Until he turned three a month ago, my son had been a notably physically cautious kid. He never climbed out of his crib. He started jumping more than a year after he started walking but he never jumped with abandon. Rather, he jumped like a gymnast practicing a tough dismount even though he was usually jumping off of nothing but a broad patch of flat earth. He did not try to scale furniture in our house, nor did he try to scale any remotely cumbersome playground equipment. He still loves to relax in the sweet plastic womb of a baby swing and be pushed until it gets dark outside.
But a few weeks ago, after my husband took this same son of ours to the playground, they walked in the door to our apartment wired, elated even, by some particularly daring thing he’d done on some particularly bananas sloped ladder. I couldn’t quite understand it, but they’d cracked each other up. My husband was so shocked by this toddler we thought we knew doing something so out of what we assumed was his forever character. It sounded fun and cool and of course, I was super psyched for them (and a bit jealous).
So, on one of New York’s freakishly warm days this March, I took my kid to that same playground where history would, surely and beautifully, repeat itself. And it did! Was that my son on those arching bars? He climbed them about twelve times without a shred of help from me and slid nimbly down the accompanying corkscrew slide that had long frightened him. Yes, I did initially (and possibly involuntarily) bark things like, KEEP LOOKING IN FRONT OF YOU, and, YOU GOT THIS, and, YEAH, proper parenting etiquette be damned. But mostly I watched, flabbergasted by his sudden leap into a new realm of body confidence and dexterity.
Satisfied he’d mastered and conquered the bars, he moved on to what I call the big shaky metal chain ladder. You know what I’m talking about. At two, my son used to attempt a step or two on this ladder and then quickly retreat toward something more stable and low to the ground. But on this day, he climbed to the top! And then he did it again! And then he did it again, and again, and again. And then he did it again and fell, from the very top, all the way to the ground. It was a measured fall, he dropped, then he was straddling one of the footholds, and then he was flat on his back on the rubbered ground, crying.
I scooped him up fast, irritated with myself for not catching him sooner, and held him. I thought, “Well, that’s that, we’ll see this ladder in another year or so.”
But faster than I thought possible, his little body was wriggling its way ground-ward.
“I have to see if I fall again,” he stuttered between sobs, and he stuck his feet into place and started to climb it. AGAIN. “It’s tricky,” he yelled to me, voice shaking, his cheeks still wet.
“Are you okay?” I shouted at him, but he ignored me.
He did not fall again. He made it to the top.
And I can’t stop thinking about it, all of it. I think about the fall, sure, and how it made my stomach drop, but that’s not what stuck. What stuck is the getting up. It’s cliché, I know, but it is the cliché, the one we all tell ourselves with words – when you fall down, the most important thing is to get back up and try again. But I saw it. I watched this thing you remind yourself of all the time happen in real time. I watched this kid of mine actually do the thing that I know many kids do: act, in spite of fear, discomfort, and pain.
I think about his little voice every day, telling me he has to try again. I think about it on the days when I feel like I’ve failed as a parent. I think about it on the days when I’m unsure about what I’m writing, when I’m unsure about my career and all the weird, stuck parts of it. I think about it when I say the wrong things to people. I think about it when I try to kick my legs up into a handstand in yoga class and can’t ever seem to do it. I think about it when I worry that I haven’t made enough noise about everything the president does.
It’s tricky. But I’ll try again.