My Son Takes a Punch, My Heart Takes a Beating and Everything I Learned in Between

Janell Burley Hofmann, May 22, 2012

It is a warm spring Saturday night. My oldest son wants to hang out at the Little League fields for the late game after his own. This is something he does often and just loves. My husband and I both have fond memories of time spent at the baseball park growing up — glorious snack bar gorging, swearing and sweating with friends as the field flood lights burned brightly on our adolescent paradise. We often refer to those memories as “the days” and are grateful and nostalgic that our son is now having these experiences too.

I am home, curled up reading to my younger four children as we wrap up another busy day. Upon arriving home, my husband barrels into the girls’ bedroom and explains that our son has been hurt at the field. Yes, beat up. While chasing after a foul ball and wrestling an older boy to the ground for it, the boy had somehow been embarrassed. My son — still all puppy — carried on, innocent and oblivious. The boy lashed out, punching him in the face a few times, putting him in a headlock, giving him a kick to the ribs. He is downstairs sobbing and wants to see me. The blood rushes from my head and rage surges from the depths of my stomach. I bravely string some words together to ask if he is bleeding. No, nothing serious — he has a fat, cut lip; he’s dirty, banged up and his soul is crushed.

I silently hold him for a while, gathering my forces on what I want to say. Or more honestly, how I want to say it. In the classic emotional response of “fight or flight,” my DNA leans far away from flight. I come from people of conflict, I try hard to smooth those edges every day, but tonight I’m struggling to stay contained. I try to channel my yogic breath with my beastly instincts. I want to find the child and the child’s mother. I like things to be fair, and on this night, that means evening the score. I bury my fierce, genetic urge to attack. Instead, I hold my sobbing child as he painfully retells the events. He says he was scared because he couldn’t breathe. He thought it was a joke at first and was blindsided by the intensity of the moment. Several other older boys watched, laughed and yelled salty insults to his fresh wounds as he scurried away. He was worried he lost his team baseball hat in the commotion. I swallow my anger until it hurts. I tell him he doesn’t deserve that. I tell him he’s safe, he’s loved. I gently remind him that he was wearing cleats and is stronger than an ox. He thought he might be in trouble for fighting back and didn’t really want to hurt him, he just wanted him to stop. My heart breaks in a few new places. I offer him ice for his lip and feed him cake. We make a few fresh comments for his benefit and let him drop a few swears without consequence. He smiles again. He takes a hot shower. Secretly, my husband and I whisper about boxing lessons and martial arts. All of the bullying stories I ever read about — but never worried about — come flooding back. I curse myself for leaving him there on his own. I think of the ways I could have stopped it. I drown myself in “should haves.” I feel the control slip through my fingertips and I hate it.

There are not words to describe the feeling of “no turning back.” I am suddenly so aware that we have reached a harsh point of growing up. The humbling tumble from the world of boyhood to confused, chaotic adolescence is upon us. And I am sick over it. My husband recalls a few instances at our beloved fields where bravado and intensity got the best of a boy and things got physical. I, too, remember the secret backstabbing aggression of girls and share a story or two. We normalize it. It doesn’t help the pain of the moment. We recognize these mere seconds of his life as a stop on the journey. The heaviness comes mostly from knowing the door that has been unlocked. The millions of nights we will sit together and not have the answers. The millions of ways parenting takes the kind of faith that often feels unreasonably superhuman. That someday, as we stare down a more intense hurdle in child rearing, this night will be one we long for. Dazed, traumatized even, I do exhale. I do breathe again.

As we tuck him in, we talk a bit more about the importance of protecting himself, sticking with friends, trusting adults, avoiding kids who are risky. I am weary and exhausted. It has been a shocking realization that I have not prepared my child for everything life will throw. And harsher still, that I never will. Life, it seems, is always one step ahead of me. As I fall asleep, I wonder if I have the courage to continue to let him have his freedom — out of my sight, beyond the boundaries of my protection. What if he doesn’t want it anymore? I think of his unwavering confidence that I have spent twelve years nurturing. And I hope it’s firmly in place next to his resilience.

He wakes early Sunday morning, and I inspect him for bruises or spots I missed. He laughs, insists he’s fine. I dote for a few extra minutes. He acts indifferent, but I see a hint of delight. It’s a new day, the sun does rise again. And over breakfast he casually asks if I can drive him to the fields because some friends have afternoon games. Even though I still feel the sting, relief seeps out of my body. Stronger and wiser than yesterday, we march, we hold on, together. In this only comfort, I find the courage to watch him go.

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