My older son and I had a rocky evening recently. From my perspective, he was being uncommunicative and rude, answering my questions in the least number of syllables possible and giving every verbal and nonverbal sign that he thought my questions were stupid. From his perspective, I was nagging him and treating him like I thought he was incapable of taking care of himself. Typical teenager-mom thing. The last straw was when I had the audacity to suggest that he eat his peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich 45 minutes before his event at the track meet. He growled some reply, and I stomped off into the office, and my husband had to come in and remind me who was the adult here. Not my best moment. But other than his compliments on my cooking (which I do like and which definitely works to keep me turning out the meatloaf and fried chicken and cherry pies) and him consuming every scrap of food that I prepare him, I'm not getting a lot of appreciation.
Then today I was cleaning out a box in the garage and found an envelope addressed to me from his old nursery school. I dumped it out on the ping-pong table and a pile of colored paper hearts poured out. They all said "To Mom From _____." Actually quite a few said "To Mom and Dad" but the great bulk of them were to me. My own heart caught for a moment. I was showered with valentines "To Mom", "To Mom", "To Mom" that I had forgotten in the ensuing 12 years. These hearts did not represent one day's worth of work. These were days' and days', perhaps weeks', worth of cutting and writing. They were an expression of love and a practice of his new skills, over and over again. And in fact, that's how my son does things. All out, one hundred percent, over and over until he has mastered whatever it is and exhausted that particular vein of inspiration. And then on to the next thing. I was really happy to see those hearts. They remind me that even when he's fighting with me, he's saying he loves me and practicing skills at the same time. Practicing breaking away, asserting his independence from me. It's a skill that takes a lot of practice.