This originally appeared on Renegade Mothering. Republished here with permission.
What I want for you is to stay soft.
It’s really un-American of me. It’s really against what “men” stand for, you know. All that machismo badass shit.
The world will eat a soft man alive. For breakfast. Fucking pathetic weakling.
That’s what they’ll say, but I don’t care. I will not harden you. I will not break you. I hold between my mama hands your giant gaping sensitive heart. I refuse to abuse it.
The softness in you. It will remain, intact. As much as it can, anyway.
Not because I made you that way, or even envisioned you that way, but because you came that way. Really it’s none of my fucking business.
My job is to not destroy what you are.
You arrived in a birth that felt like the sunrise, and stayed with a light in your gut or behind your eyes, of pain and love and humanity and some weird empathy or clarity that manifests when I want to beat the shit out of people and you say something loving, pierce to the heart of compassion so fast and sure I see my own hardness like a flash across a shocked brain: He is soft. You aren’t. Don’t fuck this up.
You barely spoke until you were 3.
You almost never cried.
You played and watched and loved and watched more and curled in close, to me, daddy, your grandma and grandfather.
You were always soft. When I say it, it sounds like an insult, in a culture like ours. “The boy is soft.”
But they don’t see you.
They don’t see you in your scarf, the one you picked out in the women’s section of Old Navy, the one you didn’t wear to school yesterday because you know the kids will make fun of you. They don’t see your locks of curls hanging across eyes that hold mine in another time and space. They don’t see the boy sleeping on our floor and curled against his dad, still, always, forever until you don’t need it anymore, because your dad is soft like you, but was maybe almost hardened somehow, by life, and knows it, and wants differently for you.
We will not break you.
We will not make you leave.
At the playground, you said, there was a boy with a “really weird face” and he was alone, so you sat by him. I asked if you talked or played with him. You said no, I just sat there by him, because he was alone.
And when I asked you what the hell was wrong with that one kid who was so obnoxious in your class, and I thought the little bastard was exactly that, a little bastard, without blinking you said “His parents divorced and he doesn’t get to see his dad anymore. I think he wants people to think he’s tough.”
You’re soft, kid, and I’m hard.
Sometimes I want you to be hard, because I worry for you, or you bring pain in me, when you fold into yourself almost paralyzed when I raise my voice, or you come home telling me about the girl at P.E. who said “Don’t sit by me” and I get mad, really mad but then you say “She always misses play time on Friday because her little brother needs her to go to his classroom. I think that must be hard for her.”
You feel empathy. I feel rage. I feel a bit of rage at your empathy. I’m silenced and I learn from your heart.
Sometimes I wonder where you come from. Sometimes you really piss me off, the way you match your sister’s fiery screaming temper with a gentle voice, or a quick tear. Sometimes you yell back, but not without trying a lot and a lot of gentle, first.
Gentle. You. Rocket.
And when you cry because daddy’s been working too much and I’ve been fighting all day with kids and mess and work and my brain and stress and then your tears, your tears falling on freckled cheeks, for a moment I want to yell: Damnit kid, just toughen up! THIS IS LIFE! I don’t have time for this shit.
I will not be the force slapping the last tear from your eye.
But I will never baby you. I will never cater to you or stroke your ego or let you whine and snivel to get your way. I will make you work. I will make you face your fears and suffer and keep on going. The sensitive ones have to fight too, kid.
But I will never crush or fault or smash you for the gentleness that takes my breath away, that feels pretty foreign sometimes, the way you’re all heart pretty much all the time. The way you walk up to me with those dimples and say “Mama, can we cuddle” and you bury your face in my chest. Still. In the morning when you wake up you roll onto my side of the bed, without a word, and I roll onto my back and you put your head on my shoulder. I kiss your curls. Just as I’ve always done.
You’re 8 years old now.
I won’t turn you away. I won’t toughen you up. Ever.
You are the kid who takes a stuffed white seal to class and gets teased.
You are the kid who doesn’t fit.
You are the dyslexic kid, the only one who can’t read yet. But when a girl asks you about it, “Why don’t you read?” You snap “None of your business.”
You know who you are. You are not weak. You are so strong you sword fight and wrestle and wear embroidered flower purses and beg for ballet lessons, maybe simultaneously.
You are so strong YOU WORE YOUR SCARF TO SCHOOL TODAY, and told me “I don’t care what they say.”
I watched you walk away and wished for a second you would fight. At 2:30 I’ll pick you up and ask “How did it go, son?” and I already feel fear.
They’ll tell you it’s weak to love and feel and cry. To live open and exposed. To see more than the rest and act on it, feel it.
They’ll tell you you aren’t a real man. That you’re something else. They won’t say it directly. They’ll say it in advertisements and characters in movies and “the American way” and the hot men that always get the hot women.
But the bravest thing you can do, kid, is to keep that softness intact, to let that heart stay open for all the pain it will entail. The love, the desperation, the agony. That’s some crazy badass shit right there. To fight and work and serve with a sensitivity that could leave you wrecked at any moment, real and in love and raw.
Most of us are too afraid to do anything of the sort. One day we look around at the pain of this world and the black inside and we snap shut, Boom. Done. You’re out. I’m in. Nothing’s getting through. I did it. I was 8 or 9 and standing in my unicorn bedroom looking into my white mirror over my dresser and I said out loud, quietly, but aloud: “This will not break you, Janelle. Nothing will EVER break you.”
I made a decision that day, in response to a pain I won’t explain now. That moment. That day. I would never need another soul. I was in control. Nothing would ever hurt me again. I was wrong, of course, but I was hard. I would die hard, like the movie. Ha. See what I mean?
My wish for you, son, is that you stay soft.
I pick up your face and see the face of a boy who knows something, beyond hard and soft or good or bad and it’s not my job to shove you into the mold of the world.
My job is to loosen my grip on myself, my hard edges and old ideas, to fit beside you, and hold the softness I almost can’t find in me.
So yeah, America, I’m raising a soft one. I’ll leave it up to you to raise the tough guys.
And when you meet my boy, I hope you love his scarf.
Janelle Hanchett is a freelance writer in northern California and mother of questionable disposition to three children. You can join her in the fight against helpful parenting advice at her blog, Renegade Mothering (www.renegademothering.com).