The Art of Falling: It's All in the Direction - Face Down, or Face Up?

Falling is one of those things that can go either way. Falling in love? Good. (Soooo good.)

Falling down a flight of stairs? Bad. (Soooo bad.)

Falling is something we all do, and not just once a year when we “fall back” by an hour. No, we pretty much fall all over ourselves every day. We fall asleep. We fall behind. We fall apart. Often we fall short of our own expectations, desires and potential.

Sometimes we even fall flat on our faces.

Yep. We unconsciously, accidentally fall a lot. It takes virtually no effort at all, it seems. Nobody sets out to fall from grace or fall apart at the seams. Yet as scary and uncomfortable (and sometimes downright painful) as falling is, it always leads to life’s better moments. Like being in love. Pushing oneself to do better. Picking up the pieces. Standing back up.

Or just looking up.

I like to think I’m a laid-back person, but in recent years I’ve come to grips with the harsh reality that I’m sort of a perfectionist. That’s not to say I think I’m perfect, or that any facet of my life is perfect. But in my mind, I’ve mostly equated falling with failing. A C may as well be an F. A bad run meant I was a bad runner. A story that didn’t get praise from my editor meant it probably totally sucked. Having legs that don’t look like a model’s meant I couldn’t wear shorts, ever, even in August in South Carolina, lest somebody see them. (Man those Southern summers are killers!)

Thankfully, being a parent has reinforced the lesson I learned way back in Sunday school, the lesson that is only now taking hold in my brain’s darkest corners, where imperfection and uncertainty fester: That lesson is that falling is not failing. Falling is merely a stumble, a momentary loss of balance that skins the knee to remind me to be more careful next time with my actions, words and thoughts. There is always (*knock on wood*) another day, another opportunity to say “I’m OK,” keep my cool, make a memory, choose laughter, forgive myself, move on.

I fell yesterday, flat on my parenting face. And when parents fall, we’re not the only ones who get hurt.

It was just one of those days. Kostyn got up super-early and refused to take a nap, so he was cranky right out of the gate and it just got worse. Plus he was testing limits left and right, and my limits were getting shorter and more rigid as the day wore on. I have a patience “fuse,” as they say, that I have carefully, painstakingly stretched and strengthened through trial and error, frustrations and setbacks and tears and prayers, over these last three-plus years. But when that fuse reaches a certain point, the spark that ignites can be fast and fiery. I do not hit or spank, I do not resort to name-calling, but I do yell. My face shows anger. My movements are harsh.

His Pull-Up was not carefully unfastened at the waist, like usual; it got yanked down to his ankles. His shoes were not taken off with care while he smiled and helped; they were pulled off and thrown against the wall in frustration by me as I carried him, screaming, to his bed.

Those examples are a decent snapshot of our day. I’m ashamed to include them, but context is necessary here. I know there are parents who react in worse ways and in better ways. But this is not about them.

I knew it had been a rough day but I didn’t realize how much of my anger had seeped into Kostyn’s psyche until the middle of the night, when I heard him whimpering “Mommy” from his bed. I stumbled to his room as quickly as I could but instead of being met with outstretched arms and “Mommy can I hold you?” like usual, his eyes showed a mix of fear and anger when he saw me. “No!” he shouted, crying. “Get! Out! I don’t want you!”

In that moment I felt the full force of the pain from my earlier fall, and it knocked the wind out of me. “Are you all right?” I asked in my gentlest voice. “You were calling for me....”

He cut me off.  “No, Mommy!” he yelled, kicking at the air in my direction. “Go away!”

I had no choice but to leave, reassuring him that I was here if he needed me, which I’m sure sounded like an empty promise. As I settled back down in my own bed I heard him whimper “Mommy” again and I realized he was not calling for me, he was lamenting my disappearance from earlier in the day. His usual soft cradle of safety had turned to jagged rocks of anger, and he felt betrayed. My little boy would rather sit in the dark, alone and confused, than risk the false comfort of my arms.

I barely slept the rest of the night.

Before dawn I was wide awake, lying there thinking about how I’d failed myself and my son the day before. I was just about to get up when I heard him creak out of his bed, his tiny footsteps headed toward me. So I lay very still and pretended to sleep while watching him out of the corner of my eye and praying he’d approach me. He hesitated for a second but then walked up to me. I opened my eyes and he smiled. “Hi!” he said without a hint of apprehension. I asked if he wanted to snuggle, and he climbed in next to me.

I kissed his forehead and asked how he slept. “Good,” he said. I whispered that I was sorry that yesterday wasn’t such a fun day, and he said, “Aww, I’m sorry too.”

“What are you sorry for?” I asked.

“Because I didn’t take a bath,” he said. Which was ironic because by the end of the day I was just trying to make him happy and keep the peace, knowing he was overtired and overstressed from the day. So when he’d balked at having to take a bath, I’d immediately shifted gears and told him he didn’t have to, and there had been no argument about it at all.

I assured him again, as we lay there, that it didn’t matter about the bath, it was OK if he doesn’t want to take a bath every day. I said I was sorry that I scared him with my mad face, and I promised him we would have a happy day today.

“Yeah,” he said.

And because I had a full night’s worth of remorse built up in my head, I kept going. “I love you so much, Kostyn,” I said. “I never want to make you sad, and sometimes I do and I’m so sorry. But I promise to try even harder. Because I love you so, so, so much.”

“Like the doves,” he said.

“The what?” I asked, unsure if I’d heard correctly.

“The doves,” he said. “When you pull the curtains, there are doves.” He pointed to the closed curtains behind us. He was talking 3-year-old jibberish. It could have been a reference to a book he read last month, a “Sesame Street” episode he saw last year, or something he was making up on the fly. But in that moment it made perfect sense to me, because the image that immediately came to mind was of Noah and the ark, of him releasing a dove after drifting so long on the water, and watching that dove return with an olive leaf in its mouth — a sign that God had kept His promise. That there was hope. A new day. A second chance.

I have no idea what made Kostyn mention doves but the message felt divine. Especially when, in the next breath, he placed his small hand over my mouth and pressed just lightly, saying, “The doves are here.”

I looked at him, this child of God, and I said a silent prayer of thankfulness, for him and for me. That he would place his hand over my mouth, on a face that contorted with negativity in his direction barely 12 hours before, and invoke a symbol of peace astounded me. Suddenly instead of falling flat on my face I was falling backward, freely and faithfully and with great relief, into the arms and promise of the first and greatest parent of us all.

And with that fall, the lesson was reinforced once again:  Falling isn’t failing. It is not without pain, but it can actually be quite cathartic when done correctly, like a calling back to God — a reminder that we stumble far less when we hold His hand.


Heather said...

Wow, just wow. I have those days Robyn, and I am ashamed to admit they are more often than they should be. Thanks for reassuring me that falling doesn't mean failing, I just need to focus, and get back on my feet and start that climb back up.

Thank you.

Michelle said...

Oh have just experienced the greatest joy and the greatest pain of being a mom...the joy of unconditional love...the pain of seeing hurt on your child's face...hurt you helped place there. We do have to stand our ground...without bounderies, there can only be failure on both parts. I know. We have "fallen" with Via a few times too...and falling back in to His arms is our best comfort. These events may occur more in the future, but now you know the direction to "fall"...and Kostyn and eventually Evan, will also learn....L