Further adventures / The blog / Wild Baby

Free the mothers! We are not the number-one parents!

Anyone who’s been watching the whole donkey story will know that what I found so hard – what the ‘adventure’ really was – was my ineptitude and discomfort with being in charge. And here I bloody well am again.

I am not the number-one parent. And in coming to realise this I feel like I have stumbled on something huge, important, and totally un-discussed, as far as I’ve read so far.

Rhys sometimes calls me the number-one parent, and it does feel like that often. It was obviously the case at the beginning – I had the megabelly, and then the fourth-trimester invisible-umbilical link to the new baby, and the wretched, useful, nipples-of-fire. As Osian’s consciousness grew so that he was able to be reasoned with, chivvied or cheered up, Rhys’s role grew. But in the middle of the night Osian waned younger, a closed-eyes, thrashing, clammy little burrow animal, and my proximity calmed him while Rhys’s – by not being what he expected – made things worse.

image1When breastfeeding finished Rhys could do nighttime comforting, but still I felt like default number one. I was often overwhelmed by the pressure, and Rhys was sometimes cheesed off when passed up for me, but it seemed just the way things were. Osian’s natural selection.

Then I was talking to some great friends who are a lesbian couple with a toddler the same age as Osh. A— was the one who gave birth, but she was claiming that by now, post milk etc, there was no difference between the roles of the two parents – no number-one and number-two mother. Their toddler’s preference for one or the other was just a matter of who was spending more time with her.

At the time, swamped as I seem to always feel by parenthood, this felt like an extra blow. I guess I felt needled by their modern freedom, free of gender-based traditional roles of tedious oppression. They were free from so much old crap, and suggesting in this simple but indigestible one line that my captivity was of my own making. I chewed on these words for weeks.

I didn’t like it. I thought up some excusing factors. Perhaps their even roles were actually because they are both women. The woman is naturally the number-one parent, and by both being women it was somehow naturally easier for D— to become a proxy number one than it would have been for Rhys.

Or perhaps they were just wrong. It was A—, birth mother, who had made this subversive claim. Maybe D— didn’t feel the same. I made an urgent note to check with her.

My inner guilty feminist heaped the failure of falling into gender traps on top of the actual discomfort of maternal overwhelm.

And then I walked to Hay Festival.

I was gone a week. On the second day Rhys dropped the backpacks off by the high, dramatic Claerwen reservoir so that Ursula and I could ease ourselves into walking without carrying the weight, and as he rounded a corner and saw us on the single track he breaked suddenly and I knew Osh was awake in the car seat and dived behind a bridge. Ursula spoke to my boy while I crouched in my fragile temporary freedom, simultaneously amused and heartbroken, so as not to upset him with a glimpse of me. Rhys carried away my unused waterproof trousers, my unwisely heavy tins of sweetcorn, and the tiny love-jailer who is all the most wonderful and miserable things about my life, and he left us tangerines. Osian wailed to part even with them, and Ursula and I walked on, free and sore.

After that I enjoyed the space, grinning like a simple-minded panting clown at the top of each hill, often thinking of the men I gave a (fairly friendly?) bollocking to in a pub on Offa’s Dyke when I passed with Chico, at the height of his mutiny. They were complaining about having to climb 400m from their night stop just to get back to the path, and I gave them short shrift, probably shrilly at the end of my tether, that “At least you know you’ll get there!” Loss of liberty trumps everything else in the suffering league tables, I feel, keenly, often.

ANYWAY, I digress. When our little family regrouped after Hay, I wasn’t number one parent any more. I expected to be punished a bit, but no. Osian was very glad to see me, but I’d been subtly deposed.

It was amazing. Out of habit and comfort Rhys was the one Osh went to. And administratively speaking Rhys knew how many nappies were left, what clothes Osian was willing to wear, his latest toy preferences, health peculiarities, state of hydration, recent bowel movement history. For a few days my Hay freedom leaked on into family life.

It didn’t last, but now I know it really is just a matter of hours spent. I don’t think that most of my contemporary mother-friends have had the chance to realise this. I’m rare in having had whole weeks away from my toddler already, and in being able to share the childcare slightly more evenly with Rhys as we’re both freelance (although this includes a lot of haphazardness and disgruntlement too; Rhys isn’t good at schedules, I’m not good at sacrifice, and we’re both prone to sudden deadlines).

But it feels really, really, REALLY important to note. So much so that this rambly, anecdotal blog doesn’t seem good enough, or is maybe just the start. A— was enthusiastic about my conclusions and said I should present it as something that could be easily shared – this isn’t it. It’d also be good to know about other people’s anecdotal experience of this though – maybe I’ll do a Facebook strawpoll and see.

There’s a chance too that other mothers hold tight to being number one. For me it was genuinely a relief to realise that I wasn’t biologically beholden, but some people survive by transferring themselves more wholeheartedly to the mother-identity, and maybe the idea of release is even scary. I’d love to know what you think in the comments below…

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  1. Hannah Doyle says:

    I don’t think there is anything essential about women that makes them the number one parent. As a single parent, I’m number one, but not out of choice! And I feel your pain about the little jailer. Constantly looking after a child does strip you of your freedom and identity, and I think it’s reasonable to resent that. Personally I can’t wait for J to start school (only 3 more years)!
    I have a female friend who is the main earner in her family, working longer hours, and she would probably say her other half (male) is the number one, but she prefers it that way. Another father I met recently took 7 months off work to look after his young kids while his partner went back to work. He admitted he didn’t really enjoy it much!
    It’s really hard work being the main parent, and having two freelance parents and sharing equally might just be the perfect solution. Reminds me of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath: One wrote upstairs in the morning while the other looked after the kids, then they swapped roles at midday. Obviously didn’t work out that well for them in the long term though…

    • That sounds like a great idea in theory! Being wrapped up in my own world I forgot until I posted this that it’s mostly the constraints of work that will dictate this. I feel like our personal bohemian freelance lifestyle is a huge rod for our backs and wonder a lot if the structure and discipline of a job would really help at such a messy, undisciplined time. But Osh is definitely benefitting from seeing lots of both of us, and so is Rhys. Except that they both just came into the office, totally fed up with the other one, in need of another parent. Maybe half days is the way, but we’d both fight for the mornings! Luckily our office is 300m away down the road – it’d never work if it was just upstairs, I don’t think.

      Single parenting is a whole other question! I look at my single parent friends and spend 70% of the time feeling so relieved that I do have someone to share it all with, and chuck the batshit crazy toddler at sometimes, but also 30% of the time envying the lack of tedious resentment in their daily life…

      • Hannah Doyle says:

        We’ll there’s still plenty of resentment, it’s just aimed at a toddler instead of partner! And he’s too cute to take it out on so I just get frustrated…..But yes, a lot less maddening adult arguments and tension in this house now. One thing at least to be said for single parentdom!

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