I feel the wet, gloomy Tuesday all around me as I get my daughter out of the car at her preschool. She’s excited. There are puddles everywhere, and she wants to jump in all of them. We make a game out of it as I hold her hand and make sure she doesn’t skip a single one. The delight on her face — her ability to experience a simple joy so completely — is infectious. She spots her best friend as we walk up the steps. “Sebastian! Sebastian!” she shouts at him while pointing at me, “This is my DADDY!” I smile a tired smile as my mind drifts to the night before.
It was another rough one. My daughter woke up at 2am and immediately started talking to herself. She has an inner ear infection and it’s messing with her sleep — but her mood is immune to the bug. So as she sees me shuffling into her room she yells, “Daddy! I’m a CATERPILLAR!” Even half asleep I know immediately where this is coming from. She and my wife were looking at two caterpillars in our garden earlier that day. They named the caterpillars George, and… Oh no. I can’t remember the name of the other one. That’s annoying. I should be able to remember the name of the other caterpillar.
The other piece of the puzzle is that I’ve been making up lots of stories for her lately. She wants me to tell her chair stories, table stories, band-aid stories, tree stories, bed stories, and bath stories. Each time I somehow manage to squeeze out a barely plausible plot around these inanimate objects. In a moment of inspiration I even came up with a band-aid song — it’s a song band-aids sing when you attach them to little boys and girls. “I’m healing, I’m healing, I love healing you. I’m healing, I’m healing, I love healing you.” Not my best work, but she loves it. This original storytelling has sparked her own imagination into full flame (“Once upon a time, the froggy JUMPED into the water, and then Mickey came and SAVED him. THE END!”).
So I put all these pieces together in a split second. It’s amazing what our brains can do even when they’re not supposed to be functioning. She’s telling herself a caterpillar story because she now loves making up stories, and George and the other caterpillar (damn, what’s his name?) make for good protagonists.
Still, it’s 2am. So I try to shut the whole thing down. I know I shouldn’t. I know I should encourage her imagination. But it really is 2am. So I say, “No, honey, you’re not a caterpillar. You’re a little girl, and you need to sleep because it’s the middle of the night.” She tries to reason with me, but I don’t budge. She stays quiet for a few seconds, and then decides that as much as she likes having me in the room, the current situation isn’t optimal for her immediate needs. “Daddy,” she says firmly, “you have to go back to your OWN bed.”
I don’t know what to say to her. This amazing daughter of mine, who loves books and stories and adventures. Who fills her nighttime boredom by making up stories about caterpillars. Who, at the age of 3, has the ability to weigh the pros and cons of a situation and come up with a solution to get what she wants (which in this particular case involves me leaving the room so she can carry on pretending to be a caterpillar). I kissed her on her forehead and left the room.
So now it’s the morning after, and she proudly announces to her friend that I’m her daddy. She wants the world to know that she belongs to me, and I to her. Like all parents I know it won’t be long until she doesn’t want to identify with me any more, so I try to cherish the moment. But I’m exhausted, so I store the memory, hoping that I’ll be able to recall and reflect on it properly later. You know, when things settle down a bit.
Things didn’t settle down, of course. I suspect things won’t settle down for years to come. Parenting sometimes feels like running on a treadmill — if you don’t look at the signs around you, it feels like you’re moving fast but getting nowhere. So you begin to rely on those signs to convince you that time is, in fact, moving along.
I hear it’s supposed to be Spring now. And in a few days George (I’ve given up trying to remember the other caterpillar’s name) will turn into a butterfly and we’ll get to explain that little miracle of nature to my daughter. I’ll continue to be exhausted — especially because our second daughter is only weeks away — but I’m also determined to keep showing up. Even if it’s 2am. Right now my daughter wants me in her life, and I need to be there for her, because the time will come when she needs to find her own way. And then it will be too late to wish that I listened more carefully when she told me the names of her caterpillars.