Yesterday, Felix had a day off from pre-K. I was coming off a busy work-filled weekend and so thought I’d leave the computer sleeping and spend a nice day with him, daddy and son doing something fun. Now what that fun thing was, I had no idea, and I became aware early on that he didn’t either, when my wife made some suggestions over breakfast.
“My library books are due today. Maybe you guys can take them back,” my wife said.
“No. I don’t want to go to the library with Daddy. With you, Mommy,” Felix said.
“Well, you could hit the library and then stop in at the zoo.”
“You could try visiting a museum, maybe.”
She looked at me, lips pursed in exasperation, her eyes asking for a little help. What could I say? The library’s children’s room is hot and full of coughing kids, and the lighting in there makes everything look kind of dirty and washed-out, which leaves me itchy and bothered, like my immune system’s fighting off a million germs. And I’ve taken Felix to the zoo on days when he said that he didn’t want to go, and he never rallies. Instead, he drags his feet and whines, and while I love animals, it’s not like I’m that excited to visit the zoo for the two-hundredth time either. We usually head back home after twenty minutes, which means we spend more time in transit then we do at the zoo itself. The thought of a museum appealed, for sure, if you’re talking about the Museum of Modern Art! But with a 4-year-old?
I have to admit that I might have been on the stay-at-home dad scene for too long. We’re getting kind of tired of one another. Felix loves building LEGO with me and running around crazy, “playing rough.” Yesterday, I let him crawl around in the bag of dirty laundry and fun hijinks ensued. But about ten minutes after my wife left for work, while we were reading books on the bed, he said, “When can I watch TV?” Followed by, “How long till Mom gets home?” These are questions which he repeated at intervals throughout the day, until I finally flipped on the tube. I can’t help but get the impression that he’s killing time.
When he’s at school, our afternoons go smoothly as long as we stick to a very set routine: have lunch, do an errand or a chore, and build LEGO. Then he goes to watch TV while I work till my wife arrives home. Any variation from that and we’re sure to have trouble, especially if that requires I take him somewhere.
Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m a stick-in-the-mud, because I get upset when he does things that he shouldn’t, like when he wants to do laps the bookcases at the library. Perhaps I’m just not fun enough, I lack the enthusiasm for certain childish things. For instance, I don’t take him to the mind-numbing Brooklyn Children’s Museum — that’s a trip he goes on with Mommy. Perhaps I put up too many walls, I’m the Debbie Downer of Dads.
On the other hand, I’m a person with feelings too, and it’s hard to generate a lot of excitement when someone really doesn’t seem all that into hanging out with you. I’ve written here before about my son’s Lil Oedipal complex. He’s loved mommy intensely since infancy. Though at almost-5-years old he’s not quite as physically into his mom as he was a year ago, he’s still pretty close — climbing into her lap to eat dessert, spending every waking weekend moment by her side, sitting in front of the window for half-an-hour waiting for her to arrive home even though I’ve made myself available to play, read, or make art. “No thanks, Daddy,” he tells me. “I’ll wait for Mom.” He tells me to go away, even when he’s so upset that he cries and yells when he doesn’t see her hopping off her bike at the gate. When I ask if he’d like a hug, he says “No. I want my Mommy!”
This isn’t to say I feel unloved. If I’m going out for the night, Felix sometimes has trouble falling asleep and has even shed a tear because he “misses Daddy.” It’s just that my place at bedtime is downstairs, doing the dishes and cleaning the kitchen, and not reading him a book, giving him a bath, or rubbing his back while he falls asleep. Trying to get more involved, at least when his mom is around, causes him great upset.
I almost feel bad sharing this here, because I’ve gotten comments when writing on this topic before about how his attitude proves that men shouldn’t be with their kids, that a boy really does need his mother. I don’t think that’s the case. My son’s anxiety issues seem to be at the root. He has formed strict definitions of the roles that mom and dad play in his life, in part based on the things that we like doing with him, and any deviation from that norm is cause for upset. As hard as parenting can be, it’s even more difficult with a challenging child, and in my case, part of the struggle involves insulating my self-esteem from my son’s cold fronts.
It’s not that Felix doesn’t love me, I tell myself. It’s just that he loves me in the only way that he’s able to at the moment. I can’t force him to experience or express his emotions in ways that aren’t natural to him, or which he hasn’t grown into yet. I’ll get the love that he’s capable of giving, which might not always be the love that I want. All I can do is love him back without condition, and be patient.