After subjecting my 2- and 4-year-old sons to a grocery store run, I let them pick out small checkout aisle goodies. Really, I am the one who should get a prize. As if grocery shopping with preschoolers isn’t already impossible enough, my 2-year-old is wearing a bright white cast on his right leg, which every grandma in the store needs to know all about, slowing us down even more. But here we finally are, back at the car. I am strapping the boys into their car seats as they open up their goodies.
“M&M&M&Ms!” my 2-year-old laughs as he pops mini chocolate candies into his mouth. His cast sticks straight out in front of him, but no matter. With each additional M&M he eats, a smile shoots across his face.
At least there is this. At least he is weathering it all well.
It was such a fluke, really—that broken leg. He had jumped from a playground bench and somehow landed strangely. It happened on a weekend evening, because without fail all parenting crises occur outside of normal pediatrician hours. When he still wouldn’t or couldn’t walk a few hours later, we headed—a bit reluctantly, sure we were overreacting—to the emergency room.
The ER doctor saw nothing at first, but a specialist called in from home did see a slight fracture. We weren’t overreacting, it seemed. On went the cast, or the “big boot” as my 2-year-old called it—an open-toed, thigh-high one. Away went his mobility. And here, we thought, came the most miserable stretch of his little life, and a difficult parenting patch for us, too.
“Big boot,” my 2-year-old said again the next morning. “Take off now.” But he said this through a grin.
When my husband and I explained that we couldn’t take it off, that he had a boo-boo on his leg and the big boot would help make him all better, he shrugged and asked for some milk. Within hours he had figured out how to crawl, the cast dragging beside him as he chased after his older brother to give him a Ninja turtle action figure. A few days later he figured out how to walk, limping as he and his big brother swatted one another with foam pirate swords.
He was, in spite of the cast, his usual cheerful self.
And he continues to be his cheerful self on the way home from the grocery store, chomping on his M&M&M&Ms.
His older brother, however, did not pick M&Ms. He picked a small plastic Minion toy with some sort of candy stuffed inside. I watch in the rear-view mirror as my 4-year-old samples his snack, tiny pellets in neon colors, and then scowls.
“It’s yucky!” he calls.
“I’m sorry, buddy,” I say. “That’s a bummer.”
“Can I go get another one?” he asks.
I consider it, but no. We are already strapped in. We are already ready to go. I explain that next time, he can choose something different. That this is the risk with picking something new: Sometimes it will be great, but sometimes it won’t. That at least he has a plastic Minion toy to play with. That maybe his little brother will give him a few M&Ms if he asks nicely.
But he will have none of that.
He wails all the way home, crying real tears. “It’s not fair! I just wanted some candy! Good candy! Not yucky candy! It’s not fair!” His sadness seems boundless.
That sadness, it saddens me.
He is a good kid, our older son. His preschool teachers tell us he plays well with others, shares, listens to directions. Of course he has his moments, as all kids do, but he is not a kid who gives my husband and me trouble. And so that was why we were surprised one day when he threw a penny in a fountain and wished that he could always be good.
“You are good, sweetie,” my husband and I assured him.
“But sometimes I don’t have good behavior,” he reminded us, looking down.
He was clearly sad about this—dwelling on the once or twice a month when he heard our voices raised, when he got sent to the corner or to his room. I was sad to hear him confess his fountain wish—he was too hard on himself. Too sensitive, probably. Things that others would have brushed off entirely soaked into his being. Suddenly, I could think of a million examples in which this had been so.
As soon as we return home, he bolts off to the toy room and is distracted by a Transformer. The yucky candy inside the Minion is forgotten. But what will come next? And how will he respond to it?
As my 2-year-old limps to join his big brother in the toy room, smile across his face, I see their future selves clear as day. I imagine my younger son as the cheerful jokester. He may take a while to settle on his feet professionally, may be living in our basement after college, but he won’t be upset about this. Whatever his lot in life, he will be surrounded by friends. He will be happy. My older son, though, I imagine as the serious, studious one, the one with high highs but also low lows. He will do well in school, get a good job, but how will he experience life? Will he be able to enjoy it? I picture us gathering for holidays 30 years in the future and me telling my boys, “I knew. I knew so long ago. I knew exactly who each of you would turn out to be.”
Three weeks after my 2-year-old’s cast went on, it comes off.
“Boo-boo all better now!” he says upon setting sight on his leg.
Except that he isn’t completely better yet. His muscles are weak and joints stiff, so he walks out of the doctor’s office with the same strange stride as when he wore the cast.
Both the doctor and Dr. Google tell me this is completely normal. That he got used to the cast—altered himself to fit its restricting mold. I watch him carefully in the coming weeks. I wait. And as I wait, I get to thinking more about the cast, about the mold it created, about what that does to a person.
My sweet, young boys. It occurs to me that my predictions about their future selves could start plastering them into defined life paths, too. That my attention to my older son’s achievements and my younger son’s geniality could cause them to focus on only these aspects of themselves. But I don’t want that. I don’t want that at all. Because there’s more to each of them—other, less dominant traits that may become more dominant in the future. And they each surely have other capabilities that I don’t even realize.
A few weeks after my son’s cast is removed, his normal walk finally returns. And I know that my boys will bounce back from those other molds, too, the molds I fear I was accidentally making, because I won’t constrain them with my predictions any longer. Instead, I will watch and cheer and help occasionally, as I am able.
They are still so young—they could do and be anything. Life, when lived fully, should be anything but predictable. And so the only prediction I will make is that they will surprise me.