I taught Joe how to arrange his fingers, so that his hand can say “I love you” in sign language. He picked it up quickly but then he modified it. If he leaves his ring finger up, too, it means “I don’t like you.” And sometimes, when his little hand was in the air, he was letting me know in no-uncertain terms, “I don’t like you.”
And that about sums it up some days. I blame Being Three, I blame sibling dynamics, I blame dairy, I blame sugar, I blame a lack of napping, I blame myself over and over and over, most of all. About three weeks ago, I realised that almost all of my interactions with Joe were discipline-based. If he was behaving, being “good”, I was off doing something “important” – because there is so much to do, always so much to do. If he was misbehaving, I was laying down the law, in frustration. And I felt him drifting away from me, I felt like he wasn’t himself, I felt like he didn’t like me much, what happened to my joyful boy? He had fits of sullenness. He is always sick with a runny nose and laboured breathing. He was disobedient, deliberate, aggressive, petulant, whiny.
As the weeks went by, I felt more and more sadness at our disconnect, I wanted to snatch him into my arms, run away with him, just us two, hold him, hide, I guess, but his little hand was in the air, the “I don’t like you” sign in response to every time I said, “I love you, Joe-Bear” and we just weren’t speaking the same language anymore.
We were sitting in my parents’ basement a week ago. I was trying to have a grown-up talk with them while the tinies all played, but Joe kept coming out, kept interrupting, kept trying to be funny so that we would look at him, and I was growing irritated, just go play, child. He was doing a Grover routine “Near – far!” and my mother turned to me, she said gently, “Look at how he is only looking at you, Sarah, waiting for you to see him.”
I was so consumed with trying to get him to “behave right” that I was forgetting to look at him. (I cry just remembering how I felt in that moment, how wrong I had been, how I was missing him, if there was failure here, it was not his.)
We’re slowly uncovering some deeper truths about Joe, about how he thinks, how he gives and receives love, how he works. And he’s just so different – not bad, not wrong, just different from me - so that I feel like I’m becoming bilingual, it’s a whole new experience, he is not Anne, he’s not me, he’s not Evelynn, he’s his own man, and I am so thankful for that. So thankful for the gift of Joseph.
This new language-learning is intentional, it’s on purpose, I’m slowing down, leaning in to him, this is where Love comes down, in the daily interactions with one small life, this is the inasmuch, and I won’t miss it, I won’t miss him being three and wild and wonderful. I won’t gain the world, and lose my ability to speak my son’s language. I want to see him. I want to hear him. I want him connected to my heart more than I want his unflinching obedience. (But that would be nice, too, don’t get me wrong…)
I have been most challenged in regards to my commitment to gentle discipline with Joe. I’ve deviated from my ideals in desperate attempts to discipline him in the moment, losing sight of the long obedience in the same direction, the root of daily discipleship that goes beyond any “tactic” or “method”.
And yet, I find the more I hold to the holistic practices of connection, gentleness, attachment, the more I see our entire relationship as discipleship for us both, the more his heart reconnects, the more my heart reconnects, the less I know, the more I lean into the wisdom of God, the more I pray, the more I relax, the more I wait in prayer. Joe needs time. He needs laughter. He needs prayer. He needs to work alongside of me. He needs to feel important and valuable to the family. He needs to know I’m watching him. And he probably needs to stop eating sugar and dairy, too.
I tell him I love him. I laugh at his jokes. I’m playing more. I’m disciplining him all day by disciplining myself to be present, to love him in his own language, to see him, really truly see him, to live life with him instead of against him. I laugh at his Grover antics, when he says “Watch me, Mum!” I’m already watching, we’re reading Fox in Socks a thousand times, we’re outside more, we’re working together at the kitchen counter for supper.
Sometimes, when I catch his eye in the minivan now, I now just throw up the sign language version, “I love you” written in my fingers. He grins until his molars are showing, and throws up his own “I love you” sign, no ring finger up to change the meaning - most of the time, but sometimes, that ring finger is still there and I can’t figure out if he’s trying to be funny, or if he means it, some days.
On Mother’s Day, we had a set-to in the morning, it was so hard to get out of the door by myself with all three tinies to get to church, and Joe was resisting every step of the way. I nearly gave up. But we made it, it felt like a Herculean effort. I passed the baby to Brian to hold at church doing the singing, so that I could lift that gigantic boy into my own arms, balance his thighs on my hips, my hands hooked underneath him in a tight grip, my arms aching with his solid weight, just so he can wrap his arms around my back, rest his breath into my neck and listen to me sing into his bristly hair, he could feel me sway and we both needed this.
He came out of Sunday School, a little clay pot in his hand, with a collection of cardstock flowers inside, glued to wooden dowels. They asked Joe, “Why do you love your Mum?”and then they wrote all of his answers on the flowers, a bouquet of why he loves me.
On the first flower, he told them to write on that flower: “She likes me.”