You're "It," I used to say when he came home from work. His hand would sweep through his curly, mocha hair, his wide shoulders slumped with exhaustion, which I chose not to see -- or just couldn't see, not then -- and I'd hand him our high-needs, colicky baby. At least one of us -- the baby or her had-it-up-to-here, sucked-dry mother -- was usually crying. He would take the infant without complaint and let drool and milky spit-up stain watercolor puddles on his button-down, collared shirt.
I so did not want to be "It" anymore. Let someone else be at the center of the game. Let me run off and hide in a place where I could not be tagged, not here in the house, lying in wait, knowing that at any moment, I could be found and become "It" again.
In hindsight, we should have hired help, a larger tag team to share in the game, but I didn't know that then. Colic is short-lived, they all said. It gets easier with time, I was told. It won't always be like this.
In the meantime, I just needed him to be "It" for awhile. After all, we were a team, weren't we? Partners, right?
If I close my eyes and conjure up childhood memories of playing tag, I envision twilight and the tickling of newly mown lawn under my bare feet, children in cut-offs dashing here and there, avoiding whomever is "It." Yet I don't remember particularly loving the game. I preferred instead to soar sky-high on swing sets, join in endless double-Dutch jump-rope sessions, and compete in hopscotch marathons using smiley-face fabric beanbags my friends and I sewed ourselves.
Those were games in which I had an element of control, and because I was small and tentative, aggressive games like tag were scary. I'd opt out so many times that I think I may have stopped being asked to join in.
It might have been different had we known more creative versions of the sport. If my husband and I had played tag together back then, I bet I'd have loved it. I'm sure I'd at least have been motivated to do the chasing.
As the baby grew, so did my husband's job responsibilities, which was great for our bank account but not so great for our togetherness as a family. I joined a mothers' group for companionship.
My mothers' group mates are still close friends today; we bonded quickly and easily, made plans and stuck to them, met often for pre- or post-nap walks and lunches and to push our babies in the swings at the park. But there we'd be, being "It" together, days changing into nighttime, when suddenly they'd look at their watches and have to leave. Their partners would be coming home; it would soon be dinnertime. Even the single mother in the group joined the exodus -- her mother visited on a regular basis and was around more than my husband was. I'd stay at the park, push my child awhile longer in the swing. No hurry to get home. My husband wouldn't be back until after dark, and when he traveled, he was not there at all.
For a while, I half-joked about -- and then really considered -- the legitimacy of joining a single-mothers' group.
As difficult as it was for me, my husband lost something, too, by missing much of our daughter's early years. "Go back to your work house, Daddy," she told him once when he altered the routine and showed up before dark. He didn't like that much. His "work house" was where he lived when he wasn't with her.
Since she hadn't visited his office since she was a baby, we took her to the "work house," and she scribbled fluorescent circles on the dry-erase board on his wall. We traveled along on business trips to England and Quebec, where she and I spent long days in foreign parks and zoos.
The job came to an end; we looked at it as a well-deserved, timely, and semi-permanent vacation. He was not going to be working at the work house, or any other, he decided, for awhile. He drove her to preschool; we traded off being there on parent volunteer days. Kid pile! the kids called out when he brought her to school, and he'd feign surprise as they knocked him down to the ground, and then climbed aboard his chest and limbs as he tickled them. But where's her Daddy? they'd ask, disappointed, on the days I took her to school.
She loved his being "It." He bought her chocolate ice cream after gymnastics class, and once he made an elaborate butterfly net, and they caught summer bugs and spring butterflies on the lawn that he now mowed himself.
But then, my husband began commuting long distances and investing infinite hours getting a start-up to actually start up, which changed his status to friendly ghost, one who appeared late in the evening. Many nights, I would find him by following the glow of his laptop. Shared parenting and our tag-team routine came to an end. I was "It" once again. Sole parenting certainly became easier once my daughter was older and more independent, but mother-daughter bonding time had its limits. Could you not be with me so much? she once asked, and while I never thought of asking the same, I did break up our routine by arranging get-togethers with our single-parent friends. I tried not to think twice about showing up solo at dinners and parties. He's working, I said. That's too bad, friends responded with empathic nods.
One evening, recently, after lugging heavy groceries up too many stairs, my back went out. Spasms of pain rendered me incapable of mothering duties and anything else. My husband became "It" by default -- for our daughter and for me. He made my doctor's appointment and gently got me there. I leaned on him and into him, and that part felt good. It had been so long, and I let my head drop into his shoulder. In the days that followed, he worked from home or went in late; he woke my daughter and got her dressed and drove her to school. Joyfully, he told me how he made up a math game to play with her on their way to school.
He traveled in my place on the school overnight camping trip. Tell me every detail, I begged them upon their return the next day. Later that night, as I fell asleep, the part I remembered him telling me is how the kids played flashlight tag while the grown-ups sat chatting around the fire, a hybrid game of hide-and-seek and tag in the dark, jumping over the beam of light, and ducking underneath. How she loved the game, wielding our gigantic flashlight, and how she caught them all with the large white beam.
My back is slowly healing, and we're at a party in the park. After the tie-dye and before the cake, the kids run after each other on an expanse of lush, green lawn. Come chase me, Mommy, my daughter pulls at my hand. I want to but can't -- my back is still not strong enough, and tag is not an option no matter how much I now want to join in this game. Daddy will, I say, and flag him down. He dodges back and forth and follows her zigzag getaway gallop. When he tags her, I watch them reverse roles, her steadfast concentration and extended arm reaching toward him. She's "It."
I have my partner back, though for how long, I'm not sure. I tell him it's not flowers or chocolates or spa gift certificates I need but seeing him play with our daughter and later hearing the words I'll put her to bed and I'll drop her off at school this morning; they are the gifts that make me warm inside and sustain me.
You're It, I say to him later that night in an embrace. He's so "It." I'm woozy from the muscle relaxant and pain-killer cocktail swimming though my veins and thankful beyond words that he's here to tag, and so willing to take charge of the game.
Team-Hug Tag: The object of this game is to tag people as a team. Two players start off as It, holding hands and chasing to catch another player with their free hands. There are no safety areas for the free players; however, if they hug another player they are safe.
Joanne Catz Hartman lives with her husband and daughter in Northern California. She is a columnist at the J Weekly and her work has appeared in local parenting publications, her alumni magazine, and the anthology The Knitter's Gift. She is Literary Mama's Profiles Editor and can be reached at LMprofiles (at) literarymama (dot) com.