“Hey, sweetheart, what’s wrong?” I ask my tearful boy as he comes in from outside crying with a limp and skinned knees. “Sweetheart, just calm down!” I plead with his 5-year-old brother as he starts a meltdown over a broken Lego build. “I love you, sweetie,” I tell them both after patting their heads and tucking them in for the night.
I’m aware there are men (and some women) who might cringe at the term of endearment I level at my boys. But the thing is, when all is said and done, I don’t care.
I’m not sure when I started using sweetheart and sweetie. I don’t use it with women other than my wife, mostly because I’m not Humphrey Bogart or a misogynist. However, I did use it on my male cat, Fido, who also had a dog’s name. And perhaps that offers a glimpse into my name-giving psychology. Maybe I’m like some inverted Adam naming the birds snakes and the snakes birds and the boys sweethearts.
I can’t even say for certain how the term even came into my lexicon. For instance, I don’t remember it being used to address me or anyone else when I was younger. But nevertheless, there it is — sweetheart tumbling unconsciously from my lips as I address my sons.
Like most things, if I really think hard and long enough, I can find a way to blame my wife. Though, blame would infer she has something to feel guilty about. She doesn’t. To her, all cuddly and precious things are sweethearts. And that goes for dogs and babies, specifically. My guess is that she called the boys sweetheart and I followed suit.
When they were babies, my boys wore the label sweetheart well. That’s what they were. They weren’t terribly difficult. They were genuinely happy. They were cute as hell. They gave me more happiness than a dozen cookies. They made my chest feel like it would burst with pride. Sweet. Heart. It makes sense if you think about it.
It wasn’t until just recently that the term of endearment began to fit them a bit more awkwardly. It happened suddenly, just like the way their pants can get too short overnight. They still don’t mind being called sweetheart, but it’s a tighter fit, so to speak.
I think it’s because I’m more conscious of their boyhood every day. They’ve almost completely shaken off their little kid ways. They have big boy personalities that thrill to dinosaurs and farts. They each have their own independent likes and desires which often clash. In these moments of brotherly conflict, they are less than sweet and my heart quickens from stress and frustration rather than love.
Still, I call them sweetheart. There’s a hint of willfulness to the term now. Yes, I still say it automatically, out of love, but now there’s a self-awareness in calling my boys sweetheart that comes more quickly and lingers longer. It lingers at least long enough for me to feel a tinge of doubt which I eventually dispel with wholesale defiance.
Truth is, maybe one day they will tell me not to call them sweetheart. Maybe the world will get to them and tell them that’s not what a father is supposed to call a son. Maybe, one day sooner than I’d like, they’ll come home devastated from a breakup, or angry about a failure, and I’ll call them sweetheart and they’ll sneer at me. What happens when they shrug off their sweetness completely? What then? I dread that day. And frankly, I pray it will never come. My hope is that it doesn’t have to.
That’s why, when I receive a stranger’s hard, sidelong gaze in the checkout line after calling my boys sweetheart, I shrug it off. I don’t really care what some people think. Honestly, I can’t allow myself to care. It’s not their business. They are the enemies of sweetness. Because for now, my boys remain my sweethearts. And I want to cling to that for as long as I possibly can.