Last Thursday afternoon, a little after 5pm, Jay, Wally, and I were crowded together in our pediatrician’s bathroom. Wally, who minutes earlier had had four needles inserted into his fleshy thighs, was screaming in my arms. Jay, who’d only remembered he needed to pee as I was strapping him into his car seat to go home, had his shorts and underwear around his ankles.
I held Wally in one hand and shimmied Jay’s clothes up his skinny legs with the other. Eventually I managed to cover just enough of Jay’s essential parts to allow him to walk back across the pediatrician’s waiting room and I turned to leave the bathoom. As I did, Jay declared, “I need to wash my hands,” mounted a stool, and turned on the water. I thought for sure he was trying to kill me.
Now, it’s not that I have low hygiene standards for the boys. In fact, many times a day I fight to get Jay to wash his hands. But in this particular case I couldn’t get out of that very tiny bathroom fast enough, and of course it was under just those circumstances that Jay felt moved for perhaps the very first time in his very brief life to be scrupulous about his hands. The only explanation I could come up with was that he was deliberately trying to get under my skin, to see just how far he could push his increasingly fragile dad.
I often think that Jay is out to get me. This morning I went to open the refrigerator and just as I did Jay pulled up in his plasma car and blocked my way. And on Saturday I was cleaning Wally’s throw-up out of the backseat of the car when Jay climbed over from the front seat and put his foot exactly where I was about to put my sponge. It wasn’t a great deal for him, either, but still, his timing was too perfect to be mere coincidence.
My tendency to perceive conspiracy in everything Jay does is one indication, I think, of the way in which I’m maladapted to be a father. A lot of what I instinctively interpret as devious scheming is probably just natural kid behavior. It’s natural for kids to be interested in what their parents are doing, and with Jay at arms length proximity from me many hours of every day, it’s inevitable that he’s going to get in my way from time to time.
It’s also true that my default mindset as a parent isn’t particularly compatible with his default mindset as a three-year-old. I want to get through the day in a straight line; Jay is a spontaneous guy who moves by passion and whim. I wonder why he’s so intent on thwarting me; he probably asks that same question about me.
On the drive home from the doctor’s office, with both boys secured in their seats, it occurred to me that there were other ways to understand Jay’s sudden need to wash his hands. It’s possible that my first instinct was right, that he wanted to dig the knife just a little deeper. It’s also possible that he was bowled over by the presence of a stool he’d never climbed, and a short sink designed for little people just like him, and for one intoxicated moment felt his life’s fulfillment lay in turning on that water.
But I don’t want to cut Jay too much slack.
That night at home, I asked Caroline if she thinks Jay takes any particular delight in needling us. She laughed, because of course he’s pretty good at getting under her skin, too. Then she said that to some extent, she thinks he does. She explained that she doesn’t think he has the ability to imagine the feelings he elicits in us, but that he does take a particular kind of thrill in provoking negative responses from us. He likes knocking me and Caroline off balance, even if he doesn’t know exactly what that means in terms of the emotional state it creates in us.
In that sense, Jay is more intentional than a fly buzzing around my face and he’s more intentional than Wally, who confounds us sometimes too, but he’s less intentional than say a sadist with a screwdriver. At least a little.