"You're so sweet, I could just eat you up," my grandmother used to tell me. This always made me vaguely uneasy, especially after I overheard my mother telling someone she was a carnivore, and I thought she meant cannibal. I didn't really think they were going to eat me for dinner, but it didn't seem impossible. After all, in the fairy tales I read, characters were gobbled up on a regular basis.
Franny has developed a very intense friendship with one of the girls in her preschool class. They're usually very sweet and loving to one another, but last week the other girl bit Franny. The teacher asked her, "Why did you do that?" Tears streaming down her face and holding tightly to Franny's hand, the little girl said, "Because I love her!"
I understood completely. There's something about that kind of overwhelming love that makes you want to take a bite out of the object of your affections. Why else do I nibble on Alec's toes while I'm getting him ready for bed? Babies are particularly succulent and toothsome, but even the older kids inspire me to sing, "Davie, Davie Dumpling, boil him in a pot, butter him and sugar him, and eat him while he's hot!" Of course, after the final line, you have to mime eating up the child, with accompanying giggles and shrieks. Maurice Sendak knew what he was doing when he had the monsters in Where the Wild Things Are tell Max, "Oh please don't go -- we'll eat you up -- we love you so!"
I'm sure that's what Alec would say if he could talk. He's taken to biting with alarming frequency and great glee. He has four teeth on the top and three on the bottom; my legs and shoulders are covered with asymmetrical teeth prints. I haven't had this many bite marks on my body since I was fourteen and my mother grounded me for coming home from school with purple hickeys all over my neck.
When Alec bites me, I say, "No biting," and he assumes a look of utter confusion. I imagine he's thinking, "But I love you!" Clearly he derives great satisfaction from sinking his teeth into me, and, still not entirely able to differentiate between himself and the rest of the world, he can't imagine that something he enjoys so much could be undesirable to someone else. Thwarted, he covers me with big, slobbery open-mouthed kisses. I think it's safe to say he's firmly entrenched in the oral stage.
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Drew, on the other hand, has decided he's too old for kisses from mommy. A few days ago, after I gave him his usual goodnight hug and kiss, he said, very seriously, "I think I'm too old for that now." The rest of the family argued vehemently that you were never too old for goodnight hugs and kisses (Franny said, "I'll never run out of kisses for you, Mommy!"), and eventually Drew was persuaded that goodnight hugs were probably acceptable, but he was adamant that he was too big for kisses. Since then he's refused every kiss I've offered, although last night, on the edge of sleep, he snuggled up to me and requested a kiss.
While Alec's still not capable of seeing himself as separate from me, Drew's trying his hardest to gain some independence. He's always entertained himself, but until recently, he liked to be with me, even if he was doing his own thing. Now he's spending more time reading and playing by himself in his room. When I ask him about his day at school, he answers in monosyllables and I have to pry every detail out of him.
I appreciate his desire for his own space, but I wish he didn't think he has to abstain from physical affection in order to create it. Perhaps it's inevitable though. As much as Adam and I have tried not to associate hugs and kisses with infancy or femininity, there's only so much we can do to combat the weight of cultural stereotypes. Despite the advent of Sensitive New Age Guys and metrosexuals, boys are still expected to let go of their mother's apron strings, and substitute manly handshakes for more effusive forms of affection.
The tiny rejection stung a bit, but, since Drew's pronouncement, I've been careful to ask before I give him a hug or a kiss. Today, Franny was in tears because Drew wouldn't let her kiss him. "No means no," I explained, very conscious of the teachable moment. "We never make people give us hugs and kisses." When she questioned that, I wasn't sure what to say. I'd run out of platitudes. "Because your body belongs to you, and you get to control what happens to it," I finally explained. And I wondered if the desire to consume our loved ones is, to some degree, about control. I'm reminded of what people told me each time I was pregnant -- to enjoy it, because this was the easy part. The implication was that when the baby is inside, she's completely under your control and there is no conflict of wills, but as soon as the baby is born, the separation process begins, and the baby begins to develop a mind of her own. As much as I want my children to become autonomous and to follow their own dreams, it's a big, scary world. There are wolves and witches and trolls in the woods, and they all want to eat you up. Sometimes it seems like it would be easier if my children would just listen to me and do what I say. After all, Mother knows best, right?
Maybe not. I've made my own mistakes (necking with my high school
in an empty classroom was the least of it, believe me), and I suppose I'll
have to let my children do the same. A little bit at a time, we're all
learning to let go of each other. I just hope that we'll be able to
the balance between freedom and control, and that they won't wander too far
into the woods without me.
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