“Mama, what does ‘embarrassing’ mean?” my son asks. We’ve just read a chapter of one of the Magic Treehouse books are and snuggled into his bed.
Like with many of his questions, this one makes me feel momentarily like an idiot. I remember thinking my parents knew all the answers to everything. I am constantly reminded of just how little I know.
“Well, it means like… when you do something embarrassing…” Shit. If he doesn’t know what embarrassing means, that definition won’t help.
I start over. “It’s like when something makes you uncomfortable because you don’t want other people to know about it,” I stammer. “Like, if I peed my pants in public? I’d be really embarrassed.
He giggles. Jackpot.
Encouraged, I go on. “Or if I tooted really loud at yoga class? I’d be sooo embarrassed.” His giggling continues, rolling like a wave. It occurs to me that I shouldn’t get him so riled up at bedtime, but I can’t help it because I am just that hilarious.
“What about you, Maxie? Do you remember anytime that you were embarrassed?”
“Um, like one time when I slipped on the ice at school, and none of my friends checked on me?” In a sliver of a second, my mood shifts from one of levity to I WILL KILL YOUR CLASSMATES WITH A JAGGED ROCK.
“Well, that probably hurt your feelings, but I’m not sure if that’s quite the same as being embarrassed,” I respond, still seething. “But you know when sometimes I ask you about your friend Abby at school, and you tell me you don’t want to talk about her? I think it might be because you’re a little embarrassed.” He nods.
Staring at me with his big blue eyes, he says, “So tell me about when you were embarrassed.” He says this conversationally, as if he were a poised talk show host. Up until very recently, he has been, as is developmentally appropriate, an entirely self-focused small human. A secret spark of delight erupts in my chest. Oh, so now I get to talk? You want to know about me? Well, let me tell you…
“Well, one time, when I was in first grade?” I lower my voice. He is looking at me expectantly. “I was wearing this blue dress and tights. And it was ‘silent reading’ time, so we weren’t supposed to talk. And I had to go potty really, really bad. But I knew I shouldn’t talk, so I just stayed in my seat. And pretty soon, the girl next to me raised her hand and told my teacher, Mr. Opitz, that I peed!”
Max laughs, but his appetite for mortification has only been whet, or should I say wet.
“Tell me another one! Like what happened in second grade?” I can see he’s now imagining my schooling as a series of escalating embarrassments, which in some ways it was. I search my memory banks for appropriate tales, discarding the forgotten tampon story, asking a boy out and him not responding story(ies), and walking home from school while checking out my developing chest before seeing my mom and a neighbor watching me from down the street story.
Instead, I tell him another peeing my pants story, this one more embarrassing than the first. I was 18, visiting Germany with my mom and uncle. “Baba and Uncle Billy get really funny when they’re together,” I explain to Max. “And one day, we were sitting in a café, and they made me laugh so hard I tooted and peed my pants at the same time.”
Predictably, Max finds this to be hilarious. As he laughs, I can still feel a slick of shame from the experience. I had slunk out of my seat, leaving my milchkaffee and an enormous wet spot in the shape of my ass, and shuffled to the bathroom in my own sticky filth. “Did you tell the owner?” Max asks.
“No, I think we just sort of snuck out,” I recall.
“Mama, tell me another time you were embarrassed!” he pleads. I point at his clock.
“It’s 8, bud. Time for bed. I’ll try to think of some more for tomorrow,” I vow.
In the following days, he asks family members about embarrassing stories. They share them easily: Giving a silly greeting to someone they thought was a friend but turned out to be a complete stranger. Accidentally pooping on one’s own shoes. Max can’t get enough of the stories, and I notice how each ones leaves us laughing and feeling connected by the common thread of embarrassment.
“Mama, tell me another story about you being embarrassed,” Max says at yet another bedtime. In my mind, the moments are like a deck of cards, and I consider each one for plucking. There are so many he’s not yet old enough to hear, and others I don’t want to share lest he decide to recite them for his friends at preschool.
But what I really want to tell him is not about sharts or pee puddles. It’s about the way that shame and embarrassment are close cousins. How they thrive in the darkness and melt away in the sunlight of sharing. How what now feels light, like a deck of cards, used to feel as heavy and sinking as a bag of rocks. How a year ago, when I started sharing my writing with people, the stories that people most responded to were the ones I was most scared to write: the ones that held shame, or the one where I talked about body parts that can be scary to talk about. I want to tell him, ever so gently, that he will gather his own deck of embarrassments, too, despite me wanting to shelter him from them. How more than anything, I want him to be able to share them with me, to catch them for him and share the weight so they might shrink and then evaporate instead of building sticky piles of shame inside his mind and heart. That I have now let all of my secrets out into the fresh air of sweet-hearted friends and gentle loves, and that I hope as he grows bigger, he will find others to share with too, and he’ll learn that our mistakes, our embarrassments, our messiness and mistakes, are the strands of gems that connect us, they are what make us human.
But until then, I will dig for small things for him, I will tell him of yoga farts and wet pants, and we will laugh.