Celia, my newly christened 4-year-old, marches into the kitchen and makes a surprise announcement: “I love Daddy now!”
Well, that’s new.
That half of her genetic makeup is mine hasn’t mattered much. She is a fully committed mommy’s girl, to the point of obsession. If Celia weren’t my wife’s daughter, she’d be her stalker.
She is smart, animated, outgoing, observant, hyper-aware and not afraid to stick up for herself. When big sister Sophie complained that someone else should remove the toilet booster seat used by her younger siblings, Celia piped up, “You have two arms.”
But take away her mother, and she falls apart. The connection seems all the more extreme when contrasted with her utter lack of concern for her other parent, despite my years-long charm offensive.
Sam, Celia’s brother, cries when I leave for the grocery store. Celia cries when I change my mind and don’t leave.
My wife stubs her toe, and Celia picks flowers for her. When might I ever get flowers from Celia?
“Your funeral?” my wife suggests.
As we dropped off her mother at the airport, I tried to console a despondent Celia with a bribe of ice cream. Celia rejected the deal. She wanted her mom more than ice cream. She wants her mom more than anything.
When her mother left to go out recently, Celia stood at a window, sobbing, “Don’t drive away! Pretty please!”
As the minivan drove off, she slid her face across the pane in the same direction, minimizing the distance between her and her mother for as long as possible.
When I ask if she wants me to bathe her, she counters with false hope: “You can bathe me tomorrow!” Extra effort makes little difference. Upset because she didn’t want the “Frozen”-themed bandage on her ankle to get wet, I directed her, delicately, to prop up the foot so it stayed out of the water, and helped her balance on one leg.
“I wouldn’t have done that,” my wife says.
Celia disagrees: “Yes, you would have!”
She even gives her mother credit for a kindness she specifically ruled out — but one which I did, in fact, perform.
Safely ensconced on her mother’s lap at the dinner table, Celia directs her father to fetch ice cream and blueberries. “Daddy’s a hero!” she chirps, a Pinocchio-size puppet master pulling the strings.
Once, my wife interrupted bath time to say she was leaving. Celia cried for 20 minutes. At one point, she stopped, looked up with giant tears streaming down her face, and asked hopefully, pitifully, “She still here?”
No, Mommy has left. The crying resumed in earnest.
And if she is sick (which she often is), it is much, much worse.
Resting in bed upstairs, Celia calls out, “Mommy!”
I respond: “What do you need, Celia?”
Silence. And then: “MOMMY!”
It was as if I didn’t answer. Or exist.
Her mother dispatches me as her officially designated envoy anyway. “What do you need, Celia?” I ask, cheerily, upon entering her bedroom. “What can I do for you?”
She scowls and turns to the wall: “No. Mommy.”
“But Daddy’s here. What can I get you?”
Mommy wearily trudges upstairs. “What do you need, Celia?”
Her juice is on the nightstand, next to the bed. Had she sat up and leaned over, Celia could have reached it herself. But Daddy was not even worthy of this simple task.
When she’s sick, we let her sleep between us in our bed, which makes for a poor night of parental slumber. Needing rest, my wife sneaks away to sleep upstairs, alone, in Celia’s bed.
In the wee hours, Celia blearily reaches out to caress her nearby parent’s face. A stubbly, unshaven face. Daddy’s face.
She bolts awake, panicked by the realization that her mother is missing. The impending meltdown will wake the whole house. I blurt the only acceptable excuse, in Celia’s mind, for her mother’s absence: “Mommy is at a meeting.”
Celia stares at me, mulling whether to challenge the notion that her mother is attending a meeting at 4 a.m. Mercifully, she gives me a break, and goes back to sleep.
Happily, there are signs of a thaw. Informed recently that she and her siblings would be left with a sitter while both parents went out, she suggested an alternative: “Daddy can babysit us.”
Technically, Daddy staying home with the kids is called “parenting,” not babysitting. Regardless, that Celia even proposed me as acceptable company is encouraging. Maybe, many years from now, she’ll want to dance with her dad at her wedding, instead of her mom.
For now, I escort Celia and Sam on bicycle rides around the block. While helping Sam round a neighbor’s car on a steeply sloped driveway, Celia tried to follow us on her own. But she took a bad angle, and the training wheels didn’t stop her as she tipped over sideways into the street. I caught her just before her knee impacted the asphalt.
That time, Daddy really was a hero. My reward? A fleeting, but genuine, smile from Celia, before she continued her ride home to Mommy.
Staff writer Keith Spera chronicles his parenting adventures in his occasional Parental Advisory column. Follow him on Twitter, @KeithSpera.