The times, they are a changin’ at Casa de Pav.
Once upon a time, back when it was just my wife and myself and Sprout #1 (the animals don’t count for these calculations), my wife was head and shoulders the favorite parent. Like, don’t even bother with the three-legged race or the egg-spoon relay, she had this thing wrapped up with Sprout #1 from the word go. It’s not even worth trying to break the thing down into categories; the boy clearly preferred her in virtually any situation in which there was a choice.
His language even told the story. He has plenty of vocabulary to say “Mommy” or “Daddy” in response to questions like, “who would you like to read your bedtime story?” or “who would you like to brush your teeth?” or “who would you like to scoop the pulverized, mashed-potato consistency poop out of your butthole?” (It’s not always bad to be the second choice.) But no, he doesn’t say “Mommy,” he says, “Not Daddy.” Now, I have enough ego not to get bruised over not being the first pick, even when it’s my own flesh and blood doing the picking. It hurts, but I can take it. No, it’s the “Not You” that gets me. It’s a shunning. It’s not, “well, given you and this Mom person, I’ll choose her,” but rather “no, god, anybody but YOU.” And yeah, he’s only two. But there ain’t no salve for that kinda burn from your own kid.
Luckily, Sprout #2 has changed the game a bit.
Sprout #1 has figured out that my wife is largely unavailable to him for the time being, due to the fact that she has the infant either draped over her shoulder, attached to her boob, or sleeping in the bassinet while she herself dozes on the sofa, so he’s out of options. I have stepped up in the rankings. I am his new best friend.
But a friend to a toddler is not the same as a friend to an adult. A friend to an adult — especially to a male adult — is somebody to whom you talk to on the phone maybe once a month, chit the chat a bit, and then forget about for a while. A friend to a toddler is the sewing on of a skin graft. The alchemical joining of atoms. It’s a binding. They talk about the bonding process with your kids, but they don’t mention the binding. I’m my toddler’s new best friend, and the little fargoer is bound to me.
What does that mean? Here’s a short list:
1. He has to, absolutely must, without fail and without exception under the pain of a toddler’s endless capacity for doubt and disillusionment, know where I am at all times. When he wakes up in the morning, he’s calling for me. He’s pounding on the door of his room, asking for me to open the door. He’s waddling into our bedroom when he somehow bypasses the childproof lock to climb over my head and step on my nuts, somehow in the same motion. We’re just sitting around the family room, watching Winnie the Pooh or whatever for the thousandth time, I stand up to go to the bathroom, and the little monster senses the atmospheric disturbance of my standing, turns and runs to me. He’s perfected this one-handed death-claw grip which he can execute with stunning alacrity and tenacity on my pants, shorts, or leg hairs — he’s not picky — which somehow freezes me in place. I can’t explain it. It’s some serious kung-fu sharknado. He grabs hold and I just have to stop. My legs work fine, it’s not like he’s tweaking nerves or anything, and I’m not afraid of knocking him down — I’ve done this a few times and I only feel a little bit bad about it; I’ve seen him fall off the couch onto his shoulder, a tumble which would leave me hobbled for days, and bounce back to his feet in the next breath, so he’s obviously basically made of rubber, after all — but somehow it locks me up and I have to stand there like a storefront mannequin until he decides to let me go.
2. If he loses track of me, he screams until he finds me again. If you have a toddler, you know that there are many subtle levels of screaming. There’s the low-level, mildly annoyed whine that accompanies telling the kid he can’t have Cheetos and popsicles for breakfast. There’s the mid-level, fairly pissed braying that comes when you yank a screwdriver or other implement of death out of his hand — how he came by it you have no idea, but there it is, and he’s attacking his stuffed animals with it — because he was very attached to that screwdriver and he wants you to know about it. Then there’s the full-blast, four-alarm ear-splitter that’s triggered by telling the toddler that it’s bedtime, or that we won’t be going to the pool today because it’s raining, or whatever other mortal sin you can commit against a two-year old. Naturally, if he can’t see me, he goes straight to level three, and will happily sunder the otherwise calm atmosphere of our home, waking the sleeping infant, making the cats and dog flee the room, and triggering impulses in my wife that do not agree at all with the protective mother’s instinct that they tell you about.
3. If Sprout #2 touches me in any way, shape, or form, Sprout #1 has to touch me MORE. If she’s in her crib and I tickle her finger, he has to grab my free floating hand. If her mom is holding her and I rub the back of her head, he grabs hold of my legs with another one of those toddler kung-fu grips. If I pick her up, then he’s back to screaming until I pick him up too, which has resulted in some really comical pictures. It’s bare, unmasked jealousy, and it would be kind of adorable if it weren’t so goldfingered irritating.
So I spend my days in full view of Sprout #1 as much as is humanly possible, lest the house and our sanity be rent by the banshee shrieks of an enraged tiny human. Going to the bathroom is fun, and showering has gotten downright ridiculous. It’s impossible to communicate just how much you take for granted the simple freedom to, I dunno, go out and check the mail, pop into the kitchen for a snack, or, god help me, step out to get a quick run in without the monster shouting the walls down and entangling himself in my legs. I tried to take a little run with the dog yesterday and triggered a toddler apocalypse.
So, you know, you live and learn. It turns out that I don’t need all those trips to the fridge, the mail can go unchecked for a few days, and I can suck it up and take the sprout with me in the stroller when I run. After all, he’s only doing all this because his tiny world has been rocked by the appearance of another tiny human. so it’s hard to begrudge him a bit of an existential crisis and a bit of a latching-on. After all, as far as he knows, he is the beating heart at the center of the universe, and his little sister is proof positive to the contrary.
It’s strange as a man to be the object of such fixation. At the risk of sounding extremely callous, which is not at all my goal, I wonder if it’s not a little bit like having a two-foot tall stalker, if the stalker were one I could easily scoop up and lock in a room. It’s almost adorable stalking at that rate, though I imagine this behavior will be less adorable when he’s, I dunno, five? Fifteen? I mean, he’ll grow out of it by then, so it’s moot, though it’s funny to imagine a surly teen latching onto my leg like a great grumpy leech.
…He will grow out of this, right?