Despite the fatigue that slowly dulls my body, I take a minute to look at him: his long, dark, enviably curled eyelashes; his perfectly shaped, upward tilting nose; his lips, full and just a little pouty. His soft hands, lacking the feel of a long life lived, reach out for my hair. Ever since forever, he takes small strands of my hair, and twirls and twirls them in his plump fingers, around and around until the strands have buckled into a knot. His back is broader and his legs are longer than they were last week, but I can't tell. I feel the warmth radiating from his body and in the dark, cool night, I am warm.
He is 4-years-old. He’s my oldest and asserting his independence more and more. He's stopped crying when I drop him off at preschool. He can reach just about anything he needs without having to ask for my help. He is learning how to make his friends laugh. He is testing his limits and testing my patience. He has accepted his role as big brother and acts in kind—at once nurturing and protective, then annoyed and disinterested. He's starting to sound out words and can almost (if you do some unscrambling) write his name. He puts on his own shoes and clothes.
But sometimes his shoes end up on the wrong feet and his pants are backwards. He can’t actually read or write yet. Sometimes his emotions still get the best of him, reducing him to a puddle of tears when he's overtired and doesn't get his way. He still finds comfort in his blankie and stuffed monkey.
He's in the space between toddler and boy.
There was a time when I would promptly look online or in a book to see if this is normal for kids his age. How well should my 4-year-old write? What should he know? Is his behavior normal? But in those four years, I've grown a lifetime too. I know now that when it comes to children, "normal" is not a term that can be universally applied. It doesn't matter to me what other kids can do. At least for now, my child’s progress should be measured against himself.
…Until I see another child in his class write her name beautifully. Is she four? Maybe she’s one of the older 5-year-olds? I feel the need to start asking who knows how to tie their shoes. I start Googling “things a 4-year-old should know and do.”
I am in the space between experienced mom and new mom.
Some people find comfort in knowing exactly who they are and what is expected. They like to know where they are supposed to be so they can focus their energy on getting there. Some people like the direction and clarity a strict definition can give. A toddler is supposed to…; an experienced mom is supposed to…; a girl is supposed to…
I am grateful for the space between.
The spaces are open, soft and forgiving. There is freedom in the grey space between black and white. Here in the grey, my son can be both toddler and little boy. I can exude both confidence and uncertainty. We can dance gracefully between the lines that define. Here, we’re allowed to stumble and fall. We can be either, or both. We can leap forward and retreat. I can start Googling and then laugh at myself 10 minutes later. My son can tell me he’s a big boy while simultaneously reaching for my hand to cross the street.
We both have a lifetime of growing and learning ahead of us. My son and I will move from milestone to milestone. We will, at times, be forced to measure and compare. We will at times fall neatly into a defined space. We’ll be bombarded with words and images of what we’re supposed to be doing and how we should be behaving. The black and the white will always be obvious and rigid. I hope we spend most of our time in the space between.
Some nights I hear his feet patter down the hall and some nights I sleep through his clumsy climb into my bed. But at some point in the night, every night, a hand will sleepily reach for my face, or a foot will walk along my back headed for a dreamland I will never know. The uncertain new mom in me wonders what advice the “experts” would give. The experienced mom in me knows the experts would give completely conflicting advice. I could find whatever answer I’m looking for. And truth be told, sometimes I want my son beside me in bed and sometimes I just want a kick-free sleep.
Someday he’ll stop coming into my bed. So tonight, in those moments between sleep and wakefulness, when it is quiet and dark, I will shut out the black and the white. Instead, I will see my 4-year-old and dance in our space between.