10/10/2014 03:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Being the Primary Caregiver Does Not Mean Being the Favorite Parent

David Lesser

I told my 6-year-old daughter that she made me feel like crap. Not all the time, but definitely at that particular moment. She didn't really do anything wrong; she just wanted her mommy. I get it. I stay home with the kids while my wife works, so when she gets home, she returns the conquering hero. Like I said, I get it. Most of the time, but clearly, not always.

In my defense, Penny didn't have to be that disappointed I was putting her to bed instead of Mommy. She didn't have to cry. She didn't have to have that look of betrayal on her face when Allie told her, "I'm going to put Simon to bed tonight and Daddy will read to you." She didn't have to reach out her arms, wanting to be held and comforted by her mother, wanting absolutely nothing to do with me. She didn't have to, but she did.

And it crushed me. I know it shouldn't have hurt so much, but what can I say? It did.

There was a time when I was the undeniable favorite. The first three years of Penny's life, as a matter of fact. Her preference was so overt that there were many nights my wife was in tears about how much she loved Penny, but didn't think the feeling was reciprocated. It was nearly as horrible and painful for me to observe as it was for Allie to go through. I reassured her that Penny did love her and that these things would ebb and flow. Sometimes I'd be the favorite parent; other times she'd be.

2014-10-09-IMAG3545179x300.jpgAround the time our son was born, maybe a little before or after, things flowed and Mommy became the hands-down favorite. "Boys with boys and girls with girls!" Penny would shout, ecstatically recruiting herself to the all-female team of mother and daughter. I didn't mind. I was happy that my wife finally got to revel in the role of being picked first, and I got to play with the baby.

If truth be told, Simon also probably preferred his mother to me, but he was, and remains, different from his big sister. It's harder to tell with him. Penny is like a cat; she is very selective about who is worthy of her love and her time. If you're not on her list, you'll probably be ignored. If you are, her affection feels extra special, because you know it is highly prized and doled out at her discretion. She is also fiercely loyal and will lash out at anyone who hurts someone she loves. Simon is our little puppy. He loves everyone. He hugs everyone (but he gives the best hugs and each one is perfect and warm and deserves to be savored). He is our little puppy; if you feed him once, he's yours for life.

These days, however, Simon is going through a horrible case of the terrible twos. As the stay-at-home parent, I bear the brunt of his tantrums and dispense most of the punishment (usually a two-minute timeout or, God forbid, no gummies!) I think I'm firm, but fair. Simon doesn't always agree. Even though I get plenty of hugs and lots of love, he can be quite vocal in the fact that I am not his parent of choice.

Which brings us back to Penny making me feel like crap.

It was bedtime and Sy was screaming, punching and kicking, like a wrongly accused man being dragged to the electric chair. He clearly felt he'd been slighted in some way and was having a difficult time articulating exactly how this egregious wrong might be rectified. In other words, I had to deal with some bullsh*t when I just wanted to read, sing and share a last laugh or two with my kids before they drifted off to dreamland and I got some quiet time with my wife.

Penny and Simon share a room, but it's easiest to put them to bed separately. Allie usually puts Penny to sleep in our bed (and I transfer her to her own bed later), while I take Simon through his nighttime routine. But after strong-arming him to calm down (mostly by sitting him in timeout until he got tired of screaming) he wanted nothing to do with me. And, frankly, I was a little sick of him.

I needed my little girl. I already felt kind of down after a long day and that exhausting ordeal. I didn't know why Simon was going berserk. I never do these days. And I usually don't know how to to make him stop. My little puppy has become a wild, rabid, unrecognizable beast for large chunks of the day. Every. Day. I often feel at loss and like I am failing at this thing that I supposed to be so great at that I write about it on a (nearly) weekly basis. I needed at least one of my children to remind me that I am a good parent, that they love me and that I'm doing something right. Instead I got tears and a reaction close to revulsion. Maybe I put too much on my 6-year old. I'm sure I did. This was my sh*t to deal with, not hers. But, still, it hurt. It sucked. All I wanted was a hug.

I shouldn't have told her she made me feel like crap. It wasn't appropriate and it was mean. After taking a few deep breaths, I explained to her why her actions hurt me. Similar to what my wife felt for three years... I just love her SO MUCH. Sometimes, I need part of that feeling reciprocated. Sometimes I really need it. She understood, in her own way. She apologized and so did I. After which, I read and sang to her. We hugged. It was comforting.

The stress and aggravation of the day melted out of my pores as I held her. She needed that hug at that moment almost as much as I did. It was important for her to know I wasn't angry, that I love her and that everything was back to normal. Satisfied of this, she was downright giddy that Simon fell asleep early so Mommy could finish putting her to bed. "I love you, Daddy."

I know.