Cute at three = creepy at thirty.

My son is a little in love with me these days, and I can’t say I mind. Who would mind when one of the great loves of her life, the human being for whom she has sacrificed many hours of sleep and an inexpressible degree of personal freedom, declares that she’s as beautiful as a princess? That she has the softest cheeks on the planet? That she smells better than his teddy bear? (God, I should hope so. He sleeps on that thing. And drools on it. It smells like feet.) He’s taken to remarking on my clothing, and whether or not he approves of it. And when I meet his approval, I admit it, I get a little thrill. On more than one snowy winter morning I have caught myself putting on mascara when there was no chance of us ever leaving the house or seeing another human being. Dear Lord, I thought, I’m doing this to impress a three-year-old.

He has developed a ritual we engage in when I pick him up from school: he runs into my arms, I gather him up, and he rubs his cheek against mine. At first we managed to separate ourselves and head for the door after a few passes of cheek against cheek, but every time, the ritual has grown lengthier and more intricate. Now it’s a full two or three minutes of cheek rubbing, stroking my cheeks with his (inevitably sticky) hands, and gently kissing my cheeks all while murmuring, “Mama, mama.” It’s very sweet, but meanwhile we’re in an enclosed area surrounded by other parents and their offspring, none of whom seem as compelled to engage in a quasi-makeout session with their parents, all of whom are knocking into us, trying to get at their coats and lunchboxes and get out. I move as much to one side as I can, but his little hands are all over my face, blocking my peripheral vision. “Don’t you want to go to the playground?” I ask. “Don’t you want to tell me about your day?” “Shhh,” he whispers. “Shhhh.”

Outside, he is my protector. If someone almost runs us over (which seems to happen with alarming frequency) and I gasp or shout or deliver some (I hope) cutting remark, he’s all over the situation, ready to kick some ass if I give the say-so. Usually he’s a few seconds too late, but still, I appreciate the gesture “What did they do? Where are they?” he says, wheeling around, as the car in question disappears over the horizon.

The other day at the playground, an older boy growled violently in Henry’s face just as he approached, and while I don’t normally intervene in such matters, I thought that was out of line. And, well, I told him so. I tried to be gentle, but I’ve found that little boys either disregard you entirely or suffer deep emotional wounding, and this kid took the latter tack. He took off into the protective arms of his babysitter, who rolled her eyes at me. Meanwhile, Henry was outraged. “What did he say to you?” he demanded of me. “What did that little boy do to you?” He stalked toward him, all but rolling up his sleeves. “Why did you make my mother say that to you?” he screamed at the kid. Eventually we cleared things up and they were soon playing Power Rangers on the Death Star.

Another day, Henry was playing “Shark!” with two of his classmates, boys who are as verbal as Henry and thus equally amenable to spinning elaborate scenarios instead of, say, running at top speed into walls. In this episode of “Shark!” there was a shark (duh) on the prowl in the waters, the waters being whatever was not the jungle gym. Henry and his friends screamed the location, status, and harpoon-ability of the shark at each other from opposite ends of the jungle gym. Then at one point one of the boys looked down and realized I was in the water! Right next to the shark! “Aiiiiiigh! Shark! Shark!” he screamed at me, and I gamely threw myself to the ground, shrieking that the shark had my leg and wasn’t letting go. Henry was obliviously screaming about the shark being near the swings and maybe they should head over to the swings and check things out, but snapped to attention when the boy ran to him and shrieked, “Henry! The Shark! Has! Your! MOTHER!”

At that, Henry did not hesitate to leap off the jungle gym (or, to be more accurate, step slowly and deliberately down the ladder—but with great purpose), despite the boys’ protests that we would surely both be killed. He ran toward me and pulled me to safety. “Climb on my back!” he shouted, “It’s the only way!”

I was describing Henry’s exploits to my husband the other night, and I sighed and said, “You know, someday he’s not going to be this in love with me.” And my husband looked at me and said, “Um, don’t you want it that way?”

Which, really, is an excellent point. I guess.