It’s getting near bedtime, and my son won’t leave our neighbor’s house. “I haven’t played enough,” he insists after spending an entire day with our neighbor’s kids.
An afternoon at the Exploratorium wasn’t enough. Alex had a grand time with Samma, sticking their hands in everything from fog machines and sand art spinners to enormous bubble blowers and beach balls suspended on a cannon of air. As the parent in tow, I felt like I was part of a giant Rube Goldberg machine, chasing my three-year-old and a kindergartener who have enough energy combined to power a steam train.
I got a chance to play Mom to more than one child, and my son had a taste of life with siblings for the day.
At the end of the day, the two hadn’t had enough of each other. The only moment of disagreement happened when Alex kept changing the channels while Samma listened to recordings of couples in conflict. Uh oh, I thought, the experiment’s on us; conflict played out before my eyes. But then the children were on to the next thing, and in the late afternoon I had to lure them out with the promise of buddy shots in the photo booth.
The kids actually look like brother and sister with the dark hair from their Asian sides. Alex is our one and only, and Samma has three siblings. She’s used to snatching toys from her younger brother and having them snatched by her older sibs. The first time Samma and her little brother came over to play, Alex dissolved into a mass of sobs after the kids smeared their fingerprints all over his toys. Nowadays he doesn’t mind as much. Legos and Lincoln logs are strewn about like bonfire piles, but the house is a bit too quiet when the neighbor kids leave.
It’s a stark contrast to my own childhood growing up as the only child of immigrants. In those days, parents didn’t worry about child snatchers as much, and many times I was left alone simply because I could be. My dad used to marvel how I played with a piece of paper for hours as a toddler during the summers he worked three jobs while on break from college. When I started elementary school, my mother found a family with six children for me to stay with after school. It wasn’t the Brady Bunch plus one; it was the Sopranos in pint and gallon sizes and they terrorized me. So for years, until I lived in the dorms at Stanford, I was glad – even relieved – not to have siblings.
My upbringing bred a kind of isolation that I don’t want for my son. Earlier in the week, I called my mom to tell her that our neighbor would be taking Alex along to a playdate. My parents were going to stay over to help while I was traveling for author events. She freaked out. I got an earful – a friend of hers knew someone whose kid drowned in a neighbor’s pool. What if my child got lured off, or snatched away? Now why didn’t Mom worry about child snatchers when I was growing up? Her defense: you can’t trust anyone. Playdates are dangerous. I tried to get it through to Mom – the neighbor’s girl had come with us to the Exploratorium. Surely I couldn’t be dangerous. Finally my mom decided it would be okay for Alex to go if she came along.
Before I left for the trip, my son said, “I’m not missing you.” It’s actually a relief to hear that. Calling from my hotel that night, I heard Alex giggling with his grandpa. My heart did a little skip, knowing that my only child doesn’t have to be lonely, with family and a little help from his friends.
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