Sunday, March 27, 2011

Cold Fish

I am the demonstrative sort. Perhaps not always in the physical sense, but when it comes to words, I can’t help but say what I feel.

Years ago, when I was teaching, a lovely human being came to work in my classroom for the summer as an aide. She was remarkable with the children—it was just something she exuded—a deep calm and radiant warmth. There was an instant connection between us, an effortlessness, a simpatico that went beyond words. Not long into the relationship, we met for dinner. We spent hours sharing stories, hopping restaurants for drinks, then dinner, then coffee and dessert. As we sipped our lattes, I felt a welling inside, and, though I knew it was odd, I leaned in and said, “I just have to tell you.... I love you.” I waited for her to be completely weirded out and ask for the check. She smiled and said, “I feel the same way.” It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

I believe it is important to not only tell the people you love that you love them, as frequently as it occurs to you, but to show them—by listening intently and being fully present, helping when help is needed, and expressing gratitude for what they bring. I know, at times, this can seem over-the-top, particularly to those recipients who return my affections in more subtle ways. But I’d rather have those I love be quite sure of my love. No one will go to the grave wondering if I truly cared about them.

My relationships are the most important thing in my life, and Sophia, of course, is among the most cherished.

Despite my own ambivalent relationship to physical affection, I am compelled to manhandle my child. I want to pet her head, trace the outline of her face, plant raspberries on her belly, pinch her tushie, and hold her close.

Some children love to be held and cuddled. They thrive on the attention. They beg to be picked up. They snuggle on the couch. They freely hug and kiss. Sophia is not one of these children. She never has been. Even as an infant, she would rather be exploring than held in the confines of my arms. Now, I scoop her up for a hug, and she wriggles out of my grasp. If I ask for a kiss, I get a flash of a peck. I eye my friends’ more affectionate children jealously. How did I wind up with such a cold fish?

It is actually one of the hardest things about being Sophia’s parent. I would love nothing better than to embrace her and whisper confectionary words into her hair, but the only way I can get her to stay nestled at my side is by reading her piles and piles of picture books. And if she is hurt, rather than reaching out for me, she pushes me away, bearing her pain on her own, recovering quickly, and returning to the world.

What do I do with my unwanted affection? “That’s why you need to have another,” my mother says in an unveiled pitch for a grandchild. I remind her that there are no guarantees. “That child could also have my prickly genes. No thank you.” I will stick with the devil I know. The one who refuses to hold my hand or lounge with me in bed. And I will continue to flood her with torrents of my emotion, unable and with no desire to dam my feeling, hopeful that, invisibly, it feeds her in important ways.

Yet, despite her obvious discomfort with caresses and nuzzles, I am quite sure of her love. The signs are everywhere. It’s in the music in her voice as she calls for me when she wakes; it’s in the comfort with which she leaves my side to be with others; it’s in the bright smile she casts my way when we are reunited. And then there are the subtle, sacred articulations of her love—an adoring look in my rearview mirror, “Mo-mmy,” said with a deep, satisfied, sigh, a small hand that sneaks onto my thigh as I tell her a story.

These moments sustain me, but, in truth, I’m always hungry for more.

1 comment:

Jill said...

I have to tell you that I have been in your shoes - and, in fact, I now have a foot in the "cold fish" shoe and the other in the... well... "warm fish" shoe.

My oldest sounds just like your Sophie. She was never a touchy-feely baby, and remains this way now at nearly 8 years old. We have to tease her, "Front hug! Front hug!" in order to get anything other than the side of her shoulder in a hug - and even then, you'd think we were torturing the child!

And then, like night and day, her younger sister... from the day she was born, she just wanted to be held and kissed and hugged and cuddled and is now the most affectionate kindergartener you could possibly imagine. She must tell me that she loves me 50 times a day, every day.

And believe me - it's wonderful to hear. Truly, she is the light in our home and a joy to mother.

But yet, somehow... that little cold fish of ours says more with that one sneak-attack hug from behind while I'm doing the dishes than her love-bug of a sister says with a hundred hugs. Because when you get that hug, that one hug - you know you've EARNED it and that while the more demonstrative child is just as likely to hug Mommy as she is the next door neighbor or the mail carrier, there is no one else in the world as worthy as a hug to your "cold fish" as you are in that moment.