According to family legend, when I was a toddler, another child tossed my lovey -- a ragdoll I had named Monica -- into a small barrel of trash that had just been lit. Before any of the adults present could stop me, I reached in and snatched my doll from the small fire. Luckily, neither of us were burned. The only one who really suffered was the bully, who was, most certainly, punished. But, oh! How I would have suffered if I hadn't been able to retrieve Monica. She was everything to me.
Whatever you call it -- a lovey, a comfort object, a transitional love object or TLO, as a former preschool teacher I know says -- that special object to which a baby or toddler attaches is a big deal.
Typically, a TLO is soft, like a blanket or a teddy bear. Its softness, psychologists say, is evocative of a mother's loving arms. Cuddling with this object is the next best thing to cuddling with mom.
This attachment usually begins around the age of six months, when babies are beginning to experience the freedom of early mobility. At this stage, they are starting to see themselves as individuals separate from their parents. They are beginning the long journey from complete dependence to independence. So, of course, they crave solace. Of course, they need soothing. The TLO is just the ticket -- at least for many babies and toddlers.
I have known parents who were slightly alarmed at the attachment their children developed for a blanket or a bunny. But having and using a TLO is a healthy part of childhood development. In fact, pediatricians sometimes encourage parents to help their child attach to a soft toy or blankie by taking it with them wherever they go and using it to help comfort their child.
My son's "lovey" was a stuffed black bear, which he, as a toddler, named Big Dark Street. (Interestingly, he took the name from a line in a picture book that he must have found comforting: Big dark streets love little street lamps.) As a toddler, my son took Big Dark Street everywhere -- until we lost him once on a vacation. My son was distraught; his mom more so. I spent hours calling every home, restaurant and hotel we'd visited on our trip, asking if they'd found a little boy's beloved bear. "We'll check and let you know," was the usual response. One day, about two weeks later, a box arrived in the mail -- from a Holiday Inn. We opened it and, sure enough, there was Big Dark Street. A note was pinned to his back that read: "Goodness, I'm glad to be home!"
But it wasn't long before Big Dark Street went back into a box and into a closet. My son, like most kids with TLOs, moved on not long after preschool started. The classic children's story, The Velveteen Rabbit, describes well this short, sweet season of childhood. Cuddled and loved until he was literally worn out, the stuffed rabbit lost its meaning to the boy over time. But the boy, we presume, grows up well-adjusted and independent. The rabbit did its job well.
Occasionally, when I'm rummaging through boxes in storage, I'll come across Big Dark Street. Each time, I'm compelled to pick him up, breathe in his scent and give him a hug. His job now is to soothe me -- the mom who misses the toddler who loved his bear (and his mother) so ferociously. Fortunately, that bear can still work its magic.