“Baby, your dress is so beautiful,” I said to my four-year-old when I first saw her come out of the bedroom. Her mom had helped her put on a brand new pink princess gown, a matching bow, and a wrist corsage that matched my boutonniere.
She spun herself in circles, her dress blossoming into the shape of a flat circle. We were just about to head to our first daddy-daughter dance. The standard pre-festivity processes were commencing.
“You’re my beautiful baby doll,” I fumbled out.
“Yes,” she agreed.
The night hit the notes of my Senior prom. We — the parents — were crying, while our kid oozed excitement. I figured, this go-around had to be a much smoother affair than the drama-filled event of my teens. Key word being: I figured.
The local elementary school organized a dance where any girl over three years of age could bring her dad to a night full of dancing, princess accessorizing, pizza eating, and face-painting. I was more excited about this night than anything else all year, and I knew my daughter would love it. The only real expectation my daughter had was to spend a magical night with her dad without her younger sister, who was still too young to attend.
“I go with!” my two-year-old blurted out when she saw us dressed up.
“I’m bringing your sister this time, but you can come next,” I tell her. I slowly began to back away, attempting to avoid a blow-up.
“No. I go with,” she corrected.
I could see that emotions were stirring quickly. My two-year-old, angry and indignant, was already heading into our closet to track down her nicest dress, which she immediately yanked from the hanger. My four-year-old, sensing an intruder was honing in on her territory, began yelling and screaming loudly.
I quickly thought about the best way to escape as I watched my four-year-old get closer and closer to a full-fledged meltdown. I figured if we left now, covertly, we could leave behind the ensuing fight. I grabbed my date, picked her up, and tried to make a break for the door.
“But we haven’t done pictures yet,” my wife said.
I stopped dead in my tracks. She was right. But at that moment, my two-year-old re-emerged, dragging her favorite dress, appalled that we almost left her behind. My oldest immediately lost all remaining patience. Before I could come up with any new bright ideas, the increasing decibel level in the room froze my brain completely.
“Can everybody please just calm down?” I asked. Nobody heard me.
But I was too late. I gave up all hope of actually getting to the dance. Everyone was crying. And everyone was angry. Pictures hadn’t even started yet.
At some point, somehow, my wife and I ended up sitting on the ground, each holding a daughter in our arms. Once the noise had subsided, an awkward silence filled the room. I realized, with a start, that we had officially reached prom-level readings on the drama. But still, I felt compelled to help my two-year-old feel included.
“Do you want one dance with Daddy?” I asked my two-year-old.
“Yes,” she responded, in the saddest, sweetest voice. Giving in, we quickly slipped on her purple dress and found an appropriate song on the radio. I picked her up and we rocked back and forth and spun in circles. When the song faded, she was calm.
“Let’s all go do pictures now,” I tried again. It was phrased as more of a question than a comment. The silence that followed confirmed to me there weren’t any major objections, so my wife and I quickly put all the props in place. My girls stood on each side of me for a handful of snapshots, then I held them both for a few more. By the end of the photo shoot, the mood had lightened quite a bit, and things were looking up. As we all walked toward the garage, I gave my little one a kiss and set her down.
“My dance!” she yelled out, as her bottom lip curled under. My four-year-old quickly ran and jumped into my arms to squash any more disputes before they began.
“Alright, here’s what we’re going to do.” I knelt down and looked at both girls. “We’re going on our daddy-daughter date tonight,” I explained to the little one, “then, you and I are going on a date tomorrow, ok?”
“I want to go on a date tomorrow,” the older one informed me, sounding concerned, as if she was suddenly getting the short end of the stick.
“You get the next date after that. Today is your turn, and next time is hers.”
Two blank expressions staring back at me confirmed the wheels were churning. My proposal was being taken seriously. Even though I was about to book myself dates every night for the next two weeks, things were finally moving in the right direction. I was avoiding blowouts.
Once the plan had been deemed appropriate, we set off for the dance. My wife picked up our two-year-old and waved us off.
I backed the car into the street, stopped, and rolled both my daughter’s and my windows down. “Bye-bye,” we said in unison as we waved.
While my younger daughter waved back, my wife blew us a kiss. “Alright,” my wife said to the little one. “Let’s take your nice dress off before we ruin it.”
I saw her start to yell. My wife was facing down yet another battle. I, on the other hand, punched the gas and got the hell out of there. My daughter must have won that negotiation, because she wore that same dress on our date the next night, and three straight days after that.
That night was full of drama. But from that spawned a new ritual: Every week, I take one daughter out to bond, just me and her. Regardless of whose turn it is, the ritual stays the same: my daughter wears a nice dress she personally picked out, I throw on the skinny jeans and Chuck Taylors, and we head out for donuts. It is such an amazing situation for bonding; one-on-one time with no siblings or spouses present, no drama or jealousy mixed in. Only daddy-daughter time. And, free from the dance-night drama, it truly is the perfect evening.