Each night I make sure she has all three PJ Masks stuffed animals: Catboy, Owlette, and Gekko. I make sure she has her stuffed Peppa Pig and brother George. I make sure she has her 5-inch tall stuffed Moana we got at Disneyland. I give her a few cornflakes right before bed, and then I make her brush her teeth again.
Then I listen to her prayer. She folds her soft little arms across her baby blue Cinderella hand-me-down nightgown, legs folded beneath her, atop a blue Moana bedspread. She dips her blond head and closes her blue green eyes, and says “Dear heavenly father. Thank you for family, church, father, amen” in a voice that’s somewhere between Peppa Pig and a songbird.
Then we hug and I sit next to her in bed, and we listen to classical covers of contemporary songs. Sometimes she won’t lie down, so I have to lay my arm across her, and she says, “I stuck, Daddy. I stuck.” Then she settles down. Sometimes she covers her eyes and counts to ten, in a horrible attempt to trick me into playing hide and seek. And when I don’t run and hide, she talks to me in her serious voice, which is actually about 5 octaves lower and sounds like she’s possessed. “Go hide, Daddy,” she says in a deep growl. “Go hide.”
In moments like this I wonder if she is Pennywise, the clown.
But she’s not.
She’s Aspen, the youngest of my three children. I got a vasectomy a couple years ago, so as far as I’m concerned, she’s our last. I mean, I know that sometimes there are still accidents after a vasectomy, but I don’t think much about that. I just think about how this is the last little goofball I’m going to have in my home, and I have to admit, I’m having a difficult time not spoiling her.
It’s not a huge thing. I’m not buying her extravagant gifts or anything (I don’t have that kind of money anyway), or giving in to her every whim. It’s more like sitting at the end of her bed as she falls asleep each night. I did that with all of my kids until just after their second birthday. But Aspen is almost four, and I’m still doing it. I also never let any of the older two have snacks right before bed, or gave them a popsicle regardless of how much dinner they ate, or let them put all the toys in the bathtub… you get the idea.
I’m a little more patient with her than I was as a young father. I’m a little more understanding when she sprawls out on the floor in a four-alarm fit. I’m a little more willing to stop what I’m doing and listen to her ramble on about some episode of Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom, or push my laptop to the side so she can crawl into my lap for a snuggle, or sit and laugh as she stumbles around in a pair of my shoes.
I don’t know if this really counts as spoiling her. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I wonder if it has more to do with where I am now in my own life. I became a father at 24. I’m 35 now. I went through my undergrad studies with one kid, and grad school with two kids. I always had a midterm to attend to or papers to grade when the others were young.
In so many ways, I feel like I missed their preschool years. I have to assume anyone trying to finish college while married with children fully understands where I’m coming from. When I think back on those early years, I feel like I was a full-time-plus student with a part-time job, and ultimately that made me a half-assed father.
So with Aspen, I savor the moment because I know I can’t get these cute cuddly years back. None of her issues seem all that complicated, and few things feel as warm as having her climb on me. Few things are as simple and sweet at the end of the day as sitting next to her as she falls asleep.
In so many ways, I feel like I’m giving her the time I wish I’d had to give with the other two. And when I think about it that way, maybe I am spoiling her, just a little bit. And honestly, I don’t know if this is causing my older two children to feel bitter towards their younger sibling. Perhaps they don’t remember those early years when I was in a rush to get to my next class, or my next paper, or my next shift, or to bed so I could get up early and do it all over again. But honestly, I can’t help spoiling my youngest.
But you know what? It’s not something I do for her.
I do it for me.