A few nights ago Caroline and I were asleep when Jay called out from his crib, “DaddyMama, is the door locked so the dog can’t get in?”
I stammered a groggy reply—“Yes, the door’s locked, go back to sleep”—which was all the reassurance Jay needed. Before I fell back asleep myself there were two things about his comment that caught my attention.
The first is Jay’s seemingly self-created phobia of dogs. He’s never had an obviously bad experience with a dog and he’s spent plenty of time with my sister’s dog and my stepfather’s dog, both of whom are world-class friendly. But he remains wary/petrified of dogs nonetheless. Whenever we hear a dog bark Jay asks, always, without exception, “Is that dog behind a fence?” As far as I can tell, it’s a fear he brought with him from the womb.
The second thing that caught my attention was his use of the uni-name: DaddyMama. Jay’s been calling us this for a long time—nearly since he learned to talk. When he was eighteen-months-old he’d sit in his carseat and sing out, real fast, “DaddyMama, DaddyMama, Daddy-A-Mama!” with this degree of spirited enthusiasm for our names that nearly broke my heart and made it impossible for me not to shift my gaze, just a for a moment, from the highway in front of me to his face in the backseat.
Caroline and I talk sometimes about the extent to which Jay sees each of us an individual. The other day Caroline and Jay were out in the driveway and Jay asked Caroline to kick the soccer ball over the house so he could chase it. This is something that Jay and I do together often and Caroline laughed to herself at his request. She thought it was funny that he didn’t perceive that punting the soccer ball just isn’t the kind of thing she does.
There are other activities that break down along Daddy-Mama lines: I’m more likely to help Jay use a screwdriver to take apart his toys; Caroline is more likely to sit down and color with him or read him a book.
But in terms of moods I don’t think he has any consistent preferences—he’s as likely to want me as he is to want Caroline when he’s sick, or tired, or wakes up in the middle of the night. So Jay doesn’t have the exact same relationship with me that he has with Caroline, but all told I think there is broad equivalence in his attitudes and perceptions of the two of us.
Which brings me to a thought I remember having soon after Jay was born: It’s hard for a child to perceive his parents accurately under any circumstances and harder, still, when they’re married.
My parents divorced when I was 10. One effect of the divorce was that I gained a clearer view of my parents as individuals: I’d see my mom cooking by herself or hear my dad putting away dishes in the house at night and I was struck by the fact of each of them as individuals, distinct from each other and distinct from me. I didn’t gain perfect knowledge of them and even today my dad is a little obscure to me, but the divorce did throw each of them into relief.
Marriage makes it harder for a child to perceive his parents for two reasons. Within marriage each parent adapts his or her behavior to the norms of the union: My parents almost certainly acted differently (and probably more like their true selves) outside of marriage than inside of marriage. And second, when your parents are married you’re more inclined to default into the mode of thinking of them as a pair rather than thinking of them as individuals.
So how do I feel about being part of DaddyMama? I like that Jay and Wally have to get through DaddyMama first before they can get to me—like it gives me a little cover for my flaws. And I imagine that as they grow up they’ll take comfort in the thought that DaddyMama is on guard, making sure the dogs can’t get in—even if the source of that comfort is to some extent a product of their own invention.