Eric had just carried his Kleenex-mailbox full of valentines from our large cadre of homeschooling buddies down to the field this afternoon. He wanted to sit with his sister and her friends and sort valentines, eat lollipops, and watch the family nearby who were shooting off air rockets into the wide open spring sky.

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Shortly after he sat down with his box, he jumped up with a sucker for me to open. All of our friends were exuberant, making the joyful movements that free and happy children make on a day such as this. One little girl was headed back to the circle and, as things happen, accidentally knocked Eric’s box with her foot. All of his valentines plowed their way out.

It could have been a meltdown. I braced myself. We have those. We had one today in the market in front of EVERYONE, in fact, but I’m no snitch. It is part of the territory of being a mama to littles, though, right? But what happened next completely stunned me and reminded me how little I know about the power of tiny humans.

Glorious in her nature, the little girl (younger even than Katie) quickly and sincerely turned and said, “I am sorry for knocking your box over. I didn’t mean to.” Whoa. Unprompted, beautiful, amazing.

And then, as if this were a fantasy scene written by some hopeful parent, Eric responded to her in his sweet baby voice: “Sometimes it just happens.”

Sometimes it just happens.

I wish I could claim this ethos and centered view of life were all mine, but they aren’t. If you want the truth, this kind of sentiment and sanguine way of looking at life originates with Nana, my Grandma Mitchell. I cannot begin to count the number of times over the years when we have broken, spilled, stained, torn, or done any number of things that children do that Nana has given us the gift of not judging, guilting, or badgering us about our accidents. Of all the words I use to describe Nana—loving, motherly, wry, cheerful, gentle—the single word that I associate most with her is adaptable. Even when faced with the most heart-destroying of losses, her heart is never destroyed. She maintains her optimism and eyes turned toward whatever is good.

If I tend to be like this in any way, it is part DNA and part practice and intentionality of habit. As optimistic and grateful and joyful as I can be, I also have fought at various phases in my life cynicism, anxiety, perfectionism, anger, and impatience. I still work on these traits and acknowledge my dual-nature, and like the Transcendentalists believe that I can work hard to better myself through cultivating my self-reliance, my connection with nature and the oneness of all things, and my expressions of gratitude.

If Eric gets the idea from me now that “Sometimes things just happen,” then we have Nana to thank for being an example enough times that it finally became my inheritance to pass along to him and to Katie.

Because the night before he was born, it was not part of my inheritance, not fully if still sometimes…not yet. The night before he was born, I had been out all that afternoon taking Bill to have the tires changed on his car. We’d eaten a greasy meal for dinner (before either of us cared about that kind of thing). I had every feeling our son was coming that weekend, but his due date was weeks away. We got home, and Katie bounced around on the couch and broke a lamp. I sobbed, I remonstrated, I am sure I probably raised my voice. I think I used the word “careless.” I am certain she felt burdened by my disproportionate negativity about the whole thing. I am certain she felt the weight on her heart of someone who was so wrapped up in managing everyone but herself. As if the lamp was somehow an antique heirloom from the reign of a French king and not found instead on the shelf in housewares at Target. As if each of us have not been careless many times in our lives. As if material objects are more important than hearts.

The powerful thing about getting control over my health and myself is that I feel so much less of a need to spend time trying to exert ownership over other people now that I exert full ownership over myself.

Most of Eric’s life at this point has been spent with a mother who has her business together, who has less and less frequent lapses in losing perspective at times. I still certainly do make mountains out of molehills, because it is my nature to take small occurrences and to overanalyze them grossly: If my child does action x, does this mean he or she will grow up to do action y? What does this event say about his/her chances for happiness later in life? If he/she says this, does that mean he/she will not be a hard worker as an adult? And on and on. Katie is going to remember me, though, at my most anxious and self-doubting, my most stressed…which created a climate of stress for her in ways I did not even intend or realize that I was doing at the time, especially since I felt I was directing that stress/anxiety so much inwardly at myself and actually trying to hold the majority of it away from her. It’s been revelatory how the more I get myself together, the less frequently she exhibits stress and anxiety of her own. I hope she will be able to forgive me some day, for that. Part of me knows she will. But I know I also have to earn it from her. The lot of the firstborn is that he or she often has to go with us on so much more of our journey as people/parents than the ensuing children do, and in different ways and to different intensities.

But that’s all part of this parenthood journey, isn’t it? When we know better, we have to do better.

So now both kiddos hear, “Sometimes it just happens.” Spilled your orange juice—twice in one morning? Sometimes it just happens. Knocked over my tea and stained part of the carpet? I should not have left it on the windowsill, and that was my part of it. Sometimes it just happens. Ran over my foot with your scooter? Please be more careful and watch for others, but sometimes it just happens. 

And you know what? It’s true. Sometimes in life, things just happen. For no discernible reason. If there is a cause, we might not know it, and we are tempted to write our narratives without realizing that, like all writers, we are rendering them artfully and not always accurately. We are governed in a large part by probabilities meeting with possibilities. We can do everything right, and mathematically we can still be subjected to whatever is an outlier. We have to learn to smile and laugh and say, “Oh well, sometimes it just happens. Let’s pick up/clean up/pull ourselves up and go forward to the next adventure.”

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My other favorite line this year has been, “I love you more than…”

Exhibit A: a Williams-Sonoma spoon, which met with Eric’s percussionist ambitions.

He looked at me with wide eyes when it broke. He knew he might be in trouble. I just shook my head and sighed and said, “Eric, I love you more than I love my spoon.” He knows what that means. Yes, I am bummed. No, it is not a good turn of events. But letting them know they are loved is more important than a scolding for what they already know to have been an unfortunate accident. They know: Mommy loves us first and foremost, even if she is unhappy with something we did.

I have even tried it this way, “I love you more than I love being on time” (since I am a stickler for being on-the-dot, this is true unconditional love right here, folks, ha ha)!

My other go-to expressions:

1. “I am so glad to see you!” (Even when I might have wanted a few more minutes to read my news and drink tea alone early in the morning….no scratch that. ESPECIALLY when I wanted that. That’s the most important time to deploy such a line, I find).

2. “I need you, too.”

3. “I am so thankful you were born.”

4. “How can I help you solve this?”

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And perhaps the most important statement I have learned to make in these past two years:

I am so thankful you are here on Earth with me, and I have so much joy when I see your face, but you are never responsible for me.

You are never responsible for making me happy. You are never responsible for the times when I might feel sad. You are never responsible for my health or lack thereof. You are never responsible for my use or misuse of time. It’s all on me, kiddos, it’s all on me. Your being born has only added to my joy.

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