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My Daughter Has an Imaginary Friend, But It's So Much More Complicated Than That

Photograph by Twenty20

“Hi Mom, hi Dad,” my 4-year-old says as she enters the kitchen I’m preparing dinner in. There’s just one problem… I’m the only one there. There is no dad to be seen.

My little girl has an imaginary friend. She calls him “Daddy.” And to her, he is very, very real.

What she doesn’t know, what I’ll never let on about, is the fact that this imaginary daddy of hers makes me more than a little uncomfortable.

You see, my daughter has never had a daddy. From the day she was born, it has always been just her and me. So in my mind, it’s pretty clear what’s happening with this imaginary father of hers—she’s creating the complete family she wishes she had.

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She even throws a big sister in there from time to time, running through the house and giggling at high volume. “You’re so silly, Sister!” she might exclaim. She’s told me once or twice that she couldn’t play with me, because she and Sister were playing and, “It’s just us girls, Mom.”

At dinner, we have to set a place for "Daddy." At bedtime, she insists he get to pick a book too, and she air kisses him goodnight. And in the morning, when she crawls into my bed, she’s always careful to get in between me and "Daddy," never wanting to invade his space too much.

Again, this is the daddy that isn’t really there.

At first I asked questions about this daddy she seemed to think was so real. I asked what he looked like, what he did for a job, what kind of things he did for fun. She always answered these questions of mine without missing a beat, and eventually I stopped asking, choosing to simply play along instead.

If I'm being honest, I was beating myself up for not being capable of giving my daughter the complete family she saw most of her friends have.

But it bothered me. I’m not going to lie, it hurt my heart, simply because I felt so sure it was her way of processing something she wished she had.

Something I would love to give her, if only it were as simple as snapping my fingers and making it so.

I talked to a lot of friends about my daughter’s new imaginary family. One wondered whether or not this was simply an only child thing.

“My kids never had imaginary friends,” she said. “But they were all born so close together, there was always someone around to play with or bug.” She pointed out that our friends whose kids got to my daughter’s age without siblings all had imaginary friends in some form or another. None were imaginary family, but that didn’t make it any less bizarre when they started acting like these invisible people were real.

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I know there is a lot of truth to that. This is a normal developmental stage. Plenty of kids have imaginary friends, and behave as though those invisible people are as real as you or me. And to be honest, if this were just a typical imaginary friend she had invented, a Sally or Tommy she’d conjured up to play with, I don’t think it would make me nearly as uncomfortable.

It’s the fact that it’s an imaginary daddy, and sometimes sister, that made me wonder if I should be doing something more to get to the bottom of my daughter’s imaginary family.

So, I brought it up with her pediatrician. “Is this a sign she’s terribly lonely?” I asked. “Or that she’s not coping well with being an only child to a single mother?”

If I'm being honest, I was beating myself up for not being capable of giving my daughter the complete family she saw most of her friends have.

But her pediatrician calmed my nerves. “Does she ever seem sad when she’s talking about these imaginary people?” She asked. “Or does she ever try to blame bad behavior on them?”

The answer to both of those questions was no. For the most part, my daughter seems utterly gleeful when talking to or about her imaginary family. And she is always more than willing to invite me into that imagination. In fact, she seems absolutely delighted when I play along.

As far as her blaming bad behavior on them? The exact opposite has actually been true. In fact, I walked into her room the other day to find her standing in a corner. “Daddy told me to go to time out,” she said. “’Cause I didn’t pick up my toys like you asked.”

I mean… what?!? Imaginary Daddy is actually disciplining her now? That’s pretty much my least favorite parenting task, so as far as I’m concerned, he can have it.

“She’s fine, then!” her pediatrician promised. “This is just a normal stage kids go through. And yeah, it might be her way of processing not having a dad, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a sad thing, or anything you need to intervene with. It could just be her way of playing out scenarios she’s seen with her friends and their daddies.”

So for now, I set an extra place (and sometimes two) at the dinner table. I ask if Daddy and Sister will be reading bedtime stories with us, or need to be buckled into the car. I play along, and smile just as she does. Because apparently this imaginary friend thing is pretty normal.

Even when it’s an imaginary daddy.

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