Things came to a head when my seven year old came home from school and informed me he had got 2 out of 20 in his latest Maths Assessment. I'm not ashamed to say I let him have it. Having grown up with a mother who would not hesitate to display her annoyance if her daughter got anything less than full marks in all subjects, I'd always consciously set lower expectations from my son. Even though I cringed inwardly to see those marks, his 17/20s merited a hug and a "that's really good", and the 12/20's got a "that's not too bad, but you really can do better, can't you?", but 2/20??? Wasn't it practically impossible to get a 2/20 unless there was something fundamentally wrong? And had there been something that drastically wrong, how could I have missed it? Since there was less than a week to his Christmas break, I decided to put of thinking about the problem till the holidays.
Two days later, I juggled my schedule to attend a carnival in his school. When I finally managed to locate my son, he was almost unrecognizable. Always small for his age, he was so distant and withdrawn, he seemed smaller than ever. He refused to meet my eye, or talk to me, or show me around. When his best friend's mother tried to talk to him, he melted behind my back. "If this is how happy you are to see me, why did you even ask me to come?" I yelled in exasperation. He slipped his hand into mine, but refused to say a word.
The picture of my son slinking around his school haunted me all week. Could this skittish creature be my lovely first-born? The son I knew was a warm-hearted, compassionate child. "My child adores your son," was the first thing I heard from the mothers of all the younger children in the apartment. Unlike his mother, my son had time for everyone - he was the one who consoled babies who were crying, and shared his sweets with others - and they responded by doting on him. This scared creature couldn't be my son. Something was wrong. Asking him wouldn't help. I could only hope I'd find out someday.
There was one thing I could do, however. Work on his Maths. I may barely make passing grade as a Mother, but if there is one thing I am good at, it is teaching. Two weeks of concentrated effort was enough for me to be satisfied with my son's Maths skills. Soon enough he came bounding up to me one day - "Mamma, guess how much I got in my Maths Assessment?"
"Sixteen?" I suggested cautiously, not wanting to think of what I knew he was now capable of.
"Seventeen? Eighteen?" I broke out into a grin when I realized he had managed to max the test. Things should now be better, I thought.
For a couple of weeks, he did seem to be his old normal self. But then the mood swings started again. He was doing well in class. He seemed cheerful when talking about his friends. What then could the problem be? The answer, when it came, couldn't have come at a worse time.
It had been one of those days when I was physically and mentally exhausted. All I wanted to do was crash, but I had a conference the next day that I hadn't even started preparing for. And, the kid was refusing to go to sleep.
"We've read enough," I finally told him. "Go to sleep, and let me get on with my work." I switched off the light, and walking out of the room started shutting the door behind me.
"Mamma, I'm a Loser!" A little softer, and I would have missed the whisper. I swung around. Now where had that come from?
"What did you say?"
"I am a Loser!"
I didn't want to deal with this. I couldn't deal with this. But if I let this moment pass, it might never come back. I forced myself back into the room.
"What makes you think you are a loser?" I asked in my most gentle voice. "You are the loveliest boy any mother could ask for. You are not a loser!"
"But I am." Bit by bit, the story emerged. Sports day practice. 100 meter races. My son coming last, always. Being called a loser. Believing it.
"So what? The other kids are better at sports. That doesn't make you a loser. You just happen to be the slowest in your class."
"But I am a loser. I always come last." Was this the time to tell him his mother was lousy at sports too? That she never made the class team in anything. Would that make things better or worse? Before I could decide either way, he continued, "How would you know. You are so good at Sports."
"And what makes you think that?"
"Because you went for that race and got a medal. None of the other kids have mothers who win medals."
Without realizing it, he had shown me the way out. "And do you know why I got the medal?" I asked. "Not for running fast, but for finishing the race. I am a very slow runner, but I don't give up."
"But do people run faster than you?"
"Almost everyone runs faster than me, but most of them get tired before the end, and stop. I may be slow, but I finished. And that's why I got the medal."
"You mean you came last, and still you got the medal."
A couple of white lies shouldn't matter. "Yes, I was last. But because I finished, I got the medal."
"Can I see your medal?" He made me dig out the medal I got for completing the full marathon, and held it with both hands. For a long time, he just stared at the medal, and let his fingers trace the lines. "You got this even though you came last?"
I nodded. "Do you want to keep the medal?", I asked.
His eyes lit up. "Can I?"
"Sure you may."
"And not share it with my brother?"
"Okay. But on one condition. When you are old enough, you have to run a marathon and give your medal to me."
"Will you also run with me?"
There was hope in those eyes, and longing. It would be many years before he would be old enough to compete. I might no longer be running then. How could I make a promise I may not be able to keep? I opened my mouth to tell him so, then shut it. It wasn't too much my son was asking me. I had to be able to give him at least this much.
It was a promise. A covenant. Whether I can, or not, I have to run/ walk/ hobble that one race with my son, someday.
Even now, he often takes that medal out and caresses it gently before putting it back in the cupboard. He's a changed child in school. His teachers adore him, pat themselves on the back for how far he has come as a student and as a person- I don't tell them about what went on behind the scenes. That is our own little secret- my son's and mine.
One crisis averted, I can now wait for the next one, because I know it will turn up someday. And till then, I have to brace myself for many more years of running- I can't let down my end of the promise, can I?
Had I known what Motherhood would actually entail, would I have signed up for it? Perhaps not. But then I would have lost out on more joy than I thought possible.