The Second Parent

We are all dressed up for the Renaissance Fair: my daughter Molly, her step-mother Amy, and I. It is a day dedicated to fun and togetherness, and we are all filled with expectation. But lo, before we are even under way, a scuffle breaks out. Molly has made an impassioned bid for the front passenger seat. Amy, not sure whether this is her call, has held her tongue and looks at me with anguished brow.

I sigh. Whatever I say will disappoint one of my loved ones.

Amy is "the second parent" in our threesome. She gives a lot of love and care to Molly, but their bond is not as strong as the one between Molly and her daddy. Step-parents often feel this secondary status. Fathers also, often feel like the second parent compared to mothers. In families where dad is the primary care parent, it is the mother who may feel secondary. In lesbian couples, the non-birth mom may feel like parent number two.

It is a hard role. Second parents often have to parent in situations they didn't design. By the time Dad gets home from work Mom may have already negotiated a plan for the whole evening with the kids. A step-mom may end up driving her step-son to and from a school she doesn't even think is right for the boy. A mother may long for peaceful family dinner conversations that never happen because the kids love to clown around with Dad. When they are all wrestling in the living room, Mom gives up and clears their half finished plates.

It can be tiresome to parent according to someone else's plan. Parents are much more motivated to give their time and energy when they feel like their personal vision of "family" is possible to create. Without the authority to implement their own vision, second parents may lose interest in parenting. They may feel like they have a boss at work and a boss (the primary parent) at home.

In addition to not setting up the context in which they parent, second parents often suffer from a lack of appreciation for what they do provide. A father may rush over to comfort a son who has just skinned his knee, only to have the boy run into the house crying for his mom. A step-mother may offer to read her step-daughter a book she really loved as a child, but the girl opts for re-reading old comic books with dad. Such rejections can be painful. And second parents usually find themselves alone with this pain while the primary parent is snuggling with the children.

The choice second parents often face is whether to assert themselves as parents more strongly or withdraw. Asserting oneself runs the risk of creating conflict with the primary parent. Is it possible to negotiate a mutual vision for the family? Can the couple find enough time away from their children to talk this through? Does the primary parent have enough energy consider the needs of the second parent as well as the kids?

Withdrawing from parenting avoids these difficult questions. My own father watched TV every evening, rather than address these issues with my mom. But withdrawing only entrenched his status as the second parent. It passed the time without solving the problem. As a boy, it was when I watched my dad, watching TV, that I vowed not to let that happen to me.

So now I am the primary parent. And my daughter is pleading for the chance to sit up front with me. Amy is quiet, but I know how she feels. I imagine her sitting in the back seat, staring out the window, withdrawing.

"I'm sorry Molly, but you have to ride in the back seat." "Why," she whines. "Because when Amy and I support each other we are both happier. And when we are happier we have more energy to give to you."

This apparently made sense even to a nine year old. Molly got in back. Amy sent me a smile over the roof before she got in. We drove off. And had a great day.

© 2008, Tim Hartnett

Other Father Issues, Books

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Your children need your presence more than your presents. - Jesse Jackson

Tim Hartnett, Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Santa Cruz, CA. He specializes in Individual Counseling, Couples Therapy, and Divorce Mediation. He can be reached at 831.464.2922 or through his website:

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