This is Charlie. He’s 11, and in the 5th grade. He plays basketball and baseball, and has recently gotten interested in college football. He loves Instagram (for the photos of NBA players and cute animals) and Sports Center (for NBA and MLB news). He spends hours in the driveway working on his layup and his free throws; every Sunday, he has a batting lesson with an Aussie coach who calls him “Chaalie.” He has very specific tastes in clothes; he gravitates toward long athletic shorts and quirky tees and bright colored high tops (with coordinating Nike Elite socks, of course). He will not wear Crocs or long sleeved polo shirts or the adorable plaid chino shorts I try to buy him every summer.
Charlie is easy going and kind, and he gets along with everyone. His teachers describe him as a leader; his coaches always comment on what a smart player he is. Everyone agrees that he is a good listener. When he talks to adults, he looks them right in the eye and answers thoughtfully and politely.
He is a hard worker and will keep at a task until he succeeds, whether it’s word problems or a left handed layup. He never complains about having to get up for 8 am basketball practice on a Saturday, or about sitting on the bench for a couple of innings during a tournament baseball game. He’s a team player, always.
Charlie is fun to be around. He will make up crazy songs, accompanied by outrageous dance moves, for no reason. He will eat anything — the more unusual, the better. He wants to go everywhere and see everything. He is already planning to go to college in Florida, because Florida has beaches and he loves the beach.
I know this kind of not-so-humble bragging is annoying — no one wants to hear about how great someone else’s kid is — and I will say, honestly, that there are times when Charlie is truly a hot mess. But I find myself amazed, on a daily basis, by how easily he moves through the world, largely because this is the polar opposite of how his brother functions. In many ways, Henry — with his quirks and his struggles — is the norm for our family, and Charlie is the sport, the fluke, the one who doesn’t fit the model. Because of this, his maturity and grace and independence constantly amaze me, even though he’s really pretty much just like many of his peers.
I love both of my sons, exactly as they are, with their strengths and weaknesses. My struggle is that Henry’s weaknesses often feel like my failures — a panic attack at the doctor’s office, for example, leaves me wondering where I screwed up when I was raising him. But then I take Charlie to the doctor and he is delightful, cracking jokes and not complaining about his shots and thanking the nurse when she’s done. And I feel like maybe I’m not the worst parent in the universe, because I seem to be getting it right with this kid.
And yes, that’s a lot of pressure to put on a child, and no, I don’t ever tell Charlie that some days he’s the only thing keeping my soul from being totally crushed. But I know he feels it. On the days when Henry is floundering the most, Charlie will be extra cheerful and helpful, which kills me in a whole different way. Now that he’s older, we’ve started to talk to Charlie about his brother’s issues, and about how it’s not Charlie’s responsibility to make up for the times when Henry falls short. We constantly work with him on ways to manage his brother’s moods and poor social skills, and for the most part, it’s going well.
But it’s not perfect. Charlie is hesitant to have friends over, which is sad because he has great friends. And he gets frustrated when we can’t all go do things as a family. He has started asking, politely but insistently, if we can just leave Henry at home and go out, for dinner or to a movie or wherever it is that Henry can’t bring himself to go. And then I feel like I’m failing this kid, too, because I can never do exactly what everyone wants.
My focus is always on doing what my kids need, whether they like it or not; with Henry, I cannot always see that what I’m doing is working, even when I know it’s the right thing to do. But with Charlie, I have these funny moments of watching him with interact with his peers or with other adults, or listening to him talk about the things he is interested in, and feeling like hey, I didn’t screw the baby up! I suppose that in one way, it’s heartbreaking — Henry will never be like his brother — but for the most part, it’s just uplifting and satisfying. Charlie is a good kid; he must have good parents.
It’s a nice feeling to have, honestly.