Leo has visited his first tantrum upon us, or rather ‘us’, and suddenly I see the word for what it is – a euphemism. Tantrum – it leaves a dark and spindly imprint on the page but in common usage it’s throwaway, light, and entirely disproportionate to the debilitating impact felt by the parent. It’s a limp, flaccid term that does no justice to what it purports to describe – an explosion of the will, a demonstration of shock and awe, a body and soul unbridled, a volcanic reaction that leaves me to wonder whether the restraint learnt in later life might be the greatest of human virtues. Long before Leo I’d witnessed twins in a kind of tantrum in tandem. It was like watching a form of self exorcism in stereo, as if each child were attempting to hurl itself out of its own body.
But I didn’t witness this one. Leo’s first, and so far only, tantrum was for his mother to deal with alone. I’d enjoyed an early winter Wednesday with him. Swimming in the morning, on to the library, shopping, lunch at home, a scheduled nap (for us both, mine far shorter than his), then a turn around the park before dark and finally dinner. With a little time to kill before Ellie arrived to pick him up, we cosied up on the sofa with the iPad to catch a few minutes of Pocoyo, the surreal adventures of a computer animated toddler who has captivated Leo of late. A recent habit, this, and I’ve rediscovered the lost joys of bonding through TV. For fifteen minutes it’s just the two of us, fifteen minutes that seem almost eternal. I’m aware, as I am so often with Leo, of how precious our time together is, how great the tenderness I feel towards him.
My awareness of this doesn’t crowd the moment but it’s constant nonetheless, like an app running in the background. It’s as though I’m recording. The smell of his hair evokes something close to déjà vu but deeper, a scent that’s somehow always been familiar to me. For a while I watch him as he watches. I’m pleased to see he’s not hypnotised but focused and concentrated, amused, delighted and engaged, and I recall in some vague way a magazine piece I’d recently read about the careful conception of programmes like these and their stimulating qualities. Suddenly in my mind there’s no yesterday or tomorrow, nothing but this moment, and nowhere else to be. Then Ellie is at the door.
Leo, as is his habit during these moments of handover, flits from the parent clocking out to the one clocking in, then skitters away like a skimming stone, as if inviting a chase. There’s no cry of ‘MUMMEEE!’ this time, no hurling himself forward into her embrace. It’s a dance, a kind of flirtation, it’s as if he’s circling before landing. And on this occasion, once he’s caught and shoed, he seems to recede a little as we wrap him and pack him into his buggy. As I squat down to him I wonder, not for the first time, how he finds these moments of handover in the hallway – moments stretched by his parents’ fumble for small talk as they strike poses unfamiliar to each other, hands on hips or in pockets. These brief moments are, by and large, his only experience of us together, or at least standing in the same space for a moment or two, and they are for him just interludes. He leans forward, straining against the straps, and grants me a faintly regal peck on the cheek for me before he’s trundled off into the night.
I have no cause for concern until a shaken Ellie phones two hours later. In the intervening time, throughout the bus journey and at home, Leo has kicked out, punched and screamed, fled from his mother, reduced her to tears and left her feeling – in her own words – ‘powerless’ and ‘hated.’ And, through it all, he screamed for me.
I’m perturbed by the news. Tantrums, it seems, are no longer the preserve of other people’s children. Even as I listen and reassure, paranoia grips. Can this have anything to do with the difference in his bedtime routines at her place and mine? I allow him to fall asleep on my chest after reading him a story or two – a shared primal pleasure I’ve given up resisting, but anathema to his mother, and indeed her mother in turn, for reasons I’m not sure I can grasp but I’m certain I can’t agree with – could he be angry that she doesn’t?
We talk it through, sifting through the evidence and teasing out the theories. I tell her about the day we’d had, how average it seemed, not exactly a Disney day, and how I felt I’d been ‘phoning it in’, as a distracted parent might often feel. I stay silent on our differing approaches to bedtime, knowing that he’d already cried for me at the end of the day two or three weeks previously. As I listen I realise that for the first time we are discussing in detail how we are as parents, how Leo is with us both one on one, how, for example, he talks about and calls for me when he’s with her. Odd as it may seem, this is news to me. He so often mentions mummy, and even on occasion James, that I’d simply assumed I was the odd one out, that they were ‘the family’ as it were and I was the babysitter, that his true home wasn’t here but there. Of course it was only an assumption, and a false one at that, but one easily compounded by the insecurity brought on by an ugly separation. Now I discover that ‘home’ is a word he uses as often with them. Clearly, then, he feels he has two homes.
I ask Ellie if she ever has concerns about Leo’s constant movement between us, between homes. She reveals that she has. This, too, is news and a fault line of fear yawns before me – for all the love that he soaks up between the two of us – or rather the three of us – do we risk destabilising him? Are we embarked on a course that’s essentially transgressive? Can ‘home’ divide into two? Already she’s been online but I counsel against Google, and having approached the topic from every angle we’re left to remind ourselves that tantrums happen anyway, that Leo is now on the cusp another fluffy parental euphemism – the terrible twos.
If I had to grasp for the reassurance of a reason, I’d rationalise it thus – Leo was interrupted, simple as that. On a cold night, with the wind beating the glass panes of the living room and a nice meal tucked inside him, cuddling up to his old dad with his favourite show, he was uprooted just as he thought he was settled in for the night. As far as he was concerned, in the natural sequence of events, pyjamas and bedtime story came next, followed by the sweet nothing of ten hours sleep. That didn’t happen, and Mum got the blowback.
But so much for the rationale. Beneath this there’s another, deeper fear, as yet unspoken and I know it must plague Ellie in the wake of this. Under different circumstances, ie had we not separated, a tantrum would be just that and only that – a tantrum. But the dynamics of separation can amplify your fears to the point of distortion. There’s little doubt she was the object of his fury, she’d taken him from away from dad, and how must it have felt for her to hear ‘DADDYDADDYDADDY!’ hurled at her until it reverberated around the room and right through her? Any father in the firing line of his toddler’s ire, with the word ‘MUMMY’ used for ammo, might no doubt pass it all off as natural; tricky to negotiate but easy to understand as a child’s righteous yearning for its mother. But the other way round? Inevitably, there’ll be a feeling that this subverts the order of things. And that order of things is a useless nonsense of course, it’s just that despite ourselves we still largely subscribe to it.
The great unspoken, then, is that it could be an early expression of preference; it is the spectre of his choice. In a carrier or a buggy, he’s been a passenger but with a mind of his own, a burgeoning character blessed with full locomotive ability, then later an Oyster card and eventually a driving licence, he’ll be at liberty to act on that choice. And whilst it’s natural for any child to form a closer bond with one parent than the other, within the context of a relationship that becomes a strain, at worst. When you’ve separated in the most testing of circumstances, however, a child’s natural preference will have more profound implications; a subtext of competition, of winning and losing, can fester unacknowledged. I’d always gone on the assumption that Leo would bask in the reflective glow of his mother’s new found love, and perhaps he does, but it may well be that my undivided attention suits him better. Who, for now, can tell? Just wait until he can really talk…
As we talk there’s a stab of immaturity through my heart, the inevitable legacy of all the insecurity I felt in the wake another man’s arrival in the life of my still unborn child. It’s shameful to admit to, but privately I feel relief. It’s as if the whole incident has laid bare the true nature of Leo’s relationship with me. For two years I’ve plodded along, head down, from day to day, caring for him and laying the foundations for what, I couldn’t be sure. For us, I suppose. James’s presence as – whatever he feels he is – in Leo’s life was, of course, deeply undermining and I couldn’t feel I could take for granted my position with my own son. Now I see the depth of my insecurity, though I can hardly blame myself for it. Leo’s familiarity with James stretches back, after all, even until his time in the womb, of that I’m certain. There were days I wondered if he’d even know which one his father was, if he’d need coaching or prompting, and in the early days there was a little of that. But now it seems locked down, and the attachment is primal after all. And here is the final confirmation of what I’ve felt for a little while now, that he’s my boy, and I’m stunned to find myself at the centre of his universe. ‘Daddydaddydaddy!’ is all I ever hear at times, and it’s music to me, it’s just I never thought it might be all his mother would hear, too…
So there’s relief as my insecurities are allayed but concern for Ellie, too. I still care, how could I not? Whatever happened next, we made the best thing that’s ever happened to me. But my concern is a pragmatic one, it’s a concern for the part she has to play. On a personal level we’ve retreated from one another, but as parents we will always need each other, we’re locked in.
Already, in the days since, Ellie has dropped a night with Leo in favour of a night at the cinema. I appreciate her working life militates against a movie, and that her partner now has health concerns, but nonetheless I find this disquieting. I, meanwhile, feel unable to turn down time with my son and when, a few days later, I find myself at short notice with even more time on duty I’m left to ponder. When we hand over, Leo seems happy to be back in harness with me, and I wonder whether Ellie is relieved or if I’m imagining it. There’s no denying her confidence has taken a knock, but I need her back on the horse and so does Leo. She’s his mum. But any festering doubts on her part, and we’ll have an ‘issue’.
For myself I have no such fears. This isn’t even a phase yet and there’s no reason at all that it won’t be me on the receiving end next time, of course, but somehow I can’t see it. And there’s no point bracing myself for it either, if it happens I’ll go along with Dr. Miriam Stoppard – put him in another room, make sure he has a route back to me and take him in my arms when he comes. I just hope we’re not on the bus.
But there’s a calm assurance building within me with each passing day now, an innate sense that we’ll be just fine, explosive interludes or not. It’s like we know each other…