Lately, my husband is falling apart over the fact that he swears my son prefers me. Sometimes he pouts, other times he turns on extra charm, plays coy, tries reverse psychology, or uses me to egg him on: “Mama, can I have a kiss? Oh, that was a great kiss!” (sideways, expecting glance at my son to see if it sparked any interest). Not surprisingly, these tactics have the opposite of their desired effect 98 percent of the time.
Even though I’ve reminded him that the affection goes in cycles between mom and dad, he’s convinced I’m number one. But recently, I’ve realized that my son shows his love for dad in a different way – one that’s just as strong and just as dear. My husband had just never noticed it before.
It started with an observation about shorts. In my son’s world, wearing shorts and a short-sleeved shirt equals happiness. After our morning ritual of going to the bathroom and then cuddling on the couch for a bit, convincing me that it’s a “shorts day” is his first order of business.
It’s a curious worldview, unless you know my perpetually-beach-ready other half. When the two of us met, we were living in New York City, but his body still seemed to take cues from the sweltering heat of his Louisiana hometown. He wore shorts virtually year-round, simply adding a knitted hat and higher socks when it turned winter and others were shuffling along in boots and down coats.
My son seems to have imprinted to my husband in this way, like a baby duck taking cues from his most-loved someone. To see them side-by-side is touching and hilarious – six foot four dad with his miniature bare-legged side kick. And it clearly means something to my son too. Recently, he’s been glancing at his dad, sizing the two of them up and saying, “look dad, we’re the same! Brown shorts with stripes!”
When it comes to matters of sleep and comfort, I’m my son’s go-to person. But it’s very clear that he feels a special kinship with his dad that I can’t touch – and wouldn’t want to. Freud described this draw toward the same-sex parent as part of the ‘latency phase’ of development, in which sons identify with their dad and daughters with mom – in classic psychoanalytic theory, relating to the same gender parent is a central part of healthy personality growth. Even if you aren’t a fan of Freud, this principle has been passed down through many psychological camps. According to social learning theory, for example, kids are more likely to imitate the people they perceive as similar to themselves.
Indeed, sameness and gender are hot topics in our house these days. We sort family and friends, stuffed animals, and movie characters according to sex: mommy … girl, dada … boy, Meredith … girl, Buzz Lightyear … boy. Of course my son’s known he was a boy since toddlerhood, but it’s not until early preschool that kids really grasp the concept that gender is a fixed, life-long trait (I remember when he was about 18-months, he informed me that I was a girl, but later, I’d grow a penis).
The more I watch them together, the more I realize that my son may often turn to me, but he wants to look and act like his dad. My husband can get huffy when he feels my son’s cold shoulder – when I bring our warm little bundle of jammies and blankies into bed in the morning, for example, my son tends to curl up near me and wriggle away from his dad’s doting kisses. Not ten minutes later, though, they’re turning the bed sheets into a spacecraft, recruiting animals as pilots, and fighting dragons on the moon. They don’t always notice when I slip out to the kitchen to read my book with a cup of coffee.
I pointed this out to my husband the other day, during a particularly adorable mini-me moment. I was driving, dad had his right leg crossed over the left on the dashboard and in the rear view I could see that my son had assumed the same right-over-left position with his little legs in mirror image, donning matching plaid golfing shorts, resting on the seat in front of him. My husband, somewhat of a hip-hop connoisseur, put in a CD and from the back seat I heard my little curly-haired DJ say, “Oh yeah. This is my favorite jam.”
My husband lit up when I mentioned it. “It’s kind of great,” he admitted. “Because emotionally, he goes to you. It’s nice to see him getting things from me too.”
When I asked my friends about this, one of them sent me a hilarious picture of her three-year-old son in his undies, jammed alongside her husband, who was reclined on the couch in his PJ’s with his arm around him. Dad had the paper open to the sports section, while the small body to the right was making his way through the funny pages. This is the two boys’ Sunday morning routine. She also told me that her son and husband bond over sports, which they’ll watch together with her son very purposefully making the same exclamations at the TV that her husband does.
Since I’ve started talking about this at home, my husband is relaxing into the whole dynamic a little more. I’ll keep calling it to his attention, because I think the way my son moves in parallel with my husband shows just as close a bond as when he runs tearful and snot-nosed into my legs for comfort. Even though my son may turn to me, in many ways he’s turning into his dad.