Papa Sez by Todd Hunter-Gilbert Issue #11
Papa Sez
by Todd Hunter-Gilbert

Sally Field Said It Best- March 2005

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You know what I’m saying.  Say it with me.  “He likes me!  He really, really likes me!” 

Seems obvious, doesn’t it.  I certainly thought so.  He’s my son, he’ll like me.  So when he was just barely born and Denise had been reading up on child development and reported to me that children go through phases of bonding with different parents, I was skeptical. 

Mama is of course the child’s first bond and is supposed to remain the main bond for the first three years.  At that point a child typically switches to the papa.  She continued describing later attachment changes based not on the gender of the parent but the gender of the child (i.e. same-sex parent, opposite-sex parent).  But I wasn’t listening.  Three years!  She was telling me Quinn wasn’t going to care much for me until he was three!  I didn’t believe it. 

After all, there were plenty of families where things are different.  Maybe mama is the primary worker and papa stays home.  Or divorce cases where both parents aren’t available.  It didn’t have to be three years.  If I was a really good papa…. 

So I was ready and eager to try my hand at solo parenting.  The first attempt was a disaster.  A friend of Denise’s wanted to give us a bunch of child toys and furniture before their garage sale got going.  Denise was busy that day, so I offered to take Quinn and go get the stuff.  It was a fifteen minute drive away, Quinn had been to their house before.  He took the drive over fine, played around their yard while I got the items, then screamed bloody murder as soon as we were back on the road. 

I tried to sing to him.  I tried talking to him.  I tried reaching back while at stop lights to jiggle his toys.  Screams continued at a horrendous volume.  I couldn’t decide whether to roll the windows down to let some sound out or keep them up for fear of breaking a noise ordinance.  I pulled into a parking lot and checked his diaper—nothing.  I tried to feed him (I came prepared!)—no interest.  Finally I chose to just drive home and endure the noise, the thing he wanted was still ten minutes away. 

And so, a theme developed.  He liked me well enough.  Loved me even.  As long as he knew his mama was around.  She didn’t have to be in sight, necessarily, he really did have a long mama cord from the outset.  But if he called for her and didn’t get her…danger.

Probably the worst it got was on the evenings Denise would go to work.  We were fortunate that she had an on-call job that would call her only sporadically and only when I was home to tend Quinn.  He had no babysitters until he was a year and a half old and had no reason to feel abandoned.  He just loved his mama.

So I would come home, D would get ready, and I’d walk Quinn out to wave goodbye to Denise.  He’d struggle out of my arms, stand by himself and wave as she backed out of the driveway.  Then, when she was out of sight, he would burst into inconsolable sobs.  Conscious of the neighbors, I would try to escort him into the house.  But even at that age he was both strong and strong-willed enough to resist.  So I’d sit down on the door sill and watch my child wail.

I’d bring food, and end up eating it myself.  I’d turn the TV on loud enough so we could hear it out there.  I’d bring toys.  Nothing was as important as crying loud enough for mama to hear at her office.

It would usually take about fifteen minutes before he ran out of gas and let me bring him inside.  Then we’d have a perfectly normal evening right up until bedtime.  D and I took turns putting him to bed back then.  But it never mattered whose turn it was on those nights.  If mama wasn’t there, that’s who he wanted.  So I’d sit in his rocking chair and read stories to the empty space on my lap until he got more interested in that than his problems.

There was a period of maybe 3 months, right around the 1 year mark that were as bad as it got.  After that, he settled down and didn’t spend as long being unhappy, but he wasn’t shy about telling me that he would prefer that other person.

Then, right around the three year mark, things changed.  If Denise was off somewhere, he’d say, “Hey Papa, lets go….” And ask for time at the park, or the museum, or the store, or a walk around the neighborhood.  I liked to let Denise sleep in on Saturdays, so I would get up with Quinn, get us both dressed, and go out to breakfast somewhere (he’s never been able to be quiet enough to let someone sleep in the house).

Now, if he calls out in the night, it’s me he calls for.  When he wakes up in the morning, if I’m not already at work, he’ll get me and let D sleep.  He’ll call me at work to ask me when I can do things with him.  The other evening he took the phone, called my work number, and left a message for me for the next day inviting me to a movie.  Then he told me to listen to the message only if people were mean to me at work.

It took a while (a long, frustrating while), but he likes me.  And it’s very satisfying to know that he now wants to be with me as much as he wants to be with his mother.  My current theory is that the first transition happens when a child is ready to explore the world.  Mothers are for nurturing and security in the home.  Fathers, who typically go out in the world daily, are the ones you attach to when you’re ready to go out and explore.  Nature or nurture, it doesn’t matter.  If it’s politically incorrect, it doesn’t matter.  It’s just the way it is.

Explore well.

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