The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A dad, improvising his way into his daughter’s heart

Placeholder while article actions load

“I like Mommy more than you,” my 6-year-old daughter Marta said with a mischievous grin. Her declaration was unsurprising.

When Marta was 17 months old, she was adopted from Russia by my future wife, Brenda. We had begun dating a few months before the adoption and spent weekends together. Given that I had always lived alone, we were unsure what my role would be once Brenda’s child arrived.

The first time I saw my future daughter, she was tiny, with big round dark eyes, short dark hair and, despite her size, chubby cheeks. She looked as fragile as fine glass.

What to do when a child favors one parent

Marta considered me an outsider. She pushed me away whenever I tried to hold her. “Out!” she said, standing in her crib and pointing toward the door, when I tried to edge my way in for nighty-night time.

“Mommy do it,” she said, when I tried to change her diaper. “I want Mommy next to me,” whenever I sat next to her at the dining table.

“Let her come to you,” Brenda advised.

I tried to find my way in through imagination play. “I’m the mom and you’re the older sister, and you’re jealous because baby sister gets all the attention,” she directed, displaying a doll. “Her name is Rainbow and you’re Lu Lu.”

“Why does Rainbow get lifted up? I want uppie,” I said.

“When you were a baby you got uppie. Now it’s Rainbow’s turn,” Marta replied.

We played for hours: She was the waitress and I was the customer who kept spilling his drink; she was the teacher and I was her assistant, helping her keep order in class; I was the teacher and she was Fluffy the class dog, who smelled out children trying to sneak food before snack-time.

I had taken improv lessons years before and now saw these imagination games as a master’s class. Brenda reluctantly made sporadic appearances, playing a poorly behaved student in our imaginary classroom.

“Teacher, Annabelle hit me!” I said.

“He pushed me first,” Brenda said.

“Children, you have to learn to play together,” Marta said.

Later, Brenda privately asked me, “How do you do it? I love playing card and board games with her, but I have no patience for Fluffy the dog.” I sometimes lost concentration, but Marta kept me focused. “Pay attention!” she said, when she noticed me drifting off.

My improv skills paid off. “You’re the daddy and I’m the baby, and baby is crying . . . wah, wah,” she said, crawling onto my lap.

“Don’t cry, baby,” I said, rocking her in my arms.

I started spending most of my time at Brenda’s, occasionally taking Marta to school. “Don’t go,” she implored, while grabbing my leg, as I left her classroom. I knew that transitions could be challenging for her, so I was unable to tell whether her pleading meant she truly felt attached to me.

“She asks about you when you aren’t around,” Brenda now claimed.

Before becoming involved with Brenda and Marta at 52, I believed I lacked the competence to be a father. But the more it became clear that Marta was coming to accept me as part of our emerging household, the more confident I grew about becoming a strong parental presence.

I moved into Brenda’s home two years after Marta’s arrival. In quick succession we married and I legally adopted Marta.

Marta still seemed ambivalent about me. She called me by my first name, referring to me as “Dad” only when talking to people outside the family.

“I don’t want to go to the park with Ben,” she protested, when I would take her for a Sunday afternoon while Brenda worked. “I want you to take me, Mommy.”

“I called Mommy, not you,” she said sternly, when I answered her cry for help from the bathroom. “Mommy’s in charge, because she bought our house,” Marta told me on several occasions.

Brenda had earned Marta’s love by becoming her mother, well before I was a constant presence. She brought her from Moscow to New York, fed her, clothed her, toilet-trained her, took her to doctors’ appointments, sang her lullabies.

Since becoming a father I have taken on many of the day-to-day, child-care duties that were once Brenda’s alone: bathing Marta, getting her to school, preparing her snacks and lunch. Still, Brenda is a more able parent than I am. I gladly defer to her when it comes to choosing Marta’s school, finding a doctor, deciding how to tell her when a favorite aunt died.

Brenda was the first person to make Marta feel loved, forming a primal attachment between mother and daughter that is inaccessible to me. I am an admiring observer of their intense tie, as Marta rebuffs my attempt one afternoon to join in when they are snuggling: “This is just for the girls,” she said.

But Marta and I have created our own sphere of intimacy.

A few weeks ago, Marta suggested I go to clown school. “You would get to wear really big shoes and ride a unicycle,” she said. “And you would learn to be more fun . . . well, you’re already fun.”

Recently, a friend and his 5-year-old son visited us. While I played with him and Marta, the boy jumped on my lap. “That’s my dad!” Marta yelled, pushing the startled boy off me and taking his place on my lap. Her jealousy simultaneously filled me with satisfaction and unease.

All along I had wanted Marta to see me as more than an interloper. I wanted to be seen as her father. Yet I was still unsure whether I could fill the role.

Knowing how much Marta values our relationship, I desperately want her to be able to rely on me to guide her through the challenges of childhood and adolescence. I would be devastated if I let her down by coming across as little more than a well-meaning clown.

When I enter the zone of imagination games, however, I am master of our private realm. As we disappear into our characters, nobody can be a better father to my daughter than I am.

A few weeks ago we were on the subway when we played vending machine. I placed a fruit roll-up under my shirt. “Please make your selection,” I said, in my best robot voice. After Marta pressed the buttons on my shirt, I surreptitiously pushed the roll-up onto the seat. “Take your item,” the robot instructed, making Marta laugh.

Unfurling her snack, she asked, “Did you like one parent more than the other?”

“I think I did when I was your age, but that changed over time,” I said. “It’s okay if you like Mommy more than me. But I hope you like me at least a little bit.”

“I do like you a little . . . and when we play I like you this much,” she said, stretching out her arms as far as they could go.

Ben Krull is a family law attorney and freelance writer, living in Brooklyn.

Follow On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and updates. You can sign up here for our weekly newsletter. We tweet @On Parenting and have a Facebook discussion page about parenting and working. Join us

More reading:

I’m a stay-at-home dad, but when mom’s around, I’m second preferred guest

A stay-at-home dad finds his inner Martha

Schools are teaching kids empathy and self-control. It works at home, too.