“Even as a toddler my son was physical – we constantly worried he was going to hurt himself,” a woman once told me at a party.
Her son had grown up to be athletic, a bit of a daredevil, into sports and roughhousing, something neither of his parents quite understood. When I asked why she thought this was, she shrugged. “It was just his personality from the start.”
Countless parents have told me the same thing: the seeds of the adult's personality are present from birth.
My mom, for example, loves to boast about how imaginative I was even as a baby, happy to sit and play with a sock or a pot and spoon with little oversight. To this day I get absorbed in solitary projects, and still love a good sock puppet show.
I remember an article in The New Yorker, a profile on sociopaths, talking about this phenomenon. Many killers displayed amoral behavior from a very young age. It's like the dark flip-side to the Lady Gaga anthem. These people were on the track from the start.
They were born that way.
My son is back in the throes of an anti-sleep phase.
He never really recovered from . His insomnia ebbs and flows. He'll cry-it-out for a couple of nights, then sleep fine for a few weeks. Until it starts taking longer and longer to settle him down, at first just by a few minutes. Suddenly, he's up all hours.
Maybe some infants sleep the undisturbed slumber of the innocent, but never him. Even before he could work his fingers properly, he'd rub a fist into his eyes to force himself into a fussy, short-tempered, increasingly unhappy, but awake state. No manner of lulling seemed to make any difference when the kid got determined.
Now, as a toddler with developing language and increasingly complicated set of skills, his methods of keeping himself up are far more vast, and destructive.
The other night he began shrieking as soon as he hit the crib, the soothing bedtime silence shattered by wails of “Mama, no!”
After fifteen minutes of complete upset, I heard a few loud bangs come from his room, after which his screams ratcheted into hysterics. I assumed the noise originated with our upstairs neighbors, and my son's cries were ones of panic and fear.
Then, as the banging continued, I realized he was crying, “Head! Head!”
Opening the door of his room, I caught my son in the act of knocking his forehead against the crib with such force that the floor shuddered and the wood let out a loud rap. When he saw me, he put his hand to the red bump that had formed above his eyes and said, “Head! Hurt!”
I swept him up and pressed his crying face to my chest. It was a gut response. But once my concern faded, fear took hold. To hate sleep so thoroughly that you'd hurt yourself to get your parents' attention – what was wrong with him?
His head sported a bulge after only a few minutes of this. What if he went on all night?
Which, of course, seeing as it got him the results he wanted, it did.
Whenever my son does this kind of stuff, I look back in my lineage for some precedent.
Growing up, individuals in my family were seen in relation to their ancestors. When my neatnik tendencies tipped toward OCD, my parents called me “Little Leo,” since I shared this trait with my alcoholic grandfather, Leo. In fact, clutter upset my grandfather so much, he sometimes used a messy house as an excuse to drink.
Personality disorders – addiction, paranoia, bipolarity, depression, anxiety – riddle my mother's side of the family. (I know less about my biological father's side, since I only met him a couple of years ago, though it's hard to imagine him having a problem I don't already have covered.) For a long time this was one of my reasons not to have children of my own. “These genes stop with me,” I would callously tell my mom.
Knowing about where my son's come from, combined with the postulate that his current behavior points to his adult personality, I project ahead.
I see a young man driven to experience everything, who never says no, who stubbornly refuses to listen to his body when it tells him to slow down, who lets his desire for mental stimulation lead him on even when it's physically unhealthy, who burns the candle at both ends, who wants attention so bad he'll hurt himself to get it. I worry about substance abuse, and his ability to care for himself.
Which is funny, because before his birth my wife and I used to joke that we were going to have a weird looking kid. I even photoshopped a conglomeration of our heads onto his ultrasound, along with our cat's tail. Turns out that he came out with our best features, very cute. But we never thought that he might inherit her temper, my high-energy, our combined stubbornness – in short, our worst mental traits!
This makes for one intense kid. And potentially one crazy adult.
But here I go again, getting carried away to dark depths, catastrophizing. Telling my wife, as I did after a recent pre-sleep tantrum, “That kid's got a huge problem!”
When he doesn't, not really. He's a genuinely sweet soul. Recently he scratched his friend in a minor spat and felt so bad he brought it up for days afterward. He loves running and being outdoors where he can water plants and say hi to the neighbors. He appreciates music. His face lights up when he smiles.
And he wants to please. Even in the midst of these head banging fits, when my wife and I go into his room he exclaims, “Sleep! Sleep!” and dives onto the mattress. He helps me cover him up with a blanket and then waves goodnight. Sure, he might be crying before I make it back to bed, but still, he wants to try, which says something.
In fact, spun differently, the traits underlying his difficult behavior are positive ones in an adult. Being driven, energetic, uncompromising, hard on one's self – these all sound like leadership qualities to me.
Ok, so maybe – no, certainly – I'm extrapolating too much here. I guess as parents we have to tone our imaginations down. We have to try and take our kids as they are in the present moment.
Which is hard, because we love and worry about them – it's natural to humans in general, perhaps, and to the culture we live in, certainly. But we have to remember that all kids have phases, and no kid is destined to any fate, good or bad.
“This too shall pass,” my dad tells me whenever I complain of some new round of insomnia. Your boy won't be calling you up in the middle of the night when he's in college asking to be sung to sleep, he'll say. Just roll with it.
Though part of me wonders if eighteen years from now, come finals, I won't be getting a panicked call in the middle of the night. “Dad? It's me. I have a huge exam tomorrow and can't sleep!”
And my imagination is off once more, into the doom and gloom.