There’s this thing that happens at our house: Ted gets home and wants to play with Rebecca while I finish making dinner. Rebecca howls for mommy. I’m not going to ignore Rebecca for very long, regardless of who the parent on call is. I’m often not successful directing her back to her dad, either, so she ends up cooking and snacking with me while Ted does something on his computer. It works out, except that I feel bad for Ted and occasionally jealous.

I want Rebecca and her dad to have a good relationship. I don’t care how often she goes to him for comfort or whether he can put her to bed at night, but I want them to enjoy each other’s company and seek it out. What do I do? They already have daddy-daughter dates for three hours on Saturday morning. Most other advice I’ve read suggests that if I’ve still got a mommy-focused kid after that, my options are to see it as a phase and ride it out, or else that I need to stop responding and strong-arm her into staying with her dad. I don’t believe in ignoring people I love, if there’s an alternative, so that’s not going to happen.

I’ve wondered if nursing and spending so much time with me were hurting her relationship with her dad. I’ve wondered if Ted’s just less fun, because he’s not as quick to figure out what she wants–he doesn’t have the context–and maybe he’s less likely to say yes to it–at least if it involves reading a book more than three times or starting something they won’t have time to finish. I’ve wondered if I should say “no” more often to make him look fun by comparison. I’ve wondered if I need to stop having so many boring grown-up conversations when Ted’s around, because maybe that makes him seem like the gateway to boring. In any case, I was stuck on the idea that our situation was someone’s fault, mostly mine.

Then I remembered something: love isn’t a zero sum game. Rebecca can have good relationships with both her parents, just like I can have more than one good relationship at a time. None of us are automatons who always go to the person we have the most intimate relationship with. When Rebecca’s relationship with her dad isn’t working right, that’s not about me unless I’m making it about me.

So no more guilt about being too awesome, at least not right now. I don’t know where the idea comes from that too much maternal attentiveness shuts out the father, but I think the reason it felt plausible to me was that it had a familiar emotional structure. It played on the fear that if you do something too well, you must be showing somebody else up. Typical schoolgirl socialization BS: Be careful how brightly you shine. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is exhorting you to do your best and do something amazing. You feel bad if you hold back, and you kinda bad if you don’t hold back, too. But none of that needs to apply to parenting.

The second thing I realized, once I got guilt out of the way and started thinking more clearly (and with some help from Playful Parenting again), is that Rebecca talks a lot about her dad during the day, as well as telling and requesting stories about father figures–but when he comes home, she distances herself. I’d thought it was bad luck that they were so out of sync, but it’s not. Rebecca spends enough time missing her dad that she’s standoffish and groggy with longing when they finally get together. She can’t reach out for the connection she couldn’t have without tromping back through all the pain of not having it. That’s when she insists on mommy instead.

Now that I know what’s going on and I’m not busy worrying about my role in things, I’m better at gently insisting that Rebecca and her dad connect. I know that’s what they both want, and that Rebecca needs a nudge. Now more and more often they’re giggling together or making off with the Doritos while I cook dinner, and everything’s just about how it should be.

The third thing I realized is, maybe Rebecca’s already hungry when her dad comes home, and when she’s hungry, she wants me. The whole transition would go more easily if we consciously incorporated a pre-dinner snack into our evening routine. Sometimes I overthink things.