The question drifted up from behind me.
“Is he an only child?”
It was a softly spoken question, probably not meant for me.
I kept watching my son as he danced around and around the padded mats of the tumbling center, the site of a weekly class that has taught him how to do somersaults, how to balance on a beam, and – best of all – how to follow a few simple class rules.
There was that question again; a little louder this time.
“Your son – is he an only child?”
I turned, expecting to see a couple of parents engaged in a conversation that didn’t involve me. Instead, I met eyes with a middle-aged man who was looking straight at me. He pointedly looked at Ryan and then back at me.
“Oh. Yes, he is,” I said.
I mentally reviewed the previous 30 minutes at warp speed. Let’s see … Ryan had needed lots of prodding to get his shoes and socks off … ten minutes into class, he came running over to me, yelling about how he had to go on the potty, only to take a small sip from my water bottle and decide that he, in fact, did not have to go on the potty … he had a hard time taking turns on the trampoline (seriously, why was that new girl going so freaking slow?!) … as a result, he had a bit of a meltdown in which he yelled, “I need my mommy!” … after a few minutes of talking about his feelings (and a trip to the potty – hooray!), he rejoined his class … and since then, he’s been so good!
Well, yes, he’s been bouncing off the walls, the floor, the everything, as he tries to listen to the coach’s directions, but that’s cuz dude’s got spirit.
The man nodded at me. “Yeah,” he said softly.
I glanced at Ryan for a moment before turning back to the man. It’s not the first time someone has asked me that same question. I opened my mouth to ask him how he knew, but the words didn’t come out.
Maybe I didn’t want to know.
“Are you a parent?” I asked instead.
He nodded and pointed toward the back of the tumbling center.
Oh. The back of the center. The older kids. The school-aged kids. The ones who, more often than not, train most of the day and are home-schooled at night. The ones who take your breath away with their talent.
He singled out his daughter, a six-year-old girl in a bright orange leotard that sparkled like her smile when she caught her dad watching her.
The kids on her team, he told me, are so disciplined. No really, he told me, you have no idea. His daughter would pick grilled salmon over McDonald’s chicken nuggets for dinner any night of the week. If you offered her candy, she would look at you sternly and tell you she could have just one.
“Is she your only child,” I asked innocently. (He asked me, so maybe it’s just how he strikes up conversation at the tumbling center, yes?)
“Oh, lord no,” he laughed. She’s the youngest of four. The hardest worker, the most focused, the most dedicated of all of them, he said.
Ryan’s class ended. I watched as he faced off with his coach over the issue of who should open the gate to release all the kids to their parents.
“Nice talking to you,” I told the father.
“Have a good one,” he said back.
As I stood watching Ryan struggle to pull his socks and shoes back on, as I offered to help him but was refused, I looked at him and tried to see what that father saw.
Does he look like an only child? Does he act like an only child?
I thought about the personality traits that are stereotypically associated with only children. They are often (unfairly) considered to be selfish, maladjusted, spoiled.
I thought back through Ryan’s behavior during class. I tried to analyze it from an outsider’s perspective. From the perspective of a father of four whose daughter was so disciplined that she had a pull-up bar hanging from the doorway of her childhood bedroom, barbells lined up next to her bed.
I had seen the way Ryan tried so hard to stay in line and take turns, how he’d struggle to control his passion and his energy but how they got the best of him from time to time.
I thought about how I wished he never had to control that energetic part of him. The most carefree, wonderful part of him. I thought about how I wished he could set it free, that he could always simply be himself.
Nope, I couldn’t see what that stranger saw, and I wasn’t going to waste another second looking for it. Because I see my son for who he truly is, and who he is has nothing to do with the lack of a baby sibling at home.
I crouched down next to him, my little boy who was working so hard to pull that sock over all five toes. And I told him how proud I was of him. I told him I was proud of the way he’d used his words to describe his frustration during class, that I had been so impressed watching him on the balance beam, and that he was doing such a great job pulling those socks on all by himself.
“Thanks, Mommy,” he said.
Then he finally let me help him fix the sock. He pulled his shoe on, took my hand and we walked out together.
As we pushed open the door and stepped into the fresh air, I realized something. The reason I hadn’t asked that father how he’d known Ryan was an only child wasn’t because I was afraid of his answer.
I didn’t ask because it simply didn’t matter to me what he saw.