RECENTLY the company my wife works for had an office party. It was a casual affair with a buffet table and a small band. Children were invited, so I brought our son, Eddie. He's 3. My wife introduced my son and me to her boss, and I was a little surprised when the guy swept Eddie up, gave him a hug, inhaled deeply, and said, "Ah, they smell delicious at his age." He went on to say that he had two young children himself.
Now, I may like Mike (as in Jordan), but Bo (Jackson) knows men seldom hug and kiss, and although we seem to be getting better at expressing how we feel, we don't exactly hold hands and cry together.
When we meet, we tend to shake hands. If we're being particularly expressive, we'll pat one another on the shoulder or back. If we get real loose, we'll knock each other around a little. Hugs still seem pretty much reserved for family members around the holidays.
So I was a little taken aback by the demonstrative actions of my wife's boss. Not that I went so far as to communicate to him how I was feeling at the time. But if I had, I might have said, "Hey, it's OK for me to be affectionate with my son, but you don't even know him, so knock it off." At the same time, I could empathize with his impulse. I can certainly understand why anyone would want to show Eddie affection. He's a typical toddler with baby-fine hair, sparkling eyes, and an irresistible smile.
My wife works for an architectural firm, while I teach at a small liberal arts college. She took a few months off when Eddie was born and then she returned to work full-time. Because my schedule is flexible, I am the one who takes Eddie to day care, picks him up after school, takes him to the park and then home for dinner and a bath. He's a picky eater: toast, soup, ravioli and tomato sauce. He gets whatever he eats all over himself, and we wash it off in the bath. By the time my wife arrives, at around 6 p.m., Eddie's fresh and clean. She plays with him while I make our dinner. We eat, and then, on alternate nights, one of us reads to Eddie, gives him a bottle of milk, and puts him to bed.
This routine is fine with me. What I was not prepared for is the physical closeness that comes so naturally to children. The way they like to sit on your lap or lean against you when you read to them. The way they like to hold hands when walking. The way they like to cuddle.
Babies love to be touched. They love being tickled. They love baths, pools, and beaches - the water, the sun, and the sand. They love to roll around and wrestle on the couch, the rug, the grass. Like dolphins, they seem to enjoy the feel of life.
When I was growing up, my father worked overtime and Saturdays to save money for a house and to support his wife and four kids. I don't remember his being around that much. It was my mother who stayed home with my sisters, my brother, and me. She was the affectionate one.
These days, my father is a little sentimental: He likes an occasional hug. And my wife's father, whom I see a few times a year, arrives and leaves with a bear hug. I don't feel entirely comfortable with these hugs; they feel a bit awkward. Perhaps it's something I learned.
My father's side of the family is English, and the English have a reputation for not showing their emotions. My mother's side is Irish. The Irish are famous for being sentimental, but even they can be a bit standoffish.
Yet, I find myself hugging my son after his bath. At such times his hair smells like freshly cut grass. He takes my face in his hands, gives me a kiss, smiles, and says, "Thanks, Daddy." I get him dressed for bed, and then we play and wrestle on the floor in his room.
I am fortunate: Unlike my father, I get to feed my son, change him, read to him, bathe him, and play with him. We go to the zoo where he feeds the animals. We ride to the playground on my bike, and he goes on the swing and down the slide. Back at home when I fill up his bath, he climbs in and wiggles around like an otter.
At the same time I wonder: When will the awkwardness begin? When will he draw back? Does it have to be that way? When will he shun being hugged? And when will I begin to feel it is no longer appropriate to hug, embrace, or kiss?
Not for a few years. I give him a horsy ride around the living-room rug. (Off the rug is too hard on the knees.) We wrestle for a few minutes and tickle one another. He curls up into a ball - ticklish all over. After that, it's time to read books. He picks out three. I sit on the couch, and he climbs on my lap, hands me the book, makes himself comfortable, and says, "Read, Daddy."