Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Big Mean Daddy

I have just finished watching Columbia Pictures' live action version of Peter Pan on DVD and here's what struck me about it: Mr. Darling, the father of John, Michael and Wendy, is also Captain Hook.

In the Disney animated version also, the same actor voices both Mr. Darling and Captain Hook, which I thought was more for the sake of budget and convenience, like Hank Azaria on "The Simpsons."

But now I wonder.

I have never read the book, but is the whole story of Peter Pan really just Wendy's bad dream about a strict father who insists that it is time to grow up? Dad is the villain who tries to kill Peter Pan, the representation of childhood and fun?

We are living that story out in my house. Sort of.

Livie, age four, has taken to calling my kind and devoted husband "Big Mean Daddy." We don't know where she got this, and can't point to exactly when it started. But we know why it started.

Mr. Anderson (my husband Jeff), compassionate, sensitive man that he is -- one who in fact deserves a medal for the kind of female hysteria that the three of us put him through -- is, in fact, big, and a man, and our daughters notice the difference. For one thing, he always gets to play the villain in their games: the Darth Vader to their Luke and Lea Skywalker. He is there to roughhouse (see above, where they are attacking him with chalk). But one of the main difference between Mommy and Daddy in our family, is that Daddy is more likely to make them grow up.

Though I am unmistakably crankier than their father, I am also the one more likely to let them get away with babyish habits. From the beginning, Jeff has been the one to push them to sleep in their own beds, put on their own pajamas, give up their "lovey" objects, and stop sucking their thumbs.

All things that make me want to cry just to think of.

See, Mommies have an instinct to protect our babies and keep them babies a little longer. They lived in us, you see. They slept on our chests. They drank from our chests. And now they live outside us in the cruel worlds of the preschool and elementary classrooms, so they can come home and suck their thumbs if they want to. We'll respond to their every cry. They can climb in our beds, and bring those raggedy lovey blankets if they want to.

That is, until Mommy finally gets sick of pulling their thumb out of their mouths to get them to answer a question. Until Mommy is exhausted and sleep deprived. Until Mommy is tired of having a stinky blanket shoved under her nose every morning when her kids want to climb into bed with her. It is at these times that Mommy is happy there is a Daddy in the family.

Truly, I could not parent my children effectively without this man in the house. He sees through the sentiment and emotion of child rearing, and acts according to moral code, logic, and practicality. The fact is, my husband rescues me from my children, and also rescues them from me. There is tension at the moments when he swoops in and lays down the law, though, and the kids know it. This is likely the root of the Big Mean Daddy nickname.

Here's the really interesting part of this dichotomy to me, at least the way in functions in my house. Though Livie will choose me to tuck her in and read her the story, time that Daddy devotes to playing with her is extra, extra special. Though last week, they were battling over giving up her thumb sucking and baby blanket (Jeff is worried about her overbite), last night they spent precious moments on the couch doing letter flash cards that Jeff picked out for her himself. Then they went upstairs and picked up her room together. Jeff reorganized the whole thing on Saturday and is now methodically teaching her how to put her toys away.

By bath time, Livie's little face was like a lit lantern, and the beams were focused on Daddy. My part in our family is to be the one who is always around; my absence is what gets noticed. But the one-on-one attention from Dad is incredibly valued by our two daughters. His presence, his focused attention, is precious to them. And though they push against it, the firm steadiness of Daddy's approach to family life is something they crave. It makes them feel safe. More than that: it makes them actually safe.

Just like Mr. Darling. At the end of Peter Pan, Wendy decides she wants to grow up after all. Dad was right. It was time. And when she comes home to the nursery, I rejoice when she runs into her mother's arms. But it's her father's tears and his obvious tenderhearted affection, that makes me weep.

In our family, my eldest daughter and I have brown eyes, and Livie and Jeff have bright blue; we joke that we are on two different teams. Last night in the Anderson house, Livie once again requested me for tuck in and bedtime story. But when Daddy came in for the goodnight kiss, her face lit up again.

"Daddy," she said, "You and me are the blue-eyed team." And she put her hand out for a high five, and puckered her lips for a kiss.

"We sure are, baby," Jeff said. Big Mean Daddy? I don't think so.

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