Saturday, April 13, 2013

When shared parenting means you are no longer number one

Recently, my daughter went through a period of preferring my partner, her other parent. For about a week, I would come home from work, starved for time with her,  and she would run to my partner and make a big show of hugging her and demanding to go into the kitchen with her. At dinner time, she refused to be fed by me, accepting food only from my partner, her Baba. At bathtime, I would have to pry her from her Baba and endure her bitter tears as we trudged upstairs for what is usually our most joyful time together. I was on a particularly miserable month, working the longest days I've worked all year and feeling resentful, bitter, and guilty almost every waking moment because I was spending so little time with her. When this theater of cruel preference happened for the first time, I went upstairs, turned on the bathroom faucet, sat on the tile floor, and sobbed for fifteen mintues. Then I came downstairs and tried to be as cheerful as possible as I sat next to the high chair and watched dinner progress without my participation. The situation was no fun for my partner either, as my time at home is the rare window of relief when she can check her email and recede into her own mental world for a while. Only E seemed to be having a ball, cocking her head to one side and making flirty toddler eyes at my partner while pushing my hand away from the food on her tray.

A male colleague once complained to me that his son prefers his wife, even to the extent of screaming and pushing him away when he goes to to pick him up in the morning or comfort him at night. As he told me this, I'm ashamed to admit that I thought, "Well she is his mother," as if motherhood is synonymous with being a child's primary go-to, as if a father should be resigned to being second pick. Well, here I was faced with the same situation and I was not resigned. 

I am not my child's primary caregiver. As an intern, I work until 6pm on the best days which are few, 7pm on most days, and 9pm on the worst days which happen at least 1-2 times per week. I have a week each month where I am gone from 6pm - 9am six nights in a row. The rest of the time I leave the house before my child wakes up and then I do bath and bedtime whenever I can, which is 3-4 days per week. Every day I have off, every evening hour that can be squeezed from the stone, every hour I can delay going to sleep post call, I do, but it still doesn't add up to 50%. Not even close. So I am not my child's primary caregiver, but up until the aforementioned week, I was pretty sure I was her go-to, her first draft pick. After all, I carried her and birthed her and nursed her and I am the only one in this family who takes rectal temperatures, let the record show. Prior to this episode, she had always been pretty happy with either or both of us, absorbing the love and care and attention of whichever of us was available at the time, so the assumption I had made about my being somehow more sacred and important had never been tested.

It was not a pleasant situation. In fact "My child will prefer her other parent" is probably number 2 on my list of top fears about being a working mother, right after "My child will be maimed or die while in someone else's care." I googled "My child prefers her other parent" and discovered that this happens to lots of people. Some children prefer their working-outside-the-home parent to their working-in-the-home parent and for some it is the other way around. In families where both parents work, the preference cannot be so easily explained away. Sometimes the preference is temporary and sometimes it is more deeply ingrained. In families with multiple children, one child might prefer one parent while another child prefers the other parent. None of these preferences seem to fall easily along gender lines. It was comforting to read post after post about this problem, but none really addressed my fear which was that by working so much, I was losing the right to be my child's number one. (Of note, I encountered not one post from a man complaining about this. Do men just not post on online parenting forums? Is this something that does not disturb them? It's an interesting question.)

When I was forced to examine my need to be number one, I realized that the whole construct is flawed and not relevant to our family. I was our daughter's primary caregiver for the first six months while my partner finished graduate school, now she is the primary caregiver while I am in residency. We have divided the work of parenting in a way that feels natural to us and that has nothing to do with traditional divisions of labor. My partner cooks. I deal with illnesses and sleep. We both work and make money, though my job is currently more time-intensive and less flexible. I'm good at helping our daughter achieve developmental milestones, my partner is good at structuring her days and giving her the downtime she needs. My daughter has two parents who work cooperatively to meet her needs and I'm very proud of that.

I'm not going to pretend that this transition in my thinking has been seamless or complete. There are still moments of panic and jealousy that my partner is so much more present in my daughter's life, for now. Thankfully, the phase passed and my daughter is back to taking the love from wherever it cometh, but I can't deny that I am secretly pleased and relieved when she leaps ecstatically from my partner's arms to mine when I come home. But I am teaching myself to be just as happy when she leaps from me to my partner, because the net of safety and love that protects her is so much stronger than it would be if she were relying on only one person to meet her needs. If I weren't working so much, things might have played out very differently in the dynamics of our family, so in a way I'm glad that necessity has created the opportunity for a more shared model to evolve. Ok, I'm not glad. But I do think some good has come of it.


  1. Been there. My husband spent way more time with Mel, my oldest, when she was small. When I was nursing, she somewhat preferred me, but at a year and a half, she strongly preferred my husband. I cried over it and said things like, "Maybe my next child will like me." But when we switched roles a year later, Mel's preference switched. Recently I took a sick pleasure in her declaration that she loved daddy 99 and mommy 100. Close call though.

    My youngest has strongly preferred me her whole life. My husband never cared. Lately my husband has taken on more parenting and she has had times when she wants him over me. I'm hurt when this happens, but at the same time more just relieved for a little rare toddler-free time. Right now I'm typing this with one hand, for example.

  2. My husband is the one who works a lot. I'm in school myself, but he works away from home. He comes home only once every two months or so, and for that week or two he is home, I pretty much do not exist in the eyes of either of our kids. EVERYTHING is about daddy. Then for a week after he leaves, while we settle back into our usual routine, there are nightly tears and pleas for daddy to come back. It hurts, but like you I've tried to see the positive in it, that despite him being away for the majority of our youngest's life, she is still close to him. Even though our son has a hard time with it, he hasn't become resentful. It's rough to feel like you aren't #1 to your kids, but at the same time, it's nice that they have such a tight bond with the other parent.

  3. Sometimes it seems like my daughter likes our au pair more than she likes me. It's hard, but I keep telling myself that it's probably a good thing that she likes the au pair as much as she does since I am at the hospital all the time these days. Plus, when I am home we have our special time together with our au pair not there, which helps a lot.

  4. No matter what, as moms there will always be something something to feel guilty about. My toddler prefers me and wants me to do everything for/with her when I'm home. My husband is a stay at home dad, and my schedule allows me a lot of time home with her, but I feel like being gone so much in residency, going days at a time without seeing her, has scarred her. During residency and even now, especially after I work a few days in a row, she really wants mama for everything, pushing daddy away and not wanting much if anything to do with him if I'm home. If I'm not home, she's perfectly content with him. My husband definitely gets his feelings hurt by it. It makes me feel so guilty for working though, like she is craving my attention and I'm not able to be there enough for her. But who knows, toddlers are finicky and maybe soon enough she will prefer my husband. But then I'll be sad and feel guilty! I love my little mini-me and secretly am pleased that she's a mama's girl!

  5. Parenting = Guilt for most folks, anyway. Right now, my almost 5-year-old prefers me, so I feel guilty about my working hours, which, as an attending in Geriatrics, are not as long as yours. The boy is totally happy at home with my husband, but that doesn't help me feel less guilty.

    However, for all I know, next week, he'll flip. I also agree that the construct of "she who bore the child is the primary parent" doesn't apply for us - I went back to work at 5.5 months (short for here in Canada) and my husband has done the bulk of the stay-at-home-ness since. He's the guy that gets called with the boy is sick, and he walks him to the bus-stop, makes his lunches, and cooks our suppers. I bring home a paycheck (while my husband finishes his degree), and I am much happier, and saner, because of my job.

    Good luck with it - there is always something that will get to you. You seem to have all the reflective skills necessary to work through this stuff, which doesn't make it easier, but does help maintain sanity.

    And, there is always next week - little you-know-whats - just when you get used to one phase, they move on...

  6. They do move on. At 10 and 7, mine are totally into me. This wasn't always the case. My nanny spent the majority of the time with them as babies and toddlers. I remember reading an article in a doctor's office about how daycare spreads the attention such that you get to be the primary support - no competition. Even though I noticed the bond with my caregiver, and yes I as an enlightened, intelligent mother, I was silently and secretly a little bit occasionally jealous. I decided that ultimately a bond, no matter how tight, was good for my kids, even if it took away from me. Because it wasn't about me. I was a resident. Even if I was nursing them all night, there was someone else taking primary care all day and all evening. I squashed my feelings aside. It was tough, but it worked to all of our benefits in the long run.

    Good luck. Glad you have a supportive partner. Don't look at them as competition, but as a team member in this crazy race of mothering and medicine. We need a lot of support, and we shouldn't be made to feel guilty for accepting it. Our children will benefit all our lives for every positive relationship they encounter, and we will always be their mothers.

  7. Thanks for all your comments, fellow MiMers! It's helpful to hear all the permutations of these issues, and to know that I'm not alone in the "sick pleasure" of wanting to be number one. I know things will change over time -- they are already different now than a few weeks ago. Children change so fast. I'm trying to let go and enjoy each phase with its ups and downs. I agree with you Gizabeth -- our children will benefit from having many positive supportive relationships. And we will always be their mothers.

  8. I feel your pain. Every other month, depending on my shifts, Zo is all about Daddy. For several months at the beginning of Intern Year he called my husband Mama in spite of our repeated redirection; I cried a lot. Now I'm just glad that he has someone who is consistent and unfortunately it's not me. In a few years when I'm an Attending I hope things even out. Keep up the good work of constantly redefining what being an excellent parent is; from your posts, you obviously are!!!

  9. Thank you for introducing me to the life of the mother in and after medical school! I am a mother of three preparing to apply to medical school this summer and I am the primary caregiver to my three, four, and five-year-old children. My husband is slowly taking on more and more responsibility as I take time away to volunteer, prepare for the MCAT, and business as usual (I also manage some rentals).
    From this article, not only do I understand how my husband may feel when the children run away from him currently, but also how I may be treated in the not-so-far future.
    It is such a blessing to have found this blog right now, when all of my friends, family, and cohorts are taking another shot at trying to keep me away from medical school. I just keep telling them, we only live once, and we each have our own dreams.
    What is important is that we continue to try our best to spend quality time when we are with our children.

    1. Hi Carly,

      Thanks for reading! Good luck to you as you pursue your dream. Enjoy this time while you have it!!!!

      All best,


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