Phaedra has always been a daddy’s girl. When I went back to work at six weeks old, she was completely fine with it. Rob and Phaedra would hang out at home all day, getting into all sorts of delightful mischief. Once he covered her in the cash from her baptism cards and took her picture, like she was a tiny club owner who had just finished making it rain. He made a tinfoil hat for her to wear while we baked cookies. They would try to match each other’s facial expressions in the mirror, snapping pictures when he felt they had gotten it right. Even now, her ultimate goal is to be awake when Daddy gets home from work around midnight, and I am constantly reminded that “Daddy never breaks my cookie in half; he always gives me the whole thing.” He’s the good cop to my bad cop. It’s okay. They’re buddies.
Now, though, it seems there’s a new sheriff in town.
Every evening for the past month, I’ve had this exact conversation with Phaedra:
“Mom, do you work tomorrow?”
“Yeah, honey, I do. I’m sorry.”
“But I don’t WANT you to work tomorrow! Why can’t you stay home?”
“Because I promised I would go to work. I can’t break my promise, even though I’d rather stay home with you.”
“Well, how many days until you get to stay home from work?”
“Two. Two more days until I can stay home for a day.”
“Mom, pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeease stay home tomorrow!”
My super independent Daddy’s girl has suddenly grown tentacles and attached herself firmly to me. She wants me to accompany her everywhere, watch her do everything. When I’m home, she’s by my side all day — asking to sit in my lap, slamming into me with a hug, pleading with me to monitor tasks she always demands to do by herself. She falls apart when I tell her I have to leave, whether it’s to go to work or go to the basement to get a basket of laundry. “But I’m going to miss you while you’re goooooooooooone!”
Bedtime became an even bigger disaster than usual. Instead of falling asleep to a movie or book, she would will herself to stay awake, because the thought of me leaving her alone was too much for her to bear. Rob and I finally decided that three hours was a bit excessive for a bedtime routine that begins at 10:30 pm, and that Phaedra was old enough to lay in bed and fall asleep on her own.
That’s when she took her crazy to the next level.
The second I left the room, even after repeatedly assuring her that I would be right back, that I would check on her in a minute? That’s when it began. Screaming, hysterical can’t-catch-a-breath crying, even getting out of bed and sneaking downstairs to watch TV while I coaxed the baby back to sleep. She was terrified of bedtime, and began spending the two hours before bedtime intermittently crying and listing reasons why she shouldn’t have to go to bed.
She would wrap her arms tightly around mine while I read bedtime stories. One day, she asked me, “Mom? How do you get away from me at night after I fall asleep? I thought I was holding on tight enough.”
I am bewildered. I really don’t know what to make of this. On the one hand, it hurts my heart to make her so sad. If it was my choice, I would stay home with her. I’d probably still go down to the basement by myself, though, because BACK THE FUCK UP, KID. However, with two other extremely needy kids under my care, it’s hard to cheerfully add a third set of clingy demands to the list. I try to cater to this new emotional need in the daytime, but far too many 1:00 a.m.’s last week found me surrounded by three kids screaming from their beds, either directly or indirectly affected by Phaedra’s new obsession.
One night early morning, after a particularly nasty bedtime, I sat talking to Rob. He had returned home from work in the middle of the shit storm, and was able to coax her to sleep. “I just don’t know what to do anymore,” I said. “She says she can’t sleep. Nothing helps her fall asleep anymore — not books, not movies, not music, and she loses it if I try to leave her for even a second.”
“What about talking to her?”
“What do you mean?”
“She’s like me, she can’t shut off her brain at night. That’s why she stays up so late. She just needs something to focus on, to help her thoughts shut down. Tonight, I just laid down with her, started talking to her, and she calmed down and fell asleep.”
“You talk to her.”
“Uh huh. Just try talking to her, man.”
The following night, I informed her of what the new bedtime routine would be: PowerPuff Girls episode, go potty, brush teeth, hug Bella goodnight, and then her and I would lay down in her bed and talk. She looked at me suspiciously. “About what?”
“Whatever you want, honey. Just me and you.”
He was right. He’s always right. Now, Phaedra and I snuggle up and after a little chatting, she listens while I hypnotize her with my words. Bedtime topics have included Disney World, how your body grows, kindergarten, Barbies, dreams, and why girls can do the same things as boys. All she wanted was a few minutes out of her day where she had my undivided, absolute attention. Where she didn’t have to whine and insist and compete for it.
She’s started to relax little by little since we started our snuggle talks at night. Poor Phaedra. It’s easy for me to forget that, though she talks like a forty-year-old woman, she’s really just a sensitive five-year-old with a tendency to over-analyze. It’s easy to get busy and not realize that you might be taking your child’s naturally independent nature for granted. It’s easy to forget that even a daddy’s girl needs her mama sometimes.
As it turns out, I was the one that wasn’t holding on tight enough.