“Mama, what does ‘embarrassing’ mean?” my five-year-old son asks.
We just finished a chapter of one of his Magic Treehouse books, and we’re snuggled into his bed.
Like with many of his questions, this one makes me feel momentarily like an idiot. As a child, I just assumed my parents knew all the answers to everything. As a parent, I’m constantly reminded of just how little I know.
“Well, it means like… when you do something embarrassing…” Umm. If he doesn’t know what embarrassing means, that definition won’t help.
I start over. “It’s like when something makes you uncomfortable because you don’t want other people to know about it,” I stammer. “Like, if I peed my pants in public? I’d be really embarrassed.
Encouraged, I go on. “Or if I tooted really loud at yoga class? I’d be sooo embarrassed.” His giggling continues, rolling like a wave. It occurs to me that I shouldn’t get him so riled up at bedtime, but I can’t help it because I am just that hilarious.
“What about you, Maxie? Do you remember anytime that you were embarrassed?”
“Um, like one time when I slipped on the ice at school, and none of my friends checked on me?” In a sliver of a second, my mood shifts from one of levity to I will kill your classmates with a jagged rock.
“Well, that probably hurt your feelings, but I’m not sure if that’s quite the same as being embarrassed,” I respond, still seething. “But you know when sometimes I ask you about your friend Abby at school, and you tell me you don’t want to talk about her? I think it might be because you’re a little embarrassed.” He nods and turns his face slightly away from me, but I can still see the small smile that he gets when we talk about someone he has a crush on.
He turns back toward me, staring at me with his big blue eyes and says, “So tell me about when you were embarrassed.”
He says this conversationally, as if he were a poised talk show host. Up until very recently, he has been, as is developmentally appropriate, an entirely self-focused small human. A secret spark of delight erupts in my chest. Oh, so now I get to talk? You want to know about me? Where should I start?
I settle on one of my sharpest, oldest memories—the first time I felt true mortification.
“Well, one time, when I was in first grade?” I lower my voice. He is looking at me expectantly. “I was wearing this blue dress and tights. And it was ‘silent reading’ time, so we weren’t supposed to talk. And I had to go potty really, really bad. But I knew I shouldn’t talk, so I just stayed in my seat and tried to focus on reading. But pretty soon, the girl next to me raised her hand and told my teacher, Mr. Opitz, that I peed all over the floor!”
I smile as I tell the story, but I can still feel the hot shame of the moment. And the aftermath, in which I was forever The Girl Who Peed Her Bluebird Tights.
Max laughs, but his appetite for stories of my disgrace has only been whet. Or should I say ‘wet’?
“Tell me another one! Like what happened in second grade?” He’s now imagining my schooling as a series of escalating embarrassments, which in some ways it was. I search my memory banks for appropriate tales, discarding the forgotten tampon story, the asking a boy out and him not responding story(ies), and the time I was walking home from school while checking out my developing chest before I noticed my mom and a neighbor watching me from down the street story.
Instead, I tell him another peeing my pants story, this one more embarrassing than the first. I was 18, visiting Germany with my mom and uncle. “Baba and Uncle Billy get really funny when they’re together,” I explain to Max. “And one day, we were sitting in a café, and they made me laugh so hard I tooted and peed my pants at the same time.”
Predictably, Max finds this to be hilarious. As he laughs, I can still feel a slick of shame from the experience. I had slunk out of my seat, leaving my milchkaffee and an enormous wet spot in the shape of my ass, and shuffled to the bathroom in my own sticky filth. “Did you tell the owner?” Max asks.
“No, I think we just sort of snuck out,” I recall.
“Mama, tell me another time you were embarrassed!” he pleads, kicking his feet. I point at his clock.
“It’s eight, Bud. Time for bed. I’ll try to think of some more for tomorrow,” I vow.
“Okay,” he says, an air of defeat in his voice.
In the following days, he asks family members about embarrassing stories.
They share them easily: one family member recalled offering a very silly greeting to someone they thought was a friend but turned out to be a complete stranger.
Another shares about having to poop in the woods and getting it all over his shoes. Max can’t get enough of the stories, and I notice how each ones leaves us all laughing and feeling connected by the common thread of human embarrassment.
“Mama, tell me another story about you being embarrassed,” Max says at another bedtime. In my mind, the moments are like a deck of cards, and I consider each one for plucking. There are so many he’s not yet old enough to hear, and others I don’t want to share lest he decide to recite them for his friends at preschool.
But what I really want to tell him is not about sharts or pee puddles. It’s about the way that embarrassment and shame are close cousins. How they thrive in the darkness and melt away in the sunlight of sharing. How he will gather his own deck of embarrassments, too, despite my desperate desire to shelter him from them.
How more than anything, I want him to be able to bring his embarrassments to me, to let him see me catch them before they trickle through my fingers and evaporate, instead of building sticky piles of shame inside his mind and heart. That over the years, I have learned to let all of my secrets out into the fresh air of sweet-hearted friends and gentle loves, and those spilled secrets have made space for me to become the person I was born to be.
And that I hope as he grows bigger, he too will find others to share with, and he’ll learn that our mistakes, our embarrassments, our messiness, are the shining strands that connect us, they are what make us human.
But until then, I will think of small stories to bring him—stories of yoga farts and wet pants—and we will laugh.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman