Just like we parents aren’t supposed to have a favorite kid, but secretly do (or so I hear, I’m an only child who’s mom to an only child, so I wouldn’t know), we all know kids have a favorite parent.
Over breakfast earlier this week, Nora let drop that she has a favorite — and I ain’t it.
It was the morning after we’d built a Playmobil castle together. I started the process with her, growing a little frustrated when she had trouble snapping the pieces together (from inattention and lack of trying, I felt, not because she couldn’t physically do it). But I dug deep for patience, which is not my strong point, and felt I was gentle with her. But when it was time to start dinner, my husband took over the building process and, of course, it became a total party.
So the next morning, Nora eyed the completed castle and said “Mama, today I want to play with my castle, but I want to wait until Dada comes home, because he’s my best parent.”
I mean, look, I pretty much knew she felt that way. I’m home with her all day, so I’m the rule-maker and enforcer and the one that announces when it’s time for unfun stuff like stopping for a potty break or going to the grocery store. If she gets in trouble for something, chances are it’s me doing the scolding, because chances are I’m the one who’s here. (This is not to say that Dada doesn’t enforce the rules or scold or do all those things parents are supposed to do. He does — and he does it well. But since he works out of the home, he gets less opportunity to do that stuff.)
When Dada walks in the door, everything is thrown aside and Nora shrieks in pure joy as she bolts toward him. PARTY TIME.
What’s more, I was a little girl once, too, and I sure know who my favorite parent was. Not my mom, who was home with me all day and likewise the person who set and enforced the rules and punished me if I did something out of line. I was a daddy’s girl all the way, excited to greet him when he came home from a business trip and inquire about what he had brought back for me.
It ain’t fair, but it just is. But that doesn’t mean it feels good to hear it. For about a minute after Nora’s declaration, I struggled mightily to keep composed. I continued eating my cereal, and I kept my eyes on my newspaper. But then the tears came, and I couldn’t stop them. She didn’t notice at first, but then she did. And when she asked what I was doing, I went with honesty.
“I’m crying, sweetie. Because you hurt my feelings.”
I tried to explain, which was probably a mistake: “I know you love Dada, and that’s great. But I try hard to be a good parent, too, sweetie, and when you say Dada is your best parent it makes me feel like I do a bad job. I wish we could both be your best parents.”
In typical 4-year-old fashion, she said “OK,” and went back to eating. I got a hold of myself, wiped my tears away and snapped back to (outward) normalcy. I busied myself making some toast for her. But when I came back to the table, she was crying, too, silently.
“Oh, baby,” I said, squeezing her and wiping her tears with a kleenex still wet from my own. “Please don’t cry, I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry I hurt your feelings, Mama,” she said.
“That’s OK,” I said. “We’ll just both try to be nicer to each other’s feelings, OK?”
Agreed. She stopped crying, and I stopped crying. And soon we were laughing. Business as usual.
But now I carry one of those wounds all parents end up walking around with, sooner or later.
I long ago stopped holding myself up to the ideal of “best parent,” in terms of comparing myself to other parents or striving for perfection. But even though I know that I fall short, it hurts to find out that my daughter knows, too.
I should probably use this incident as inspiration to do better. Am I really being the “best parent” I could be? Every second of every day? I don’t know. Probably not. It’s that old perfection trap again. But while I see room for inspiration in this, for a powerful lesson that would wrap up this blog post on an upbeat note, I also take from it discouragement. She doesn’t notice that I’m trying hard. She just knows that Dada is more fun, and, I’m sure she can sense, more natural at it. So why should I try? Not that it’s a competition, but I’ll never be the best parent, so why knock myself out trying?
The solution I’ve come up with is to try harder at being OK with being OK. I’m not perfect. I’m not often fun. But I’m not neglectful or abusive or unloving or awful either. I’m OK at this. OK? I’m OK.
And maybe one day I can be OK with being “the OK parent,” too.