11/29/2011 11:02 am ET Updated Jan 29, 2012

I'm The Unpopular Parent (For Now)

Last week when my four year-old, Frankie, had a day off from school, I took her out to breakfast. She's my third (and final) kid, forever getting carted along to swim meets and soccer tournaments, and I thought it might be fun for us to have a special meal together beyond the daily swirl of family life. As soon as we'd ordered our waffle sticks and poached eggs and affixed a few outfits to the dolls in her favorite magnetic book, Frankie sighed deeply and said:

"Tell me about Daddy."

"What about him?" I asked, resisting the urge to peevishly and ridiculously remind her that he's my husband.

"Just everything. Let's talk about all the things."

And so we did. Our cozy mother-daughter meal became a celebration of fatherhood, specifically as it relates to the fabulousness of the man we both adore: Ethan, whose peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are perfectly up to code, crusts removed, sliced just so. (Squares or triangles? I can never remember. I bristle over the waste of crusts, which remain intact on my watch.) Ethan knows and respects the proper configuration of pillows at bedtime and he will patiently commit to reading the same book every night for months on end. I'm pretty sure he is the only 38 year-old man in the world who can recite "Freckleface Strawberry" from memory, right down to the illustrator's bio and the whimsical dialogue bubbles over characters' heads. He also shares Frankie's fashion sense, which is rooted in a commitment to wearing short sleeves (and, in her case, sundresses) year around. When she complains that an item of clothing is too puffy, too dry, too "scritchy" or not "happy" enough, he will present alternate options with the gravity of a designer in his own atelier. I'm less sympathetic about requests for wardrobe adjustments, but I learned not to ignore them altogether after our older daughter, Louisa, walked around for an entire winter with tissue paper stuffed in the toes of her boots.

I'm around the house more than Ethan is, which has an adverse effect on my popularity. I'm also less patient and flexible; and I will certainly get very firm with you if I have to tell you three times to remove your duct tape art projects from the kitchen table before dinner. But I don't want to give the impression that Ethan is a total pushover. He can be the bad cop, too. He gets frustrated with the kids, especially for whining and nagging, interrupting and disrupting. In fact, one Thanksgiving dinner famously came to a screeching halt when he yelled at our unruly kids and two hyped-up cousins to please just shut up. ("Don't give it a second thought," my mom said later. "At least he remembered his manners.")

Still, Frankie's adulation of Ethan and near-scorn of me has been a constant undercurrent in our family life since she was old enough to make a choice. Once, when she was three, she swiftly rearranged the dining area at a restaurant so she'd be seated at a cozy table for two with her dad. I rolled my eyes and settled in across an aisle, between the big kids. But the cumulative effect of being shuffled away from her at every single meal has taken its toll. On one hand, I feel petty for caring; this is a phase, after all, albeit an interminable one. On the other, I have feelings, too! And I remind Frankie about them, gently and sometimes not so gently, when I come home from work and she greets me at the door with her usual question:

"Where's Daddy?"

Or when I pick her up at school and she says, "How many hours until Daddy gets home?"

Or when I notice that she has a picture of him hanging in her cubby, but not one of me.

Or when her brother and sister remind her that it's my birthday and she says, "When's Daddy's?"

Ethan and I have both talked to our feisty youngest about being a little bit more diplomatic in her loyalties -- or at least, less vocal. It's upsetting and embarrassing to both of us when we're in a public place and I have to pry Frankie off his leg, kicking and screaming, to get her to come with me. Sometimes we turn on each other. I don't like feeling competitive with my own husband; it's not nearly as romantic now as it was when we were college English majors together, each vying to be more tortured and intellectual than the other. (He won, handily.) Plus, Ethan deserves a break sometimes, and a chance to spend quality time with other members of the family. Last time we were getting ready to go out, just him and me, Frankie flopped down on our bed and said, "I really hope he wears that checkered shirt tonight, don't you?" Just two gals comparing notes on our favorite heartthrob...

I remind myself that I went through periods in my own childhood where I preferred one parent to the other. My dad's enthusiasm for baked goods occasionally worked in his favor; likewise, in seventh grade, my mom's begrudging willingness to invest in the Benetton "B" sweater made her the parent to beat. Our older kids each went through an abbreviated version of this stage, where they craved Ethan's attention while eschewing mine. ("I do not take you for granite!" our son used to say.) I often wonder what it would be like to be the rock star parent for a change. Having never had the pleasure, I find comfort in the fact that my ego gets an intense workout thanks to Frankie's well-publicized predilection for Ethan. I handle rejection well.
But then last week, just as I was telling him about the unexpected (yet so predictable) turn of my breakfast with his groupie, our ten year-old, Louisa, came bounding into the kitchen. "Can I talk to Mommy?"

"Sure, what's up?" we said, expectantly and supportively. (There are very few moments in parenthood that resemble a scene from "The Brady Bunch," but this was one of them. Can't you just see Carol and Mike at the ready to dole out advice?)

"Actually, I just wanted to talk to Mommy."

This same child was completely dazzled by Ethan not so long ago -- and still is, in many ways, just not to the exclusion of me. I felt for him when he abandoned his meticulous ministrations over the lunchboxes and went outside with the dog. But I sat right down with my big girl and listened carefully to her dispatch from fifth grade -- the lunch table politics; the inscrutability of fractions; her first tentative steps, whether she's aware of it or not, onto the balance beam between childhood and adolescence. More experienced parents tell you to brace yourself for this stage, the one where they get ready to push you away. But I've been pushed away before, and I survived. For now, I settle in and enjoy our time. I've earned it.