It’s hard not to be secretly pleased when your child chooses you over your spouse. I’m not talking about something big, like which one of you they’re going to live with after the divorce, I’m talking about little things, like being chosen to drive them and their friend to the movie theater. On the surface, it sounds like you’ve just won the booby prize, but it’s much more complex than that. When my daughter indicates a preference for me, the unspoken sub-text is that, in that particular case, I’m less of an embarrassment than her father. It may even be that she knows I’ll understand the emotions likely to be associated with a particular event and will be, therefore, less likely to provoke her. I know that sounds like a twist on damning with faint praise, but that in no way diminishes the impact on the chosen parent; secretly we are pleased.
In my slightly overcast worldview, all relationships have an element of competition to them. I’ve never believed that parents love all their children equally. For those of you whose hackles immediately go up, I’ll qualify that to say, I don’t believe that all parents love all their children equally. How can they? Children are people (hard as that may be to believe at times), and siblings can differ wildly from one another. I’m pretty sure that the real truth is that parents of multiple children live in a permanent catch-22; they have to say that they love all their children equally or all hell will break loose.
The interesting corollary to this is that all children are secretly convinced that their parents love them the most. Except for poor Tom Smothers who turned this rivalry on its head with the skit Mom Always Liked You Best off the Smothers Brothers album of the same name. Tom uses the accusation to make his brother, Dick, feel bad for him and is stunned when Dick finally says, “Sure, she liked me best. Want to know why?”
I know a couple of women whose husbands left in a blaze of ignominy. It was hard to drum up anything positive about them after their departures except for the fact that any man who could behave that badly was clearly better off gone. The real tragedy is that these women have children with these men, and they want the children to have good relationships with their fathers, so they sublimate their feelings and lie to the children about what really went down. Will they ever tell them the truth? Isn’t there an age at which it’s appropriate for the children to know that there was a villain in the breakup, and it was Daddy?
For the first bunch of years, we lie to children about all kinds of things. When faced with questions about death, we say, “Don’t worry honey, I’m not going to leave you.” When we don’t want to lie outright, obfuscation and redirection work well, but that gets harder and harder as they get older. It’s a relief when they’re old enough for, “We’re talking about you, not me.” And then comes the time that we find ourselves answering questions we wouldn’t have dreamed of discussing when they were younger. For most families, though, the lie that parents love all their children equally persists forever.
I only have one child. When I tell my daughter I love her best, I’m telling the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.