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My Son Is Two Years Old and I Already Feel Like He Needs Me Less

Two years old, and my son's begun shedding needs. That’s expected. He believes that he needs us less, too. He’s not wrong. But, for me, it's less expected. 

Now, when I help my son from his crib in the dark of the morning, he hooks his feet around my side. His hands start grabbing for purchase. In what feels like one move —  a toddler jiu-jitsu guard pass — he’s adjusting his grip on my collar and pulling himself to face me head on. Then we’re chest-to-chest, his feet drumming against me.

He narrows his eyes and leans over my shoulder to try to scour the dimness. After a moment, he turns to face me. He says “dah dah” like a pilot whispering the instrument’s name while they check it. In a moment, he’ll say “down,” push his hands against my chest, slide down to the floor, and start trundling around the house, the first blues of morning sliding through the shades.

Two years old, and my son Winslow’s already begun shedding needs. That’s expected. My wife and I do less for our son than we once did. He believes that he needs us less, too. He’s not wrong. But, for me, it’s less expected. 

Still, the dark, from dusk until mid-morning, was my thing. I worked the third shift of parenting, along with the odd hours, and drop-everything-and-go-do-Y-because-X-happened availability. The idea my son needs less the thing on which I rested my parenting killed me for a while. If I didn’t provide this one loving service, what good was I? What would my son know me as?

It had been a parallel pocket of time, those strange infant nights. It was ending. It felt like either one week or 20 years had passed. My son was a different creature now. That’s was my only concept of  ‘time.’ But what had I done? How could I measure it? If he was different, had I changed?

***

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Out of life’s requirements, routine forms.  My wife’s intense corporate job starts at 7:30. She’s up at 6:15. She dresses to the nines and slides out of the house with a preternatural quiet. Winslow starts crowing and shaking his crib bars by seven (happily, a few aspects of early parenthood’s animal husbandry linger).

His voice wakes me swiftly, as it has since he was little. Even a cough has been enough to summon an Undertaker-esque instant sit up since he was weeks old. My son was born during the second year of my wife’s MBA. Because of asinine rules and the doofy unpreparedness of administrators, she had to resume classes four weeks after giving birth.

 My wife and I do less for our son than we once did. He believes that he needs us less, too. He’s not wrong.

That’s when my night shift began. I would be at home, with a few blessed hours a day of child care — enough for errands, the gym, a shower.  And then with him, with him, with him. Feeding, holding, loving, adjusting playscapes, piously churning through cloth diapers (yes, we were those parents), often letting him toil through tummy time while I cravenly look at Twitter nearby, desperate, desperate to have some connection to another world.

In those small moments of self-preservation, I was “missing out” in some way. I notice this now. I missed some adorable roll of his head, some new chirp. But the very idea of missing our child’s childhood feels baked into the experience of parenting. There is nowhere where the petty searchlight of “FOMO” cannot see you. So the bargain I made my with myself was to own the night. My wife needed to sleep. I had a few hours to myself during the day. It felt only right.

At seven months, it was coaxing Winslow through a brutal week of RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) our son coughing and struggling to find a way to sleep.

At around one year, it was overnight dirty diapers created by the ever-expanding dinners that his ever-expanding appetite demanded. I didn’t need a single light; so fluid were my moves of scooping him out of bed, removing and disposing of his diaper (we had the good sense to switch to disposables by then), clean him, dry him, give him water, cuddle him, and return him to sleep.

The sensation of him holding my shoulder during those nighttime routines, letting me place him back in the crib, turning to make that strange, beautiful eye contact that one year olds can make — half skepticism, half ardor — before flopping onto his crib mattress and returning to sleep, gave me more sense of purpose than anything else in my life.

Had I ever been so competent in anything ever?

Sometimes at around 15 months he’d just wake up in the middle of the night. I’d hear his chatter flow through the baby monitor. I’d go see him, and he’d be standing up, seemingly waiting for me. He’d smile, I’d lift, cradle, check his diaper, smell nothing, kiss him, talk to him, and set him back down, my hand on his back as he wriggled back to his sleeping pose, butt in the air, head to one side.

The very idea of missing our child’s childhood feels baked into the experience of parenting.

We had hired a nanny last summer, one who loves Winslow, who takes him on adventures, who has been wonderful enough to introduce our son to her family, to make his world bigger, fuller. She takes him places I don’t. She witnesses “breakthroughs” (or whatever development word of the moment you prefer) that I miss.

My wife loves our son intensely, plays with him and teaches with him and shapes his everyday world like gravity and blueberries do. She is also the breadwinner. The physical world he lives in is because of her success, her talent, her work. Their time together before bed and on weekends feels sacred. I try to play a supporting role; I try to facilitate.

Is this missing out? I don’t know. He’s not reaching for my hands when we walk together through a new place as a family.

Now, he, his little two-year-old colleagues, and his teachers launch their own adventures during the two half-days he’s in school. Each day the school sends photos of the children’s activities to us. The reports have said that my son is very good at picking things up and depositing them into their respective boxes.

Is this missing out? I don’t know. He’s not reaching for my hands when we walk together through a new place as a family.

If you are privileged and lucky enough to find reliable, good, safe childcare for your kid, you’ll be missing out. Yes, you can go to the gym now and tend to your own ambitions and snack in peace, but you are missing your child. You will miss them waving at strangers and trembling in fear at a dump truck by the park and hugging someone else, but you do have your own aims for your life apart from your children, right?

We should forgive ourselves for letting ourselves live under this gelatinous mood, but it’s right and just to remind ourselves that we are not parents separated — for years or forever — from our children by war, incarceration, or migration.

We are separated — for hours — by jobs and ambitions and our own daily desires. When I think back on my two years of parenting, I don’t feel sad for things I missed, I feel sadness for letting moments of regret fog my heart on the arbitrary Tuesday morning in our backyard, my son snickering as he takes birdseed by the handful and tries to toss it into our feeder.

On parenthood, Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg wrote, “we only remember to talk to God when our baby is ill; then we tell him to make all our hair and teeth drop out but to make our baby better. As soon as the baby is better we forget about God; we still have our teeth and hair and resume our petty, tiring, sluggish thoughts again.”

When I think back on my two years of parenting, I don’t feel sad for things I missed. I feel sadness for letting moments of regret fog my heart. 

The months of parenting in the dark, when the world around my son and me creaked in the silences. That was the way I chose to live best in my child’s time. I’m grateful to remember how clear my mind was in those moments, how clear it can be still.

Now my son understands the dark. He knows when it’s morning and when it’s the off hours. He’s begun to be a bit cowed by the austerity of one a.m. When the rare overnight wet diaper wakes him, he calls out loud and clear, sometimes the word “diaper,” sometimes just a cry. When I get to him, he’s crouching in the dark, startled and unsure by it, waiting for his father to help — and I am there too, waiting to help my son.