What a Muddy Backpack and Stuffed Rooster Taught Me About My Mothering

My eight year old son is a child sized version of an absent-minded professor.  I am constantly reminding him to keep track of his things, not to lose his things, and to stay on top of his things.  “Things” being the all inclusive umbrella term for the trappings of boyhood — backpack, handheld game system, stuffed animal du jour, current book, homework, hat, gloves, you know the drill.

This trait in my son is equal parts annoying and endearing.  I love that his little head is so full of such interesting thoughts that he is distracted from the minutiae of life.  Committing to memory the lyrics of all 46 songs on the Hamilton soundtrack is infinitely more rewarding than remembering to empty out and store his backback after school.  I get it.  But damn if we both don’t get frustrated when he’s five minutes late the next morning and he can’t find his mysteriously missing backpack.

And I can’t tell you how often we’re getting ready to leave school and I need to ask him if he remembered to bring home his homework or hoodie or insert necessary thing here.  The sheer volume of stuff on the lost and found table, though, makes me realize that my little fledgling absent-minded academic is merely one of many at his school.  Kids lose their shit all the time, resulting in moms across America losing a different kind of shit all the time, too.

Today as we were leaving, his teacher called out to him, “Don’t forget your backpack!”  I was grateful she was on it, as that damn backpack wasn’t on my radar in that moment.  We had a long afternoon ahead of us and I was thinking about the precision timing involved in getting us from Point A to Point B to Point C in the time frame we needed to keep on schedule.

Knowing we had a few minutes to spare, we went to the school playground to allow my boys to get their afternoon ya-yas out before we headed on to our packed schedule.  Happily, everything worked out.  We were on time for our first adventure, despite bad traffic, and my husband arrived just in time to meet us afterward so that we could share a quick dinner out together before we traded cars and he headed home with the boys and I went on to my evening event.

I was in the middle of that evening event, a guest lecture I was giving about finding meaning after child loss to a room full of social work students when my husband started texting me.  “Do you know where the boy’s backpack is?”  “It’s not in the car.”  “Did you bring it to that focus group?”  “FYI, he is very worried about the stuffies that were in it.”

What a perfectly typical moment of motherhood — impending doom and competing needs.  So there I am trying to convey the reality of what it is like to bury a child when I am thinking about the missing backpack with the stuffed rooster inside it and how sad I know my boy must be, missing his rooster friend.  That, right there, my friends, is my grief in a nutshell.

The texts stopped as soon as they started and I got back to the matter at hand.  Afterwards, I checked in with my husband.  My son didn’t remember having it at our first stop, but I was convinced he must have left it there, as I know he had it leaving school, as his teacher made sure of it.  On this lousy, rainy night, I circled around back to our first stop.  I checked with the lost and found at the security desk, no backpack.  Hmmmm.

I called my husband and said, “Well, we did go to the school playground before we left, maybe he forgot it there and the after school staff found it and took it inside.  You can check in the morning at drop-off.”  I started driving home and thought it might be worthwhile to take a spin to the school myself, just in case the backpack might be on the playground.



Sure enough, the backpack was there, soaking and filthy, sitting in a pile of mud after hours of rain.  I was elated to find it.  I picked it up with relief and booked it home, feeling like a true hero.  MOM TO THE RESCUE!  How great am I?  Job well done, Mom!  I rock.

As I drove through the rain, I thought about my boy and my love for my boy.  I thought about how happy and relieved he will be in the morning when he learns his rooster stuffie is safe and sound, albeit a bit damp.  I thought about how lucky it was that I went back to the school, especially given that it was out of the way.  I thought about how tender it made me feel that I could do something so simple that will make my boy feel so happy. Isn’t life grand?

Then, out of nowhere, I thought about how I might have reacted if we were halfway to our destination and my son had remembered in that moment that his backpack was missing.  I thought about how angry that would have made me.  I thought about the frustration and resentment I surely would have felt towards my son that no doubt would have snaked its way out of my mouth, lecturing and probably shaming him for being so forgetful.

Ugh.  I’ve said it before and I will keep saying it — motherhood is humbling. I got to feel like a hero tonight and tomorrow morning when my boy finds his favorite stuffed rooster, he will think I am a hero, too.  But, in my gut, I will know the truth, that the flip side of that hero coin is a yelling, overwhelmed, angry and imperfect mom.

I am both those things and my mothering could go either way at any given moment. Tonight it worked out for the best.  On another night, it might not.  The next time I find myself angry and frustrated, resentful towards an eight year old boy for committing the heinous crime of forgetting, I hope I remember that muddy backpack and stuffed rooster.  I hope I remember the tenderness I felt towards a sad boy worried about his missing friend who just happened to be a stuffed rooster.  I hope I remember that how I react is about me and not my son.  I hope I can be a hero more often than not.

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