I’d like to give a shout out to the long-suffering ‘Not-Moms’ in the world. A fist raised in solidarity for the underappreciated second fiddles and third wheels!
Yes, almost anywhere the sun rises and sets (and sharp toys are stepped on by bare feet), there’s likely one adult in a family who’s considered the ‘go-to’ person. The one who the kids go to first for hugs, sick stomachs, and for showing off their correct spelling of the word ‘patricide.’
This person representative of this group is often called ‘Mom’ (aka Mama, Mommy, Madre, or Mutter) and the group includes loving gay or straight adoptive parents, the lesbian partner who’s given birth, and the foster parent or grandparent, to name a few.
Then there’s us—the not so ‘go-to’ caregiver. The one who is ‘Not-Mom’ and who rudely gets pushed out of bed by the little one’s breast-feeding or co-sleeping, or nightmare about megalodons eating leoropleurodons.
Perhaps this sounds familiar: I started out as one of two wheels in a happily careening, tandem bicycle, out for a jaunt on a sunny day. There was me, and there was Edna. We read Great American Novels (and talked about them!) and went to international film festivals (and talked about them!) and we actually did things together that didn’t involve cleaning the kitchen or driving to the store for kitchen cleaning supplies.
Then we got pregnant, or rather, Edna got pregnant. As the not-pregnant person, I got warnings about what being the ‘Not-Mom’ might be like, but the slowly growing, grumbling juggernaut of pregnancy kept me so busy with incidentals I didn’t realize what was actually bearing down on me.
So when Oedipus arrived (who I’ll refer to as Ed, Jr.), I got run over repeatedly until I learned to field strip and wash a breast pump with my eyes closed and get lightning fast with a onesie. I even learned a bunch of baby signs to keep little Ed, Jr. copasetic (‘More’, ‘Water’, and (nice try) ‘I love Daddy’). In short, I became Mr. Taking-care-of-business.
But in terms of love from Ed it was mostly for naught; when little Ed reached out his too-short arms for a hug, they swung like sticky dowsing rods, straight for Mama. When Ed, Jr. brought home a crayon drawing of a megaladon devouring a bloody leopleurodon (my favorite predators!) it said, “tO mAmA fROm OEdIpus.” And when he needed a hug he would take his tiny elbows, sharp as cat teeth, and poke me out of the way to get to her. Need I mention that Edna was just as myopic about him?
The thing that kept me hanging on is that I was once a mama’s boy too, just like Ed, Jr., and I know that it all came out in the wash. But what’s a Not-Mom got to do to get through the first few years?
1) Schadenfreude: It’s a big word for a tiny revenge. When Ed, Jr. was about two, I complained to a friend after a spate of Mom-omaniacal events. He smiled and asked, “When Ed’s feeling barfy in the middle of the night, who does he come for?” “Her,” I answered. “Exactly,” my friend said, raising a glass of beer, “Think about how much she’s loving that as you roll over for more sleep.” And from that point on I did.
2) Specialize: Around the age when Ed, Jr. said (and I quote) “When I think of Mama I think of chocolate pudding!” I asked him point-blank what his mother had that I didn’t. He was succinct: Breasts—and the soft cuddling goodness that comes with them. Me, I’m not so huggable, so I decided to compete in other arenas. When he got hurt, I tried to always be first responder, using my hands to ‘vacuum’ the pain away. That’s also how I become Mr. Fun, Mr. Wrestler, Mr. Magician—and Mr. Pancake.
You may have different issues in your family, but the point is to not try to compete where you can’t compete, all while keeping a hand in the game so that when they finally break their Mom-omania and see other things in the world, you’ll be right there, smiling paternally and ready for love.
3) The Perfect Storm: Shower them with love. OK, I’ll admit it, I’ve been snubbed so many times I’ve withdrawn a bit on occasion. But after a particularly brutal snubbing I came to the realization that I’d just have to take what I wanted. I started a new tactic when he was heading for Mama of snatching him up, kissing him all over, and telling him how much I love him before letting him go. It’s hard for him to deny such adoration, even when he has another goal, and I’m slowly melting down his resistance.
But my final word of advice is to change up the paradigm. If you keep trying to be a third wheel on a bicycle built for two you’ll end up with scabbed knees and a bruised heart. But if you become the third wheel on a tricycle, you just might get to steer yourself (and the rest of your family) in a happy new direction.
Sean Toren loves living the full catastrophe in Minneapolis with his wife and son. He can be contacted at [email protected] with thoughts or suggestions.