The Man Who Wasn’t There. Why does my son say daddy when he’s never even met his father? By Christine Coppa for

Why does my son say “daddy” when he’s never even met his father? by Christine Coppa

April 14, 2009


“Dad-dee! Dad-dee!” JD, my fifteen-month-old son, yells from center parachute at Gymboree class. My stomach feels like the roller coaster just dropped. The mothers “aww” in unison. This coaxes JD to dance around in little circles yelling “Dad-dee, Dad-dee,” then stop, dead in his tracks, look at his audience, smile and wait for their reaction. They react. Over and over – and over. My face feels flush. I slip my hands inside of JD’s jean overalls to bring him closer to me. He trips over his feet, but quickly pushes himself up, proclaiming “Dad-dee,” over a gurgle of laughter, clapping his hands, then running off to a long, netted tube to crawl through.

“Daddy’s at work,” a mother in one of those matchy-match designer velour running suits calls out to him. She’s got a perfectly manicured Posh cut and a full face of makeup. She smells like Chanel No. 5 and homemade cookies. I have on chapstick. Velour-running-suit mom turns back, smiling at me. “They love their daddies!” she says, bouncing her strawberry-blonde girl in her lap. The little girl cranes her neck up and twists her body, “Daddy?” she says in a question mark, popping her finger into her mouth, sucking on it like it’s dipped in confectioners sugar.

My son doesn’t have a daddy.

I was dating someone for almost three months when I took the pregnancy test. Eleven weeks later I was single. I was living in New York City, working full-time at a magazine and living paycheck-to-paycheck like most people my age. Soon however, I found a cheap apartment in the Jersey burbs. I was having a baby in less than two months – I couldn’t share a space with strangers from Craig’s List anymore. Fifteen months later here I am – in the town I grew up in. At mommy and me class.

Hanging out with stay-at-home moms that did things “the right way.” Dated. Got Engaged. Got Married. Got mortgages. Got pregnant. Me? I work from my apartment in jeans, barefoot, as a fulltime contracted freelance writer for two big websites because working in-house meant paying $1,200 a month in daycare fees. After doing that for ten months, I left my job and make my own schedule now.

I write when JD naps or draws on the easel that is set next to my desk. Friends call me a vampire because I’ve taken to working in the night when other people are sleeping. The quiet and calm of plugging away with the night sky just outside my window is lovely, though. And I will remember the way the black wash looked and the stars, like a string of Christmas lights, in easier days to come and I will smile because I am a warrior mama. Still, every now and then someone reminds me I got “knocked up” or calls JD a horrible name, like “Devil’s spawn” on my blog Storked! But more often than that, people from around the world laugh with me, cry with me, ask me to be their Facebook friend; send me recipes for “to-die-for” mac ‘n cheese.

Admiring JD sharing a ball with another toddler, I think back to the first few months I was pregnant and alone. I was on a mission, telling myself everything was under control and that I could do this – distracting myself with freelance work on top of my full-time job at First magazine for extra money, laundering things in Dreft and folding them up on my belly, tucking them into the baby drawer of my dresser.

Why does my son say “daddy” when he’s never even met his father? by Christine Coppa

April 14, 2009

The truth is I could do this – and I do, but as the reality of single-parenthood has sunk in, I realize that it’s harder than I imagined and in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I am no longer in brand-new baby bliss on a long, paid maternity leave, watching Oprah with a sleeping eight-pound person on my chest that smells fantastic – like warm bread and oatmeal and baby powder. I am a single mom, single-income family – I’m single. And when my son yells “Dad-dee,” amongst toddlers with two parents, I realize that this fact is going to matter to my son no matter what I do, no matter how good a mother I am. There will always be a “daddy” missing.

Down the road when I do get married my son will still bear the burden that his father left. It is deeply affecting and I know this. I am not lost on the reality of how I came to be a single mother. I was irresponsible and even though I’ve morphed into the most responsible version of Christine, I still know my son won’t care when the other little boys are playing baseball with their fathers. That’s why after JD was born, I called his father, the person who left when I was just eleven weeks pregnant and asked him if he’d like to meet his son and start contributing. My son has never met his father.

After JD “danced side-to-side, twisted-twisted” and “waved bye-bye” to Gymbo-the-clown, or more appropriately the creepy puppet fixed on the instructor’s hand, I extend my hand to his and he wraps it around my pointer finger. I could also cry in moments like these – joyful tears, like wedding ones because I feel like the most important person in the universe. I even have the falling-in-love butterflies in my stomach. I am in love with this little boy and our life together.

I am in love with this little boy and our life together. “Jacket time, little bud,” I say, leading him over to a wall of cubbies. “Should we have grilled cheese for lunch today?” I ask as I feed his arm, then the other through the puffy sleeves. “Ease?” he says. “Cha-eese,” I say. “Cha-eese.” “Ease?” he says again, cocking his head, opening his little fist like I might have a stick of string cheese in my pocket.

Velour-running-suit mom kneels down next to us and starts to put her daughter’s sneakers on. The little girl is folded over, raking her fingers on the carpet. As her mother starts to put her right shoe on, little girl kicks the left one off. I watch from the corner of my eye as the mother blows hair out of her face. She looks defeated. I easily relate as I recently spent an entire morning looking for JD’s left Nike. That I found in the umbrella can. There was no one else to help with the search and when I asked JD where his sneaker was, he gave me a Cheerio from his little cup. Adorable metaphors that remind me I am alone in this make me smile and tear up without warning. With that thought, JD rips his hat off and says: “Nah!” His word for “No.”

“It’s chilly out, Mr. Loomba (one of his many nicknames – the origin completely lost on me),” I say, pulling the hat with little bear ears over his head.

“Nah!” he says ripping it off, his blonde hair frizzing up in the quick static friction. He looks like a kitten in cold water with his hair shooting from all angles.

Why does my son say “daddy” when he’s never even met his father? by Christine Coppa

April 14, 2009

“Bet you can’t wait for “Dad-dee” to get home, the mom says, plunging the knife in yet again. I want to flick her across the forehead for assuming I’m married. I want to tell her it’s 2009, not 1940. Most of all, I want to tell her we’re doing just fine without Daddy. I earn the bread in my household. I also do massive amounts of laundry that JD generates at the damn laundromat that I loathe. I work endlessly at teaching him to master pointing to a cat, while simultaneously saying “cat.” I rock him to sleep when he doesn’t want to sleep and I wake up every morning at six a.m. because he wants a cup of milk. I worry myself sick when he has a fever that won’t quit and feel abnormally guilty if I happen to spend a few hours away from him, say, having a drink with girlfriends instead of singing the ABC’s on repeat and finger painting. I pay the bills every month, then let out a breath of relief – we survived another month.

I do other things too. I cuddle with him every single night and read the same book as many times as he wants to hear it. I taught him how to make duck noises and where his nose is. We eat snacks together everyday at three p.m. He pops half-grapes into my mouth. We take long walks and JD stops to hug trees or point at airplanes. He hands me a sneaker when he sees me putting the other one on. He randomly stops whatever he is doing and wraps his arms around my leg and when I open the front door he extends his hand to mine because he knows we hold hands outside. He still falls asleep on my chest like he did when he was hours old and I still nuzzle his head with my nose, smelling his sweet, shampooed hair. See, I get to do everything. It’s awesome.

Even in his absence, my ex is always present. And sometimes it’s awful. Last night I surrendered to tears and anxiety behind the shower curtain because the pressure to be enough all of the time, to financially and emotionally support my son on my own is overwhelming. I am the one that keeps us going, but it is inevitable that my son is going to ask about his father. It’s haunting. Even in his absence, my ex is always present. Of course, a lot of this is my projection. JD isn’t really asking for his Daddy now. See, JD calls the orange rubber ball that goes to his basketball hoop “Dad-dee” sometimes. When I ask him if he wants some corn, sometimes he squeals “Dad-dee-eee-eee.” The other day he got really excited when I let him hold a letter from the mailbox and he smiled, then sang “Dad-dee.”

Our pediatrician told me it’s a really easy word for babies to say when I confided that JD says it often. “It’s essentially their tongue bouncing off the roof of their mouth,” he assured me. “It’s one of the first words they say, in fact.” So for now “Dad-dee” is just a word, a hiccup of a sound. But I know one day “Dad-dee” will have to turn into a conversation. A big one. I’m not sure how it will go just yet. I think I’ll tell JD a “Dad-dee” is kind of like Uncle Carlo (my older brother). A Dad-dee helps a mom move into an apartment. He drives a mom to the hospital when she is going to have a baby. He changes diapers – even poo ones. He switches the fitted sheet on the crib mattress because mommy thinks it’s a torturous task that someone extremely evil thought up. Dad-dees spend five hours putting a train table together on Christmas Eve. They’re people toddlers recognize and run to with open arms, bright-eyed when they push through the front door. “Dad-dees” are men who are around – in one way or another, no matter what.

Later on that night, while I am washing dishes and JD is smacking magnetic ABC letters to the garbage can and not the fridge, he trips on his pant leg and falls flat against the linoleum floor, arms out like he is sliding into first base. He pushes himself up with his little dimpled hands and blubbers “Mum-Ma.” It sounds so sweet and true and not at all scripted. He is not performing or trying to get a rise out of someone. My hands are soaked in suds but I reach for him nonetheless, warm lemon-scented water dripping down my arms. I two-step with him by the window, finding the moon high in the sky. I feel JD’s warm cheek on my neck and his fingers tangled in my hair and it pinches a bit but I don’t care. “Mum-Ma-Mum-Ma-Mum-Ma,” he says, pulling me closer. “We’re okay, little bud,” I say, blotting the wetness on his face with my sleeve. You see, he says “Mum-Ma” a lot too. When he really needs something.

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