Author’s note: The account of our most recent milestone is unbearably long. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Ben never wanted a pacifier as an infant. I would attempt to put one in his mouth and he would always spit it out immediately. But around the age of nine months, he was having intense teething pain (His first tooth came in at four months. Yes, ladies: ouch.) and he was gnawing on his hand so ferociously that I thought he would break the skin.
So in desperation, I took one of the discarded pacifiers I received in numerous baby shower goodie bags and gave it to him.
He shoved it to the side of his mouth and chomped happily on the silicone like an old guy chewing away on a stogie. It worked, and the pacifier became known hitherto as chomper.
Of course, Ben became more and more attached to chomper over the coming months and when we moved from San Francisco to Oakland, we allowed him to have chomper more often to help him through the transition of a new house, a new room and a new childcare provider. In the process, he had become the kid with a binky.
Before he started preschool, we decided to limit chomper to bedtime and naptime, partially out of principle and partially because his insistence on chewing the thing with such force that we went through one after another as he literally chewed them apart.
Since then, imposing that limit on chomper has been one slippery slope after another. For example, he’d ask for his chomper and we’d remind him that it was only for sleeping.
“I’m soooo tired,” he’d yawn dramatically, quick to find a loophole, and lie down on the couch or run and leap into his bed.
During our rough summer last year, when he was having multiple tantrums each day, I let him have it to calm himself down and allow him to regulate himself. It seemed like a small price to pay on one hand, but at the same time I felt like...you guessed it: A Terrible Mother.
But as he approached four, we decided that it was time to say good-bye to chomper. We wrote a social story to prepare Ben. The story talked about how he might feel sad sometimes when chomper is gone and that was okay. That he could be brave, and that he was a big boy and didn't need chomper any more. We talked about it with him. We even rehearsed putting chomper in a box.
And most importantly, we determined what the reward would be: Stepney and the Museum Cars – discontinued, of course and only available on eBay. But the price tag seemed reasonable for the chance to be free of the guilt, the stigma and the logistical hassle of having chomper in our lives.
We chose this past Friday to pull the plug - literally. We talked about it every day for a week prior and reminded him of the prize that would be waiting in the morning if he made it through the night. As Friday got closer, it was I, not Ben, who was dreading the start of our impending chomper rehab program.
On Friday night, we asked him to put chomper in the box and say goodbye. "Goodbye, chomper," he quickly obliged, and then kept playing, got his pajamas on, and seemed almost strangely chipper. Chris and I looked at each other, puzzled and he said, “If it’s this easy, we were idiots for not doing it sooner.”
When it was time to turn out the lights, the reality hit.
“We said good bye to chomper, remember?”
“I want chomper.”
We talked him through it, I laid down in bed with him, and while he tossed and turned for a long time before falling asleep, he didn’t cry, didn’t fuss or act out.
When he finally did fall asleep, he rolled over toward me with a smile on his face. Maybe he always has a smile on his face when he falls asleep and I just never see it due to the plastic thing in his mouth, or maybe he felt a little liberated.
In the morning, there were Stepney and the Museum Cars. Everyone survived; we felt like we had made it through the first hurdle.
As I feared, Ben viewed the first night without chomper as a temporary situation, even though we had anticipated this wrinkle and worked it into the social story. He must have thought of it like a stunt – go one night without chomper and get a new engine.
The next night, when it was time for bed, he asked for chomper. We reminded him of the deal, and at that moment, I witnessed him experiencing real loss for the first time in his life.
He looked crushed. He cried big sniveling, whimpering alligator tears in a way I had never seen him do before. It was extremely heartbreaking, but also such a relief that his emotional expression was so completely appropriate. No acting out, no throwing tantrums, no panic attacks, just straight-ahead human grief.
I lay with him again and he cried himself to sleep. In the morning, he was somewhere between denial and bargaining:
“Is it inside or outside?”
“I know, I know: It’s out on the driveway!”
Within five or ten minutes, he was playing and we never heard about it again that day.
Sunday, after bath time, curled up in a towel on my lap, he asked, “Where’s chomper?”
I went through the explanation again and added how brave and strong I thought he was for giving up chomper (quoting from a Backyardigans episode.)
This compliment seemed to register with him, and we changed the subject, going about our usual post-bath giggling antics. He fell asleep with only a little sadness and the beautifully honest admission: “I want my chomper back.”
We could see the light at the end of what had turned out to be a very short tunnel.
Tonight, we asked Ben if he had taken a nap at school.
“And so you had a nap with Monkey, but no chomper today.”
“Yes. I’m VERY brave!”
Later, if was off to bed, sans chomper, sans tears.
Rest in peace, chomper. Ben is brave, and everyone is okay.