Grayson turned four on Saturday.
I turned inside out.
Not because he is getting older or I am getting older or the fact that he asked me if people's arms fall off when they go to people heaven (???) or anything close to that.
I turned inside out because I threw a huge family superhero birthday part for myself and not for him. I forgot who he was. I even asked people to dress up like their favorite superhero. Because I thought it would be fun. We had cake, decorations and beautiful bags filled with presents family and friends thoughtfully picked out for him. For my little four year old who completely freaked out when everyone showed up. As in ran upstairs to his room, closed the door quietly and locked it. It took me 11 minutes to realize he was gone. Eleven minutes to notice the guest of honor had taken leave of his own party.
If I had paid attention to the past, oh I don't know, FOUR years of his life I would've known there could be no other response from this child. If I had really thought about it, I would've realized the fight or flight instinct is stronger in children than in adults and mine is still kicking pretty red hot most of the time. I should've known he would have no choice but to run.
When I finally sweet talked my way into his room I was met with a mirror image of all my own insecurities, just in little boy form. He was in tears. Soft, steady tears of confusion, fear and even hope that maybe he would be brave enough to join in soon when nobody's eyes were on him and nobody's voice around him.
After a short pep talk, we walked downstairs to find Pop. In his broken state, Grayson searched for the one person who would help him weld himself together again by building a shelf in the garage. Something real and tangible that made sense instead of mixing and mingling with 15 of Mommy&Daddy's closest family and friends. So that is exactly what they did. Pop and Grayson worked on a small wooden shelf they started building the day before while our friends and family tried to ignore the fact that birthday boy was MIA.
It was pretty awful. For us. For him. For poor Pop who didn't know if hammering nails was an acceptable grandparent thing to do while others socialized and carried on inside the house. In my opinion, it was the only thing to do.
Grayson is shy. He is painfully, awkwardly, sometimes socially unacceptably shy. But he is also so many other fantastic things. Fantastic things strangers, distant family members and most friends never get to see. His shyness should not define him at such a young age but still it seems to so much of the time. It is colossally unfair and I try to protect him from it the best I can by helping him choose more socially acceptable behaviors but then I ask myself if I'm doing more harm than good? By protecting him from his natural inclination to be introverted am I making him feel bad for the way he feels? I tell him he should make eye contact with people, he should engage in conversation with other little boys and girls, he should play next to them if not with them on the playground. Is this the right message to send so early on? Or am I really telling him I don't accept his longer than usual warm-up period, his super cautious demeanor. In effect the one person who should love you unconditionally is saying "I don't accept you for who you are and (worse yet,) I want to change you."
The truth is, Grayson was born shy. It may sound ridiculous but anyone who met him will say the same thing. From the day we took him home, he was this way. During my first (dreadful. oh Lord do I still despise 'em) experiences with playdates, he was this way. Visiting his extended family and our close friends, he was this way. We tried to roll with it and embrace it but ultimately we treated his sensitivity and introversion as a disability.
"What are we doing wrong?" My husband and I would ask ourselves.
"Why can't he just be happier?" I'd wonder when we went outside his comfort zone.
"Why is he so clingy, so surly, so upset all the time?" we'd ask each other when we tried to go to new places or socialize with friends who Grayson wasn't quite familiar.
The truth is that it is difficult to embrace certain qualities about your child all the time. There's a fine line between accepting the inconvenient "as is" characteristics while not making them feel guilty for not intrinsically knowing more socially acceptable behaviors. Society is fickle. They can be unkind to people who are not dynamic, even at the ripe age of four. There have been enumerable times I have felt the scorn of people (sometimes people close to me) as they witness less than desirable behavior from Grayson. They may have shown it in their eyes, in their curled up lip, or even in their "helpful" advice to "just get him involved in more activities with children his own age." Oh, parent of gregarious child, I hope you get a shy one next time. You will understand then.
And yet, I let Grayson down on Saturday. I failed to fully accept him for who he is and instead planned a big party with tons of commotion, food he doesn't even like and people (he is just now starting to know) fully dressed up like someone else in their superhero costumes. I threw him the anti-birthday party.
And yet, he rallied. It may have taken solitary confinement, a new wooden shelf, and hiding in the bushes (true story) for two hours but he braved up and joined the party. He even had himself a pretty terrific time once the initial sting wore off and his sensory palette became less assaulted with the unfamiliar.
I believe he will not always run away or want to hide in new situations or with new people. There are lots of little ones out there who are just like him who grow up as well adjusted people. His preschool teacher, in fact, has a grown son who just volunteered to read a story for Grayson's class today. I got to meet him. He didn't hide behind his mom. He didn't grunt wildly and flee for a smaller space. He met my eyes, smiled warmly and shook my hand with the confident grasp of a well adjusted (and rather outgoing) young man.
"He used to be just like Grayson," the preschool teacher whispered to me, inferring the obvious and hoping I'd get it. "They are really so similar."
And we, as their mothers, are very lucky to have the honor to watch and help them grow.
Next year? We will plan a quiet day on the lake with one of his friends when our awesome four year old turns five. And nobody dresses up.