“Daddy, come under my bed!” my 4-year-old directed.
“Come on!” my 2-year-old copied.
I was nervous. The prestigious invitation to visit my daughters’ secret hideaway had never been extended to me before. My girls had built their base camp under our crib-turned toddler bed, and the exclusive club had always been off-limits to everyone – Mama and Dada included. Even during games of hide-and-go-seek or Marco-Polo, the imaginary doors remained locked for weeks. But now? Now I was invited. This was a big moment.
The constructed hangout was where my daughters went to escape from our rules; it was their immunity zone that fell out of any local jurisdiction. Two walls and a bed skirt blockaded all four sides, providing an invisibility cloak around the perimeter that separated my world from theirs.
“Follow me!” my older daughter cried out.
After her younger sister predictably echoed the directive once again, both girls dove underneath the bed, disappearing from sight. Unsure if I’d even fit, I laid on my back and slowly slithered myself, head first, toward the bed, gauging the overpass as I went, until the entire upper half of my body had safely worm-holed its way into my daughter’s separate dimension.
“Come all the way in Dada,” I heard from behind me.
“I’m in,” I lied, unable to move a whole lot further.
“Bring your legs in too!” she demanded, not to be taken for a fool.
I twisted at the waist and managed to bring one knee inside, which was apparently sufficient. It was a bit of a tight squeeze. But seeing my two daughters move around so easily in their den made it feel about ten times more expansive. It appeared as though my admittedly messy sweethearts intentionally kept things tidier there than in the rest of their bedroom.
I turned my head to the right and saw both of my girls on their hands and knees facing me, looking ecstatic to have their first house guest. Admittedly, I may have been more visibly excited than they were. My wide grin turned into a steady laugh when they began to show me around — and by show me around, that meant I moved my head in different directions to see their kid-cave.
“Come here,” my oldest advised. She was tucked into the back corner next to a handful of toys that had gone missing a few months prior that we’d given up any hope of ever finding again. I wiggled my way in her direction.
“This is my bed,” she whispered, as she delightedly poked her finger at the underside of her mattress to let me in on the secret. I held her hand and pretended to be astonished.
“Oh, wow baby, this is so cool!” I said, scanning the area four inches above my face. “Pretty décor,” I joked.
“See my toys,” she interrupted.
It appeared that the placement of their toys had a purpose, at least in toddler logic. The toy trains, my lost golf ball, and a pink toy camera were some of their favorites; the ones they wanted to keep as far away from authority as possible were stuffed as deeply into the back corner as could be. A few stray pieces of pretend food and a wooden plate sat together near the entrance to the complex.
“Look at,” my 4-year-old proclaimed, as she showed me her stack of Lego Batman comic books tucked against the wall.
“Yook at!” my 2-year-old reflexively called out, wanting to be included. Even though she hasn’t mastered all of her pronunciations, she still instinctively copies everything her older sister says. I rolled my head to the left. She poked me in the forehead a couple times, then pointed to the wooden bottom side of the bed support, where a handful of stickers had been strategically applied.
“Are these yours?!” I asked, opening my eyes as widely as hers.
“Stickers,” she replied.
“Can I look over there?” I asked both of them, as I pointed to the end of the bed I hadn’t explored yet.
“Okay,” my oldest conceded, as if she hadn’t properly prepared it well enough for company. As I scooted in that direction on my back, slowly, my girls zoomed past me and tried to quickly spread a blanket.
Here, in this imaginary world, they were different. They had each laid claim to their own spot, and, even though my oldest was still the alpha, the dynamic between the two felt more cooperative than usual. They were both so proud of their cozy hide-out, where they knew their rules reigned supreme. I was the house guest that needed instruction. And they were happy to provide.
After a few minutes, my initial nervous energy had quickly transformed into pure happiness. My worries and responsibilities, too, remained outside of this small space. The scene of my kids playing adult had a way of muting the dialogue that typically distracts me. I focused on nothing else but my girls, because nothing else in the entire universe existed at that moment besides us.
Down there, my body twisted and crammed into this space, I was reminded of my formative years where my brother and I would build forts, cover them with blankets, and deem ourselves rulers of the land. It provided us a sense of control over our lives that wasn’t actually there. It was a place to escape, hide out, and feel as though we had already begun to build our own little place in the world, unaware that eventually we’d come full circle and miss the carefree days of yore.
My kids will always instinctively want their independence and this desire will only grow stronger as they age. And being invited into their version of independence was such a perfect moment. I could share in their world for a while, before it becomes closed off to me for good. They granted me access to their exclusive club, and I was so proud to be able to get a guided tour of the world of imagination I had forgotten.