I already know the answer, of course, but nevertheless I ask:
“Which parent do you want to ride with?”
“Who do you want to tuck you into bed?”
“Do you want to sit next to Mom or Dad at dinner?”
The exact question doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t matter which child I’m asking: If the choice is between Mom or Dad, my kids — 9 times out of 10 — will choose their father.
And I’m not going to lie: That hurts.
If you took a snapshot of my children’s lives, at any point in any day, a fair estimate is that I’m 90 percent responsible for whatever’s in the picture. It’s not that my husband’s not involved or he’s disinterested. It’s just that I’m a stay-at-home mom.
So I buy and wash their clothes. I conference with their teachers. I know their friends and carpool with the parents.
I help with their homework — math, spelling, SO MANY READING MINUTES. (For real: How many fairy and Captain Underpants books are there?!?)
Food: I plan the week, buy the groceries, make the meals, wash the dishes, plan the week, buy the groceries, make the meals, wash the dishes, plan the week, buy the groceries, make the meals …
On my darkest of days, I feel like an outsider, living in service to a family of four — three kids and their dad. That’s insecurity and exhaustion talking, though, not reality.
I have, in fact, come to realize a few things that have eased the pain of routinely being my children’s second choice.
Number 1: I love who my kids are because my husband is their dad.
My youngest, for example, is the cheeriest, calmest child you could ever meet — a personality straight out of my husband’s DNA.
My oldest loves math — loves math — and that for sure has nothing to do with me.
And my middle child is fascinated by chess and cribbage, both of which require a deep ability to assess and calculate the consequences of various options, which is one of my husband’s greatest skills.
I love my husband, and my kids do, too. That’s all good.
Number 2: All those things I do for my children? They’re forming who my children are, even if my kids don’t see it. (Yet? Please tell me they’ll see it one day.)
I tell my kids I love them, every day. This annoys them. (“Mom, we know!”) But you know what? They will never, for a moment, doubt that they’re loved.
At parent teacher conferences last month, every one of my children’s teachers, without prompting, commented on how kind and respectful my children are. (My mommy heart practically burst.) But then, I regularly talk with my kids about how it’s our job to help the world, to be compassionate. So … it’s working, right?
Every year, my kids get to pick out their own Christmas ornament. So every year, when we decorate our tree, they giggle, “ooh” and “ahh” as they hang up their ornaments, sharing memories of how and why they picked out each one. That’s a tradition I started.
My influence in their lives is monumental — even, yes, when it’s unacknowledged.
Number 3: Being my kids’ second choice doesn’t mean we don’t have our “things”.
My son and I are both early risers, so several times a week as the rest of them sleep, he gallops down the stairs, heads straight for me and snuggles up close. He asks random, thought-provoking questions. I soak it in.
My oldest loves reading as much as she loves math — and that for sure has nothing to do with my husband. I was giddy when I introduced her to “Harry Potter”, and I love sharing our love of reading.
My youngest and I adore singing, everything from 19th-century hymns to Broadway musicals. I doubt my husband knows the words to any. It’s not his thing. It’s ours.
When your children clearly have a favorite parent, it’s hard not to make parenting a competitive sport. Because no one likes to be picked last.
Parenting, however, forces us to dig deep into a well of selflessness, even as our inner child cries out, “Pick me! Pick me!”
So, as evening comes, I tell my kids I love them, and sometimes they say it back. I kiss them good night and send them all upstairs.
“Who do you want to put you to bed tonight?”
“OK,” I smile.
I flop on the couch and turn on any television show I choose.
Second place has its perks.