When we first launched the blog in mid-July I wrote my initial post about my experience of being rejected repeatedly by our two-year-old daughter who strongly preferred her other mother, my dear spouse who carried and birthed her. I had moments of feeling like I could ride through that experience with humor and grace, but more often I felt like a child myself- sullen and frustrated by these relentless acts of rejection from a toddler who I wanted to be close to, especially as a full-time working mom. I had been dealing with that unpleasant situation since the prior September and I was emotionally exhausted from it.
I run a peer-led support and discussion group for queer, non-gestational parents and it was around this time in July that I went to one of those groups and shared how I was at my wits end with this situation… how long would I have endure this? Of course no one could say for sure, but some amongst the group had even older children and they were still dealing with this issue, while others assured me that it would pass… it was just a phase. Somehow both ends of the spectrum were both validating and slightly maddening (1: ok, I’m not alone… oh crap! you mean this could go on for another year or more?! 2: whew! a phase, be patient… you don’t get it! it doesn’t feel like a phase… it’s been nearly a year! A YEAR!). But regardless of the well-intentioned, kind thoughts that people offered, no one could actually change this situation for me. It felt like one of many experiences as a parent where something involving your child is in many ways out of your control… or was it? What did I know, I was a rookie at this parenthood thing.
Two seasoned moms of multiple children, several of which are elementary school aged, and another mom who has fostered a long list of children over the years listened and asked if I wanted some suggestions. Why the heck not? I was up for trying anything at that point. One of the sage mamas insisted, “you have got to be diligent about rotating who does bedtime with your daughter or just you should do until it gets better.” The other seasoned mom nodded in agreement. Absolutely. The mom who had fostered children in the past agreed: yes, you need to make intentional acts of bonding literally a “to do” over the next few months. Make it a priority. None of them were saying this would necessarily erase all traces of this rejection business, or even would shift the dial at all, but it was worth a try. They stressed how important bedtime rituals were- that it was a time when children are both looking for nurturing and when trust is built. I hadn’t been wholly absent with the bedtime routine, but we also hadn’t been intentional about splitting it or having me do more. Probably, if I really thought about it, more of the time I was the one to clean up the dishes, sitting with my daughter and spouse for a book or two, before my spouse continued the routine and I got back to the sink. I was purely thinking about being efficient with our time and energy since we were so overwhelmed with both working and parenting and trying to have a speck of existence beyond that. Add to that that my spouse nursed our daughter to sleep for the first 13 months of her life, which I think is great, but it was a chance for the two of them to have a very regular bonding ritual, while I didn’t have anything like that.
So we followed these wise mamas’ advice and started rotating which of us led bedtime. Neither my spouse nor I felt comfortable with me purely doing this ritual, because as two working parents we both already have so much less time than we want with our daughter during the work week. I started saying no to evening invitations to hang out with friends to make sure I was available for this time with my daughter. The first month or so had it’s ups and downs and we eventually followed another piece of advice that ended up being critical: my spouse had to leave when I was doing bedtime. My daughter would get too distraught and would sob and insist on my spouse doing it and it wasn’t working for any of us. But if my spouse wasn’t around… if she literally wasn’t an option for bedtime, my daughter usually was ok with me taking the lead. As time went on my daughter got the jist of this new plan. She now asks, “is it Mama’s night to put me to bed? Is tomorrow Mummy’s night to put me to bed?” I truly believe that she’s not asking this because she has a preference, she just likes to know what’s happening. Three months later, I can report that we’re in a much better place with my daughter fairly equally preferring each of us. She protests here and there, but most of the time, she’s fine with either one of us doing the daily things that just months ago she would have insisted on her Mama (my spouse) doing. And in some small way, that feels like a parent win. I’ll take it.*
* Let me say that I also totally acknowledge that this could change again… if there’s anything I’ve learned in the past 2.5 years of parenthood, it’s that you can’t get attached to anything staying consistent (for better or for worse). Also, I think it’s super important to acknowledge (while I’m doing my acknowledgments here) that many non-gestational parents try every trick in the book- including doing bedtime regularly with their child- and they still have this painful issue to deal with… it’s not foolproof and I can bet those are awesome parents. Just saying.