Emotional hostage

There are those times when, as a father and as a man, you need to grit your teeth and do the right thing. I was faced with that decision tonight. So I gritted my teeth, picked up my bag, and told my wife that I couldn’t handle my son’s cries, and I was going to take a walk. She smiled, gave me a kiss, and told me to have fun.

So here I am now, huddled in the Barnes and Noble down the street, hiding from my son’s current meltdown.

Perhaps, this is not one of my finest moments.

You see, my son has taken me emotionally hostage. It all started a week or two ago during our morning commute. While driving my wife to work, I heard a sound that freezes any parent’s blood. I heard my son choking. Loud gagging sounds struck me from behind like a club to the back of the head. I panicked. “What is he choking on?!” I asked my wife. She glanced to the side out of the corner of her eye.

“He’s just choking himself for attention. It’s no big deal.”

“What?!”

Sure enough, ever since then, whenever he wants attention, my son stuffs his hand into his mouth and starts gagging. Over the course of the last year, I’ve learned to filter out most of his sounds. I learned to ignore most non-essential crying (to save my sanity) within the first six months. I especially learned to tune out whining — that high-pitched, carefully rehearsed screech when I won’t let him climb into the toilet. I was Tough Dad, impervious to his attempts to break me. My wife, still full of that crazy hormone cocktail that makes mothers fall in love with their babies on first sight, suggested that we give in just a little, just to make him happy. I didn’t. I stood strong.

But my son knows that despite my Tough Dad exterior, I love him fiercely. He knows I would fight rabid dogs hand-to-paw for him. I would kill hordes of Nazis to save him. And so, he knew that the only way to get my attention is to make himself sound like he’s in danger, to activate my father instincts.

Thus, the choking.

My wife, on the other hand, now mostly pregnancy/labor hormone free, knows the game. Raising four siblings from infancy does that, I guess. She assures me there is nothing wrong. He simply has found my weakpoint and now he is exploiting it. Hard.

And so here I am, tonight, hiding. We had put him to bed and despite being tired, he didn’t want to sleep. So the minute we close the door, the gagging sounds begin, drowning out the sound of my breaking heart.

My wife shakes her head when she sees me start to bend. “He is in no danger,” she tells me again. “It is all just an act.”

Then the crying shifts. It’s not the usual whining, I’m-tired crying, or the very forced, carefully calculated fake-crying. It is howling, a primal scream that he only makes when he’s hurt. My blood pressure is spiking. My wife is nonplussed, playing Disgea on her Nintendo DS with headphones over her ears.

I am in agony. The timer goes off. My wife goes in to check on our son. The crying immediately stops when she walks in. But after singing a lullaby and walking out, the choking and screaming starts all over again.

“He’s not –?”

“He is not in any pain or any danger. I checked. No fever, no illness. He’s faking everything,” my wife reports.

I am sitting on the couch, alternating between covering my ears and putting my head between my knees. My son continues to scream his I’m-hurt-please-cry. My stomach is in knots.

You spend your entire life after your child is born looking for those signs of humanity. Not just life — the crying and pooping that indicates he’s still alive. You start looking for those markers that say “I am human!” The first time your child laughs or genuinely smiles is magical. When your child experiences his first thunderstorm and he clings to you, your heart melts. And when you first betray your child during his vaccinations and he stares at you, begging for an answer as to why you let these shots happen, it demolishes you.

But deception — it is amazing how quickly a child exhibits deception. And, when your child first hides something from you (say, a piece of paper he wants to eat) because he knows he is not supposed to have it, it deeply disturbs you. For what could possibly be more human than trying to deceive another human being?

His cries are reaching a fever pitch, something almost alien. It is not real, and yet it sounds real and it most definitely feels real. His level of acting is devastating. My son, who can barely put together sounds to make rudimentary words already knows how to lie to his father. As I try to block the horrible sounds out, I remember The Vaccination Incident. We are even, I think through gritted teeth. I don’t feel bad about that anymore.

“I can’t take this,” I say. My wife laughs, my dear wife, my Tough Mom of a wife. “I’m going for a walk,” I inform her.

She gives me a kiss goodbye. “Have fun,” she says as I walk out the door, my tail tucked between my legs, my Tough Dad costume torn to shreds on my son’s bedroom floor.

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3 Comments

Filed under life stories, parenting

3 responses to “Emotional hostage

  1. James did the gagging thing for while around that age, too. He thought it was hilarious though. When we’d say, “Don’t gag yourself!”, he’d simply look at us, smile & do it again. Eventually, he stopped because we ignored it. Hold strong. This too shall pass. 🙂

  2. Poor Ted. Your mantra can only be what Tiffany has suggested. “This too shall pass.”

  3. kai

    Dear Ted – as a mother, I can only say while I agree with your action (leaving the room if you can’t deal with what the baby is doing) I would like to suggest the possibility that may be projecting some deeper meaning onto your son’s actions than is helpful – for me, in my journey towards parenthood, it’s a lot about how I choose to interpret it. It may well feel unbearable for him to be separated from you at night (we choose to co-sleep, but that’s a whole other thing) but it is true for both of you that it will also pass. Mine is currently coughing for attention since his grandmother is here and (lol) she uses her asthma for attention and coughs whenever she wants us to check on her… so he quickly learned that his father would look up whenever he did that. I have asthma myself and know the different noise of real wheezing, so I don’t even blink and I don’t get coughed at. I don’t think though that he’s trying to deceive you or manipulate you – I mean, I suppose you could see it that way, but a gentler, easier way to think about it might be… he’s smart and is trying to see what works. Children adapt – and he does need to know how to get his needs met – and he doesn’t yet have the capacity to distinguish between his terror of a shot, or being alone and to alert you to an oncoming horde of Nazi’s – so he screams the same pitch for both.

    I see it as my job, by my reaction to model for my son how to respond – so for the vaccinations, I assured him that he was *my* son and therefore stronger than most babies and that there was nothing to fear beyond a momentary discomfort – and also that his father worked in international health, therefore there was absolutely no way we could not support what we recommend to others, so he had to take one for the team. As I was asking him to try to learn to spell “prophylaxis… P….R…O” the utterly amused and bemused dr pulled the plunger and I smiled at his yelp and said, “sorry baby, one more” and with that, it was done. He yelped again in surprise and stopped crying as soon as I picked him up – and smiled at all of us when I said, “well done.”

    So, as another parent who loves my child fiercely, maybe that helps, maybe not – but either way, being a strong, tough parent is work and I wish you and your family the best.

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