Yesterday afternoon we had one of those moments at our house that seemed to come straight off the pages of a book. We have a fish tank that we’ve been keeping on the back porch. Lydia has had a “pet fish” in that tank. It’s really just a fish from our pond, so not a fancy guy by any means. Lydia named him Brutus. Some of you may recall how I shared that she recently asked Nathan to kindly refrain from cleaning the fish he’d caught on the back deck where Brutus could see, as obviously this would be traumatic for Brutus. Anyway. I finally agreed to let the fish tank move to Lydia’s room. She’s been cleaning up in there, showing some more responsibility, and made a nice space for Brutus.
When Nathan and Lydia went to relocate Brutus, you’ve probably guessed by now that they found he was dead. (Hindsight: Parents, check to see that your fish is alive when you’re not with the child. If not, find a replacement quick before they notice. After almost 14 years of parenting, you’d think we would have learned something as basic as this. Sigh.) Lydia was of course devastated. She quickly burst into tears. In a dramatic display that only the baby of the family can pull off, she ran away outside. She was off to the tree house, where she perched herself in a chair facing the farthest away corner and began to sob. I want to tell you about what a great mom I was in this moment, but that’s not exactly what happened next. Because first I rushed inside to tell Sam and Abby what just happened so we could laugh hysterically at this very cliche and dramatic little situation that Lydia was acting out. Because really this movie-like drama is funny, and also we are talking about a fish from the pond. You know, the exact same kind of fish that we catch and use for bait and all that kind of thing. Once we’d had a good laugh, I threatened them with their lives if they so much as grinned once that baby came inside. Because the fact was that although she was working the drama real good, we all knew her heart was legitimately hurting. Which brings me back to the little girl sobbing in the tree house. Nathan was disposing of Brutus and cleaning the tank, so I was up to bat on this one. I had to make a choice at this point. I knew if I called her to come to me, she wouldn’t. I could just wait for her to come down and ignore the situation. Or I could climb in the tree house. I began to muster up all the sympathy I could find and started seeing the situation through the eyes of a soft-hearted nine-year-old girl. And I headed for the tree house.
When I got there, I realized the ladder was old and worn. The rungs were spaced awkwardly and I was less than graceful. For a minute, I wasn’t sure if my flipflops and I were going to make it. I pulled up a chair and sat right behind my girl. She didn’t turn around, but I could still somehow sense her surprise. You see, I’m not exactly a “tree house mom”. We haven’t been up there having afternoon tea parties together or anything like that. Actually as I sat there staring at the faded artwork on the wood, I realized that the last time I was in that tree house was probably eight or so years ago when a tiny Abby and I painted it together. I put my hand on Lydia’s back and for a while, neither of us said anything. Then I finally told her that I knew she was so sad and I understood why. I told her it was okay to be sad. I asked if she wanted to come sit in my lap. Eventually, she got up out of her corner to climb in my lap and cry some more.
I keep thinking about climbing in that tree house and how glad I am that I did. I started reflecting on other times with my kids. Other times that I’d taken their cues, responded to their lead and “climbed in the tree house” with them. I also thought of some times when I didn’t, because I was too tired or too distracted at the time to understand. In those moments, I feel I missed my cues to do some of the most critical parts of this child-raising thing. So here’s what I’ve decided: When my teenage son wants to talk about girls, I’m heading to the tree house. When my middle-schooler is anxious about gym and lockers and life in general, I don’t want to minimize her problems or blow her off. It’ll be tree house time. When one of my children is feeling something that is significant to them, I want to recognize it, validate it and understand as best I can. I want to be the mom that climbs in the tree house with them.