Recently, it happened at a typical family function, which, in my family, tends to involve a gaggle of children at my in-laws' house. As always, the littlest nieces and nephews hover around their mommy. Except for my 20-month-old, who hovers around her daddy.
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There I sit, in the recliner in the corner, answering questions about my job and looking a little useless while my husband, Gary, carries our daughter, Rose, around the room and over to the piano, where they attempt a version of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." When he puts her down on the floor so he, too, can chat with the grown-ups for a bit, she wails in protest, pulling at his pants. My sister-in-law, her 2-year-old in her own lap, watches the whole scene unfold with amusement and says to her brother, "I can't believe how into you she is."
Another time, on our way to the zoo one sunny Saturday, Rose suddenly gets sick all over herself. We pull over. As Gary uses handfuls of wipes to clean our daughter's stained clothes on someone else's lawn, I begin to buckle the baby back into her car seat. She whimpers, looking past me for Daddy.
"It's OK," I say soothingly. "Mommy's here."
She stares at me blankly and bursts into tears.
"Da-Da," she insists, straining at the straps and pushing me to the side. "Da-Da! Da-Da! Da-Da!"
When we arrive anywhere, Gary is usually the one carrying Rose because, given a choice, she will twist and writhe in my arms until I hand her over. Me? I'm the one lagging behind with the diaper bag and the picture books and the rest of the supplies.
You know, all the things fathers usually lug.
I am no longer merely mildly annoyed by her obvious preference. I find it downright disturbing. So does my husband, enough so that when he and I return from a romantic weekend and pick up our daughter at my parents' place, Gary insists I walk into the house before him so I'm the one Rose sees first. I open the front door. Call her name. Brace myself.
She hears my voice and comes running from the living room. Then my daughter — for whom I gave up margaritas and caffeine and even pain relievers for nine months, the child I labored 13 hours to bring into the world, the daughter I sang to and continued to nurse even after her first teeth came in — runs right past me and straight into the arms of her daddy.
"Well," my mother, who has been observing the scene, pipes up. "She certainly is a daddy's girl!"
I am well aware of the advantages of this situation. At get-togethers, I am often the one conversing with the adults and nibbling hors d'oeuvres while Gary stacks blocks with Rose in the corner. I get to sit on the couch; Gary spends most of his time kneeling on the floor. I can go to the bathroom any time I want and stay in there as long as I want. Gary has to sneak out of the room after first distracting our daughter, however long that takes, then endure her guilt-inducing weeping once she realizes he is gone.
'Take it to management'
On good days, my husband and I joke about the situation. Lately, Gary has taken to calling me management, as in "Take it to management." This is what he tells Rose whenever she asks him for something. I'm the one, after all, who knows which — and how much — medicine she gets and when she shouldn't get any medication at all. I also have an uncanny ability to decode our daughter's various cries; I can distinguish hungry from bored, cranky from exhausted. I simply listen and tell Gary what to do, and if he does it, Rose immediately stops crying. The distressing part is that he has to be the one to do it. Our daughter may need me, but she wants her daddy.
I can't help but notice the looks of envy from other mothers — who wouldn't envy a 20-month-old's mother who can schmooze freely at parties or read the newspaper and enjoy a cup of coffee and a long, hot shower every morning? Some, though, particularly the stay-at-home moms who know I work full-time, seem unmistakably disapproving, giving smug "how sad" shakes of the head. I try hard to stay above it all.
I wish I could fully attribute my daughter's daddy proclivity to my crazy work schedule or to the fact that, during the first year of Rose's life (you know, that all-important bonding time), I continued to commute a total of three hours a day to and from the office, often leaving before she awoke and getting home at night as she was finishing her bath. My husband picked her up from day care every day and usually gave her all her bottles (they were bottles filled with my breast milk, but he fed her nonetheless). Why wouldn't she associate him with happiness, security and home?
Still, it has been hard not to feel rejected. In frequent Sunday-night tirades, I'd complain about having to work full-time and my killer commute. After a full day at the office and an hour and a half battling traffic on highway 99, I was generally not able to do much else but lie on the couch and watch Rose play. I fantasized about quitting.
Trumped by daddy
Before Rose arrived, I'd vowed my life would not change much when I had a baby. I planned to continue my job as a newspaper reporter. After all, I liked working and I'd always believed in teaching girls the importance of being financially independent. But after I got pregnant and felt the baby growing inside me, her kicks getting stronger by the week, I was increasingly conflicted. Visions of bright afternoons in the park with my baby, pointing out flowers and birds and butterflies, competed with daydreams of me as the ultimate career mom, rushing off to report a story, then rushing back to pick up my baby from day care and covering her with kisses as I whisked her home for bath, bottle, story time and bed. Much as I daydreamed, however, I really didn't have a choice: My job provided crucial income and even more crucial top-flight health insurance — a nonnegotiable because my husband's law firm did not. So back to work I went, crying every night on the way home from the office for the first three months. Then, as I was starting to adjust, Rose lost interest in nursing and entered the separation anxiety phase on cue. Except it was Da-Da she couldn't be without.
It's bad enough to get trumped by your nanny. It's worse getting trumped by your husband, particularly one who, until we became parents, had never nurtured so much as a houseplant. I was the one with all the baby–sitting experience. I was the one who was good with kids. I had the uterus, dammit! What the hell was going on?
It was tempting to conclude that my stressful work life was to blame, but much as I longed to believe that, when I watched my husband and daughter play, saw how he read to her and talked to her while she followed him around the house, it was hard not to think that their bond was more than the result of their spending a greater number of hours together.
What makes a good mother?
The fact is, my husband is all the things I always thought a good mother should be — all the things I used to be when I was a babysitter and not a real mom juggling a career and parenting and marriage. He's patient to a fault. Playful. Engaging. Genuinely thrilled to spend time with Rose, as if there's no place on earth he'd rather be. Case in point: Bath time with Daddy is an hour-long odyssey of singing and splashing, bubbles and soap paint that gets stuck in between the bathroom tiles. Bath time with Mommy is getting hair washed quickly, then getting out of the tub and ready for bed.
Indeed, people routinely ask me if Gary is a househusband. "No, he works full-time," I reply. In fact, he's the primary breadwinner. He's simply better at the caregiving thing than I am. People tell me I'm lucky. At one restaurant we frequent, after Gary had taken Rose to see the beer taps (she loves watching the beer pour into the glasses), the waitress stopped by our table for the third time to try to take our order. I was sitting alone — again. "Oh, I know what you're going through," she said sympathetically. "It's hard dating a single dad, isn't it?" It's hard dating a single dad?! Hell hath no fury like a woman whose maternal instincts are called into question.
So when I got pregnant with baby number two, when Rose was a little more than a year old and showing no signs of transferring her affections to me, I read Gary the riot act. This time, we would do things differently, I informed him. I'd quit my job. Or we'd move closer to my office to cut down on my commute. Or I'd go part-time. Whatever it took, I was determined to bond with my baby.
Gary remained calm during my diatribe. (So did Rose, for that matter, sleeping peacefully in her car seat.) "That's fine," he said. "If you need to do things differently, fine. But what I want to know is what, exactly, is so wrong with our daughter that you think you messed up?"
I had to think about that.
Prepared for everything but this
Thirteen nieces and nephews had led me to prepare for the worst: the tantrums, the fits, the sleepless nights, the bitter arguments and the widening distance between the new parents with each stage of the child's development, month by month, year by year. I'd braced myself for all that, but parenting Rose was not what I had expected it to be. Rose was a wonderful baby. People often told us that she was the happiest child they'd ever seen. Robustly healthy. Observant. Smart. Even when she was challenging, she was a joy, possibly because her father dealt with most of the challenges — dealt with them better than I ever could. Indeed, many psychologists say daughters who have strong, nurturing relationships with their father are more self-confident, end up with higher-paying jobs and have fewer eating disorders than girls who aren't close to their dad. That makes sense to me. Frankly, it didn't surprise me that Rose adored her father — I adore him, too. Why, then, should my daughter's clear preference for her father irk me so much?
"Because babies are supposed to love their mother more than anyone else," I blurted out, in answer to Gary's question that day in the car. That's when I realized how stupid I was being. Because, after all, shouldn't the focus of a good mother be the well-being of her child? Isn't that what all the books and studies and back-and-forthing between working moms and stay-at-home moms are allegedly about? Doesn't Rose's happiness — her health, her affectionate nature, her curiosity and the confident and cheerful way she goes about her day — prove that I've done a good job? Even if the best thing I've done as Rose's mother is choosing a good man to be her father?
If I'm being generous with myself, I also have to acknowledge that as parents, there are things I am good at and things Gary is good at. When we take our daughter to the pediatrician and she asks about Rose's eating and sleeping habits, her developmental milestones, Gary stares blankly while I provide answers. At inoculations, I'm the one who remains in the room, who holds Rose down and soothes her afterward. I am the one our daughter brings books to, because I am best at doing funny voices. And when Rose is throwing her 17th fit of the day and Gary, having dealt with the first 16, is at his I'm-taking-off-for-Vegas breaking point, I am the one who steps in and somehow manages to get everything under control.
Our job, together, is to be the best parents we can be, and the way we do this is by accepting that the other person does some things better, leaving society and stereotypes and how-to books on mothering out of it. Now that Rose is talking, she asks Gary repeatedly when I'm getting home from work. She won't go to sleep until we're all together again, under the same roof. She's a happy person — albeit happier still when Daddy is around. So what? So am I. Things are more fun when Daddy is around. Isn't that the way it's supposed to be?
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