The other night, Declan decided he wanted to make one big special valentine for his father. I pulled out a sheet of paper, folded it and drew half of a heart for him. It was art paper, so cutting it was tough. He switched scissors a couple of times. He got frustrated. Then he took a couple of deep breaths and finished it. He spread it open on the table and looked at it proudly.
He wrote his dad’s full name on the big heart. He filled the space around it with rocket stickers and gems and glitter. Then he tried to draw a heart. It was sweet and soft and curvy, like dough that swells beyond the edges your cookie cutter promised when it bakes.
He hated it. He hit it with his fist.
I loved it. I thought it was so precious and perfectly four, perfectly him.
He covered it with a dog sticker and tried again. He didn’t like the new heart either, so he covered it with another dog sticker, ran into the living room and threw himself into the couch cushions.
I tried to reason with him that I knew his daddy would love it, that I could see it was a heart and that there were lots of kinds of hearts. He was frustrated. He told me no. It needed to be perfect. It needed to look “right.”
At his school, they often ask him about his feelings and put them in a note. I started writing one to him. He watched my hand and circled me.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I’m writing you a note to tell you how I feel,” I told him.
“What does it say?”
Every time you write, it does not need to be perfect. Whatever you write is something I love because it is perfectly Declan. I love you. I want you to be kind to yourself.
He looked at me calmly, unmoved.
“Let me have that for a minute,” he said.
I handed him the notebook and he carried it into another room, grabbing a marker on his way. I heard it flop onto the floor. I heard the sound of the pen on the paper. He came right back and handed me the notebook, a big pink X over my entire note.
“I didn’t like it so I put an X on it,” he explained. “Because I want everything to look right.”
I fought back feeling hurt by his x-mark and wrote what he said down on the note. I told him that I understand that feeling. I do.
I understand that feeling so well.
Then he went and got another piece of paper and asked me to make a heart that he could look at while he drew another. I made a small one and handed him the marker, reminding him of the advice his teacher gave us about trying to hold a pencil steady: “Pinch it.”
He took the notebook behind our piano and brought a new heart back to me. It was puffy too. Puffy and curvy and beautiful and, to my eye, not terribly different than the ones he had rejected.
“This one looks right,” he said. “See?”