How can I say no to him, when I'd do anything for one myself?
My 3-year-old looks at me with puppy-dog eyes. "Can I have a cookie, Mommy?" he begs. "I'm hungry."
"I hear you, Gabriel," I say calmly. "But you just ate an hour ago."
"I didn't have dessert."
"I didn't have dessert with my dinner."
"Lunch. With your lunch."
I can see tears coming: big, fat toddler tears. "I need a cookie, Mom. I do. I need it. Please?"
My son lies facedown on the kitchen floor and wails. Tears pour out of his eyes so profusely that I know I will slip on them minutes later when I step over him to get a graham cracker from the top cabinet. It won't be the triple-chocolate-chip treat he really likes, but it's cookie enough to stop a tantrum. I will hand it to him like a spent soldier flies a white flag in surrender.
Because I can't take it another minute, all his raw longing. It cuts right through me and reminds me of everything I've ever desperately wanted and couldn't have, and I need to go lie down. That's what makes spending so much time with my son challenging. Not his refusal to potty-train, nor his leaving muddy footprints on floors that I have cleaned on my knees. It's the undiluted emotion coming at me all day. The joy is nice, of course, but fleeting, outpaced by the devastation over a squished Play-Doh caterpillar or a broken banana. ("It's broken, Mommy. It's broken! I can't eat it!")
Some days I say to him, "You're right, Gabriel. It is upsetting and none of it makes any sense." I want to wrap
my arms around him and whisper in his cool little ear, "Other than the chocolate-dipped biscotti and the cappuccino you'll get to enjoy later in life, it's all really hard and random. You're right to cry!" But by the time I move in to hold him, his eyes are already dry and he's giggling about a ladybug he's found.
My "emotion-validating" parenting style is such a transparent response to the "suck it up" philosophy that ruled my childhood. Even as an adult, when my father was ill and dying and in a moment of lapsed judgment I expressed my sadness to my grieving mother, she clenched her jaw and said, "No one is interested in your feelings." I have very few memories from when I was Gabriel's tender age, but I'm pretty sure that crying over a banana didn't get me many hugs.
So although I knew nothing about being a parent before I became one, the one thing I promised myself is that I would never deny my son's feelings or stop hugging him until his wife asked me to. Maybe continually going right into the eye of the emotional storm with Gabriel is somehow helpful for him (and me). Unlike his mother, he has a reaction to something and then he's over it. He moves on.
Being denied cookies, however, is the one disappointment Gabriel has not mastered. Cookie pining, if you will, is my son's Achilles' heel. It was mine too. My earliest memory is of our pug dog, Petey, grabbing a cookie out of my hand, wheezing as he took off with it on his stubby legs. I still remember how disorienting it was to see the grown-ups around me laughing at this unfathomable tragedy. "What the hell is so funny?" I would have asked, but I was 2.
So I am uniquely empathetic to my son's cookie issues. I find distraction is the most effective method for stabilizing him. That's why I thank God for SpongeBob and his square pants. Because although Gabriel is not allowed a big fistful of animal crackers before dinner, he is permitted to watch television after the sun goes down, or earlier if Mommy is falling apart.
However, this time, like others, I caved. A graham cracker wasn't going to spoil Gabriel's dinner--or brand me a failed parent. I got him one, took four for myself, and sat next to him on the couch. With crumbs between his teeth, Gabriel mumbled, "Thanks, Mom."
"You're welcome, honey."
We sat quietly watching SpongeBob--for a minute.
"Can I have another cookie? Please? Just one more?"
I sank back into the couch and put a pillow over my head. Gabriel's begging became the sound track for a montage of memories I feel compelled to share with him of things I wanted as badly as he wants more cookies. "Honey, when I was your age my parents took me to the circus, and all I wanted more than anything was the pink cotton candy, and they wouldn't get me any. Or when I was 9 I really wanted to be Little Miss America, but instead I tripped while walking across the stage at Palisades Amusement Park, in New Jersey, with a number pinned to my chest. And in college I so wanted a trust fund like my preppy friends, yet I worked my way through school serving up skim lattes. It was like Dickens, only not as important.
"And what do I want now? I want endless handfuls of cookies. Just like you. And to never get up from sitting on this couch next to you. At least not until I figure out what I'm going to do with my life after you grow up. That's what I want, Gabriel."
"Nothing, really. It's...just...uh...that's all the cookies you get today, honey."
"But what about ice cream? I can still have ice cream, right?"
Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Parents magazine.