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Sorry About Your Robot Leg
A cringeworthy tale of empathy
“Without Empathy, Nothing Works”
- Chef Jose Andre
On an oven-hot Albuquerque day in the summer of 2009, I picked up my four-year-old son Carlos from preschool. Every day after work, I would hold his tiny hand in mine, kiss his fat cheeks, and soak in that smile with the Grand Canyon gap between his two front teeth. He was a stocky little package with a giant head (99th percentile in head circumference, to be exact) filled to capacity with big emotions and even bigger thoughts. School pickup was an unexpected parenting surprise bonus. He saw me a mile away, lit up, slingshotted his whole body in my direction, and smothered me as if it had been an eternity since we last laid eyes on each other. We would walk hand in hand to the car, where he scrambled up and into his car seat, where I strapped him in snug and tight and smooched his little face one last time before taking my spot in the driver seat.
Parenting is 45% merciless torture, 45% an unimaginably beautiful and meaningful gift, and 10% anxiously wondering if the next moment will be either merciless torture or an unimaginably beautiful and meaningful gift. (That adds up to 100, right?) Listening to my children talk from the backseat while I drive was an unimaginably beautiful and meaningful gift. Something about being safe in the car with everyone facing forward turned on their little faucets and they let flow all the stories and emotions that have been dammed up since you dropped them off with their little lunch bags and a hug and a kiss. The Shakespearean drama of playground battles and unjust timeouts, of who threw up and had to go home and of who brought a better snack - all told with play-by-play sportscasting detail. A top-secret clubhouse. Magical.
“Mommy. Guess what happened today…” Always the start of a big announcement. (Even at four, the guy knew how to warm up the audience.)
“Me and Naomi,” (pause) “saw a man,” (pause) “with a robot leg!”
I closed my eyes and braced for impact. I could only imagine that a robot leg was a prosthetic leg. Oh dear. Did they point? Did they laugh? Did they drag the entire preschool class over to see? Did they inadvertently humiliate someone who was trying to go about their already difficult day and did not need a mob of four-year-olds staring at them like a caged animal? I had to take a moment.
The puzzle pieces of a gentle lecture snapped together in my head: People with disabilities and differences didn’t want to be pointed out as different. Disabilities and differences weren’t funny and often made the life of someone with them very lonely. All anyone ever wants is to fit in. Blah, blah, blah. I would be stern enough to make a point but tender enough not to leave him feeling ashamed. Even at his age, we’d had a gazillion conversations about differences, kindness, and acceptance. We have definitely discussed not staring (my name is Jenny Ramo, and I have a staring problem) and celebrating uniqueness.
“What happened? Did you laugh or make fun of him?” Deep breath. His beautiful green-brown eyes widened, and looked right into my own through the rearview mirror.
“Oh no, mommy. We would never do that,” he nodded. Thank God. My shoulders softened. I exhaled. Good boy.
“We just went up to him and said, “Sorry about your robot leg!’”
The sound of tires screeching pierced through my brain. It was the dissonant chord of horrifying and hilarious. “Hilarifying” is what we call it in our household. It’s something that requires the “cover your face and look away so your child does not see you laugh” move. (Some other time, I must tell you about how my other son got in trouble in first grade by playing a game that started as Venus Flytrap, then disintegrated into Penis Flytrap, which further devolved into who has the biggest Penis Flytrap and hit rock bottom at Punch Each Other’s Penis Flytrap. The principal who called to report the incident desperately and ultimately unsuccessfully tried not to laugh. It turns out it was the second to last iteration of the game that caused more damage than the punching phase. One of the boys was not happy to have the smallest Penis Flytrap. You don’t say? And by “some other time I must tell you,” I guess I mean I’ll tell you now because it did just tell you the whole story.)
After I winched my jaw off the ground, I realized that what Carlos was trying to do was important. He was trying to say, “I’m sorry that you have to deal with that thing. That must be hard.”
It was evidence of empathy.
The ingredients of my parenting recipe have been simmered down to a dense reduction. As any moderately neurotic and overthinking parent is wont to do, I intermittently remember to stir and taste - add a sprinkle of this and that along the way. I scrape down the legs on the inside of the pan and fold them back into the sauce. I shoo the flies away, keep the mixture from burning, and try not to leave it unattended for long enough for it to spoil. (Perhaps cooking analogies are not the best idea for me; my culinary skills have flung themselves from the edge of a rusty spatula into the decaying trash with three years past-due ketchup, shards of broken glass, and the crumbling carcasses of my homemade blueberry muffins sprinkled with tiny crystals of salt instead of sugar. You, Dr. Judgypants McBlessyourheart, can fuck right off. They look the same.)
My parenting recipe began before they were born with salty-sweet visions of CEOs and doctors and lawyers. My imaginary children would expertly bushwhack through the academic jungle, held up only by breaks to do microsurgery on neighborhood squirrels. Perhaps there would be a mean boss or two on the way, but the teaching kind of mean boss that builds character. Not the cruel version that leaves them in tears, wondering if they are capable of doing anything right.
I dreamed of easy vacations on the beach, being endlessly delighted by our clever, camera-ready children with their knife-sharp sartorial instincts. My kids would do their homework without fussing and then beat me at Scrabble before turning in for the night. They would be as fluent in Michelin star ten-course meals with dishes such as smoked duck eggs and light aïoli foam or a caviar sorbet palette cleanser as they would eat Frito Pie from the bag. Down to earth, yet sophisticated.
Turns out, I am not that person, and mine are not those kids. Just like their mom, my children are complicated and messy, mercurial and exuberant. They are impatient and bossy and creative and clever. They did not come with a manual, and despite all the many bad decisions I’ve made as a parent, they know they are loved. I think they know. I hope they know. They must know, right? They know, my husband assures me. They know.
My children polish up nicely, but on the daily, they are sartorial shit shows of tie-dye and Crocs with socks and thrifted T-shirts that say things like, “World’s Best Grandpa!” They are by-the-seats-of-their-pants students. They have each had to learn that you get a zero on the homework you don’t turn in. Their ability to lighten up is often buried somewhere in their rooms underneath piles of filthy clothes and a Styrofoam container of wings from God knows when. Nobody in our house is easy.
They are slow-growing orchids that will find their time and place to bloom. They make friends like people drink water. They are deeply funny and fundamentally kind. They worry about their friends and ask questions about the world. They love music and summer camp. They love each other even though they are strikingly different. They kiss the dogs goodbye in the morning and try every activity there is to be tried without fear of failure.
I have missed parent-teacher conferences, forgotten about sports games, and have no strategic plan to get them into the Ivies. Instead of being at the zoo talking about how the snake was molting, I was trying to hustle them to the nacho stand before it closed for the day. (“Mommy needs nachos, hurry up!”) I have yelled and cursed at them and stood my ground on the wrong things. But I decorate the house in the middle of the night for every birthday. I give them hugs and tell them I love them 100 times daily. I make them laugh and feel better about whatever they’ve done wrong. My whole heart is wrapped up in these two bodies, and they know that. I’ve done so much wrong, but I hope I’ve also done so much right.
We used to joke when they were little that if they excelled in their lives, we would attribute it to our great parenting. And if they were fuck ups, we would just say, “They sure do come with their own wiring, don’t they?” Either they will be Nobel Prize winners or the funniest guys in prison. Fifty-fifty odds on any given day.
My recipe for parenting is a dog-eared document wrinkled and stained with mistakes and regret and love. I want my children to be happy and have enough money to be safe and have choices. I want them to be kind but not pushovers, empathetic but not enablers. I want them to have goals, but I don’t want them to be their goals. I want them to have enough. Enough love. Enough money. Enough joy. Enough resilience. Enough patience. Enough faith. Enough hope. Enough courage. Enough of everything.
What I thought I cared about is no longer what I actually care about. My children becoming people with impressive titles and great wealth but devoid of compassion or substance is far scarier than the reverse. Impressive titles and great wealth are not substitutes for being a good human who has crafted a layered and textured life. Give me the bus driver who helps strangers off and on the bus any day over the mega-wealthy CEO who has completely forgotten that he used to ride the bus. Rendered fat is fine for flavor, but it’s not what you eat to get strong.
I have tried to find my own compass amid all the conflicting measurements of parenting. I know that empathy doesn’t directly pay the bills. I would still argue that it is the North Star around which everything else organizes. I believe empathy is intellectually honest and fundamentally necessary to be successful, however one defines it. My children have noticed that when there is a tragedy in the news, such as a school shooting, I also feel sad for the shooter. When they tell me tales of children getting in trouble at school and acting out, they know they will hear an empathetic “aww” from me because nobody feels happy when they are misbehaving. What kind of life did that child have that led them to this moment? What kind of life did any of us have that leads us to do what we do? There is a difference between empathy and excuses. Salt and sugar. (I know; only one of them goes on a blueberry muffin. Duly noted.)
There is no final report card or Yelp review of my parenting recipe. Some days, I get one star and a “Lousy service!” comment. Other days, I nailed it. At the end of the day, the only ingredient I really care about is empathy. I want to make sure that they are genuinely sorry that someone has a robot leg.
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Jenny Ramo is a mom of two boys, wife, social justice advocate, lawyer, & questionable decision-maker. Her family lives between NOLA & Santa Fe. Her writing has been featured in The Washington Post, NYLON, Parents Magazine, & BUST. Jenny's social justice work has been covered in the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, BBC, and many other international and national media outlets.