Sunday, August 25, 2019

A Tooth Fairy Story

"The Tooth Fairy is a game that other families play, but not ours." 

I don't recall whether it disappointed my older kids to learn their pillows weren't magical portals to a generous fairy realm. My husband was working the overnight shift, which left me caring solo for a 6-year-old, 4-year-old, two 1-year-olds, and a newborn through the Tooth Fairy's working hours, and I just couldn't. So I dispelled all Tooth Fairy magic from our house.

Santa is another disappointingly inconsistent stranger. He only ever fills stockings at Mommom and Poppop's house, never at ours. Don't get me started on the Easter bunny.

Our pretty little corner house was a near vacuum of magic for years.

They say the best gift you can give a kid is a sibling. "Built-in friends-for-life!" they say. And if that's the case, we've more than blessed our kids with the best of gifts.

But what they don't tell you is that siblings are the kind of gift that improves with time. A savings bond. A 529 Education Plan. An unaged barrel of wine. A sibling.

Unfortunately, the collateral damage in our family of overwhelmed parents prioritizing younger siblings' needs for food and hygiene over older siblings' need for wonder wasn't limited to only the secular. We hadn't made it through the Advent calendar to Christmas until this past year when my oldest son took charge and made it happen. He was eight. I don't remember the baptismal anniversaries of my children. I certainly don't light a candle and make a cake. Where even are their baptismal candles? Probably still packed from our move across state three years ago. Possibly melted in a box in the attic.

I love the Lord. I love His Church. I love my children. But a woman can only create so much magic out of the day she's been given, and for many years, the lioness share of our household wonder revolved around diaper cycles and breasts that make milk.

"The tooth fairy is a game that other families play, but not ours." 

It's strange, the coping mechanisms we adopt as parents, the ideals we're forced to let go, either voluntarily or with a losing fight, but gone all the same. The tooth fairy's become a taunting mascot of my parenthood journey. It represents the magic I want my children to enjoy congruent with my failure to make it happen.

Not that prioritization only affects kids with many siblings. Every parent has limits of time, money, emotional and mental capacity. Somewhere between our ideals and our humanity, we reckon with the parental reality of "just doing our best."

When kids uncover this mystery -- that parents aren't omnipotent demigods, just exhaustible mortals "doing our best" -- it's a melancholy comfort. We lose some of their sweet childhood idealism, but we gain a small ally in our goals to accomplish what is good and necessary over what is everything.

"The tooth fairy is a game that other families play, but not ours." 

How quickly my 4-year-old's eyes lost their glow when I broke the news to him last week, the excitement of losing two teeth in one day suddenly quelled by an uncertainty over what to do with the tiny tooth treasure box he'd been rattling relentlessly since arriving home from school.

I didn't expect such discouragement. I don't remember my oldest son responding like this. To be fair, I don't remember much of anything the year my oldest son lost his first tooth.

Oh how I wanted to rekindle that ember of wonder that I'd just stomped out with my declaration against the tooth fairy. My brain sputtered through complicated parental thoughts of whether it's OK to play Tooth Fairy with the younger children if I hadn't with the older ones, and how I can retract what I just put out as truth without losing credibility, and what am I going to make for dinner tonight…

And then, sweetly and cunningly, with an independent confidence inevitable to older siblings, my oldest son pulled his younger brother aside and whispered that the magic is real, that he'd better make sure that tooth box gets tucked under his pillow.

For a time, my 4-year-old delighted in the absurdity of the Tooth Fairy created by his oldest brother.

Unfortunately, the work of creating magic -- an effort muddled by miscommunicated intentions, the accidental theft of another brother's penny, some intense shoving, and slammed doors -- so overwhelmed my oldest son that he loudly declared the Tooth Fairy would never return for another tooth in our house ever. Sometimes, I see myself in my children.

How I wish I could save him from these small reckonings with our angry, reasonable, magic-less adult world.

Still, I'm proud of him for seeing a situation that made him uncomfortable despite being the norm, recognizing in himself the power to help, and desiring for others what wasn't done for him.

It's the classic story arc of the best older siblings. And a reminder to the rest of us that a mission of mercy is always at hand.

The next morning, I tried to set things right by encouraging my oldest son to write a conciliatory note from the Tooth Fairy to his younger brother. I'd woken up early to set up his art supplies after stirring all night with my own extravagant guilt. If only I'd done it all and a little more when they were younger, my children would be perfect and perfectly happy today.

As it turns out, my fail-proof plan to fix everything only proved irrelevant and perplexing to everyone. Why start an art project when there were pillow forts to build and blanket rivers to forge? Dissipated by the matchless magic of sibling friendship, their rivalry from the day before had long since been forgiven and forgotten. Even the Tooth Fairy was dismissed as an old and uninteresting game.

"The Tooth Fairy is a game that other families play, but not ours."


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