I am the mom with the scared child at puppet shows. Fred is 2 ½ and sweet as can be: cautious, gentle, mellow, loving, and confident. He is simply terrified of certain things. And I’m not talking about an age-appropriate fear of strangers. I am talking about a rather unusual and acute sensitivity to anyone or anything wearing a mask, anyone or anything with crazy hair including but not exclusive to clowns (in books and in real life), and even wheelchairs, for reasons I cannot explain.
I am aware that you feel bad for me as I stand and rock my terrified crying 30-plus pound bundle of sweetness outside of puppet shows, restaurants that have TVs blaring scary commercials, and even children’s clothing stores that try and keep me in their store by showing colorful cartoons. Little do they know that they actually lose my business when Fred is around!
I am also aware that you are sighing inside, thinking, thank God that’s not my kid. I know some of you think I have raised sheltered children who “can’t” function in the “real world.” The fact that they are not–I don’t know what, I’ve heard it all–not resilient enough, not brave enough, not acclimated enough to TV. Well, I guess I just try and do my best with what I have been handed, and I was handed two sons who are very sensitive, very wise, and very afraid of a lot of stuff for the first several years.
At a neighborhood synagogue’s Purim puppet show this past weekend, I realized that I was the only mom who selects seat choice at these kinds of things based on my anticipated need to exit with a trembling, shaking child. So I sat with Fred on the side of the auditorium while my 5 ½ year old sat with my husband and my parents in the front row, excited and beaming (he, too, was terrified of puppets at his little brother’s age; don’t let his bravado fool you).
When the first puppet popped up, all crazy hair and bright nose, I knew we were in for trouble. Fred’s brow furrowed and he sunk into my lap just enough for me to take notice. Since he is not yet verbal, I tried to read his facial cues and I whispered “Are you ok?” which is our code for “Are you scared?” He nodded no, so I stood up and we walked outside. After a few minutes, I told him we could try again and he nodded yes. We walked back in and he seemed less trepidatious. Great, I thought: this could work yet. Enter a second puppet with a penchant for screaming excitedly, and Fred’s lower lip turned harshly downward, his chin trembled, he turned bright red and he then starting howling. We rushed out of the auditorium and I promised him “All done” and I signed it too. He signed it back.
Maybe it is my fault. Our kids don’t watch TV, so they have no reference for incongruously bizarre-looking puppets with mops of hair and purple felt skin with huge orange noses. Fred likes cars and trains and dolls and his little toy kitchen, but in his world, things pretty much look like what they are. I worry that people think I am the instigator of his “problem:” that maybe I need him to need me, so I constantly warn him that this is going to be scary, or that I have a running dialogue with him about how scary it might be and what to do if it is and how it’s okay to be scared, etc. Well, I can guarantee you, that’s not the kind of mama I am; I truly let things play out and I decide what to do based on his reactions.
My older son warmed up to everything in his own time and now enjoys so much about the world. So for the time being, we avoid discos, we know which pages of which books have clowns on them, and when the invitations for marionette shows and one man circus shows come into my inbox, I simply reply no thank you for me and Fred, and I send my older son with my husband. One day, Fred’s cautiousness will lift just as his brother’s did. And that will be a day that marks the end of Fred’s fears. I know my job as his mama is to celebrate those changes, and I will on the outside. But as he runs away from me to inspect a puppet close-up, I will cry the tears that only mamas cry: the tears of giving your child wings so that they can fly.