We found out that you were a boy on Christmas Day. We had asked the ultrasound technician to put the sex of our second child in an envelope, and then we opened it together with our extended family.
That night, we drove back to where we were staying. Claire was in the back seat, sleeping, and your father drove silently. “I am going to have a son,” he said, finally, breaking the silence.
“I know,” I said.
“I mean, we are going to have a son,” he said, correcting himself. I smiled at him. I knew what he meant.
“I want to be a good father to my boy. I don’t want him to grow up thinking he can’t play with dolls. I don’t want him to think he always has to be tough. I don’t want him to think that he can’t cry when he’s sad. I want to show him how to be a good man.”
I smiled at him. I knew nothing about boys, really, but I wasn’t worried about Shawn being a good father. When these boy-related things came up, I figured he would show me the way.
And he did, of course. When you ran away when you were six, hiding in the neighbor’s yard, I screamed and yelled for you. When we finally found you, I told you that you were grounded and stomped inside. Your dad knelt down in the yard with you, took your hand and explained why it wasn’t okay to do that to us. How you could be angry, but you couldn’t just run away. How it was okay to have big feelings, but it wasn’t okay to react in such extreme ways.
I think you understood him. Anyway, you didn’t run away after that.
But just a few months after this incident, your father was gone, and you just had me. Yes, you had your grandpa, but it wasn’t the same as having a father, and we both knew that. What did it mean to be raised by a single mom? I guess neither of us knew.
I was hard on you in those years after your father’s death, that I know. When you messed up, I was quicker to yell at you. Once, when I was really upset at you, I screamed, “you can never, ever do that. I don’t want the other people in our community saying that you are acting terribly because you have a single mom!”
I knew I had overstepped with that one. I knew it was about my insecurity, not about how you were acting. I was worried that I didn’t know how to raise a boy.
But you didn’t seem to worry about having me as your sole parent. You knew my time was more limited, so when I couldn’t help you with something, you figured out a way around. You learned to give your brother a bath and distract him while I made dinner. You kicked around the ball by yourself and you spent hours digging in the dirt without a companion.
You never whined that I didn’t spend enough time with you.
When your father died, I wasn’t so worried that you wouldn’t have someone around who actually liked to watch football with you. I was worried that you wouldn’t have someone teaching you how to be a man. I was worried that there were some things I could never teach you.
But in a way, you taught me how to raise you. I made a lot of mistakes over the past two and a half years, that I know. But I also learned when to be hard on you, and when to be soft. I tried to show you that there were lots of ways to be a man, just like your father wanted you to know.
The other day, I was standing in the kitchen, talking to your sister. She was sad about something, and I hugged her. You saw us hugging in the kitchen and came over and put your arms around both of us. “Family hug!” you said, and then added, “but we need Tommy!”
You ran to get him, and then we all hugged in the kitchen. I looked down at you, and you were looking up at me. I gave you a smile, and you smiled back.
Today, you are 9. You can ride a bike at speeds that make me gasp in fear, and you can swing on the hammock on a lazy Sunday afternoon. You can wrestle with your brother and then hug him when he’s scared. You can play a tough game of basketball with your friends and then cuddle up to me when I’m sitting in our recliner.
I think your dad didn’t need to be worried. Yes, he wasn’t around forever to show you how to be a man. And no, I can’t do it all for him.
But somehow in there, you’re figuring it out. You don’t have all the answers yet, because you are just nine years old. But you have the building blocks to become a good man, because you know this: you can be hard and soft, happy and sad, tough and warm.
All of those pieces are part of you, Austin, and they are a part of who you will become, too.
Happy birthday, my 9-year-old boy.
Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.