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Toddlers in Love

“There’s Jane’s little boyfriend.” “Ooh, Johnny’s flirting again.”

Before I had a toddler, I often felt like there was a deep collective yearning out there to return to the age of arranged marriages. How else could I explain it, this drive to constantly see adult relationships and motivations in the most innocent of childhood social development? Any random batting of the eyelash became flirting. Innocent, barely verbal “friendships” largely determined by the friendships of the parents or daycare carpooling were laden with an icky level of saccharine romanticism. I was certainly not going to indulge in inventing a love life for any prepubescent kid of mine, let alone one who was still in diapers.

That was before Zack and Nadia.

They didn’t choose each other, to be sure. Zack’s parents live mere blocks from us and are a central staple of our social circle.

But long before Nadia knew the names of anyone except her parents, woebegone grandparents included, before she really knew many words at all, she would demand “Za! Za! Za!” incessantly, complete with an impressionistic version of the ASL sign for “Z.” When she learned how to push a stroller herself, and demanded to push his, she would stop and peek over the top to check on him, and he would twist around to stare up into her eyes with delight. In fact, though they are both cheery kids, the sunshine gets kicked up so high when they get into one of their fits of looking into each other’s eyes and laughing delightedly that you could practically read by it.

As Nadia’s vocabulary grew, Za became Zacky and his name no longer constituted ninety percent of her utterances. But Zack, who is eight months younger, has taken up the name-chanting slack, asking for “Ya-ya” some obscene proportion of his waking moments. For a while, every kid pictured in every book on his shelf was Ya-ya.

For our part, we still have astoundingly good odds of stilling a squirmy, shrieking diaper change/breakfast/shoes rebellion by saying, “Well, do you want to go see Zack or not?” And we can dry up tears in a microsecond with the words “Guess what? Zack’s coming over!”

It’s sweet in such an innocent way. They draw pictures for each other. They comfort each other with kisses when they get hurt. They hug and cuddle. They more or less smooch under the plastic slide at the playground. They enjoy the company of their other friends, sure, but practically never talk about them when they’re not around.

All rational assessment aside, when they part, or when he shows up at the door after a three-day hiatus, I can’t make myself describe Zack’s plaintive “Ya-ya” as anything but mournful longing. Recently we were visiting when Zack was overdue for his nap (which he usually embraces with eagerness). He was tottering with exhaustion and was asked if he wanted to go to sleep. “No!” he said and then explained, “Ya-ya, Zacky’s house.”

A month or two ago, Nadia declared her intention to marry Zack. More telling to me, though, was the other day when Nadia was in the midst of one of those elaborate toddler stories that no adult can understand and she was growing increasingly frustrated with our slow-wittedness. In a haunting moment of teenage foreshadowing, she finally burst out with “Zacky know what I mean!” “Ah, love,” my partner said.

Yes, with barely a whimper, I’ve more or less given in to reading Zack and Nadia’s affection for each other as something more than “the person most familiar to me because our parents hang out a lot.” Sometimes it feels like staring at a kitten and thinking, “Isn’t it interesting that we’re hard-wired to feel tenderness for things with the proportions of baby mammals?” while the gut-level “Cuuuuute!” reaction is pounding away at my temples. It doesn’t make sense, but you still feel it.

I’m at peace with that internally, but I do wonder about how it infuses my parenting from time to time. I have not yet started applying egregiously inappropriate labels like “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” to them. But I have caught myself saying things like “Be careful! You almost hurt your Zacky!” in the middle of a crowded potluck, as if the message was “Don’t hit your dearly beloved in the eye with a toy train,” not “Don’t hit anyone in the eye with a toy train.”

Then there was this exchange: “Zack wants to see you. He’s sad you didn’t make it to playgroup yesterday.” “Why?” “Because he loves you and he misses you.”

What does it means for a toddler to “love” another toddler? Oh really? What does it means for a toddler to “love” another toddler? Damned if I know. Is it any different, really, at this point, from their shared love for the local playground? I mean, for all their grinning and glowing, they’re still at the parallel play stage, where they want to build highways out of blocks next to each other, but aren’t even quite ready to cooperate on building one together.

I wonder sometimes if perhaps Nadia would develop a more well-rounded, flexible sociability if we taught her now not to put all her eggs in one basket, if we insisted on rotating her playdates throughout the other neighborhood children, most of whom she likes well enough when they’re right in front of her. In some ways, framing their obsession as love we’re facilitating makes it less complicated for us and our schedules.

In any case, it’s not likely to last. Kids go their own ways. The boy I’m told I spent much of preschool sitting in the corner holding hands with turned out to be one of the mean lacrosse jocks that I was careful to avoid in high school. I doubt we ever exchanged two words after age four. In fact, I’m only going on adult reports here: I have plenty of memories of preschool, and not a one of him. So much for the depth of precocious love.

In fact, perhaps what I should be worrying about is what our social life and babysitting trade-offs will be like after Zack and Nadia break up. Ahem. I mean grow up.

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