When our son, Max, was born a little more than three years ago, we nuzzled every square inch of delicious, creamy baby skin. Diapering was a reason to smooch his belly. Changing his clothes was an opportunity to nibble his toes. We just couldn't wait until he was old enough to hug and kiss us back.
But to our astonishment, Max was not a natural-born cuddler. He might stretch up his arms to be held, but inevitably, within minutes, he squirmed to be free. Rocking with us in the chair was fine for drinking his bottle or for special occasions -- when he didn't feel well or woke from a bad dream -- but when we tried to nuzzle him just for the pure pleasure of it, he struggled away from us. By the time Max was 6 months old, we began to feel a little slighted.
"Maybe he just needs to learn how to kiss and hug," Jeff said.
So we tried to teach him. "Look! See what Mommy and Daddy are doing!" we called to Max as we kissed, pursing our lips and making smacking sounds.
Max, crawling on the floor, stopped and blinked at us.
We hugged each other; we hugged his favorite stuffed dog, Ruff-Ruff. We crouched down and called to him.
Max crawled slowly toward us. We held out our arms, our faces an inch away from his. "Hug!" we said. Max frowned and pushed us both away.
We told ourselves not to take it personally. It didn't mean he didn't like us: His face lit up the second he saw us; his eyes followed us around the room. He was our son, after all, swimming in our gene pool.
But when he turned 1 and then 1 1/2, cuddling was still not in his repertoire. "Give him time," we told each other, and then felt rejected when we saw how snuggly other babies were with their parents. Max's friend Thomas showered his parents with so many wet smooches, his father carried a handkerchief. Amy gave her mother marathon hugs. "Oh, look at Thomas kiss!" I said to Max. "Look at Amy's nice hug!" Max held out both arms for me and I bent down low.
"Bottle," he said distinctly.
More and more, I began to feel as if Jeff and I had a guilty little secret.
"Maybe you kiss and hug him too hard," my mother suggested.
"Maybe he should see the doctor," an aunt warned.
"Don't be silly," I said. But at Max's next checkup, while our pediatrician was listening to Max's heart, I blurted, "Do you think it's weird that Max doesn't like to kiss or hug?"
The doctor smiled patiently. "Babies come with all kinds of personalities. And what's true for Max today may not be true in a few years."
"Or it may," Jeff said.
"Or it may," the doctor admitted. But he pointed out that Max was one of the happiest babies he saw. "I wouldn't worry. He clearly needs and loves you. Don't force the issue."
So we decided to call a moratorium.
Then one day not long after, Max was standing in his usual spot watching Barney & Friends, a foot away from the TV. I was sitting on the floor behind him. Suddenly, he turned to me, beaming, and plunked himself happily in my lap. I didn't move. I didn't ask for a kiss or a hug. He spread himself out prone, his body mapping mine. He reached for my hands, stroking my fingers. He didn't let go of me for the whole length of the show. My right leg went numb. My back throbbed. I didn't budge.
But Max still didn't like to kiss. He loved to lay himself across our laps, whether Barney was on or not. He held our hands. And at night, he asked to be cradled in the rocking chair before he went to sleep.
We've always hoped that one day Max will want to claim all those months and months of kisses and hugs we've kept in storage for him. But in the meantime, we've learned to accept him on his own terms of endearment.
One recent evening, when we were putting Max to bed, I asked impulsively, "Can Mommy have a kiss?" Max was already sitting in his crib, sucking on his pacifier, pleating his blanket in his hands. I didn't expect anything. But all at once, he stood and moved purposefully toward me. For one split second -- before he abruptly sat back down again, before I could even touch him -- he presented his cheek and said, "Kiss!"
Hey. It's a start.
Caroline Leavitt's most recent novel is Living Other Lives.