Ok, so tongue is rarely involved. These are more lingering, smushy, kind of slimy kisses. But they happen often, because the kid loves and I mean, LOVES his mom. On most mornings, after sprinting from his bed to ours, a journey that this being cramped New York City living takes about five steps, Felix wakes my wife and I with a burning question: “Are you going to work today, Mommy?”
When he pronounces work he comes down hard on the k, which reminds me of how Woody Allen tends to over-emphasize the consonants at the end of words. And like a little Allen, my son is, at three-and-a-half, a true neurotic. Every day of his short life he’s fretted over whether or not Mommy is going to work a ringing endorsement of the job I’m doing as Stay-At-Home Dad.
That old adage comes to mind: parenting is a thankless task. I never expected it to be downright negative though, an attack on my self-esteem not just as a parent, but as a human being. My very presence can cause upset. On recent mornings, he’s cried when I come down to breakfast. “I don’t like Daddy anymore!”
A Sunday or two ago, when I suggested we let Mommy sleep while we make her breakfast, he kicked me in the face. A couple of days later, he threw a used tissue at me while I snoozed. During the day, when it’s just the two of us, he tells me that he wishes I would leave so it could just be him and Mommy.
Like with all kids, transitions are rough. We’ve gone through periods where he’s thrown himself at the door after my wife heads off, when he’s screamed and cried and kicked and bit me because he doesn’t want her to go to work, or have me put him to bed, or spend even an hour of time under my care on the weekends.
As far as I can tell, it’s a guy thing. Or partly a guy thing. “My two Alpha Dogs,” my wife calls us, because we both want to occupy positions of dominance in the house, and in my wife’s affections. If I hug her, he insinuates himself between us, literally pushing us apart. He tries to French her not just upon waking but out and about too, gross Public Displays of Affection that have me pretending I’m not with them. He doesn’t just want to be around her at all times, he wants to be physically connected in her lap, at her feet, arm-in-arm. It’s obvious what Freud would say.
My wife and I wonder if Felix’s extreme separation anxiety stems from his complicated birth. He lodged on the way out, and labor the intense, almost-there pushing part of labor dragged on for about four hours before the midwives finally convinced my wife she needed a medical intervention. A doctor used a vacuum device to extract Felix, by which point he had swallowed fluid, and needed to be intubated. He spent the first six days of his life in Intensive Care, only seeing my wife every three hours when she shuffled in to feed him. (She refused to leave the hospital until he was discharged.) Could this have traumatized him from the start? Or, I wonder, was the fact that he stalled in the canal, something neither the midwives nor the doctor had any good explanation for, point to his not wanting to let go of my wife even back then? Maybe he just didn’t want to be out on his own.
Whatever the case, his near-constant need for my wife takes a toll on all of us. When she comes home, he swoops upon her with questions and demands for playing. She has scarce time to relax, or sip a glass of wine, and there are days when I don’t get much more than a nod of hello. At night, after putting him to bed an activity that requires persistence, as he’ll bolt from the covers and run to the top of the steps crying “I forgot to tell you ‘I love you'” she collapses on the couch, craving space to be her own person, free from the demands of work and parenting for an hour or two before slipping into sleep. The last thing she wants, on most nights, is for me to start pawing at her, or engaging her in heated conversation about my worry du-jour.
This means that, though the Stay-At-Home Dad, I often feel marginal in the family, and emasculated. Not because I’m cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the tot, but because no one wants me around, and guys are, to some degree, like proud peacocks. We, or at least I, want to feel wanted. I guess everyone does, really.
In lieu of quality time with my wife, I blow off steam with friends and colleagues, discussing my work, or books, or music, or whatever it is that’s on my mind. I meet up with other parents dads and moms alike to kvetch about the madness of being home with a little one all day, the strange pent-up energy that festers from being over-focused on your child and under-stimulated intellectually, laughing hysterically one minute and crying with boredom the next.
Every parent, or at least the more experienced ones, share the same message. Hang in there. It gets easier. And I’m sure it does. It’s funny, though. My wife was the one who wanted a kid, while I was never as sold on the idea. I never expected that having one would create a greater sense of distance between us; I assumed it would bring us closer. I envisioned myself a jovial, benevolent father, traveling with my two favorite people in the world, holding hands as a trio, secure in a warm little nest of affection. I never thought it would be a battle. At times it feels like this family just ain’t big enough for the three of us.