"My Snuggle Boy"

When he’s at home, there’s a good chance you’ll find my not-so-little boy cuddling on my lap. What a change from the expressionless toddler who came home to us eight years ago!

author Billy Cuchens and his son Jayden snuggle together at home

Jayden started his third grade year at a new school. I'm always on alert in a new environment where people who know only me or know only my kids first find out we’re a transracial adoptive family. Strangers at the grocery store are one thing, but teachers and classmates are another. So I was wondering how he’d react the first time I visited him for a class party, and was thrilled when he shouted, "Dad!" as soon as he saw me walk into the classroom. Then he ran up to me and gave me a hug. I gave him a quick pat, but he didn't let go. Instead he nuzzled his cheek into my stomach.

 

Trying Not to Expect Affection

Jayden has come a long way since he came home at two years old. When Jayden first walked through our front door, he couldn't talk. He tried, but it was baby gibberish. Furthermore, his face showed zero emotion. No smile when we gave him food or presented him with a new toy. No laughing when we tickled him. No tears when he got hurt.

Several books on toddler adoption advised us not to seek any emotional payoffs, but to discover how he receives love and to nurture that without any expectation of affection in return. Gradually, he became attached to his two older siblings. He sought them out to play at all hours of the day, but he never approached my wife, Laurie, or me unless he wanted a specific toy, TV show, or snack. We viewed his attachment to Isaac and Vivianna as a positive step; at least he was bonding with someone. But Laurie and I shared our disappointment in his lack of affection, or even interest, in either of us. On bad days, it was hard not to let it hurt our feelings.

I remember one day after he’d been with us for a few years. I took him out for ice cream and came home dejected. “He hardly said anything,” I said to Laurie. “I tried to make small talk, and he just gave me short, one-word answers."

“Well, how did he act?” Laurie said. “Did he seem bored?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I can’t tell.”

“He was the same for me last week. He had a green day at school (kindergarten equivalent to an “A”), and I got him a slush. When I handed him the slush he quietly said ‘Thanks,’ but then he was goofing off and belly-laughing with his siblings.”

This day wouldn’t necessarily have stuck with me on its own, and I didn’t give it a second thought at the time. A few months later, however, I was going through Jayden’s schoolwork and found an assignment labeled, “My Favorite Memory.” He’d drawn a picture of the two us, each with an ice cream cone in our hand. I felt equally heart-warmed and confounded.

 

Making Up for Lost Cuddles

I can’t specifically pinpoint the moment when Jayden changed. I guess after years of Laurie and me loving on him, he just became touch-feely. Then he became super touchy-feely, as if he were making up for lost time.

These days, I might be sitting on the couch, and he’ll plop himself on my lap. This might have been cute had he done this when he was younger, but Jayden is 10 now, and over a hundred pounds, so it kind of hurts. But, I worked a long time for this, so I don’t rush to tell him to get off. But after a while, when my legs have fallen asleep, I might pat his leg, say, “Love you, Buddy,” and sit up, assuming that’s a clear signal to scoot off my lap. But he doesn’t get off. He pats my leg (which now has pain shooting up my spine), says, “Love you, Dad,” and then settles back into me.

Laurie will look over at me shifting around, trying to find a less painful position, and chuckle. “You OK?”

“Fine,” I groan. “Please get me the heating pad.”

Jayden is every bit the typical pre-adolescent boy. He's completely oblivious that his shoe is untied, or his fly is down, or his brand new white shirt is covered in pasta sauce. He's also completely oblivious when the outside world stares when he shows affection to me in public. His newest bit is to take my hand and put it on top of his head, then spin around in a circle. Some adoption experts might speculate that he's "claiming” me to the people staring at us, and, if that were the case, I'd be thrilled. But I know my boy, and his motives are far more casual. He’s thinking, It feels good when my dad rubs my head. In a way, I find this more heartwarming—that, in his world, I'm Dad.

At Jayden’s latest class party, he greeted me with a huge hug, nuzzled my belly, then ran off to play with his friends. The rest of the time I was there he remained busy—playing, doing his school work, and having fun. When it was time for me to leave, I tapped his shoulder and said, “I gotta get back to work, Bud.”

“Aww,” he said. “You have to leave already?”

I gave him a hug and said, “Love you, Bud.”

“Love you, Dad.”

I started to walk out, but he kept on hugging me and trying to pull me back. “Not yet,” he said.

At that point, I could feel his classmates staring at us, but I didn’t care. And Jayden clearly didn’t care, or perhaps didn’t even notice. Either way, what could I do but give my not-so-little snuggle boy another hug?

 

BILLY CUCHENS is the father of five through transracial foster and domestic newborn adoption. He lives with his family in Texas.
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