People are so generous when you’re pregnant. Now that my belly has popped out to basketball proportions, I constantly get asked if I need to sit down or want help carrying my groceries. Friends nod empathetically if I duck out of a party early, and I can say things to my husband like “udon noodles and brownies,” and 30 minutes later they appear. People are just nice – caring, forgiving, understanding.
But there’s one exception to this rule: My three-year-old son. Just as others have started falling all over themselves to make my life easier, he is going in a new direction.
It started gradually, with a spot of extra whininess and a few more random, confusing, and emotionally-charged demands: “That’s peanut butter and jelly on bread for dinner! I wanted breakfast on bread with jelly and peanut butter!” (The thought-jumble barely audible through his sobs). And now, it’s a daily barrage of meltdowns and stubbornness. Yesterday, we pulled in the driveway from preschool: “Oh no! I wanted to eat this strawberry fruit roll up while you were driving and now I’m never going to eat it!” and when we finally got in the front door, “Ahhh, someone put that jungle puzzle on the living room floor!” (Collapse on top of his lunch box).
I’m guessing my pregnancy is a lot to process for my son. He’s just started a new preschool, and meanwhile the home front is shifting before his eyes – in subtle ways for now, like the ultrasound pictures on the refrigerator, the constant “are you excited about your little sister?” from strangers. Not to mention that I keep lying down on a floor pillow while we’re building blocks and saying things like “pumpkin, I’m just going to play nap for five minutes.”
I wonder, too, if he picks up on my growing preoccupation with his baby sister. We’ll meet her in roughly two months, and even though I can’t possibly imagine how I could love someone as much as my son, she does take up an increasing amount of my brain space. Some of my distractions are substantial-is that a cramp? Could I be having early labor pains? Others are mind-numbingly useless but fill my head anyway, as if an evolutionary-programmed nesting force has kicked in-is the color in the nursery too lavender? Because I was really going more for plum. These are the thoughts that keep me up at night.
But the point is that my mind is often in another place, and I’m pretty sure my son has noticed.
Of course, it’s hard to separate this from the general chaos of the three-year-old age. I’ve written plenty about this early preschool creature before – it’s a time of sophisticated cognitive growth, impressive imagination, and growing verbal skills, but sprinkled with what seems like the emotional control of an 18-month-old. I don’t know whether my son’s sensitivity is really coming from my growing belly, or whether I’ve confused this with the disarray of late toddlerdom.
So what do I do? Well, for one, it helps me to think about this in a slightly detached way – I picture the struggle going on in his growing brain and I tell myself that it’s normal, I don’t have to fix it, I just need to stay with him through it. I give him an extra dose of empathy, and then I distract with a spontaneous story about how I saw a bird sitting on our window ledge this morning. Next thing you know, we’re lying on the floor doing the jungle puzzle and chatting as if nothing happened.
And there’s a flip side to all of this. My son – with all his misfiring neurons and fruit rollup agitation – has also become extra-affectionate with me. Dad is forever his favorite playmate, with whom he’d spend hours building forts and laser-blasting dinosaur monsters. But in the quiet times, my son wants to hug me for an extra long time, he cuddles happily on my shrinking lap, nuzzles noses with me, and says things like, “I love you so much mama. You look so beautiful.” In some mysterious biological way – again, as if evolution is helping us shore up our attachment to each other before someone else comes along – I feel closer and more bonded to my son than ever.