It’s always hard being the parent who is overtly less loved by their child. In my household, my toddler makes it no secret that she prefers her mother.
“Would you like Daddy to hold you?” I may ask.
“No, Mommy,” my daughter shouts.
“Would you like Daddy to change your diaper?”
“Should Daddy jump off a cliff?”
It’s not like I’m an absent father. Every weekday, it’s just me and my daughter for most of the afternoon, while Mommy works later hours, and for about three months of every year, I’m a stay-at-home Dad. When it’s just my daughter and me, I’m both her pie and a la mode. But when she has a choice between me or her mother, I’m like low-fat, low-taste yogurt melted beside a wonderful slice of warm strawberry rhubarb.
This summer, the three of us were set to fly to Hawaii. From New York, it’s more than half-a-day’s journey. One evening, during dinner, we were talking about the trip, while my daughter refused to eat her beans.
“I don’t know how I’m going to do this,” said my wife, who sat across the table balancing our toddler in one hand, while using the other to defend her pregnant belly against our daughter’s clumsy footfalls.
“Do the airplane thing,” I said and then requested the spoon so that I could model an engine sound and the steady dive of a utensil carrying legumes.
“Yeah,” Marissa replied, though she seemed confused. “The Airplane Thing? I really don’t know how I’m going to do it. Fly to Hawaii with this and this.” She pointed to the baby and the belly. “I’m really going to need your help.”
“I’ll help you with her,” I said and then, by way of example, requested that my daughter come to me so that I could do “the airplane thing” that I had been talking about. “Do you want Daddy to feed you beans with the airplane game?”
“No. Away.” My little air traffic controller thrusted out a flat palm, keeping me firmly grounded.
On the day of our flight, we arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport and did our best to exhaust our daughter, forcing her to run a few laps around the terminal shopping area, hoping she’d pass out on the flight and then, unknowingly, get shuttled into my arms.
But there would be hardly any sleep to speak of on the first leg of the flight. For the 90 minutes that she did conk out in my wife’s arms we had attempted transfer, but each time, she woke and recognized the exchange, clutching my wife until we relented.
When our daughter was awake, she had little interest in sitting on me. My wife’s lap served as the stage where our daughter disassembled a cohort of mermaids, where she raced Matchbox cars, where she read her cardboard books. I tried to assist by moving the games to my lap — fail – and then pulling out the airline’s in-flight magazine and pointing to familiar objects on the pages, asking, “And what’s that?”
My daughter appeased my line of questioning for a few advertisements and then suggested that the game would be more fun if her mother were the one asking, “And what’s that?” So I handed the magazine to my wife and pulled out another copy to do the crossword puzzle.
“Noah,” my wife said in reproach. Misery paging company.
“Noah,” my daughter copied. “Stop Noah.”
I pocketed the crossword as a gesture of partnership. “Would you like to walk the aisle with Daddy?”
I shrugged. Mommy was about to rip her own hair out. My daughter stood and stomped down on my wife’s lap, as if the present one needed some reshaping.
“Do you want to watch a movie with Daddy?” I said, pressing on the seat-back screen to peruse the children’s programming menu.
While checking the movie menu, I happened upon “American Sniper.”
“Do you mind?” I asked my wife.
She shrugged, conceding me my futility on leg one of a many-legged trip.
I proved equally useless on the next flight.
“You might as well watch another movie,” my wife said, which in retrospect might have had a tone of sarcasm.
I tuned into “Wild,” while, simultaneously, a real-life drama of the same name played out on my wife’s thighs.”
I think at this point most essays would pivot, offering up some great victory earned or knowledge acquired, but the journey home proved no better and I learned nothing. My daughter somehow grew more obsessed with her mother. Perhaps she recognized that she would soon be competing for Mommy’s attention. Or perhaps our daughter understood that Mommy was just more likable.
I guess that’s not entirely true; I did learn something. Flying as the second-preferred parent wasn’t completely devastating, which I discovered when tuning into “True Story” on the Hawaii-to-San Francisco leg, a much better film than “Birdman,” which, incidentally, I felt forced to watch on the journey from SFO to JFK.
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