Will you hold my hand tomorrow?

My son doesn't know this, but he made my day last week.

I'd dropped him off at a weekly art class after school and, as usual, he raced ahead of me, the distance between us a sign of his growing independence or athletic prowess. Or maybe both.

Then, just as I thought he would head into class without a backward glance, he made a sharp U-turn, came to circle his arms around me and said quietly: "Bye, mama."

I felt my throat tighten. As gratitude welled up within me, I planted a kiss on the head of my firstborn, who turns eight next month.

Such unguarded public displays of affection from him are dwindling in frequency as he gets older and I'm simply thankful each time I'm the recipient.

It didn't seem that long ago when I couldn't wait to peel him off me after serving as his cow, cushion or conveyor for large chunks of the day.

These days, I feel touched, almost privileged, just because he reaches for my hand while we are out.

Could this be the last time, I sometimes wonder, as I revel in the slight pressure of the smaller palm in mine.

Could this be the last time he would willingly, unself-consciously, take my hand in his?

"One day, you will say, 'eeyur, mama', and shake my hand off," I teased him once, just to see his reaction.

"Of course I won't do that," he retorted.

"Promise?" I smiled even as my heart twinged, for I know that day will surely dawn.

Already, I can no longer plaster him with kisses the way I do his five-year-old sister. Pecks for him are now confined mainly to the top of his head. Errant kisses that land on the cheeks are still tolerated, but often swiped away swiftly with the back of his hand.

My daughter thinks nothing of trilling "I love you, mama" in her sing-song way, no matter where we are or who's around us.

My son's version is no less heartfelt, but is uttered less frequently, more softly and usually only after I tuck him in at night, when it's just our two shadows dancing on his walls.

I've learnt to take the cue from him when it comes to public displays of affection after he started Primary 1 last year.

His school invites parents for a briefing at the start of each year to prep us for what's ahead. The two sessions which I've attended so far end with a sweet gesture - the form teacher would hand out pens and sticky notes so we can leave messages for our boys on their desks. The idea is to give them a pleasant surprise when they return to school.

Last year, my husband and I enthusiastically filled at least three squares of paper with words that we thought brimmed with our love for, and pride in, him.

Far from being thrilled, however, he looked away when asked if he saw our notes. After much prodding, he finally said: "I threw them away."

"What? Why?" I was aghast.

He had found the terms of endearment "embarrassing".

This year, we weeded out potentially mushy references and tried for a friendly, jokey tone instead.

It seemed to have gone down well, except that, oh, he threw away papa's cartoon drawing of him.

"What? Why?" Again, I was crushed. He had always enjoyed my husband's doodles and, in fact, strove to copy them.

"It didn't look like me at all. My friends made fun of it."

Thankfully, he is still happy to see me when I show up at his school to help out as a parent volunteer, but I'm careful to keep physical affection to a quick ruffling of his hair lest he is mocked by his pals.

My wholly unscientific theory is this: Once our kids can tie their own shoelaces, we parents face serious competition from their peers and teachers as key sources of affirmation.

In a bid to sever any links to his babyhood, he made a fresh request recently. He wanted us to address him by his proper name instead of his nickname in front of his friends.

"Nope. This is our special name for you and we've been calling you that all your life. It's a habit I don't want to change."

His adult-like reply: "Just try."

It's probably a guy thing, I get it. Unlike his sister, who frequently drapes herself around me and showers me with unsolicited kisses, my son demands that I make the first move.

"Hug me," he might say when he's in need of some tender, loving care. Or "do you love me?", he would ask out of the blue, just because it's easier for him to hear than say those three famous words.

Conforming to social norms, boys realise early on that they are supposed to be cool, manly pillars of strength, not clingy mummy's boys.

So, if you have a son, you would have to negotiate the boundaries of physical intimacy much earlier, even if your child will always be just that in your eyes.

Who wants to be that teenager snapped hugging and kissing his mum, supermodel Stephanie Seymour, at a beach several years ago?

Those controversial photos of Peter Bryant Jr, then 17, and a bikini-clad Seymour, went on to spark debates on how close is too close when it comes to mothers and sons.

I'm not sure, but what I know is this: I would always oblige when my son asks for a hug or a peck.

For who knows if he will even deign to hold my hand tomorrow?


This article was first published on May 24, 2015.
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