Yesterday afternoon I went running on some wooded trails near our house. The trails are popular with families in our neighborhood, and they’re organized roughly into a circuit, which meant that as I ran my laps I passed the same people multiple times.
One of the groups I passed was a mom out walking with her two kids—a girl about five-years-old and a boy who was maybe seven. The first time I passed the kids stood to the side of the trail and watched me go by. The second time I passed they waved hello, in the same cheeky, confident way that I remember waving to truckers on the highway during family car rides when I was a kid. The third time I passed, the boy started running right behind me.
At first he kept up pretty well. I could hear him breathing hard close on my heels. But after about 10 seconds I was ready to leave him behind. I sped up and zoomed towards a bend in the trail. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the boy begin to slow. Just as I disappeared around the bend I heard him say, “wow.”
Jay has never explicitly expressed admiration for any of my actions, but I assume that’s only because he doesn’t have the words. Caroline sometimes talks about how adults can seem magical to children (and in fact, this was one of her chief criteria when we were interviewing nannies—she wanted someone who would seem magical to Jay and Wally) and I imagine that Caroline and I seem magical to Jay, at least some of the time.
The other morning, when Jay and I were making pancakes together, I let him stir the milk into the flour. He struggled with it for a few seconds and then handed me the wooden spoon and said “your turn.” I took the spoon and before long the batter was mixed. As I imagined how Jay might have perceived that scene, I thought of the way I had looked at my own father growing up, and how in countless small ways—from the way he talked with the cashier at the bank to the amount of firewood he could carry into the house in a single trip—I couldn’t imagine how I’d ever be able to do what he could do.
I find that often think about things I do that might give Jay an exaggerated view of what I’m capable of. I think of it in moments like tonight, when he ran out of his room in order to avoid going to sleep. I ran after him and scooped him up. As he found himself carried back into the room against his will, he probably couldn’t have conceived of a greater force in the world than his dad’s two arms conveying him into his crib.
One of the unique things about being a parent is that for a time you get to be a magical presence in someone else’s eyes. It’s gratifying to fill Jay’s world from horizon-to-horizon. But I also worry about being so big in Jay’s eyes, because of course one day he’ll discover that there are things in the world stronger than his dad, and I’m not eager to be implicated in the let-down.
A couple years ago, for example, Caroline was putting together a photo album and she wanted to include a picture of me with Barack Obama. It had been taken at a rally during the 2008 campaign, in the scrum of hand-shaking and baby kissing that follows a speech, and I was just one of a thousand people Obama mugged with that day. Obama has his arm over my shoulders like we’re old friends, and we’re both smiling widely at the camera. I told Caroline I didn’t want it to go in the album, because I didn’t want Jay to get the wrong idea about his dad’s objective importance in the world.
But at the same time, kids need heroes. They need people who can make the world seem safe, and they need people to set bars that they can later clear; it’s better for Jay to think of me as more than I am, even if he has to later revise his view, than to grow up without any heroes at all.
When I came back from my run yesterday afternoon, Jay was a mess. He hadn’t taken a nap and he was so tired that every little thing sent him into hysterics. After trying for a few minutes to cajole him into the house (he and Caroline and Wally had been playing in the garage), I picked him up and carried him to his room. As we walked upstairs he clung tight to me. I sat down on a chair and Jay lay against my chest and buried his head in my neck.
Eventually he calmed down enough that I was able to put him down. He wanted to start sobbing again, but I tried to short circuit the impulse. I asked him to look at me. Jay raised his eyes, which were wet with tears and red around the rims. His lower lip trembled like he was about to start crying again. “It’s alright,” I said, “It’s alright.”
Jay doesn’t usually listen to me, but he did then. He seemed like he knew he was in over his head and he looked almost desperate to believe what I was saying. He inhaled sharply and then let out a long exhale. I asked him if he was ready to go down to dinner, and he said he was.
There will come a time in Jay’s life when he realizes that I’m not as fast as he thought I was, or as strong, or as intimate with the president, or as singularly talented at making pancakes. But if he thinks back and remembers a time when I told him that everything was alright and he believed me completely, I hope he’ll know that everything about that moment was true.