four-year-old. Even if it's your son.

I think the thing that hurt the most, though, was the unwanted echo I felt in my own mind. How many times have I looked at him and thought, "I love him, but I wish he was OK"? I don't think it's wrong to wish your child was perfectly healthy -- it's what every mother wants when she first finds out that there is life stirring in her womb. Healthy mind, healthy body, all of its fingers and toes. But I did feel a rush of guilt for the times of frustration and feelings of distance from my son, my sweet baby whose mind struggles so mightily with the basics of human connection.

Every child is imperfect, which is good -- a perfect child probably would have driven me around the bend completely. Bodies, hearts, minds, there are so many tiny flaws and quirks that make each child interesting and challenging and unique. Mine is, in that way at least, no different. He will exasperate me in ways that his sister never did, but the reverse is also true. I will rise to the occasion and I will let him down, and I hope with all my heart that there is more of the former and less of the latter as our years go by.

Every day of those years, though, there is one thing I can do right, starting right now:

Peter, I hug you. I hug you.