When they were babies, neither of my sons used a pacifier or sucked their thumbs. What they both did, and what they still do even now at 5 and 3 years old, is chew and suck on their stuffed animals. They each have a favorite stuffed monkey, though Patrick’s is a brown monkey he received while we were still in the hospital (and was christened “Big Monkey” because he was bigger than my newborn) and Lucas’s monkey (just “Monkey”) was once a pale yellow and white fellow, about half the size of Patrick’s. I say was because his true colors have long since been eroded by the chewing so that he is a dirty ragamuffin of a monkey whom I’m afraid to throw in the washing machine for fear he’ll dissolve into a puddle of fluff.
Both monkeys are horribly disfigured, with missing limbs and ragged ears and tails. Lucas’s monkey looks as if he is the victim of a horrible flesh-eating disease, with holes chewed into his head so that stuffing protrudes. One arm is chewed down to a nub, one ear is nothing but a bit of frayed fabric and thread. Big Monkey has been stitched up several times, his nose nearly gone, his tail a bit of string hanging only by a string.
“That is one well-loved monkey,” said Patrick’s teacher when she spotted Lucas’s monkey in the backseat one morning during drop-off. I could only nod—because, indeed, my boys’ animals are well-loved. They told me so.
Whenever I have asked them why they are chewing—incessantly, unconsciously—on their monkey, they have both given the same answer: “Because I love him.”
Because they love them. That is their answer to why they are slowly devouring the stuffed animals they have had since birth. Love has resulted in gnawed ears and tails and arms and legs. Love is what leaves these poor monkeys limp, cold and wet in the boys’ beds when they get up in the morning. Love is what causes those limbs to dry stiff and stained from little boy spit. Love.
And while I tell them to try not to chew so hard, lest their monkeys disintegrate, I’m gentle with how I word it. Because I get it. I understand wanting to devour what you love. I understand the ache of need and the sense of belonging that is making my cute little boys sink sharp baby teeth into their monkeys. While I haven’t observed this behavior in my friends’ children—and frankly, I’m afraid of the looks I’d get if I asked point-blank, “Does your kid eat stuffed animals?”—mine are surely not the first children to eat what they love. Maurice Sendak, beloved children’s author of Where the Wild Things Are, told a story of a little boy who received one of Sendak’s original drawings and promptly ate it. “That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received,” Sendak said. “He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”
Consider the strange urge many of us have to “gobble up” our own infants. The phrase, “I want to eat you up!” is one many parents have uttered, but so too have strangers in line at Starbucks exclaimed over my sleeping infants, “Look at those cheeks! I just want to nibble on them!” Perhaps the urge that compels grown adults to make comments like that is the same driving urge that compels my sons to consume the fiber and thread of their monkeys.
Science has an answer for the compunction adults have to feel as if they want to devour their own (or someone else’s) adorable young. In a paper for Psychological Science researchers point to these “dimorphous expressions,” two different expressions that have the same origin, as a way of regulating positive emotions. The urge to eat a cute baby fits into the same category then as crying when you’re happy or laughing when you’re riding a terrifying rollercoaster. “Cute aggression” may not be what drives my sons to chomp away on their favorite lovies while they’re watching Paw Patrol in the morning or drifting off to sleep at night, but it’s more comforting than labeling them feral beasts, to be sure.
But I do get it. Yes, of course, I’ve felt that urge myself—to munch on baby toes or squeeze the stuffing out of a puppy or kitten. I know exactly what my boys mean when they say they do it out of love, because it’s the same feeling that makes my chest ache and my eyes fill with tears when I see my sons tucked in their beds with their tattered and soggy stuffed animals still clenched between their teeth. I don’t need a label or a study—that feeling in them, and in me, is love in its most basic and primal form. It’s the kind of love that isn’t reasonable or rational, it just is.
And so I tuck their blankets around their small, sleeping forms, brush the hair back from their round faces and hope their monkeys last as long as they need them.
Kristina Wright is an author who lives in Virginia. She tweets @kristinawright.
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