My son is in love with me. This is no surprise. After all, I have nice green eyes and Jennifer Aniston-type hair, though regrettably not her long-stemmed legs. More importantly, I can tick off the names of the Los Angeles Lakers, play a tough game of Junior Monopoly and have a high tolerance for jokes that revolve around the letter "p." What 7-year-old boy wouldn't adore me?
I grew up in a house of rowdy boys, boys with no-nonsense masculine names like Jack and Tom and Jim. In some ways this made it easy for me when my son came along, red-faced and furious and eager to devour the world. I knew what to expect. Loud grunting noises and flying objects. Toilet seats never put down. Clothes left in a heap on the floor as if the Wicked Witch had just waved her broom and made the person in them disappear. A preference for toys with an excess of body parts and names like "venom."
What I was not prepared for, what caught me totally off-guard, was my son's romantic feelings for me. A few mornings ago I was standing in the bathroom, looking like a mean raccoon. My hair was piled loosely on my head, mascara ringed my eyes from the night before. "You look like hell," I said to the mirror. Suddenly, there was this little voice. It was so quiet and small, so unlike my son's normal full-throttle roar, I almost didn't hear it. "No, you don't, Mom." I looked down. My son was staring up at me, his huge gray eyes full of longing, his heart banging furiously in his little bony chest. "You're the most beautiful woman in the world." The scary thing was he meant it. What guy ever said that to me with such purity of motive and heart?
This intent pining for me began, normally enough, when he was 4. I'd go to sit down on the couch or a chair and he'd slide his hand under me, grinning madly. I'd go to hug him and he'd burrow his little head into my breasts, lingering there a minute too long. I'd be taking a shower and suddenly the curtain would be flung aside by a pint-sized blond in Ninja Turtle briefs. "Mommy's in the shower," I'd say. "Oh," he'd say, holding his ground.
That my son was intense didn't help matters. He was, as the books charitably call it, a "spirited child" — which is to say volatile and active and completely unlike my friends' babies. Fervor extended to everything he did.
For a time when he was 2 and 3, he was obsessed with his father. My husband would do something fairly nonthreatening — leave the room, say — and our child would go insane, flinging his skinny toddler self on the floor, or worse, hurling himself after my husband out the door.
I remember in particular one long, miserable weekend in Solana Beach. We'd driven down from Los Angeles to relax, have a good time, which only goes to show you how delusional as parents we still were. Every time my husband wanted to head out to go bodysurfing or for a swim in the pool he'd have to sneak out of our hotel room or frantic screaming would ensue. It mattered not that I, the mother, the one who had spent 30 hours in mind-altering labor, was readily available for fun and games, a romp in the pool. No, my son wanted his father. And how dare I presume to be a worthy substitute? Nothing like the rejection of a 3-year-old to make you feel really small. But by then I had another baby so I didn't have much time to brood about it.
So when my son latched on to me again it came as somewhat of a shock. He wanted me, but now he wanted me like Lyle Lovett crooning about unrequited love. He pouted if I didn't hug him tightly enough or cuddle with him on the couch. He cried if I wouldn't lay down next to him after I read him a story at night. "All right, leave!" he'd say angrily, turning his back to me in bed, as though we'd just had a lover's quarrel. Then, of course, he'd protest loudly when I did.
I tried not to let all this bother me. I knew that little boys did this, developed erotic feelings for their mothers around the time they turned 4. It said so right there in the updated edition of Dr. Spock, and that eventually these feelings would abate. Some of my friends' sons were also behaving this way, acting like drunken high-school boys on a date trying to cop a feel. I was damned if I was going to be uptight about it, do something that would make my son feel bad about himself or, God forbid, cause him to grow up sexually repressed. A child of the liberated '70s I was going to handle this right.
We had talks. Frank, straightforward talks. About how mommies and daddies touch each other. About how mommies and children touch each other. Whenever his hand would stray into the no-touching zone again, I'd remove it and gently remind him to keep his little mitts to himself. I bought a children's book that discussed boys' bodies and girls' bodies, with cartoonlike illustrations of vital parts. We said the words "penis" and "vagina" with devil-may-care abandon.
Every so often, my husband would happen in on one of these conversations, roll his eyes and accuse me of hopelessly confusing our son, perhaps even warping him for life. "He's too young. He doesn't understand," he'd say. "Of course he does," I'd snap back. I had no idea whether he did understand everything I was telling him, of course. It's not like you can give a 5-year-old a sexual comprehension test. But I was doing what I felt was right. I answered questions when he asked them. I kept the explanations simple. We rented "Look Who's Talking," and in the opening scene when the talking sperm are frantically trying to penetrate the egg and my son turned to me and asked, "What are those little wiggly things?" I didn't flinch, didn't turn off the set. I said they were sperm and that they came from the daddy's penis and that they went into the mommy's body. "That's how babies are made," I said. "Eeeeuuu!" my son squealed with a mixture of wonder and disgust. I knew then I'd done my job.
Then gradually, mercifully, the sex problem went away. My son grew older, got distracted from his passion for me, lost interest. There was another girl in his life, Sarah — Sarah with the long blond braid and big gray eyes, who raced him every morning on the school blacktop. I was relieved.
Then a few months ago, something happened that jolted me back awake. It began with my son and his best friend, James, who lives next door. I adore James. He's as round, mellow and dark as my son is wiry, incendiary and pale. If there were a movie made about the two of them it would be called "Buddha and the Little Beast." Another reason I adore James is because he finds it impossible not to tell the truth. This is bad for my son, but good for me.
On this occasion James was over at our house playing basketball in the patio. He and my son were talking about James' teenage brother. I was in the kitchen when I heard them giggling wildly and in the next split second the uncommon phrase, "He sexed her."
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I came out to the patio. I stood on the steps. I looked at them. They looked at me. More giggling. I smiled. As Joan Didion once wrote of a scene involving Nancy Reagan plucking a rose for a cameraman, the moment was evolving its own choreography. James held his hand over his mouth and giggled again. I could see I was going to have to deal with this.
"What do you think that means, 'he sexed her'?" I asked in my most neutral voice.
"He put his tongue in her mouth," James giggled.
"He rubbed on her with his shirt off," my son added, even more hysterical.
I was tempted to say, "Boy, are you guys misinformed," but held my sarcasm in check. I'm not exactly sure what I said. I think I told James he might want to have a talk with his parents. I think I also said something to the effect that sex is not a verb but a noun, turning this potential sex education moment into a grammar lesson. But it was clear I was not off the hook.
After James went home I got my son a popsicle and sat with him on the porch steps while he ate it. I thought about what to say. On the one hand, I didn't want to make a big deal out of it, insist that James' brother had absolutely not been having sex and how could you think that? and launching into a detailed explanation of sexual intercourse. That seemed a bit neurotic. On the other hand, I wanted to be sure he had a handle on the basics, that he understood sex was not just an act, but caught up in all sorts of complicated and lovely emotions.
"Do you remember what I told you about sex?" I said.
"You mean about the penis going into the vagina?" my son said with a silly grin.
"Yes," I said. "But sex is not just how people make babies. It's the way mommies and daddies show how much they love each other."
This perked my son's interest, so I went on. I babbled on about how sex was the most beautiful thing in the world that two people who loved each other could share. I talked about the magic feelings surrounding being in love. Then suddenly I noticed my son looking at me in a strange sort of horrified way, as if I'd just blithely informed him his pet goldfish had died.
"What's the matter?" I said.
"You love Daddy more than me because you two have sex!" he said, beginning to cry. "I don't ever want to ever hear about sex again!"
Well, I just about fell over, I was so stunned. Here, I'd given my 7-year-old what I thought was an inspiring lecture on sex and love, and he'd managed to twist it into some bizarre Freudian conspiracy pitting parents against their children.
I tried to repair the damage. I told him that's not what I meant at all, but that mommies and daddies feel a different love for each other than they do for their children, which only made him howl more. I told him I loved him more than anything and that he was being silly, which only made him madder. I tried hugging him, and he pushed me bitterly away. No matter what I said, he refused to calm down. Unfortunately, sometime in here my husband showed up, demanding to know what the hysteria was all about. I don't think I explained the situation very well because his immediate response was, "What did you tell him that for?"
Over the next few weeks, my son showed distinct signs of regressing. He trailed me wherever I went, refusing to let me out of his sight. He was like cat hair on a wool skirt, I couldn't get him off of me. Whenever his father went to hug me, he threw himself between us in a preemptive jealous fit. But he wasn't mad at my husband, it was me he was furious with. No matter how much affection I gave him, he accused me of giving his sister and his father more. I felt terrible, guilty. After all, wasn't I the one who'd screwed him up, made him hopelessly insecure?
"What should I do?" I asked my friend Maura on the phone one day. "He won't leave me alone."
"I don't know," she said. "Have you tried seeing if anything's been written about it?"
The next day, I went to a bookstore near my office in Westwood. I sat down on the floor in front of the Parenting section and scanned the titles until my eyes felt bloody. There were books on infancy, books on potty training, books on "growing girls," books celebrating motherhood, books exposing motherhood. There was also, to my great relief, an entire shelf of books on adolescence and, to my general annoyance, a slew of books on the "new father." But nothing vaguely titled "How to Deal with Your 7-Year-Old Son's Sexual Interest in You." Sitting there, I suddenly felt this lump in my throat, which I recognized as a perverse nostalgia for the days when I could flip open Penelope Leach or T. Berry Brazelton and find exactly the advice I needed on tantrums or separation anxiety or when to introduce solid foods. I looked so hard that when I finally stood up I felt disoriented, like I do when I've been at the Glendale Galleria too long with the kids and if I don't get out of there in the next 10 seconds I'm going to start screaming in Hindi.
Time passed. I was quiet. I did not open my big mouth about sex. When my son was overly demanding of my attention, I tried to give it to him without being overly indulgent. I told him I loved him often, as I had done from the moment he was born. "You have no idea how much I love you," he said to me at night when I tucked him in bed. "Oh, yes, I do," I said.
Then one Saturday afternoon, he was playing out on the patio and he said, "I'm not going to worry about sex anymore." Just like that. I wanted desperately to ask him what had brought him to this newfound state of inner peace, but I controlled myself. I smiled. He smiled back. I was happy he felt OK again.
Things have calmed down considerably since then. I wish I could tell you why. I wish I could say it's because of some incredibly wise thing I did or said. Or some marvelous chapter in a book I'd read. But the truth is, I think my son's attraction to me was like every phase of childhood, only a matter of his growing out of it, of the vagaries of character. Of a little boy who will always be passionate about everything in his life. Especially me.
The other morning it was Sunday, and we were sitting on the living room couch together. My son had his head in my lap and was looking up at me in a certain bemused way -- a way that means he's either going to tickle me or do something wonderfully silly. Then he began speaking, like he sometimes does, in mock French.
"Oh, my cherie, you are ze most buuteeful voman in ze world," he said.
"Oh, no," I said, laughing.
"Oh, oui oui!"