I knew how the next several minutes would go as soon as the kind strangers at the park made eye contact. Not speaking much English they smiled and reached out to hand us one of the birthday party balloons tied to their stroller.
I knew exactly how this was going to go down – delighted squeals and smiles, the balloon slipping from chubby toddler fingers, tears while watching it float into the skies, and the long walk back to the car with a screaming child. You can’t explain gravity to one-year-olds so why even give them a toy that they’re certain to lose? I didn’t want that balloon.
But of course you don’t say no when kind strangers offer your child a balloon. And for about 10 minutes her grasp and my quick reflexes worked perfectly. When it did, inevitably, get stuck out of reach in a tree, a kind passerby grabbed a stick and pulled it down for my once again delighted daughter. Several hundred feet down the trail we lost the balloon again, this time with no tall, compassionate souls in sight.
Once again I braced myself for the meltdown. Instead of melting down, my observant child immediately grabbed a stick off the ground and waved it above her head, since that’s just what you do when balloons are in trees. We talked about how that stick wasn’t long enough and Mommy couldn’t reach it with any of the sticks around, so we would leave it for other people to see and be happy for the fun time we had with Mr. Balloon.
And as we headed home (with far fewer tears than I expected) I realized there were two reasons I didn’t want to accept that red balloon. And both were silly.
I didn’t want my daughter to experience the disappointment that balloon was almost certain to cause her. And I didn’t want to deal with the social embarrassment of her likely ensuing meltdown.
Disappointments are part of life. Insulating my child from them won’t protect her from hurt. In fact, teaching her to handle the little disappointments now will hopefully make her better prepared to handle the big ones later.
A few minutes with a balloon gave us the chance to talk about holding on tight to the string, about saying thank you to kind people who stop to help us, about being thankful for good gifts even when they’re taken from us.
Has she learned everything about disappointment? Not even close.
Will she lose more balloons? Almost certainly.
Did she say “thank you” on command? No.
But childhood character grows in those little moments of ordinary living.
I’m coming to see that motherhood isn’t really about the milestone moments – the day she transitions out of diapers, starts school, gets her driver’s license, or earns her diploma. If it was just about those, motherhood wouldn’t be nearly as hard.
But motherhood is really about those little moments of ordinary living. The moments whose significance you only see in hindsight. The inconvenient moments that wreck your to-do list. The embarrassing moments that force you to take back all those “I will never be that parent” statements.
So I’m glad we took the red balloon. And I’m actually glad we lost it.
Here’s to celebrating more childhood adventures, even the ones sure to end in disappointment!
Note: I first drafted this post just over two years ago, right around the time I learned I was pregnant again, and writing took a backseat to morning sickness and exhaustion. 😉 Reading over it again reminded me how tempted I still am to shield my children from disappointment. Actually, I have to admit it’s become a far stronger force in my parenting decisions! In the short term it’s easier, more efficient, and certainly makes for a better social image. And sometimes avoiding disappointment may be the right choice. But there’s still so much for my children (and me!) to learn from experiencing disappointments and learning to handle them with grace.