I'm not sure exactly what I expected to find a month ago when I went to pick up my wife and baby after their late-summer trip to see relatives in Toronto.
Certainly, I was excited. Miriam and Owen had never traveled without me before — and they'd been gone more than a week. But as I walked into the Norfolk airport after work, I was completely unprepared when my year-old boy looked up from his stroller in the baggage area with an expression that was — at best — part smile and part noncommittal.
Even after I unbuckled his safety belt and lifted him into the air for a hug and a kiss, Owen seemed strangely distant and businesslike for a kid who's usually pretty chummy with his father. Yet as I hoisted him up on my shoulders, I didn't think much about it. It took a couple of days before I realized that my little boy had reeled his inner circle in and left his old man out.
Not that he treated me like a perfect stranger. My shoulders still made a pretty good sedan chair when we walked over the sand dunes to the beach, and — when he toddled into the calf-high surf — my hands gave him a welcome way to explore the tiny waves as well as the deeper water that drew him out so strongly.
But when it came to giving or receiving affection — or letting me console him if he was scared or hurt — I no longer ranked up there with his mom. Instead, I found myself occupying a spot somewhere between his high chair and his grandma's cat.
Exactly how this happened is no big mystery. Though not yet 1 year old when the summer began, Owen's had to deal with a lot of changes in both his environment and his routine over the past few months, and his mom has been his most constant touchstone.
First, we pulled him out of day care to stay home when Miriam, a high school language teacher, started her summer vacation. Then he traveled to Canada on the first of two trips — this one requiring him to be hugged and kissed by an affectionate but seldom-seen band of aunts, uncles and cousins in a sprawling lakeside cabin.
Not long after our return we re-packed our bags, pushed all the furniture in our house to the middle of each room and left for my mom's place in Virginia Beach after embarking on an extensive kitchen, bath and utilities renovation. Then it was off to Canada again — this time to visit his elderly grandpa in a high-rise Toronto condo.
Midway through their stay, Miriam called to say that Owen had been happy and well-behaved but unusually clingy. "He won't let me out of his sight," she said. "And when I'm not holding him, he's holding me by the leg. I haven't had a bath in days."
I don't remember how I felt as a kid not much younger than Owen when my own father returned after three months at sea on a Navy LST. But I can sure understand how my dad might have ached a little in response if he encountered the same kind of not-quite cold, but definitely lukewarm shoulder.
After my wife and mom, I became the distant third-string option whenever Owen — who was just starting to walk — fell down, bumped his head or needed to be comforted following some calamitous mishap. Lifting him up into my arms only seemed to aggravate each wrong, prompting him to push me away and reach out for his mother.
Whenever I stooped down to play with him, he often responded coolly, too. And after some nagging foot injuries made it tough for me to tuck him into a chest carrier for our once anticipated daily walks, I really began to feel estranged and disconnected.
Taking over some of Miriam's feeding duties didn't seem to make much difference. Nor did her theatrical displays of wifely hugs and kisses. Then — after more than two weeks — Owen simply teetered up one evening, pushed himself against my legs and gazed up with the smile for which I'd been waiting.
I can only imagine how much more patience I'll need to weather any future episodes of this unhappy experience, especially after Owen reaches his teens. But I do understand much better what my mom means when she says that one of the real tricks to raising kids is to outlast them.
It's just not a lesson I liked learning.
Erickson's column on his adventures as a first-time dad alternates with that of fellow Daily Press reporter and first-time mom Nicole Paitsel.
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