My daughter and I are playing in her room, an extensive tea party set up all around us. I sit in the middle of a stuffed menagerie -- a plush fish, several owls, and dolls of all sizes, nibbling on plastic berry pies and sipping from empty metal tea cups.
“I love you, Mommy,” says Julianna.
“I love you too, hon.”
“I love you the most,” says Julianna. “ I love you more than Daddy.”
I pause, trying to remember the correct parental response even as my heart flutters. I am both flattered and embarrassed by her confession. I feel of tug of loyalty to my hard-working husband.
“Maybe you love Daddy differently, sweetie,” I tell her. “That doesn’t mean you love me more.”
Julianna is 4 and spends a good part of her day testing the power of words. When she says she loves me the most, does she know what it means? And if she does understand the meaning, what does it say about our family?
These questions echo a familiar question of my own childhood.
When I was growing up my favorite question to my own mom was,” Who do you love more: Steve or me?” My oldest brother Mark never entered in the game. I think I always knew that he, the oldest, with no effort on his part, had won a special spot.
But my mom, throughout the years, never varied her response, no matter how I tested her, no matter how many times I repeated the question of who she loved more. Mom was a school psychologist, who had grown up in the shadow of her younger brother.
“I love you both the same but in different ways,” Mom said.
It was one of the earliest, most consistent lies my mother ever told me, and I never believed her. Every child knows that parents have a favorite. In a family there are always preferences. Parents have a favorite child and children have a favorite parent.
The truth is we’re almost never honest with ourselves or our spouses or our kids about these feelings. That doesn’t mean these preferences aren’t a silent truth in every family.
My brothers chose each other over me. I chose my mother over my father. Sometimes there are concrete reasons for the choice. Mark and Steve were closer in age, and shared a mutual interest in nerdy subjects, including baseball, computers and chess. My mom was loving and less scary than my temperamental father, so I picked her.
Sometimes we just find the one person we click with most.
At some point (probably around my daughter’s age) we learn not to speak of such things. We cover up our intentions with clichés and euphemisms.“She’s just such a Daddy’s girl” could just as easily mean “You’d have to bribe her with an iPhone and skinny jeans to get her to spend a minute with her mother.”
My daughter is an only child; she’s my favorite by default. I’ve had to work hard to try to be hers.
For the first three years of her life, I spent 11 hours straight with her, every day. She was a colicky infant who refused a bottle. When I left her with my husband, I could never take off for more than the length of a movie (which is often where I escaped). I left a good, stable job to be with her all of the time. I sat through grueling mom-and-me music classes where snot-nosed toddlers formed a mosh pit around the bongos and hippie moms breastfed while dancing to folk tunes from Zimbabwe. I even signed us both up for a co-op preschool, where I volunteered in the classroom once a week and scrubbed the toilets.
But I know other moms who have given up high-profile jobs, breastfed for 1+ years, and schlepped every day to the park, only to be usurped by their fun-loving husbands. Daddy just needs to let the kid eat pancakes for dinner one time while Mom is at yoga and he’s inched ahead in the standings.
I decided a while ago that I couldn’t just be the tight-lipped, self-sacrificing Mommy. I didn’t want to play bad cop all the time. I also had to say “yes” to requests for carousel rides, ice cream, late bedtimes, skipped baths, and cookies. I can sometimes morph into the mischievous sidekick. Many moms I know fail in this area, and the price they pay is their kid’s affection.
My husband admits that Julianna sometimes labels him as more “fun” than me when I’m out of earshot. Dan makes puppets out of cast-off medical tubing and drives Julianna around town blasting the Beatles with the windows rolled down. He writes silly songs, and takes her camping in his friend’s backyard, lets her sample random offerings at the local Whole Foods.
"Mommy would never want to try that! Mommy would say 'yuck!'" she tells Dan.
It’s difficult to ignore these preferential statements.
“I cannot tell you how tempting it is to agree with her vociferously, and say ‘yes, you are absolutely right, I am the fun parent,” he admits to me.
Dan shows Julianna a lot of consistent affection. But he spends an hour or so a day with her at most. (I’m not counting the grumpy part of the morning when he hasn’t yet had his coffee).
Even though I work, I still spend much more time with Julianna. I pack her lunch each day for school, drop her off, pick her up, feed her meals, take her on play dates and to birthday parties. I know that hard work alone isn’t always enough to win a child’s adoration – but it sure helps. Love is not always about fairness, but sometimes it is.
Working moms continue to bear the brunt of the household gruntwork. Moms like me do about eight hours more a week of housework than our husbands, and we spend almost twice as much time with our kids as dads do, according to the Pew Research Center.
While I continue to fight against the unfairness in my own marriage, I can at least take some comfort in the “love dividend.” Most moms I know have earned a little more affection for their efforts even if they feel too guilty too claim it.
For now my daughter professes to me that she loves me more. Why shouldn’t she? I’ve worked hard to raise her -- much harder than her dad.
Perhaps, in the not-so-distant future, there will be a more egalitarian work-life balance between moms and dads. Maybe more dads will sacrifice careers and friendships to stay home with kids. When that happens, we can revisit mommy-daddy preference fairness. I wonder if parental preference for kids of same-sex couples (where both parents more evenly split the childcare and chores) is as pronounced.
But for now, my family will hold on to its secret rankings.
“Wait until she’s 13, when she hates you,” say my friends who have raised teenagers.
I’m strangely OK with that. It’s easy for me to remember the specific insults I hurled at my mom — starting with the A-word and working my way down the alphabet. Through it all, my mom was my hands-down favorite, the person I went to when I was sick with anxiety about starring in the school play or when I was rejected from my first-choice college.
If there’s such a thing as karmic payback, I know what Julianna’s teenage years will look like. She will make fun of me to her friends. She’ll write scathing descriptions of me on Facebook – or whatever even more horrible social network has replaced it by then – or drip daughter-versus-mommy vitriol into her journals. She’ll malign me in public, and curse my name.
The full brunt of her frustration and energy in life will be directed at me. I will still win the race for who gets most of her attention. There will be no contest. Out of everyone in the world, she will hate me the most. Even then, in the most important spaces of her heart, she will loudly pick me.