Each of us belongs to larger groups or systems that have some investment in our staying exactly the same as we are now. If we begin to change our old patterns of silence or vagueness or ineffective fighting and blaming, we will inevitably meet with a strong resistance or countermove. This “Change back!” reaction will come both from inside our own selves and from significant others around us. We will see how it is those closest to us who often have the greatest investment in our staying the same, despite whatever criticisms and complaints they may openly voice. We also resist the very changes that we seek. This resistance to change, like the will to change, is a natural and universal aspect of all human systems.
(From Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Anger pgs. 14-15)
I read the Baby Center Bulletin the other day and the article was about why toddlers may reject affection from their parents. If you aren’t familiar with Babycenter, it’s a website that captures most, if not all, of what you need to know about babies–from pregnancy to delivery to infancy and so on. I’ve been reading weekly emails from them since I signed up after we found out we would have a baby the summer of 2009.
The article got me thinking. I have my own reasons for rejecting my boy’s affection. And since my reasons are often similar to my kid’s, I’m going to list the same reasons they gave in the Baby Center piece, and reflect on them, in a sentence or two, from a father’s perspective.
- He’s had a bad day. While grown people should handle our bad days differently than our children, we do have them. And bad days affect us in a variety of ways. One way is by us withholding ourselves. Another way is by rejecting the people we love. Acknowledge the day, bad or good, and go to sleep at night hoping that the next one won’t be a twin.
- He’s recovering from a tantrum. I don’t know that I have tantrums, but I do go off from time to time, and I need my wife or my friends to bring me back to my senses by knocking me around in whatever way works. They may need to give me space and let me roll in the floor until I notice that I look as foolish as ever. They may need to be patient as I come back to myself, recovering slowly and trying to find my pride.
- He’s upset with you and doesn’t know how to say it. I’m a father who’s new at this, and when it comes to interacting with my son, I don’t know how to express all my feelings. I tell him when I’m upset. I tell him when I’m happy. He only recognizes the changes in tone, the bass or the soprano underneath my words. He’s just now starting to realize my expressions, particularly when I’m not including the phrases, “Don’t do that,” or “Stop,” or “No.” How am I supposed to communicate with this kid?
- He may be going through an “independent” phase. I have to remind my wife that Bryce owns nothing, that he doesn’t work, that he’s entitled to nothing, and that his contributions to our household are best measured in decibels. I tell her and him that I and we had a life before the boy and that that life is sprinkled across the home that the kid is trying his best to overtake. That’s independence and that’s smart. Because it’s true. Sometimes I assert those truths better than I integrate being a father.
- He’s in a Daddy-favoring (or Mommy-favoring) phase. My son is in a permanent Daddy-favoring stage. He loves me, but I don’t always reciprocate. Don’t misunderstand me: I love the boy. I care deeply about him. But I know too well that as much as I want my love and care to be unconditional—the I’d do anything for my son kinda love—I know that’s not true. That’s because I’m too good at being selfish. Yes, parenting is working that out of me. Parenting is making me give my attention, time, money, care, ideas, and money to someone else. But selfishness is a slow beast to kill.
- He may not be the touchy-feely type. Bryce is the touchy-feely type. For people he likes that is. He loves to hug and kiss. In fact, if I ask him for a kiss, he’s subject to giving me 14 of them. I like to express my affection physically, but I don’t give 14 kisses. Each time my boy runs to me after I open the door in the evening or when I go into the room I let him live in to pick him up out of his crib, he’s grabbing and hugging and singing some song that I can’t understand. Perhaps he’s not always singing and hugging. Sometimes he just walks to me and turns in a circle as if to say, “Oh, you. You keep coming back.” I hope in all those moments that my disposition doesn’t poison him. I hope that his touchy-feelyness brings him joy, and that I don’t dampen his way of loving.
- He isn’t feeling well. When fathers don’t feel well, we need space. We need to walk or run or bike or sit or read or play or groan. Sometimes we know what we need to make us feel better. Other times, like the mothers of our children and like our children themselves, we have no idea what will heal us. And we don’t always know what sickens us either.
- He’s experiencing real anger or distress—and acting out inappropriately. I am like all fathers. I experience distress. Real distress. My kid, well, what does he have to be angry about? He doesn’t know distress. He may know impatience, but he knows nothing about distress. That said, I know that I haven’t handled my early days as a dad in the best ways. I’m glad that my wife can call me on something, that she can give me that look, and that my friends can also bring me back to my senses when I go off and stay off a little too long. I wouldn’t be able to father without them.
Why do you think fathers reject affection?