Lessons in time and space for toddlers

My son’s third birthday began more cagily than we expected. That morning he’d been reluctant to get out of bed. After weeks of being told to remember that his birthday was coming up, he now seemed hesitant and sullen. This was strange for several reasons. For one thing, we were never really sure the whole birthday message was getting through to him. Last week, we’d been telling him his birthday was ‘next week’, but since his grasp on the Earth’s movement round the sun is quite sketchy, he was still saying it was ‘next week’ the night before, as if ‘next week’ was its own, immovable point on an infinite horizon. Which it is, I guess, but there are some aspects to the gnawing infinity of spacetime I felt ill equipped to saddle him with at the time, what with all the party bags we had to organise.

But his caginess was also odd because he’s mad about birthdays, foremost his own. Like that friend of a friend who wears a white dress to your wedding, he makes it all about him any time a cake is presented. He has not yet sung happy birthday to any of his cousins without insisting that famous last line bears his own name. It’s become an in-joke in our family that each of our birthdays is also his, which is a cutesy way of accommodating his megalomaniacal urge for attention. And yet there he was, nuzzling into my chest and insisting on one more episode of Paw Patrol in bed before going downstairs for the cards and balloons he somehow intuits are about to kick everything off.

Perhaps turning three was more delightful to him in the abstract and now, faced with it actually happening, he finds himself tentative at the prospect. ‘It’s your birthday!’ I kept telling him, as he buried his head in my armpit and reiterated his touching, if inexplicable, reluctance to get the party started.

It reminds me of my own push-pull toward direct adulation and praise. In one way, it’s all I want. It is, after all, the main thing that has propelled me through a life spent writing gently humorous content for magazines and, now, an entire book that might as well be titled Please Listen To, And Praise, Me. To some extent, I suppose that’s what all books should be titled. But then there’s the other aspect to that pursuit, the weird Faustian bargain which means any time I actually am the centre of attention I so often want to be anywhere else. Why do I insist on deflecting any kind words as soon as they arrive, and with such speed that people think I’ve been offended? It seems, at best, inefficient for me to have been created so desperate for validation, and yet so horrified whenever it arrives.

Perhaps this is my son’s lot too, I think, as I carry him downstairs under protest. I barely have time to tell my in-laws that he’s ‘having an odd morning’ before he’s belting toward the kitchen table and scrambling at the presents there assembled. ‘What day is it?’, we ask. ‘Next week!’ he cries, and the space-time continuum breathes a sigh of relief.