Last night I had a dream that my Older Son was lost in the woods.
I had left him in the care of many other people but they still somehow let him disappear for hours, and when I came back one of the other kids told me he was gone. I put on my hiking boots and was heading out to look for him, my mind racing over the trails and which ones he might have taken, and how scared he must have felt when he realized he was lost.
Then a police car drove up and he was sitting in the back seat. His beautiful 10-year-old almost grownup face was calm and smiling slightly, filled with relief but still a little scared, and I knew it would break into tears when he saw me.
Then the police car turned and Older went off to reunite with someone else, and I was being questioned for how and why he disappeared.
This isn’t a difficult dream to interpret. It’s pretty much a straight line from my subconscious to what’s going on in our lives. Not that I’ve lost my son in the woods, but that we are heading into that metaphoric realm right now, in so many parts of his life. Sports, school, extracurricular events, friends, family; who can he trust and who will help him when he reaches out for it?
And who do I turn to for help when bad things happen? The teacher? Principal? The parents of the kid who bullied him? The grownup who saw bad things happening and just let them, instead of stepping in to protect the children involved? Or the adult who did something hurtful and made my child cry?
What do you do after the fact, when there’s really not much you can do about it? Do I confront them? Am I a lousy mother if I don’t? (Because really, I’m a big chicken and I’m much better at confronting children than adults.)
And then I get to sit and obsess over all the ways I have failed him. It’s my responsibility somehow. I am to blame for being negligent, for letting him get hurt when I wasn’t there. And for not doing anything to avenge him when it happened.
This is why superhero stories are so popular, by the way. In case you were wondering.
I’ve been asking my friends for help as our kids reach the age where the hurts of life start to have a real impact. I think we’re all equally confused but we’re trying so hard to help our kids. That counts for something.
The question for me is not so much what will I do to protect him out there, since I can’t always be there. Even sometimes when I’m in the room things are happening that I don’t know about. I have to focus on what I can do to give my sons the tools they need to face it all, and support them when they don’t understand why something awful happened. And of course try to help them figure out what to do when it happens again.
And as my husband says, when someone does something mean, there’s one positive you can take out of it: recognizing how not to behave.
Being someone whose career involves protecting children, I think it upsets me more when I see other adults who don’t. So even if you don’t know what to do, please step in to help kids who need it. Sometimes all they need is an adult to say, “Hey, what’s going on here?” and diffuse the tension. Do something – don’t just pretend you didn’t see it.
And now for today’s Broadway musical interlude. A sad little ditty set to sprightly music should lift up my depressed mood:
Into the woods, it’s time to go
I hate to leave, I have to, though.
Into the woods, it’s time, and so
I must begin my journey.
Into the woods and down the dell
The path is straight, I know it well.
Into the woods, and who can tell
What’s waiting on the journey?
The way is clear
The light is good
I have no fear
Nor no one should.
The woods are just trees.
The trees are just wood.
No need to be afraid there-
There’s something in the glade there…
– Stephen Sondheim