For the last couple of weeks, Eli has been insisting on extra hugs and kisses whenever I put him to bed. His good night hugs and his kisses are long and lingering. His lips are soft and open and he kisses me right on the mouth. Each night, I find myself forcibly pulling away from him. Sometimes I have to peel his arms from around my neck. Often, I feel tense and angry. I resent his insistent, “One more!” and feel uncomfortable with the sensuality of his kisses. It’s been a while since anyone has kissed me with that kind of abandon, and I sure don’t want my four-year-old son to be the one doing it.
Each night, I feel increasingly uncomfortable, yet I’m not sure what to do. I don’t want to discourage his demonstrations of love or make him feel bad about himself. I don’t want to give him the message that boys shouldn’t show tenderness or affection.
It’s clear to me that what’s happening isn’t good. As an incest survivor, it not only doesn’t feel right, it feels downright icky. Yet I don’t know how to stop it. What for another parent might be a simple matter of limit setting is a potential minefield for me. I decide I need some help on this one.
I ask Karyn. She says Eli’s been doing the same thing with her, but since she doesn’t share my history, it’s not a big deal to her. Her method of handling it is pretty straightforward: “I just tell him, ‘You can kiss me on my nose, on my cheek, on my chin, on my forehead, on my lips.’ I make a game out of it.”
The next day, on a walk with my friend Ellen, I explain what’s happening and ask her advice. She says she went through the same thing with both her kids. “It feels good to them,” she said. “They don’t know it’s not okay to kiss your mom that way, and it’s our job to let them know. How can they learn what’s appropriate if we don’t tell them?”
We walk in silence for a while. Then she asks, “Which part is hardest for you? The fact that he’s prolonging the goodnights? The number of kisses? Or the kind of kisses?”
“All of the above,” I reply. “But the kind of kisses is hardest.”
She nods. “I remember when it happened with my youngest son. I told him, ‘I’m hugging and kissing you at night so I can feel close to you, so you can know how much I love you. I don’t want to be pushing you away the last thing before you go to bed. He really seemed to understand that.”
“But how do I deal with the kind of kisses?” I ask.
“Ask him to close his mouth.”
When I pick Eli up from preschool, I bring up the subject. I steal all of Ellen’s good lines. “You know how I’ve been pushing you away at night after we hug and kiss goodnight?”
“Yeah,” said Eli.
“Well, I don’t want to have to do that. But when you keep asking for one more hug and one more kiss and you won’t let go, I have to push you away. I hug and kiss you because I love you. It hurts me to have to push you away right before you go to sleep.”
“It hurts me, too,” Eli says. He doesn’t like it either.
I ask if he has any ideas for solving the problem. After a little discussion, we agree to choose a set number of hugs and kisses each night by rolling a die. After a moment, I decide to press on. “There’s one more thing, Eli.”
“About the kisses.”
“What about them?”
“Well, kids and mommas kiss with their mouths closed. And then maybe you open them up for the smacking sound at the end.” I demonstrate on my hand.
He eagerly practices, smacking as loud as he can at the end of each kiss. “Like this, Mama?” he asks.
“Yeah, Eli,” I say, “like that.”
That night, at bedtime, we decide on four hugs and kisses. I gently remind him about closing his mouth and he readily complies. I’m glad he isn’t testing this new limit at least not yet.
I squeeze my boy tight and let him go. He sinks back into the bed on his own volition. I say good night with love, and not resentment for the first time in weeks, struck once again, by how clear limits protect us all.