14th June 2011 will be an unforgettable day for me. The mid-wife brought our newly born son outside the labour room, wrapped him in a towel and handed him over to me. As I held him for the first time, I looked at his eyes. He was winking at first. But then he looked straight at me for a few moments. We both stared at each other in sheer wonder. And then he went to sleep. About an hour or so later, he woke up in the ward. By then my wife was also there. My mother in-law started to feed him.
I remember the day he was born so clearly. It was the best day of my life. He was perfect. The words “I love you”, that I muttered to him, came out naturally and for the first time ever I could feel the words in my body.
As the baby grew into a toddler and the toddler into a 9 year young boy that he is today, the feeling of “I love you” remained. But the way I express that love has to shift. Suddenly some of the ways in which I would express my love for him are no longer appropriate. For example,
- When he was little, I could put him on the bed, cuddle him, rub my nose in his belly and he would burst into laughter and so would I. We would both enjoy it. He doesn’t like it anymore.
- I could speak to him like a cartoon character and he would love it. Not anymore.
- I could chase him around the house like Tom and he would instinctively become Jerry. I could order him around like Tom would to Jerry in the cartoon. He would play like he is Jerry and enjoy it. Not anymore.
These days I have to ask him if I can hug him. He doesn’t like it if I invade his personal space without his permission.
About two weeks ago, he started to move some of his things into a room room in the house that we had designated as the “guest room”. He spent several days personalising that room and finally he came to us and announced that it is his bedroom and that from now on he will be in his own room. He has begun to express his individuality more and more now. He demands his private space.
I can no longer cuddle him, lift him up, speak to him the same way I used to before. He doesn’t appreciate it if I speak loudly to him in front of other people. Whenever I do, he pulls me to a room and requests me politely to speak to him softly in front of others. He doesn’t like it when I shout at him in front of other people.
Two days ago, when he pulled me to the room to reiterate his request, I asked him – “Well what should I do if you are not listening to me even when I speak softly?”
As an answer to that question, he replied to me – “I understand that sometimes you will have to scold me to make me understand. But please do so in private.” My 9 year old is telling this to me! Such clarity. Such straight talk.
I told him – “Ok. Got it. I will speak to you softly in front of others. But when I have to be firm with you or when I am really angry, I will ask you to join me in the room privately and we can talk.”
He said “Okay!”
I was so proud of the conversation we just had. I got up to hug him.
He stopped me and said – “What are you doing?”.
I said – “I want to hug you.”
He said – “I don’t want to hug now.”
I said – “Well can I hug you later?”
He said – “Maybe. Check with me.”
I retorted – “Does your mother also have to ask you before she hugs you?”
He said – “No.. She can hug whenever she wants!”
I protested – “What? Why can’t I do that?”
He replied as a matter of factly – “Because Amma knows when to hug and when not to. You don’t know.”
“Oh?” Another reason to be angry with wifey!
My son has grown up. I am so proud of him. But the father that I am hates that he has grown up. I want a few more years of cuddling time, of Tom&Jerry time. I want a few more years of time when I can just hug him whenever I want. But that time is up.
He is still my little kiddo. But I need to replace my expression of “I love you” with “I respect you”. I still love him, obviously. But I need to be mindful of the fact that he experiences love from me when I express it as “respect”. I need to honour boundaries set by him and have him know that his father also respect his boundaries. I get that.
So, these days when I wake up in the morning and see him sleeping still. I relish a few moments fondly looking at him sleep. And then, before I go out of the room, I look at him and silently mutter the words – “I respect you.” It helps me prepare myself and shift to a new context.