The (Un-) Zen of Non-Gestational Parenthood

“I don’t want to hold Mummy’s hand!!! I want to hold Mama’s hand.”  I am sick of coaxing, trying to get her to pick me first, trying to get her to pick me at all.  Forget it.  “Fine. You know what?  Mummy is not going to join you on the walk.  Go have fun with Mama.”  I walk away stoically, bitter and sulking all the way across the wet, long-grassed lawn, cursing that it hasn’t been mowed sooner and that it’s rained for ten days in a row now.  My spouse is calling out to my back, asking me nicely to return; they want me to join them.  Please come back.

I eventually do, we go on the walk, strolling through the beautiful, wide-mouthed park that flanks the road near our home, and our daughter even holds my hand.  Somehow it doesn’t have the sweet joy that holding a small, warm hand in yours usually does because in my mind she’s only holding it because I guilt-tripped her into it, not because she really wants to.  At least that’s what I tell myself.  Exhibit A of one of my less than finer parenting moments.

I am all too aware that spinning on my heels like that is exactly what not to do if you want to assure your child that you love them unconditionally, even when they are treating you like a pariah and raking you through the coals with a drawn out phase that feels like the toddler version of the teenage years. But I can’t help it; I’m human and when I’m having a parenting low phase myself and have heard what feels like the 100th rejection in a day, I turn into a child myself. My feelings get hurt by this small person. The parent educator and writer Alfie Kohn eloquently wrote, “Parenthood is not for wimps.”  Yeah, about that.

I am reading a book now on mindful parenting in hopes of realizing, repeatedly, that these regular slights have little to do with me and a lot to do with my daughter being two. Really, that’s all it is.  I know this in my heart.  I know she loves me.  She actually exhibits it rather regularly.  And she can be sweeter than any person I’ve ever known.  Toddlers are emotions fully exposed- raw, radiant, and brash. I am trying to hold that up in the face of all this emotional riff-raff and be the rationale adult in the room.  My actions and internal response is more in my control than her adolescent behavior.  I need to maintain my compassion- towards my daughter, my spouse (who is a tender, nearby target that I can easily throw emotional arrows at), and perhaps most of all, towards myself.  I am doing the best I can.

Talking about it helps; realizing you’re not alone and that this is exceptionally common amongst queer, non-gestational parents. So does muttering, “Mummy doesn’t like you either right now” under my breath as I pivot into another room un-heard (or at least for a split second my ego feels like it’s had a teenage triumph of the wills).  In my experience running a support group for queer, non-gestational parents this is one of the most common issues that arises for folks- being second fiddle outside of, as a friend calls it, “the golden, inner circle.”  It takes continual patience and reminding yourself that it’s nothing personal.  Really.  It’s not.  This is not to say there aren’t practical things you and the gestational parent (or other caregivers) can do to help ease the third wheel phenomenon that’s orbiting your familial universe*, but I’m realizing that perhaps even more importantly,  it takes inner, self work to survive this phase.  In their book, Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn state, “The very fact that we are a parent is continually asking us to find and express what is most nourishing, most loving, most wise and caring in ourselves, to be, as much as we can, our best selves.” In my better moments I can see with clarity that it’s a great opportunity to get over myself and practice true unconditional love.  To be my best self.

Parenthood is a spiritual (and often maddening) path. I have learned some of my greatest lessons around issues such as non-attachment (yes! she’s sleeping through the night! Oh wait… or even more: I cannot fully control what happens to her…).

Tonight, my daughter did not want to give me a kiss when I arrived home from work or when she was going down for bed.  She usually gives me a big, mouthy, wet one directly on the lips before she rolls over with a cushy rumple sound of her diaper.  I asked her, as I always do, “Can Mummy have a hug and kiss good night? Can I give you a kiss sweet girl?”  To this she sassily replied, “Mmmm… NO.”  I was hurt and annoyed, I’ll admit that (no kiss?), but I took a deep breath and said, “ok, good night.”  Then I walked out the door.  As the door was gently shutting behind me I realized that the one thing I wish I had done differently was to let her know that I love her, because I do, even when she doesn’t want to give her Mummy a kiss.

~ Charlotte

*For suggestions on how to deal with a child’s preference for one parent or rejection of one parent, check out the following books and resources: Becoming the Parent You Want to Be: A Sourcebook of Strategies for the First Five Years by Laura Davis and Janis Keyser; the Berkeley Parents Network at http://parents.berkeley.edu/; and What to Expect The First Year by Heidi Murkoff, Sandee Hathaway, and Arlene Eisnberg

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7 responses to “The (Un-) Zen of Non-Gestational Parenthood

  1. dianainfrance

    Beautiful piece charlotte, I feel for you – toddlers are tough! I’m on the other side of what you’re going through right now – kaelan’s in a big mom-only phase which is really hard on kevin, and making him second guess why his son won’t let him do even simple things like get him out of his high chair. It’s painful for me to watch my son reject his father for no obvious reason (other than being almost-2 I suppose), and frustrating to have him need me so much right now. It’s definitely not great for family balance. But like you said, it’s not personal, and this phase will pass like everything else – oh, impermanence! One book I read referred to this time as the ‘first adolescence’ and I think that’s right on – and it helps remind me to put things into perspective…

    Thanks for the books you mentioned, definitely sound worth looking into!

    Keep up the amazing work, so glad you started this blog! xox

  2. Thanks for your thoughts Diana and for your support for the blog! Yes, I think that there can be many overlaps in the experiences that non-gestational mothers and bio fathers face. For non-gestational moms often we feel like the mom, but not THE mom. Many of the resources I have found that provide suggestions around how to handle this issue are actually geared towards dads, but work for whoever is the non-preferred parent at the time.

    I do think it’s a phase, and it’s mostly developmental, at the same time, there really are concrete things you can do while you’re in that (crappy) phase that seem to help. In the book Betsy and I are working on we have a whole section on this and lay out many different suggestions to try. In my family, we have found that one of the things that helps the most when Adelaide is going through a very “anti-Mummy” (and I bet you can guess who’s Mummy) phase is for she and I to spend some time alone together, ideally doing something she really enjoys. Cat cannot be anywhere in the vicinity- I have to be her only option for this to work otherwise she insists on Cat. That time bonding together seems to then often lead into her letting me do some things with her when Cat is around, such as bedtime, helping her eat, etc. But not always… sometimes, despite all our best efforts, she wants little to do with me and then I think I just need a boat load of empathy around how painful this period is. It sounds like you offer that to Kevin and I think that’s critical.

    I hope the phase eases up for you all! I know it can be hard on both parents.
    Thanks again!
    Bises!
    C

  3. I really connected with this piece. As a queer, non-gestational parent of a 2-year old son, I struggle with many of the same situations that you have written about. With little opportunity to speak with others in our positions, the post made me feel less alone in my experiences. The times I don’t feel like THE mom have been decreasing over time, but they still pop-up, often at the smallest experience. Our son often goes to mommy for comfort, leaving me out of the loop. I refuse to hover over both of them so I often leave the room hurt. So many other thoughts, emotions, and experiences are rising up in my body, but I will leave it at that for now.
    I think the support group is a wonderful idea. I hope it is going well.

  4. I, too, feel an incredibly strong connection to this piece. I was the primary caregiver for my nearly two year old for quite a long time, and even so it’s clear that she has a stronger, more intimate bond with my partner, who is the bio mom and who breastfed our daughter. On my betters days I can roll with those moments of feeling like an outsider by remembering the amazing warmth and tenderness that our kiddo shares most of the time. On other days the feeling of rejection is so deep, so primal that I sometimes momentarily think of giving up.

    I’ve heard that children go through phases like this, regardless of biology, and that perhaps someday it will be me who is the chosen one. Regardless, that sense of rejection is more piercing than any other because it is proportional to how much I love her.

    Thanks for being honest about this and creating a space for others to do so as well.

    • Thank YOU for sharing! I so hear you when you say, “that sense of rejection is more piercing than any other because it is proportional to how much I love her.” Beautifully said and so true. We do love our children so very much and this stage (good lord, let’s hope it is a stage… and a short one at that!) is so very painful. Hug to you- I can only imagine you are an awesome parent.

  5. So I am a non-gestational parent of my amazing 3 year old daughter. I am getting divorced from my partner of 10 years. For a long time, I thought that my daughter’s rejection of me had to do with my failure as a parent to bond with her. I didn’t know that this was a typical thing for a non-gestational parent to experience. The reality is that I did struggle to bond with her in the beginning. She had food allergies and sleep issues…need I say more. And as a result of her allergies, my ex couldn’t eat much since she was breast feeding so she was wasting away in front of my eyes. It was one of the most stressful times in my life. I would dread coming home from works sometimes because i knew what I was coming home to a pressure cooker. A demanding ex and my daughter who would sometimes require 2-3 hours of rocking, walking, holding, putting down then waking up 10 times before she would go to sleep. This was after making dinner and doing the dishes. I felt so minimized…like my purpose in life was to give everything I had to give and more without an ounce of space for me. Don’t get me wrong, these feelings were mixed with the intense joy of having a child, I just felt sad that I could’t enjoy her like I wanted to.

    My ex & I disagreed how to handle her sleep issues which eventually turned into bringing her in our bed. This meant that I could stay in the bed and get kicked and not sleep, or go to another bed and get the rest I was so desperately needing. My ex was breast feeding. I was o.k. with this at first, but then it went on and on and eventually it took its toll. Then my Dad died when my daughter was 1.5. Like most people who go through loss, I was completely devastated. But, I had no where to put it, no room to process of take time for me. I just had to continue to serve. My Dad’s death ultimately caused me to be reflect on my life, especially my relationship. I hadn’t been happy for a while. My ex is very self-centered and my desire to have space in our life for me was threatening to her and made for many conflicts. She was also very critical and aggressive towards me (this had been going on for years, but was exacerbated by having a child). I had my own issues in this relationship where I screwed up, lied, “yessed” her, etc.. but have been in therapy and working on myself for the past 2 years. She, up until the last couple of months has done nothing but to tell me that is all my fault.

    We are now at odds with what we want for custody of our daughter. I have since developed an incredible bond with my daughter and want a 50/50 split. She wants 70% and feels she has the right and sights my daughter’s rejection of me as reason. I am equally my daughter’s parent, loving her, taking care of her when she is sick, putting her to bed, taking her to school, etc… My ex is planning on using the rejection piece as fire power in our negotiations around custody.

    Reading this blog has given me a sense of relief. First that I didn’t totally mess up my relationship with my daughter and that her still sometimes, low level of rejection is normal. She sometimes rejects my ex if she has spent time with me. All in all, I am so happy to know that this is normal and a phase in her development and the development of our relationship.

  6. Hi Stephanie! I am so glad you did too! I love that you read it to your partner. Oh gosh, she really isn’t alone! I know so many other non-gestational parents who grapple with this. It’s really challenging and painful. I hope you both keep reading. Like our Facebook page and you’ll get to see our latest posts as they get put up.

    Also, your comment was a great reminder for me of why I write this blog. It inspired my latest essay for a national LGBT parenting website I contribute to (so thanks for that inspiration!)… check out itsconceivablenow.org in a few days to see it.
    Thanks for reaching out!
    In solidarity,
    Charlotte

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