The pandemic has thrown up a challenge unlike any other. Parent stress, isolation and uncertainty are just some of the issues many families the world over are still facing daily. So when we heard this sweet little story from Noah Bernstein – which perfectly captures one of the small joys of this pandemic – our hearts swelled for all the families who have shared special moments together in lockdown, and all the littles who are just too cute and creative when it comes to getting out of things!
“Your beard is too spiky.”
I had gotten used to this excuse. I convinced myself it was true, after all his skin was super sensitive. But even after a fresh shave it still seemed to be too spiky.
Sometimes I’d try and dive in and steal a quick peck on the cheek, with occasional success. We’d have a laugh as he speedily turned his face, or pushed my fast encroaching head away. More often than not I ended up locking lips with a knuckle or an ear.
This wasn’t a high school sweetheart who I lusted after all semester, but my four-year-old son Milo. I loved him deeply, and by all accounts he loved me, but, for some reason, a kiss good morning, goodnight, or for anything really was a bridge too far. Cuddles were permitted, and horseplay – the go-to of fathers around the world, entrenched by centuries of emotional distance – was in high demand.
I pretended the rejection didn’t hurt, but it did. More than I let on. I couldn’t very well chastise my son for not kissing me. Why wouldn’t he kiss me? I must have done something wrong, I thought. Maybe it was the time when, frustrated, I couldn’t stem his crying, I bounced him too hard in his Jolly Jumper. Or it could have been that I never really fed him as I was no competition for the wonderful warm elixir emanating from his mother’s breasts. No, it must have been something bigger: sleeping in the guest room during his crying phase so I could be fresh for work. Yes, it was that. And I was a stranger: most often gone before he rose in the morning and only rarely home for bedtime. A weekend dad par excellence. I couldn’t blame him really.
With deep apologies to all those who have suffered, thankfully COVID-19 came along and gave me what I never had before: time with my son. Lots of it.
During the first week of lockdown, Milo was startled to find me in the kitchen, eyeing me suspiciously as I prepared a cup of tea.
“Are you going to work today?” he squeaked.
“Is it Saturday?”
“Can you make me pancakes?”
And I did. I even overcompensated by putting chocolate spread on top, cleaning the knife quickly so my wife wouldn’t catch us having such a naughty weekday morning breakfast.
“Can I eat with you?”
We trundled to the rickety bench in the garden, me with my cup of tea, him with his outrageous pancakes. I enjoyed the early-morning sun as it warmed my face for the first time in months. I watched Milo, with his feet dangling off the bench, focusing intently and fully on each and every bite, an impossible chocolate moustache quickly forming on his upper lip. An inner warmth came over me, perhaps even a smile, followed quickly by deep regret. It was the realisation that I had missed these moments for years. Worse, I had willingly missed these moments. I could have been home, but I chose to work. Or play sports. Or have a pint with an old colleague who, upon reflection, was most probably also avoiding his family responsibilities.
Flush with regret, guilt, and love, I leaned into my son’s chocolate face, puckering my lips to make up for lost time. His eyes lit up, he smiled… and pushed my face away.
“Your beard is too spiky.”
And with that he hopped off the bench and went inside to find his mother, leaving me with his empty plate.
I soon learned that this would not be, like most everything else in my life, a quick fix. There are, apparently, no shortcuts when it comes to a child’s love. Working hard to support your family, meticulously planning summer holidays, folding mountains of laundry, fixing a collection of seemingly always broken appliances – none of these matter to a child. They’re invisible and of zero emotional benefit.
Time was what was needed. And presence. For example, I quickly found out that surreptitiously checking my work email while building a Duplo tower would not be tolerated, his pudgy hand reaching out to refocus my gaze away from the phone. There was nowhere to hide.
I soon forgot about the kisses, or lack thereof. It was almost as if the very desire for the kiss would make it more unlikely, an impossibility, like trying to catch your own eyes moving in a mirror.
As lockdown progressed, so did our newfound relationship. We removed the training wheels from his bike and began a morning routine of wobbling through the park, me absolutely mortified as Milo inexplicably shouted at passers-by, “You got the corona!”. We got a bit silly drawing whales, race cars, and monsters with Rob. We touched every ceiling in the house with him atop my shoulders.
Soon, much to my wife’s dismay, Milo even started bringing me his bedtime story, previously exclusive motherly territory. I slowly became the lap of choice when we sat down to watch a variety of awful children’s shows, his squishy little body fussily finding its place of comfort on mine, like a dog circling to find a place on its favourite piece of carpet. He was soon so much at ease that he would, not unlike a dog, release disproportionately pungent farts directly on me, repeatedly, to the utter and absolute delight of his tittering brothers.
And so it went. We stopped counting the COVID weeks, I stopped hoping his school would take him back, and he stopped asking for pancakes every morning. He inevitably traipsed through important Zoom calls and met my colleagues, and I met his sometimes-friend, sometimes-enemy Eddie at the park (who he never accused of having ‘the corona’.) Most tellingly, I no longer removed him from our bed when he snuck in via his mother’s side in the early hours of the morning.
And then it happened. The kiss I coveted for so long. I don’t remember when or where exactly, all I can remember is the feeling of love as his little wet lips touched mine, the feeling of him letting me in. I do remember the moment right after, his eyes showing almost as much surprise as mine, and a moment of ‘what did I just do?!’, but luckily it was followed by the purest smile you can imagine.
We now have different kiss routines. Sometimes it’s a bouncy kiss while he jumps up and down on his bed, other times it’s an upside-down kiss, and there’s even been a couple of kisses on what was surely a very spiky bearded cheek.
Written by Noah Bernstein. Originally published at BeingDads, a blog by David Willans who is finding out what it means to be a great dad.