We’re an affectionate family. Sometimes, while riding his trike to school, my four-year-old son Felix will from out of the blue slow down and say, “I love you, Daddy. So much.”
One of the sweetest parts of co-sleeping with Felix is when he wakes with a start in the middle of the night and whispers, “I love you,” to me in the darkness. Often, in the midst of one of his tantrums, or when anxious and fussing about something in that way that he has, the only thing that calms him is being swept up in a bear hug. (At the end of the day, I need the same from my wife!) And then there’s the kisses — pecks on the cheek, the top of the head, the lips. (Though he did, just the other night, ask to have “tongue kissing” the way that mommy and daddy do… but that’s another story.) I get two smooches each night before he goes to bed, once on his way up the stairs, and again, later, he sneaks down to say, “I love you,” one last time and share a memory from our afternoon together. It’s blissful and sweet, like basking in the day’s last ray of sunshine.
Affection of this sort has not always been in my nature. I was one of those guys who toughened up in middle school and thought saying, “I love you,” was cheesy and trite, a weakness. I’m not sure if I can point to reasons why or remember specifically when I started returning my parent’s declarations of love with, “Uh-huh,” or, “Me too.” The Greskos were certainly never an overly-touchy clan. I have a clear memory of driving with my best friend’s family, and watching his dad reach over and touch his mom’s leg in an intimate, gentle gesture. My friend and his sister hugged often, too, and all four held hands around the table as they said grace. My family just didn’t relate to one another physically like this.
Later, in college, it surprised me to see guys draping their arms over their dads, or bringing their moms in for long embraces. In old photos I saw evidence of my parents hugging and carrying me when I was about the ages of five or six, but after? It could be that, as comedian Rob Delaney suggests, around kindergarten the signs of affection become less direct between boys and their dads in particular, with kisses transforming into pats on the head. In this way, Delaney believes that we literally teach our children to keep people at a distance. (I came across this in a great piece by Doug Zeigler on The Huffington Post.)
Whatever the case, I remember telling my girlfriend in high school that I shouldn’t have to say those three little words, she should know it already by how I acted. I imagined that I had no use for love —sex, of course, was another matter — and listened obsessively to the Talking Heads album More Songs About Buildings and Food, which featured a song called “I’m Not in Love,” and in general examined relationships with a cool, analytic regard, as if boys and girls were two separate yet equally strange animal species. My high school girlfriend and I rarely verbalized our feelings, or even called one another girlfriend and boyfriend to our friends. We just… were what we were. (I realize how horrible that sounds as I type it.)
Later, in my 20s, when I was dating the woman who is now my wife, I didn’t want to hold hands in a darkened movie theater, let alone on the street. Forget cuddling or long hugs! Give me gropes and French style kissing! Men wanted sex, not affection, and I was a Man. Though my wife and I had first gotten together during a daytime cuddle session which suddenly became something else, and I did find myself… if not attracted, exactly, compelled by her affectionate side, so much so that every time we broke up — and I lost count of the total break-ups during our rocky period — I ended up drawn back to her.
Slowly, throughout my 20s, I thawed, and stopped closing myself off to love and affection. It’s the story of my life, really — how growing older I’ve stopped being afraid of things which, deep down, beckon me. Love and affection, fatherhood, writing. I adore cuddling, hugging, holding, and kissing my son, and plan on continuing to do so as he gets older, as long as he lets me. I hope that his ice age, if he has one, won’t last quite so long as mine did, and it won’t take him till into his thirties to recognize that he does, indeed, need love.