On Being the Lesser Parent

A few weeks ago my husband took our kids across town to visit their grandparents. I was out riding my bike, and about an hour into my ride, I thought I'd check a particular playground near their house to see if they were there. Sure enough, the sunny weather had driven everyone outside, and I rode up in a giddy spray of tires across gravel, shouting, "HIIII!" My husband turned and grinned, my mother-in-law startled, my father-in-law said, "What the -- how did you get here?"

My kids, in stark contrast, didn't even look up from their game of jumping from the top of a play structure. "Dad," my 4-year-old shouted. "Look at me, look at me!"

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I'd shown up out of nowhere, miles from home, in an unscheduled appearance that should have delighted or at least surprised my children, and they didn't blink an eye. Here's the question that plagued me for days afterwards: is my presence so ubiquitous they had no reason to find my bike-powered arrival notable? Or did they simply not give a damn?

You probably think I'm a freak for focusing on a random, innocuous playground incident. It is, however, part of a larger story -- one in which I forever exist many rungs down the parental favoritism ladder from my husband. I've stopped keeping count of the number of times my kids have shown a strong preference for their dad, but I'm not sure I'll ever come to terms with it, exactly. I may laugh and shrug it off on the outside -- kids, what'reyougonnado -- but despite my attempts to be the grownup and count my blessings, it's a fresh hurt each and every time.

Take bedtimes, for instance. My husband and I take turns putting the boys to bed, so one night it's my turn with the 6-year-old, the next I'm reading books to the 4-year-old, and so on and so forth. They both not-so-secretly view me as the far less desirable runner-up when it comes to the Bedtime Routine, and while the 6-year-old has learned -- through much discussion -- that it hurts my feelings when he voices his protest over my turn, the 4-year-old has yet to develop the sort of social niceties that stop a child from loudly moaning a disappointed "AWWWW" when he's informed that Mommy's putting him to bed tonight.

That's sort of a shitty thing to hear every other night, you know? And maybe it's even worse to see my older child visibly rein in his own reaction, knowing that it's only a couple more years of maturity that keeps him from the same disenchanted bleat. Awwwww, Mom again?

As for the reasons behind their preference, I can't go too far down that mental road without getting into some seriously murky territory. When my first son was a Daddy's boy, I figured that was just the roll of the dice; when the second kid was the same way, I started to feel ... corroded. Like everything I've ever disliked about myself was roiling to the surface, tainting me with something my own children could sense. It felt, and still feels, like my biggest failure -- the confirmation that I am irretrievably broken. Unlovable. Unwanted.

Well. This is proving very hard to write. I sound pitiful and, worse, indulgent. Poor me, somebody call the wahmbulance. If this was a helpful essay here is where I'd turn it all around, cite the many demonstrable reasons my children care about me, and serve up a pithy life lesson for anyone in a similar situation. My kids weren't surprised by my playground bike ride because they're so used to me being around! My sacrifice of staying home, day after day, has created a comforting environment where they always know I'll be there for them!

Sure.

I'd rather just say this, though: it fucking sucks. Being the lesser parent -- one who doesn't even rate a joyous "MOMMY, LOOK AT ME!" at a playground -- is enormously painful. I'm sure it's also hard to be the favorite, especially when your child clings or rejects your spouse, but I wouldn't really have any idea. I'll just have to take your word on that.

Have you ever been the less favorite parent? How did you deal with it?

Image via Linda Sharps

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