When my son was born, I wanted to lick him. His perfect head smelled like birth, and because he was no longer inside me, holding and kissing and nursing wasn’t close enough. I wanted to lick him, to ingest his smell, taste the blood and fluids we shared, to hang on to the intimacy we’d had for nine months. I breathed it in, drank it in, felt satiated by an odor that smelled like me too. I was addicted. Nose constantly pressed to his fuzzy scalp, I could detect that scent of earth and flesh and origin, even after weeks of bathing and exposure to air and lotions and soaps and all the smells that fill our senses in this clean, modern life. I can try to explain the reasons I wanted to lick him like a wild animal mother cleans her offspring, but it was beyond words. It was deeply primal, an intelligence of survival. It was a tiny part of the deep bond we were made to share as mother and son.
Now, my son is three. I’ve shared birth and blood and bond with his younger sister. My lap is often filled with a smaller, needier creature than my boy. I watch from afar, as my boy, who mostly wanted MomMom for the first part of his life, chooses Dad. There is physical pain almost tearing in my chest as my arms are both cemented to his sister and reaching out to hold him. His cheeks on my bosom and my nose on his head are now only mine in micro-moments. He wants to run, to jump, to scream, to drive, to roar. Fully inhabiting his body, Mama’s body is no longer the source. I long for our tenderness and connection, for that primal bond-- but I ask in a language made for babies, made for girls, a language he barely responds to anymore. He still needs connection, intimacy, the source of Mama-- but he asks in a language I must learn, the language of a toddler boy.
As his deep bond with Dada grows, I notice.
I talk with him about feelings and please and thank you while he and Dada laugh about toots and trucks and boogers. He and Dada loudly drive excavators in the sand box, making huge, messy sand piles in the yard; I show him how to keep the sand in the box, creating tidy sand forms to admire. He and Dada cringe at the raunchy smell of his hand after poking his booty hole; I refuse to smell it and quickly offer soap and water and a lesson about pink-eye. He and Dada build tall block towers for the purpose of aggressive destruction with a “vrooming” monster truck; I must leave the room for the yelling and crashing is jarring to my senses after a long night of comforting an infant. I show him how to paint with a smock, an easel, and a discussion of blue, red, green and yellow; he and Dada paint the bottoms of their feet mixed up brown and stomp on paper, ripping and smudging. I teach him about lifting both toilet lids and wiping up splatter and hand washing and putting the lid down; he and Dada have “sword fights” with their pee streams. He tells me he’s going to stick his booty on my face and I stumble between ignoring and kiboshing this kind of talk. I want him to sit in my lap, to hug me, snuggle me; my boy likes to wiggle and scratch and kick and growl.
He and Dada roughhouse. Oh, the roughhousing. As I quietly finish dishes, they race to the bedroom to turn our king-sized bed into a wrestling ring. I hear the howling, the banging, the power tool sound effects, the pauses to dust off a boo boo, and the quick return to pure physical rambunctiousness. Like a baby lion, biting, scratching, rolling with the other cubs, my little caveman descendent is training for battle. This wrestling, this rough contact, this tempered aggression, this from-the-gut-laughter-- this is a deeply primal connection, an intelligence of survival.
In my mind I know he is lucky to grow up bilingual. I was raised by my single mother, shared a room with my little sister, and was further cared for by my aunts and grandmothers. I had little exposure to the language of boys. Because of me, my son speaks both boy and girl; wild and tender; unrestrained and tame. What a gift I am giving him! But, as I try to keep him in the lines, to discipline, to calm, it seems I’m widening our distance, fueling his wildness, pushing him away, and frustrating us both. In my heart I want to feel our connection.
And then, as if my silent prayers were answered, I am given the chance. With Dada out of town for a week, snow piled up all around, and a baby sister who won’t wear mittens, we are stuck in the house. The cabin fever pressure cooker bubbles over. The baby is sleeping but my boy’s high-pitched train whistle scream threatens to change that. A swirl of Tazmanian devil energy buzzes in his bones. His fire hose hands are aimed at me. He threatens to toot on me, jumping from coffee table to chair to sofa, landing in a naked headstand, feet draped over the back of the couch. He can sense my urge to control him, restrain him. He dumps the toy box, looking for a reaction. I have a choice: I can try to tame him, shame him, divert him with a calm activity, in essence, fight his essence… or I can lean in, speak his language, connect. Oh boy.
“You want a piece of me?!?” I crouch toward him, arms stretched high, preparing for attack, channeling my inner Dada. I sprint to the bedroom and leap on the bed. Several steps behind me, he rounds the corner with lit up eyes and wide grin. He’s squealing with delight at the sight of Mama in the ring. His sprint to the bed embodies a speed train and I’m stuck on the tracks. I feign injury as he flattens me. I’ve got some moves too. Turbulence! I lay on my back, perch him on my shins, and announce “Passengers, fasten your safety belts! We are experiencing some rough skies!” Super bounces launch him onto the bed. Steam Roller Race! We start at one end of the bed, side by side, and log roll to the other end-- I win, rolling over the top of him. Jackhammer! I use my feet to stomp up and down his body as he lays there, jerk-laughing. Bee Sting! Finger stinger between the ribs, in the neck, the belly tickle spot. Face red, drool dripping, he’s fighting to breathe through overwhelming laughter. And the Hugga. I switch to a gentle voice, pleading for just one hug, (he gives it to me! a good one!) and I turn it into a body slam! I am laughing as hard as he is! I haven’t tapped into this spring of joy for… months? years? We are sharing, connecting, trusting, playing!
Roughhousing becomes a part of our daily routine. Not only do we deeply connect through body slams and bee stings in the ring, but my son begins to respond to my desires for civilized behavior. Where once we dug in, prepared for battle, we now share a lightness, playfulness, some humor. Moments of contention become moments of connection. Instead of meeting his love of butts with resistance, I offer my best fart (and say “excuse me). Closed-mouth chewing and inside voices sound like reasonable requests from a lady who knows how to rumble. I begin to honor and respect his otherworldly energy which, ironically, calms him. My boy and are on the same team again! We are speaking a language of our own.
Our primal connection morphed from head sniffing and snuggling to roughhousing and potty talk. What’s next? I am learning every step of the way. Parenting is the most frightening and rewarding effort I’ve ever put forth. A work of heart. An unknown abyss of intimacy. And I hope/fear the learning will never end. My son has shown me some anchors I will cling to: Be present for him, honor him, listen to him, laugh with him, choose connection over correction. It makes the rest of it a lot easier.
But for now, when my boy shouts, “Mommy, I’m going to sure toot on your face and your butt and your nose and I’m going to shove a meatball up your nose”, I lean in, stick my nose in his soft blonde hair, smell his perfect head, and say, “I love you too.”