It is officially playground weather here in the Brew City, and when you’re two and a half years old, a jungle gym has its own magnetic pull.
Reeling you into the adventures of climbing and sliding and crawling and swinging. Woodchips and rubber make up your new landscape as you bound from one new planet to the next. Donning an Elmo t-shirt, you are fearless – a commander of your own destiny. You might as well have a cape.
We parents of Super Toddlers push the strollers and wagons and tricycles to the playground and watch our babies transform into Super Heroes. Our hearts beam and our stomachs knot as our larger-than-life two year olds climb to the top of the tower and teeter somewhere between euphoric accomplishment and a broken femur.
A cautious child myself, I so admire my son’s willingness to push the limits of his three-foot frame. I push him too, to try, to practice, remembering second grade recess when I just couldn’t quite get up to that high bar. Now, I shadow and spot my son as he tests his limits. He’s the Super Hero. I’m the Protector. It is my job to encourage him and keep him safe. It is my job to be the safe place to fall.
One bright afternoon I assume my role as coach and cheer my little guy on as he eyes the “Big Kid” ladder. “Let’s give it a shot!” I encourage as he nudges the bottom rung with his blue croc sandal. Glancing back at me he gives a small smile and hops forward, grabbing the first rung. After a few swift maneuvers he’s made it nearly halfway up on his own, my hands at his sides to catch any slip. The ladder starts to curve, forcing him to climb parallel to the ground, and forcing me to adjust my hands underneath his arms. He hesitates and I say, “It’s OK. Momma’s got you.” His weight lurches forward, just enough so my left hand can’t get a solid grip. His foot slips and he falls forward -hard- on the bar before sliding between two others and smacking his head on the way down. I swoop him up immediately as he shrieks and cries, and rush him under the shade of an oak tree. I can tell he’s fine, just shaken and feeling the smart of his blows. As I hold his head to my shoulder and shush, “It’s OK… It’s OK… I’m so sorry,” all I can think of is the promise I made that was broken – “Momma’s got you.”
How much of this does he understand? How much does one broken moment affect his understanding of the world, of trust - of me? Just as I’m picturing him as a 40-year-old recluse with a panic disorder, I feel a wriggling in my arms and he is hobbling off to the sandbox because the “really really big shovel” is available. We dig in the sand and build as if nothing had happened, and I eye him, waiting for some kind of two-year-old meltdown that says in its own way, “Mommy, how could you?!?” None comes. After he’s had his fill of sand, he hops out of the box. “Momma! Come over!”
He makes his way back to the curved ladder. Without asking, without a word, he takes the first rung. I stand by his side, just like before, but this time with my hands lightly around his small waist. As the ladder curves, he hesitates, then stretches forward, nearly lying on the rungs until he can just...make...it to the top. He slides forward onto the tower’s platform then pops up immediately and swings around. “I did it, Momma!” he cries, beaming down at me. His own Super Hero.
Lake Effect essayist Lane Pierce is a Listen To Your Mother essayist and 2014 Milwaukee cast member. She writes, wrangles and raises that super toddler with her husband in Whitefish Bay.