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.
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.