Exactly one year and two days ago, we met our son for the first time. He was 4 years old. We planned to meet him at a neutral location, so his guardian chose a McDonald’s with a play place so he would have something to do. (Smart thinking. I love a good play place.) It was the most surreal experience of my life. We had just driven over 5 hours, leaving my stomach feeling queasy from anticipation, nerves, and car sickness. When we walked in, I searched my surroundings until I saw a little brown-headed boy with his back to me, playing in the play place. There he is. Does he have any idea what he is really doing here? Could he possibly understand the weightiness of this meeting or what it would mean for him?
When he finally turned around, I could sense Dave’s breath catch in his throat. “He’s so small.” Dave whispered to me. Up until that point, this 4-year-old boy was theoretical- a dream. Now we are standing right in front of this little creature, and reality sinks in. In an instant, we both become paralyzingly aware of what we signed up for and are fighting the urge to pass out on the floor in amazement and fear. We walk toward this little wonder and tentatively say hello. He half-smiles, looks at the guardian, glances back at us, then resumes his play. At that moment, I realize the answer to my initial questions. This intuitive little boy knows exactly why he is here.
All of my training in play therapy and child development flies out the window at that moment. All I care about is getting this boy to like me. I hold off on my desire to engage him immediately as he walks away, and instead I choose to watch him for a few minutes. I notice he keeps looking back at me as he plays. I track him with my eyes and respond with positive facial expressions. At one point, he jumps over the side of the slide, and I could sense as he looked at me that he wanted to assess how I would respond. I caught his eye and gave him a silly/scared face to let him know I saw what he did, and his safety is a priority to me. He smiled. After that, I stood up and initiated play with my son.
I tracked his movements and his choices… “You’re picking that up. You’re looking at me. You’re smiling. You’re laughing; you think that’s funny.” Then I began reflecting his feelings… “You’re not sure about me. You seem curious about that. You feel happy when you do that.” Gradually, we began connecting. Dave thoughtfully approached and looked for his moment to engage his son. Josh asked me to lift him up to the highest part of the play area. I took this opportunity to incorporate Dave by making a comment about how much taller he is than I am. Josh looked at Dave, then back at me, then back at Dave with an affirming smile. Dave continued to lift him on to that platform for several minutes, and I sat there and watched my husband and my son play for the first time.
We have had many firsts since that day. The first time Josh rode on Dave’s shoulders; the first time he called me Mommy; the first time he said “I love you”. We also have had other not-so-pleasant firsts. The first time Josh threw a shoe at me; the first time he fell off his bike; the first time he said “I hate you”.
I often think about all of the firsts I missed in Josh’s life. I will never be able to tell him about the day he was born. I wasn’t there when he said his first word or learned to walk. Sometimes we laugh with our friends who are dealing with diaper explosions and stained sheets, saying, “Ours came potty-trained!”, to which someone undoubtedly responds, “Lucky!” And I do feel lucky in many ways. But I still wish I had some stories about poop to share with other parents. (Well, technically I do, but for some reason it becomes less appropriate to talk about your kid’s poop as they get older.)
Although I do have times when I long for the missed moments, I don’t dwell on these thoughts. There are so many firsts and new experiences that I do get to have with my son. There are also firsts that I have gotten to witness with my nephew and nieces and close friends’ children. I was visiting one of my best friends the day that her oldest daughter walked for the first time. It was precious and sacred, and I will never forget it. I don’t begrudge others these beautiful moments, even though I didn’t get to experience them with my child, because I know that my son had these moments. These sacred moments happened, and whoever was there to witness them now has memories to hold on to and cherish. I take great comfort in that. And I take even more comfort in thinking about all of the firsts that I won’t miss. Josh’s first baseball game; his first trip to Disney World; his wedding day (God-willing).
I don’t have any poopy diaper stories to share with other moms. That’s a bummer. But forever embedded in my memory and my heart is the day I first met my son; the first time he smiled at me; the first time he hugged me; the first time my husband picked him up; the first time I heard his little voice; the first moment I felt like a mother.
And our first family photo, right there next to the McDonald’s play place.