A year ago something happened between the two of us that has stuck in my mind ever since, and that will now stay with me for the rest of my life in the form of a small red frog tattooed on the back of my left wrist.
It is a reminder to be careful of fragile things.
You were four and a half years old. We were staying at Grandma and Grampa’s house for the week to watch their cats while they were on vacation. You asked for some privacy in the bathroom and I went into the other room to nurse your little brother until you wanted my help again.
After more than enough time had passed, I went into the bathroom to see if you needed help. You were sitting on the floor with your back to me. You had taken down all of the small glass figurines that were on the shelves above the toilet. Glass figurines that I had asked you time and time again not to touch. Fragile. Not ours. Don’t touch.
I startled you when I walked in, and you dropped a small red glass frog on the floor. Its feet snapped off.
In that moment I said your name with a tone of disappointment. You turned around with tears in your eyes.
I had a choice then, and I made the wrong choice. I chose to see the small broken frog rather than seeing the fact that you had climbed up onto the toilet time and time again to take down each glass figure carefully, to line them up on the floor, to drink them in and appreciate their intricate beauty. You had been gentle. You had been careful. You had been diligent. It was my disruption that caused the frog to break. It was my previous refusal to allow you to explore those tantalizingly interesting glass figurines that caused you to explore them on your own. And it was guilt over going against what I had said that caused you to break one. I did not see those things. I did not see all of the glass figures you had been careful with, I did not see my contribution to the broken frog. And I did not see the sadness and guilt that you already felt.
Instead I became angry and sent you to the bedroom where we were staying for a time-out. I put all the glass figurines back on the shelf, carefully examining them to make sure no others had been broken. And then I walked back into the room and saw you. And I realized that I had not been careful with fragile things. I had taken your sadness and I had made you sadder.
Ever since that day, the red frog reminds me every time I see it of that moment where I made the wrong decision. My job was not to make you feel worse than you already did, but to help you craft your regret into an apology for the people who owned the frog. My job was to stand next to you as your anchor. And even before that, my job was to make the time to let you see those things that you wanted to see.
The little red frog on my wrist is a reminder to always be careful, to always look for the full picture of your intentions and your actions. And to treat your feelings with as much caution as I expected you to treat that small piece of glass.
That day a year ago I apologized and told you that I was upset that you hadn’t listened to me, not that you had broken the frog. I told you that I understood why you had taken them down and that if you wanted to look at them again you could just let me know and we could look at them together.
I want to remember the things you taught me that day. I will always be on your side no matter what. I will always be there for you. I will always love you. I won’t simply ignore the mistakes that you make, but I won’t take it upon myself to make you feel worse about them. That’s not my job. My job is to help you find the context for them within your life. To avoid repeating them.
Everyone says that your first tattoo should have some meaning that will last for the rest of your life. This is why I hadn’t gotten a tattoo before now, and why this little red frog is my first tattoo at 32 years old.
I like that little frog because it is a constant reminder that I can do better. Be more gentle. Show more patience. Explore more things. Love more deeply. For the rest of my life. It is a constant reminder of you, of your brother, of your sister, of any future sibling that you might have. I can’t think of anything else that would have a more permanent meaning.
So that’s why I got a little red frog on my arm. Even though when you ask me now at five, I simply say that I like it and it reminds me of you because it’s red. All the underlying reasons can wait until you’re grown and can understand more of what it means to me.
I know that there will be times that you break things. There will be times that I’m upset. There will be times that you don’t listen. This is all a part of childhood, all a part of parenthood. I don’t mind the broken things, I just never want one of the things that is broken to be your feelings. Not over little insignificant things, or even over bigger things.
I love you.