An Argument for Affection

Adopting their daughter inspired Aaron Dence and Jason Menayan to leave their day jobs for a new adventure in publishing.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY SMEETA MAHANTI

The book version goes a little something like this: A stoic cartoon professor narrates the story of an exuberant little girl named Edora, who’s out to share giggles and kisses with kids everywhere. The rainbow-haired character goes after them with abandon, smooching their knees, elbows and tummies. But there’s a twist at the end. Spoiler alert: The professor turns out to be Edora in disguise, and he transforms (in dramatic, puppet-assisted fashion) to smother unsuspecting kids in hugs and kisses until they dissolve into laughter.

This is the creatively wrapped case for affectionate play that parents Aaron Dence, 40, and Jason Menayan, 41, lay out in their new children’s book, The Kissing Bandit. As a part-time consultant for fitness technology companies and a former marketing director, they are hardly experts on child development—they confessed to total ignorance of the challenges that lay ahead of them when they were new adoptive parents bringing home their infant girl, Zahava, two years ago—but after their crash course in the basics of bottles and bedtimes, they’re as expert as any parent. And along the way, they found a new calling as advocates for being affectionate with your child.

Zahava on her way to pick blackberries in the Castro

Zahava double fists collection receptacles for the blackberries that she collects at the Vulcan Stairs in her Corona Heights neighborhood in the Castro.

The San Francisco-based couple had been together for eight years when they began pursuing adoption as their path to building a family. “We looked briefly at surrogacy, but adopting a newborn through open adoption felt most right to us,” Jason says. Following a series of home visits, background checks, interviews and marketing themselves through their agency, Adoption Connection, they matched with a birth mother in nearby Santa Cruz. “We built a great relationship with the birth parents—they’re both loving, wonderful people,” Jason says. “We consider them part of our family and an essential part of Zahava’s life.”

The open adoption allows Aaron and Jason to weave Zahava’s birth family into her life as naturally as possible. Occasionally, they manage to get down to Santa Cruz for a barbeque with their daughter’s birth mother, birth father, and friends. “We want Zahava to know her roots and that she is deeply loved by everyone in her broader family,” Aaron says.

Once back in San Francisco following Zahava’s adoption, the new parents adjusted to a slower pace of life. Aaron was working part-time, and Jason was laid off from his job the day after they brought Zahava home, so they enjoyed a brief honeymoon as two stay-at-home dads. But within a few months, Jason went back to work as a marketing director, and their schedule drastically changed. “From Monday morning to Friday night, we were basically just handing the baby back and forth,” Jason says. “Until the weekend, she didn’t really get to see both of us in the same room at the same time.” Facing a rough handoff schedule and learning through trial and error, like most parents, what style of parenting worked for them, Aaron and Jason gravitated towards literature that supported their natural inclination to be super affectionate with their child. “Our urge to kiss and hug our daughter at every possible opportunity was instinctive,” says Aaron.

But among friends in older generations, they encountered small markers of societal restrictions against coddling, Jason says. The idea that being overly affectionate with your child will make them clingy or soft is a vestige of behaviorist psychologists like John B. Watson, who advocated treating children like little adults in order to prepare them for the real world. The couple contrasts this concept with today’s more demonstrative and responsive parents—with one notable exception. “Even now, parents are more aloof towards their sons, thinking their affectionate behavior will make their child sissies or gay,” Jason says. “That has no scientific basis whatsoever.”

In fact, much of the modern literature backed up their penchant for cuddle fests. “Affection during childhood has been linked to children who grow into less anxious, more confident, and more intelligent adults,” says Jason.

So the pair started thinking about how to show the importance of being affectionate with your child to other parents, and their colorful children’s book was born. After developing the story and puppets for the package, the pair recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to put The Kissing Bandit into large-scale production, and Jason quit his job in June to focus on producing and marketing the book fulltime.

On the couple’s dining room table, promotional materials and puppet prototypes table for the The Kissing Bandit’s Kickstarter campaign have taken over.

It seems fitting that writing a book about affection has allowed both dads to spend more time at home with their daughter, though working in a house with a toddler has its challenges. “Taking care of Zahava is a fulltime, full-concentration job. Working from home was worse for a while because playing with her is obviously a very easily justifiable form of procrastination,” Jason says. Daycare has proven transformative for the family—Zahava comes home excited to play, and after a full day working on manufacturing and marketing, so are her dads.

Aaron and Jason still alternate some parental duties. Jason is the early bird and does morning duty, while Aaron takes the night-owl shift for pre-dawn wakeups, and as the primary caregiver for nearly two years, Aaron is still accustomed to running daytime swim sessions and play dates. But the flexibility of being at-home dads has allowed Aaron and Jason to adapt to their natural cycle of building the only thing they were after in the first place—a secure, lasting attachment with their daughter.