I'm the Mother. Not the Primary Caregiver of my Children

In my family I am the parent that spends the least amount of time with the children.  Given that I am a parenting expert, the irony is laughable. However, this reality offers me insight into being the second caregiver and assuming a role incongruous to the value system of our society in which mom is the primary caregiver.  It is a struggle, but I also feel grateful that my children have two parents that take on the role of caring for them first and foremost.

I won the man lotto when it comes to my husband.  He is caring.  He is supportive.  He is a full time father.  He always puts us, his family, first.  I can imagine what it must be like to be married to me.  I am a whirlwind of ideas, emotions, and power.  He tends to ride my wave pretty well. Don’t get me wrong, my husband works like I do, but he has a teacher’s schedule, so his schedule matches the kids’.  He picks them up from after school care, cooks dinner, manages homework and bedtime, while I work on my small business helping parents make authentic choices for their family.  Thus, in the evenings I listen to the account of how the parenting day transpired.  I often have other ideas on how it can or should be done but feel afraid to express my ideas since it may hurt or be met with resentment from my husband.  This has me thinking that the second caregiver has a hard tightrope to walk. What is the role of the second caregiver?  How does one stay connected and involve ourselves with our kiddos while also showing gratitude and respect to the parent that takes care of them most of the time?  As an expert I know the answer; as a mom and a woman, it is often difficult to maintain.

Experts state that the best way to parent together is to follow these steps:

1.      Work on Expectations:

Opening up to each other and being honest about your parenting expectations is the first step in moving towards a cohesive family plan and a successful parenting partnership.

In my case this is easier said than done. Can you imagine the expectation of a parenting expert?  I know more than I should, and at times I take the stance that I know better than my husband. Thus, it is crucial for me to remember and follow my own rule that only parents are the experts on their children (1998, Brazelton).  My husband has great expertise on the children from spending time with them in a variety of tasks and situations.  I also deal with the cultural expectation of mothers.  I am not less of a mother or woman because I am not the primary caregiver; I am an individual who has made a choice to follow her own path and authenticity. Therefore, as the secondary caregiver I need to continue to check in with my husband on our expectations as parents and our rules, even when scared or feeling judged.

2.      Create and Maintain Family Values

What are your core values?  How do you pass these on to your children?

My husband and I are blessed to share a similar value system. The parent that has a harder time dealing with this is the one that has to enforce or embody the values consistently. Let’s take compassion for example. One way to transfer and teach that value to the child is by being a model of compassion.  When you are the 24/7 parent that cares for the daily mundane events, it is difficult to maintain it.  How can you be compassionate every single time?  

Here is where the second caregiver can take a dominant role because the space between caring for the children and being with the children is further apart.  The secondary caregiver has a better lens on noticing if the agreed upon values are actually being modeled in the day-to-day. However, be gentle and caring when pointing out the discrepancy and have empathy for the parent who has to go to battle every day with the little ones.  I have good and bad days on this one with my husband.  I am still working on my delivery.

3.      Discover and think about each of your strengths in parenting

What do you respect about your partner’s parenting?  What is your partner’s strength? What is your strength?

I have been with my husband for 16 years, a number that lends itself for taking him for granted.  The relentlessness of the daily grind and routine will take a toll on a relationship and make you forget why you got together in the first place.  Also we tend to treat those closest to us with less regard because a part of our neurology understands that they are “safe” and not going anywhere, but that is not necessarily true, as the divorce rate in the US indicates.  Gottman, a couples expert, suggests that successful couples have a 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative interactions.  The parenting experts agree with Gottman that when we point out the positive, behavior shifts, creating space for growth and bonding.  As the second caregiver, I need to work on pointing out the positive and when my expert head kicks in to point out how he is not treating/caring for our children in “best practice”, I need to turn around and think of the five other positive ways he is being an outstanding caregiver.

Parenting is a verb. For us to be able to survive and enjoy the process, we have to be conscious of our choices, our thoughts, and the beliefs that get in the way of our hope for thriving children.  I have good and bad days, but I pat myself on the back for always striving to parent consciously.  I challenge all of you primary and secondary caregivers to do the same.

***Originally Posted on The Good Men Project