It finally happened. Claire, 3, got the daddy question. As in, “Why don’t you have a daddy?” Though, to be completely accurate, the 4-year-old friend who was over for a playdate phrased it less aggressively, as: “I have a mommy and a daddy.” Pause. Wait for response. I was in the kitchen with my daughter and her curious friend, who we know quite well. Without appearing interested in their conversation, I was waiting for Claire’s response as well. And it was a good one. “I have a mommy,” she said, quite simply. The friend tried again. “I have both. You don’t have a daddy.” Claire thought about this. “I have a sister,” she replied. Score! A perfect response. I was so proud.
Every Single Mother by Choice has anticipated this moment — the point at which someone else accosts our children with the fact of their fatherlessness. Claire is a weird kid — she really has never seemed terribly interested. We’ve discussed the fact that our family is a mom-and-kids family. I even made her a book with The Story of Claire, complete with my hand-drawn attempt at the meeting in a petri dish of sperm and egg. References to the doctor and the donor. I’ve always talked about it terms of what our family has, rather than what it doesn’t: We have a mom. We have a big sister and a little sister. We have a grandma, a grandpa, an uncle, an aunt, two cousins and a great-grandmother. There was a point when she was about two years old that she became aware of daddies. We’d go somewhere public and she’d categorize all the people she saw: He’s a boy. That’s a girl. That’s a mommy. That’s a daddy. But it wasn’t a big deal. I’d sometimes try a little education: some families have two moms. Some have two dads. Some have one mom, like us. But her interest was fleeting, and I’ve never pushed it.
So the playdate conversation was our first moment of truth. What would she say? How would she handle it?
Claire’s little friend has been interested in our lack of father from the beginning. Her mom asked me early on what she should tell her daughter, because she was asking. I told her to tell her there are all kinds of families. Our is a mom-and-kids family. A doctor and a donor helped me have kids. I also told her to tell her daughter to go ahead and ask us. We’re not shy. We’re not embarrassed. It is not a sore point with us. So finally, more than a year later, the little girl had brought the issue to Claire’s attention. Politely, nicely, but pointedly.
The conversation continued.
“I’m lucky because I have a mommy and a daddy. I have both,” said the little girl, trying to emphasize, in a fairly nice way, that she thought her situation was preferable.
Claire’s truth-telling was exhausted, I think, by the “lucky” reference.
“I have both, too,” she said, mildly, as if it were true.
“No you don’t, silly goose,” objected the friend.
She turned to me, wanting an authority figure to help straighten out the truth.
“She said she has a mommy and a daddy,” she told me.
I didn’t bite. “I heard that.”
And I finished drying the dishes I’d been doing, and the girls continued their stamping project at the play table. They talked of other things.
Then, when I was two rooms away reading my book, I heard the conversation resume.
“I just have a daddy,” said the friend. “My mommy is dead.”
I thought this was hilarious. My friend had bemoaned her daughter’s father-crush, her preference for her working father to her stay-at-home mom. Daddy could do no wrong in the eyes of the little girl, a softer alternative to her stricter but lovely mom. She’d be thrilled to hear she’d been killed off.
Then my daughter responded.
“My mommy is dead too,” she said. Damn. Now I’d been killed off too. Claire was apparently oblivious to the perils of killing of a parent in a single-parent family.
The girls giggled as they discussed how they’d screamed so loud it killed mommy.
I read my book. I am not an alarmist parent. These seemed like healthy fantasies to me. When the girls eventually made their way into the living room where I was, Claire came over to tell me that she killed me by screaming so loud.
“I hope not,” I said giving her a kiss and a squeeze. “I’d really miss you.”
And the playdate continued. The conversation was less interesting after that, but I retained the glow of it, listening like a fly on the wall to the innocent puzzlement and rebellion of these preschoolers who are just starting to notice a few different and scary things in their worlds.
Claire didn’t follow up on the issue when her friend left, though of course I was dying to talk about it and reinforce all the positive messages I harbour about our family and her creation. I’m secure enough to wait until she asks.
Besides, we have plenty of other things to talk about. The next day, as we walked to church, Claire brought up the issue of family planning.
“I think we should have another baby,” she said.
“Really?” I said, intrigued. Anna just turned 1, and the hard work of infancy seemed very fresh.
“Babies are a lot of work,” I reminded Claire. “They cry a lot, and poop, and always want to breastfeed. You have to do a lot of waiting while mommy takes care of the baby. Are you sure you want another baby?”
“Yes,” she said. “Can we?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “We’ll have to see.” “Should I have a boy baby or a girl baby?” I asked, curious about what Claire was after in a new sibling.
“No, I’m going to have the baby!” she objected. Duh!
I laughed with relief, and delight.
“Oh, thank goodness,” I said. “I thought it was me who had to have another baby.”
And as we walked along, and discussed possible baby names and what she was going to feed her baby, I played back the beginning of the conversation with pleasure: “I think we should have another baby,” she’d said.
Not the royal “we” but the family “we.” The secure-in-her-world “we.”
Turns out I don’t need to reinforce any positive messages about our family after all. For my daughter, it’s just who we are. We are us, and what is mine is hers and what is hers is ours. We’re in this together.
I’m just not sure I’m ready to be a grandma.
Reprinted with permission from www.MotheringintheMiddle.com