When my son Wolfy turned four, a big change happened. He was so proud of his new age and with it came a lot of newfound independence. He suddenly wanted to try to brush his own teeth, use sharp knives (yikes!), and attempt to wipe his own butt (also yikes!).
“It’s what four year olds do,” he told me.
In a clothing store, he asked a salesperson, “Do you have clothes for four-year-old boys here?”
My boy is growing up.
His feet look more like teenager’s feet than child’s feet. And he barely fits in my lap when I read him stories. When he spends time alone in his room, sometimes I can hear him trying to sound out the words in his books. Soon he won’t need me to read those stories to him.
In my rational mind, it doesn’t surprise me that Wolfy has become extremely clingy since his birthday. When children make developmental leaps in some areas, they often regress in others. As children find their independence, they simultaneously cling to the familiar. This is why young children like to watch the same shows and hear the same stories over and over and over again.
I am the most comforting and familiar person in my son’s world. During this growth spurt, he wants to make sure that I am still going to be around when he needs comfort.
But he seems to need that comfort constantly.
Most of the time, I love my son’s clinginess. I feel like I should relish all the extra affection and attention while I have it. After all, isn’t there is a statute of limitations on how long a boy can think his mother is the coolest person in the world?
I love that my arm fits around my son perfectly when we snuggle. I love that he wants me to tuck him into bed with the covers touching his ears. I love baking cookies and banana bread together while both of us wear our favorite aprons. I love that Wolfy laughs at my stupid jokes. He is my mini-me. He and I are made up of the same strange mix of sensitive, neurotic, and goofy. Hanging out together is awesome.
But the whole thing has gone too far. It’s gone beyond needing a lot of extra kisses on the forehead. My son is obsessed with me. In his love for me, he has decided he doesn’t really care much for anyone else. The thing that is the worst is that he constantly shuns his father. For months, Wolfy hasn’t let my husband, Will, do anything for him. When Will tries to fasten our son into his car seat, Wolfy puts his hands over the buckles and refuses to cooperate until I come around to his side of the car. He won’t let my husband give him his dinner, “Mommy brings my plate.” He even won’t let my husband help him wipe his butt. So while I have all the fun jobs, I also get more than my share of dirty work too. And worst of all, it hurts my husband’s feelings.
I know what it’s like to be on the other side. Wolfy has always vacillated when it comes to which parent he prefers. My husband and I always joke that this behavior was Wolfy’s elaborate scheme to divide and conquer us. And we said it would never work. But the preferential treatment has never been so extreme nor has it ever lasted quite so long.
It all came to a head a few weeks ago in the parking lot of the natural foods store.
Why do these family dramas always end up happening in public?
I wanted to grab a few groceries and my husband offered to take the kids into the ski shop next door. He wanted to find out Wolfy’s size so we could start shopping around for some gear. I was stoked to have alone time even if it meant pushing a cart through the weekend crowds. But Wolfy refused to go into the store with my husband. “No!” Wolfy shouted, “I am going with Mommy! I want to be with Mommy!” Wolfy put his hands over the buckles on his car seat and refused to let my husband take him out of the car. Wolfy’s tantrums are rare but one was definitely starting.
My husband and I took a step away from the car. “I guess I can bring him in with me,” I offered.
“No,” said Will, “I’m his father. He has to do something with me once in a while. Besides, how can I get him measured if he’s not actually with me? You should go. I’ll handle this.”
“Okay,” I said. I began to walk across the parking lot. I could hear Wolfy screaming and crying for me as I walked away. I felt terrible hearing my child cry for me like that. I wanted to run back to the car and take him with me, but that would solidify Wolfy’s current idea that his father is somehow less important. My husband and I have always been firm that when we are in front of the kids, we support the other person’s parenting. Sure, sometimes we slip up but we are usually pretty good at displaying a united front.
I didn’t look back as I walked into the store.
I shopped around for probably twenty minutes. And yes, it was glorious to push the cart and decide what to buy all by myself. Whoever knew that grocery shopping by myself for twenty minutes could feel like a vacation?
When I returned to our car, Wolfy was still sitting in his car seat… and he was covered in puke.
My husband was trying to clean the puke off of our son using baby wipes. But Wolfy was still crying and pushing him away. The whole scene was pitiful and a little bit scary. Wolfy had been crying the entire time I had been in the store. He had cried for me so hard that he made himself puke.
I felt terrible. And when I reacted, I did everything wrong. I’m not saying I snapped at Will for pretty much no reason, but I maybe I did. And I’m not saying that I took over cleaning up Wolfy, but I might have done that too.
Suddenly we were the family in the parking lot with a crying, puking kid and two adults speaking to each other in low, angry voices. For a moment, I actually worried that someone might call the cops.
It was so embarrassing.
But the terrible moment passed. Wolfy calmed down. We changed his outfit and cleaned up the car seat as well as we could with baby wipes. I apologized to Will for snapping at him and he said, “I just didn’t know what to do! I didn’t want to give in to him. Apparently he has your iron will. Wow!” We went back to being our usual semi-functional family. We talked to Wolfy and he admitted that it would have been better to have gone into the ski shop and that afterwards he could have come and found me in the grocery store. And then the two of them went inside and Wolfy, still carrying the slight whiff of puke, got measured for snowboarding gear.
And the police did not show up.
What happened in the parking lot probably wasn’t the best thing. It certainly didn’t feel like good parenting at the time. But after that day, Wolfy has been a bit more balanced. This weekend, when we ran errands as a family, he even let me go in a store by myself.
While I was gone, I missed my mini-me a little bit but I was also glad to be alone for ten whole minutes.