Confessions of a Child Psychiatrist or the infamous Ocean Toss
This weekend I spent hours going through my son’s bedroom, sorting old clothes, books and trinkets. I must have gone through thousands of photos. Pictures of us at Christmas, at the beach and so many photos of them wrestling. Very good medicine for the nostalgic empty nester to find and view so many many photos of her children wrestling.
“You don’t care about me, you only like him. You never come when I call you and you like it when he hurts me, you don’t care if I die,” my creative and yes dramatic son accuses me, loudly and frequently of neglecting him in his moment of need. “Yes, I care, I do want you to be safe and happy,” was my swift reply but it didn’t help because the next time he bellowed, “Mom, mom come here,” I ignored him again. “Perhaps,” I tried convincingly, “it’s because you are ALWAYS wrestling and always yelling and screaming and I can’t tell the difference between “Mom listen to this and MOM help I’m dying in here. Truly sweetie they do sound the same. Honestly, I don’t want you dead. “
Finally, we devised a method of red alert, come quickly, this “Mom” means I’m dying. We decided that if my middle son, my creative, dramatic one was in trouble, he was to yell “Julia, Julia.” Mom was left for less emergent situations and ordinary conversation.
This seemed to work. Whenever and wherever I was when I heard “Julia” I would sprint to the scene, separate the wrestlers and save a life. Wrestling continued but hurting, smothering and head locks were minimized.
Long long ago I read of a psychologist’s categorizing children’s temperaments as easy, slow to warm up and difficult. Those groups work well with my children and my patients so I continue to use her nomenclature. My slow to warm up son never liked change or transitions. Even in nursery school his teacher told us that she had never seen a three year old pick one best friend and stick with that friend for the year. “He never jumps into activities instead he hovers around the project. He observes from a distance then approaches and joins in, definitively choosing his particular way of participating. His time, his terms.”
Over and over we heard this about our son and over and again we observed it. Rushing him would never happen because he would just dig in and stall. And that’s what he was doing that day at the beach when I picked him up and threw him in the ocean. We have two versions of that marvelous day. His and mine. His is that I was rough and he was scared and I made him afraid of the ocean. Mine is that I spent years holding his hand on the sand coaxing and cajoling. He whined, “It’s sandy at the beach. I want to go back to the condo,” the first time his little feet hit the beach. Before he could walk he could talk in sentences and frequently they were complaints about the ocean. True. For years, we waded in with our toes, we played football, built drip castles and shaped sand forts. We sat on blankets playing with toys. Then we dipped our toes in again, or sat in the eddies that rustled by the edge of the sea. Usually at August’s end, the fun would start and he would enjoy swimming or boogie boarding or let loose with wild body surfing. Only by then it was so late, we had to pack up and head north, live the next nine months without surf and sun, then start that slow process over again the next summer.
The summer of the fateful throw in occurred when he was seven, we disagree about this also. We had been at the beach for hours with his two best buddies. They had been swimming, boogie boarding and sand skimming with great abandon. My son had been looking on with longing and envy but also with fear. The worst thing about fear is it projects the worst outcome and never achieves any fullness in the moment. Finally, I felt my full moment had come. Probably wanting to do this for years, I picked him up and tossed him in about two feet of water. We were both laughing or at least I thought we were. The pictures stand below as testimony to my memory.
But to my son, my slow to warm up, how dare you force me, how could you throw me in the ocean, you know I was afraid and you didn’t care anyway son, it comes up over and again. I hate to think it is the only memory he has after spending sixteen summers at the beach together but to hear him talk you might think so. Even though it worked and he swam like a fish, diving in and out of the waves for the rest of the day with his friends and I want to tell him I told you so, I knew you could do it, you are an amazing swimmer and you just needed a little push.I don’t. I say instead, “Sorry I threw you in. I thought you’d be less miserable in the ocean than out. You were a little afraid yet so filled with regret and jealousy.” “But Mom, you threw me in when I didn’t want to go. You just picked me up and dropped me and my head went under.” “Yes, I did and that seemed right at the time but I realize now it was wrong. It hurt and I’m sorry.”
Please, I’m thinking, remember something else about our summers. Remember crabbing, or fishing or digging in the sand or the time you buried me up to my chin in that tunnel we made together or even the time you begged me to pull you on the boogie board through the surf just one more time before we left and the car keys fell out of my coverup and into the waves. We had to call AAA again and sit in the parking lot forever and wait while he came and went and returned finally with a spare key. Remember that please but not the time I dragged you into the ocean against your will, making you fall in love forever if not with me then with my beloved.
I know I remember those other moments. I know I want to remember more too. Just last month I was sunning on the shore with my easy daughter when my two sons moseyed over, having crossed that spectacularly stunning boardwalk from the house through the live oaks weeping in the wind. “Hey, Mom, how’s the water?” they ask. “Perfect,” is always my only response. And they both head towards her, one running headlong and flinging himself in and under for yards and invisible yards before surfacing and yelling, “WOW, owww!” The other, the slow to warm up one, sticks his big toe in and twenty years later he does the same thing he’s been doing since he was one as he meanders to and fro, ambivalent about whether to leap forward and under and get wet or stay back, safe and dry, not risking but not finding much fun either. I turn to my daughter, my “it’s always perfect at the ocean too” child and say, “Your brother is going to come back and say it’s cold and rocky at the ocean.” And that, as they say is exactly what happened.
And as this three ring circus rolls past my view, I sit, wishing I could be the ringmaster of the carnival that flows past my picture window. I guess I’m never going to be the ringmaster of the outdoor carnival, am I? But I’m also never going to give up my seat at the circus.
I’m looking forward to years in the future when their children come to stay. I’m already wondering when little feet hit the sand if they’ll say “it’s sandy,” and if when they swim if they’ll say “it’s wet.” I’m pretty much ready for any version. Every version has it’s positives and negative. We know each version is uniquely true. I’m staying tuned for the next episode. The next three ring circus that rides past my view is going to be just as much fun as the last.
Our ringmaster circles the driveway
with his whip. his actors flip on ramps,
fly on trampolines. They skate around
and around this asphalt circle.
Five entertainers playing the greatest
show on earth. And as this circus slides past
our picture window, I sit, still, watching
these lives, wishing I could be the ringmaster
of the outdoor carnival that rides by my view.
Three ring act quicken towards the window.
Allow my entry into your magic,
I will dance with the ringmaster and his whip.
Julia Wilkerson Burns, MD