My beloved is in love with another woman. I’m talking about my four year old and her preschool teacher. Week three of her formal education is not yet completed and Livie’s passion for Miss Jessica is ardent. On the first day of school she marched upstairs and renamed her best doll Jessica.
At the same time, my baby has developed a love-hate relationship with me. Her sassy mouth is alarming (no profanity or anything), and it’s most stinging venom is reserved for me. The other day she said something insubordinate and I asked, “Do you talk like that to your teacher?” Wide-eyed, she answered, “Oh no, Mommy. I would never say anything like that to Miss Jessica.”
I use the language of infidelity to describe this little love triangle and I think its apt. Miss Jessica is the other woman: someone with whom Livie spends a small amount of time, gets affirmed for her uniqueness, and does giddy, fun things that she wouldn’t normally get to do at home (they mostly involve paint and paste). Meanwhile, Mommy is the one with whom she does the daily grind: school pick-ups and drop-offs, housecleaning, errands, teeth brushing, things involving the toilet. And because Livie and I are in a long-term relationship, we see each others’ flaws and have tedious daily conflicts.
I’m tempted to feel like the injured party in this situation. “Go ahead, dear, have fun with Miss Jessica. I’ll just go home wash your underwear and cook your lunch, and then you can be cranky and tired when you come home.”
But then today, I had a little affair of my own.
I spent part of the morning with a friend and her 18-month-old daughter Reese, who is my “adopted" niece, my “Reesey niecey.” I sat on the floor with her in my lap for a long time. We had a tickle fight. She climbed all over me and giggled. Reese played with my necklace, dropping it in and out of my sweater over and over again and exclaiming “Ta-da!” I fed her two mini muffins and she said “thank you.” She made me feel – sniff – like a Fun and Good Mommy again.
But then this afternoon I got a reality check that made me realize maybe I was partly to blame for my daughter seeking affection from another mother-figure. This afternoon, I was putting Livie down for a nap, and she reached up to touch the necklace Reese had played with for at least 20 minutes this morning – and I swatted her hand away! I had been so much more loving and patient with another little girl than I was with my daughter.
In any long-term relationship we are apt to get lazy and less kind. We stop saying “please” and “thank you.” We neglect to affirm our loved ones’ uniqueness and instead start to find their once-endearing quirks a little bit wearing. We let the urgent but mundane tasks of the day suck our energy for the little moments of fun and silliness that infuse our lives with joy. It’s true of my with my spouse, and true with my kids.
It’s easier to be fun with my friends’ kids or my nieces and nephews. When I’m at a friend’s house, the laundry and dirty dishes aren’t calling my name. There’s no e-mail to answer and no school paperwork to read. I’m also not responsible for these kids’ knowing right from wrong, their nutrition (hence the two mini-muffins), or their bodily functions. And so the entire dynamic is different. And so it should be. Moms don’t get to be a constant playmate; that wouldn’t teach our kids much in the long run or equip them for a world that does not revolve around them. This dynamic can make me feel like the long-suffering martyr in my home, but it needn't. If I let the spark go out of my family relationships, it's at least partially my own fault.
No matter how much I may wish I could share Miss Jessica’s pedestal, deep down, I know I’m still first in my daughter’s heart. Didn’t her eyes well up with tears when she saw me coming to class, so complete was her joy at seeing me return for her? Didn’t she insist that I hold her hand in the grocery store and be the one to put her to bed tonight? And isn’t the fact that she shows me her real emotions – even when they result in some developmentally appropriate insolence from that sassy mouth – mean that I am her safe anchor, the one she knows will love her no matter what?
Meantime, in between washing her undies, cutting her apples and putting her in time-out, I’m going to work harder at complimenting her artwork and dance moves, and look her in the eye when she's talking. I’m going to take time for a tickle fight. I’m going to let her play with my jewelry. I’m going to show her that our love – a deep, abiding love – is here to stay.