The other night we had some friends over, a couple with a fourteen-month-old daughter. Wherever Daddy went, baby followed on all fours. Whenever Daddy sat down, baby would climb into his lap. Whenever anyone else tried to hold the child--including her own mother--she'd feign sudden respiratory failure until returned to Daddy's arms. Then she'd gurgle and giggle and coo and make all those happy noises infants make only when they're starring in a Pampers commercial.
Frankly, this little girl's dad-worship irritated the hell out of me. You'd have felt the same way if you were a Daddy with (yes, I'm going to say it) a Mama's Boy. I didn't fully realize my last-place ranking on Matthew's Favorite Parent List until he could run and speak in complete sentences. Early one morning I was in the kitchen, trying to kick-start my brain with newsprint and caffeine, when I heard my son tramping up the hall from his bedroom.
Before I continue, I should mention that the above paragraph closely parallels the setup for my sweetest pre-parenthood fantasy. In that perfect little scenario, I'm sitting in our cheery breakfast nook, looking classically Ward Cleaverish as cartoon robins chirp right outside the window. My son enters and, overcome with feelings of love at the sight of Dear Old Dad, he races in my direction to bestow upon me the first hugs and kisses of the day.
Perhaps if our house had a cheery breakfast nook, the scene would have played out as I'd imagined. Instead, on this particular morning--and every subsequent morning for six or eight months--the sight of Dear Old Dad caused my son to bolt in the opposite direction while screaming, "I DON'T WANT YOU! LEAVE ME ALONE! I WANT MOMMY!"
I tried not to take it personally. But it's not easy being on the receiving end of a loved one's total, absolute rejection. Especially when you're too groggy to notice that you've not only poured yourself a bowl of Cocoa Puffs, you're actually eating them. And it didn't help when Matthew would return in his mother's arms, bestowing upon her the first kisses and hugs of his day. Affection that rightfully belonged to me.
I am pleased to report that the kid no longer screams at his first morning's sight of me. Now he runs straight to Mom without saying a word. I like to think that he's worked himself halfway toward greeting me with a limp handshake.
Mornings aren't the only time Matthew wants nothing to do with me. He once scraped his knee and worked himself into such hysteria that if my eyesight were any worse, I'd have assumed his leg had been ripped off at the hip. But as soon as he saw me, the panic ended. "Um, where's Mom?" he asked. I explained that she was at work and wouldn't be home until dinnertime. "Oh," he said, heading back outside. "Never mind."
Obviously, my own son doesn't trust me. What does he think I'm gonna do? Look at his wound and say, "Uh-oh, we're gonna have to pour some Drano on that! But first, let's really make it bleed! Maybe if I whack it with this hatchet a few times . . . "
In all arguments, I have the next-to-the-last word--which is of course the same thing as no word at all. If I say, "No, you may not pretend that the microwave oven control panel is the dashboard of Darth Vader's spaceship," my son will immediately check with his mother for a reliable ruling. Yesterday I asked if he'd help me take out the garbage. "Dad, don't you remember?" he said. "I only help Mommy take out the garbage."
It makes no sense. I'm the one who always wrestles with him until we break something. I'm the one who lets him watch Thundercats when Mom's not home. I'm the one who once gave him a bag of M&M's and an Eskimo Pie for lunch on the sole condition that he keep his mouth shut. If it weren't for me, the little ingrate wouldn't have a life!
So why am I not his parent of choice? Well, I've come up with five possible explanations.
1) My wife is paying him to like her more than me.
2) My wife is secretly an evil hypnotist who has taken control of his mind and brainwashed him into thinking I'm a big know-nothing, chuckle-headed jerk.
3) I am a big know-nothing, chuckle-headed jerk (a far-fetched notion that's certain to be vehemently contradicted by those who know me).
4) Preschoolers are lousy judges of character (which could explain why they're not allowed to vote, marry or decide whom they want to live with).
5) Mothers simply have some kind of weird, unexplainable, God-given magic power over their children.
I found some comfort in that last theory--until those friends dropped by with their dad-addicted daughter. Now I'm going with the evil hypnotist idea. My wife has her own opinion, but I'm not about to spread it around. Suffice to say that her view is far-fetched and would be vehemently contradicted by those who know me better than she does.