Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Other Parent

This post is also on The BABS Blog, where Garry is a regular contributor. 

I anticipated many challenges when becoming a father, yet I somehow overlooked the obstacle that has been the most difficult for me to overcome.  I am not a mother.

Equally sharing the responsibilities, the pleasures, and the burdens of parenthood has always been the goal of my partner, Amanda, and myself. This parenting style not only seemed fair to us, but also best fit our personalities.  Within our relationship we have never divided labor by gender, nor have we assigned specific chores or tasks to one person.  Why would our new roles as mom and dad be any different?  We have been mostly successful at this.  One of us does not change the bulk of the diapers, read all of the bedtime stories, or act as the sole disciplinarian. However, we have been unsuccessful at achieving the ideal 50/50 split in labor we imagined.  The one variable we left out of the equation to equally sharing parenting was the most important: our son, Ezra.

I do not doubt my importance to Ezra, but how important I am to him seems to depend greatly on whether Amanda is around or not. When alone together, Ezra happily lets me care for him without fuss.  When Amanda and I are together, he prefers her to do everything.  To Ezra, I exist when Amanda is unavailable; I’m his back-up parent. I have learned from more experienced fathers than myself that playing second fiddle is our lot in life. This came up in a recent conversation with two other dads.  Like myself, they are affectionate, attentive, and spend as much time as their wives caring for their children, yet their children, all under the age of four, show more devotion to and a clear preference for their mothers.  The father with three boys hypothesized the sex of his children kept him in his household’s #2 spot.  Surely if he had a daughter she would be a daddy’s girl? The second father, who has two daughters, assured him that would not be true.

Hearing these other fathers mention their family dynamic gave me a sense of relief.  At least being ignored and rejected whenever Amanda is present is nothing personal.  I should not have found an infant’s and young toddler’s desire to be with his mother so surprising.  Biologically, it makes perfect sense that an infant naturally establishes a stronger bond with his mother (especially if breast feeding) than with any other person – even the father.  This relationship is central to the species survival.  Though I am 100% supportive of Amanda and Ezra having this strong bond, I cannot help feel a little envious of the ease of their connection.  Especially considering that since he was 8 weeks old I have spent more time physically caring for Ezra than Amanda.  
Amanda had started a new job while she was pregnant.  She negotiated to take eight weeks maternity leave at which point I became Ezra’s primary caregiver. My workplace was supportive of my bringing Ezra to work.  So from approximately 8 weeks to 6 months Ezra spent 8 hours a day with just me (and my co-workers of course). At six months we started co-op daycare where I work two five-hour shifts a week. Here I care for him and his friends, as Ezra interacts in this mixed-age group.  Since I spend so much time with Ezra, I am able to anticipate his needs better than anyone else, predict his reaction to different circumstances, I know what excites him, makes him nervous, and how to comfort him when he’s upset. I know him better than I know any other person. I have no doubt that this time together helped Ezra and I to establish a great relationship, but I still can’t help but observe that I have put in a lot of work to have a relationship almost as good as that between Ezra and his mother.

I remind myself that his preference for mom over dad is short lived, normal, and healthy.  I also anticipate this balance will change many times over Ezra’s lifetime.  As he grows up there will be times he feels closer to me, times he feels closer to Amanda, times he needs us both equally, and times, especially during his teen years, he wishes we would both go away.   The one thing I am sure of is that the time we spend together has created a wonderful foundation for whatever our future relationship looks like.

As for explaining the strength of the mother-child bond, perhaps this song by Cadamole, the science bard, explains it best. . .

A Biologist’s Mother’s Day Song by Cadamole.

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