Don’t call me ‘sensitive’

We’d had a rough morning at home with the kids fighting and my husband and I hurling invectives at each other about the messy house.

I’m not sure whether he meant to say that I am a useless person because I can’t hold down a full-time job, keep a tidy home and also remodel it as necessary, but that is what I kept hearing.

So at noon I packed up my two kids and took them to Red Lobster, a restaurant they’ve never been to. Going into a restaurant with no playground is such a deviation from our normal routine that I felt as if I might be ready to enter a new phase of life. In America, we call this phase of childhood the ‘tweens. For adults, it’s called the midlife crisis.

Now that my son is almost 10 and my daughter is nearly 7, my role in their lives at home sometimes feels perfunctory. We wake them up for school, do their laundry, nag them to do their homework and brush their teeth. I serve them dinner. If we have conversations, I’m talking to them while thinking about the next pile I’ve got to clean up.

Our lunch with just me and the kids at a restaurant where you sit down and have a conversation before the meal felt like one of those every-other-weekend deals that I imagine divorced parents experience. I’d stepped out of my chore box and I was seeing my two kids in a new light, or feeling that way myself. Somehow our discussion came around to personal finance, and they were surprised when I told them that some people are quite wealthy for a short period of time, but if they’re not careful, it’s pretty easy to go from bourgeois to broke.

I told my son Oliver I didn’t think that would happen to him, though, because he’s one of the most cautious people I’ve ever met, and he knows the value of pretty much anything that takes up space. He may not ever get rich, but once he acquires something, he is not quick to part with it.

Take, for example, a pair of pants I once ordered for myself from Land’s End. When they came in the mail, I was shocked and appalled to find they looked nothing on me like they did on the 6-foot-tall, 110-pound, 18-year-old model in the photo.

I was going to send the pants back, but Oliver entered a plea: “Give them to me,” he said. He was serious. “Waste not, want not” is one of his mottos, although he doesn’t know it. He keeps all of his baby teeth. I once handed him a gummy vitamin which he accidentally dropped on the floor. Oliver doesn’t eat things once they’ve touched the floor, but he also doesn’t throw them away. Oliver has great difficulty discarding anything.

“Just put it in the trash,” I told him. His eyes did not leave mine as he pulled a plastic sandwich baggie from a kitchen drawer and carefully placed the gummy vitamin inside before leaving it on the counter. Then we burst into laughter at what we both knew was a little bit of absurdity. What can I say? If my son was six years older, he’d make a great John Green character.

I like that he is cautious and I told him so. It’s one of his uniquenesses. We all need uniquenesses. Unfortunately, mine seems to be that I always look sad and tired, even when I’m not particularly. It works for Grumpy Cat, and I don’t understand why it doesn’t for me.

Since I was on a roll, telling Oliver about all the things I like about him, I decided to mention that I am so grateful he is a sensitive person. For Oliver, being sensitive is linked with being tenacious, sentimental and orderly. He develops attachments easily to people, places and things.

I was thinking about how it’s a trait that is increasingly rare in a world where you could be reading a poem, or talking about how your cat just died, or the world is about to end, and a lot of folks will just keep right on texting.

Oliver goes through a period of mourning every time one of his fish dies, and he has a lot of fish.

But he didn’t think it was great that I had called him sensitive.

“That’s the worst insult I’ve ever heard!” he said, looking at his sister for support.

“Do you think I’m sensitive?” he asked her.

“Mom, she’s way more sensitive than me. I mean, she cries over everything,” he continued.

I asked him what was so awful about being sensitive and he said that maybe it would be OK if he was a girl, but he isn’t.

I see, I told him. Although I hadn’t meant it as an insult, I do know how it can be hard to interpret certain comments on our character.

I told him about the time I was 11 and my own father said he didn’t think I’d want children because I’d probably grow up to be someone who was absorbed by my job and social life. I didn’t like it. I knew at age 11 that even if I was self-centered, I didn’t always want to be.

Of course, not everyone who knew me thought I was a strong, independent female. I was annoyed when a college boyfriend remarked smugly, “You’ll probably be married by the time you’re 25.”

He was right. I did end up getting married at 24, and not to him. But I was pretty sure his comment was a more of a jab at my conventionally acceptable behavior than it was an implication that any man would be lucky to have me.

And then there are the comments that sound like compliments, but carry a subtext of resentment. These can be filed under the “That Must Be Nice” category.

Just a couple of days ago someone told me I had a nice house. I said thanks, but I wondered if there was some unspoken message, such as “and you don’t deserve it,” or maybe something more along the lines of “for the likes of you.”

That’s probably not what he meant. People say “you have a nice house” like they say “I like your haircut” or “this pie is delicious.”

I guess if somebody called me “sensitive” I might imagine it was their way of saying I’m a basket case, because, you know, it’s true sometimes.

What others mean to say about us isn’t always what we infer, and sometimes what we hear has more to do with our own insecurities than anything else.

I told Oliver that even though sensitivity may be associated with femininity and weakness, I didn’t mean that he was either of those things. What I meant was that he is a rare, perceptive, and observant person.

I’m not sure why, but it took a change of scenery and a digression from our normal routine in order for me to remember that I love those things about him.

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One thought on “Don’t call me ‘sensitive’

  1. Star, You are so incredibly talented. I love reading your writing and hope that you have been experiencing mine as well. I need to restructure my Poetry page but will send a link through Facebook as soon as it’s ready. And tell Oliver that sensitivity in a boy is not a bad thing at all, that just means that he will grow up to be a sensitive man and many people truly admire that.

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