Letting go with my four-year-old

Now that my son is four years old, motherhood has changed.

There’s still a lot of responsibilty (including lots of toilet-related stuff). But over the past few months, there’s been a shift. Part of parenting now is letting things go.

Part of this means not getting overly disappointed or frustrated by his new awareness that adults have the power to buy candy or a toy at any time, and should be wheedled and whined and implored to do so at any occasion. It means accepting the accidental streams of pee beside the toilet, or the rare tantrum, a vestige of the deep dark toddler days. If you don’t let go of these things, you’d risk never wanting to be around your four-year-old, and that would be bad for a number of reasons, including the fact that you’d miss out on some surprises.

For example, like many kids his age, my son is quite the conversationalist. Whatever language they’re in, his words can veer from predictable and practical (“I can have chocolate?”, “I have to go pee-pee.” “I can watch ‘PJ Masks’?”), to the inexplicable. This morning, as I was hastily getting dressed before the school run, he told my husband, “Maman se transforme en clown.” (“Mama is changing into a clown.”). I don’t even wear makeup!

There are also those little nuggets that make you think he might be remote-controlled or have been slipped a script by some other adult. Like when he reached into his mouth one night at the dinner table, pulled out something stuck in his teeth, and said, laughing at it all as if to show that he, also, found it gross, “Look! A treasure!”

Many things have changed in my son’s short life, but one constant has been his passion for trains. Lately, he’s even become a bit of a know-it-all. A few months ago, we were riding the tram, which he thought my husband had called a train. He loudly corrected him. He’s also starting to recognize famous steam trains, like his favorite, The Mallard.

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He remembers things in many other areas of interest or life in general, and then, sometimes, he doesn’t. He’ll surprise you by not recalling a book you once loved to read together, and you have to remind yourself that even though it was only two years ago, for him, that’s half a lifetime.

There are memories I try to help him keep, like strengthening a muscle. Everything I can about my mother, for example, who he won’t get to grow up with. The same with his paternal grandfather, who we lost when he was nine months old. We have pictures of them, and we try to tell stories. He’s connected to them by objects, too: the tent my mother bought him, the stuffed Pikachu he loves, a beautiful boxed set of Curious George books (her favorites when she was little and now among my son’s favorites, too). There’s Papy’s bus, Papy’s archway (a baby toy we’ll probably have to pack away soon). There are also Papy’s sculptures and paintings throughout our apartment and my mother-in-law’s house. A beautifully colored canvass showing a sailboat rolling on tumultuous waves has hung in my son’s room since the day we brought him home from the maternity ward.

I find myself telling my son stories, too, of people he never knew. I tell him things that his great-grandmother, my mother’s mother, used to say to me. It’s not surprising, I guess; she was such a feisty little lady with such a memorable way of putting things, that it’s hard to think she wouldn’t still be here in some way.

But back to that part about letting go. It’s not just about accepting that a tantrum or a stubborn “No” will still crop up, even though things have gotten so much easier than they were when he was two and three. It’s also about letting myself stop doing things that were once necessary.

I no longer bring the carriage with us every time we go out (even though, when he suddenly gets tired of walking, I sometimes regret that). I no longer systematically leave the house armed with a snack; now I know that he should understand that we can wait till we get home or to the grocery store.

I don’t have to bring a diaper bag, or any of the other countless things you have to carry when you have a baby or young toddler. Now, it’s just some toy cars, maybe a picture book or two if we’re going to a restaurant or somewhere there might be a long wait, and whatever toy he wants to bring along that day. He always wants something in his hands. It can be cumbersome at times, but I keep in mind that I’m a bit like that, in my way, always carrying a book and notebook.

For day trips, I also bring a change of clothes, although the flood of old mishaps — potty training accidents, throwing himself onto the dirty ground in protest, accidentally falling into a sunken fountain at a mall — has pretty much dried up. A few weeks ago, I was genuinely impressed as he calmly told us he had to pee and accepted being de-pantsed in freezing weather and an icy breeze coming off the Seine, then made water without so much as getting a drop on his shoes. We pulled up his underwear and pants and headed across the street to wait in line for half an hour before getting into the Musée d’Orsay. He was perfectly behaved, even when he saw that there was a stand selling chips (not allowed till after lunch). I was bursting with motherly pride.

Not having to carry so much is symbolic. My son is growing up, able to take care of himself a bit more, to understand why he has to wait, to adapt to different situations. And it’s amazing. It’s so much easier to get around, to do things, to plan — or not.

There’s another letting go that’s harder. Putting away his old clothes and shoes that have so many memories attached to them. Seeing toys he once played with go un-played-with now. Leaving early toddlerhood heroes like OuiOui and Petit Ours Brun behind. Even “Paw Patrol”, which I loved, has turned out to be just a blip.

At night, I always check on him before I go to sleep, just as I have ever since he was born. Ever since he’s had a bed, I’ve shifted him gently into the middle of it, afraid he’ll fall (an admittedly short distance, since the bed is very low) in those dark hours he’s alone in his room. He’s become ever more of a traveler in sleep, shifting and changing positions, performing what seem like improbably acrobatic figures as he serenely dreams below a glow-in-the-dark moon and stars.

One night, I thought, “Stop.” He hasn’t fallen so far, and he probably won’t now. I worry that I interfere too much — explaining his words to anyone who looks confused by them, helping him eat if we’re in a hurry. Let it go. Let him sleep. If he falls, that’s just one of those bad experiences in life.

It will be like this later, when he walks places alone, or spends time away at friends’ houses or on overnight school trips. It will be like this if he learns to drive, and when he travels on his own, and when he goes to college. This is the first step.

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“Four!/Quatre!” A photo we took just after I picked him up from school on his birthday.

is a writer & worrier. She lives in Paris with an eccentric Frenchman, a clever toddler, & a charming cat. Besides them, she loves books, travel, & cookies.

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