‘Our toddler prefers his dad to me. I feel like a bad mother’
My husband is a stay-at-home dad while I work long hours. I feel guilty about not being there
“One of the big challenges for any busy working parent is making the most of the limited time they have with their children and family.” Photograph: iStock
I am a working mum with two little boys aged 10 months and two years. I went back to work when my youngest was six months (for financial reasons) and my husband has taken a career break to mind the kids. We made this decision because my job pays a lot more than my husband’s so I was the main bread winner. With the cost of childcare etc, it made no sense that we both work.
My husband loves being a stay-at-home dad (he hated his job) and my boys love him. It’s all working well at a home and they have got into a great routine The problem is that I still feel guilty not being there. My career demands that I work late sometimes and I feel I am missing out.
The other day, when my eldest got upset and I tried to comfort him, he did not want me and went to his dad first – I felt terrible, that I was a bad mother somehow. I know I should be sensible and think that it is to be expected. I am really glad that he has such a great relationship with his dad but I still feel bad that he did not come to me.
Some years ago, there was an interesting piece of research on parenting which suggested several benefits for children with stay-at-home fathers when the mothers were the breadwinners. Within the dynamics of these families, the fathers were more involved with their children and managing the home (as you might expect). But equally, the working mothers remain highly involved and engaged with their children and more than working fathers in traditional families.
In summary, the research suggested that with a stay-at-home father, the child was more likely to get two engaged and active parents. Working mothers like yourself tend to work harder to stay involved in their family life. I share this piece of research as reassurance to you that your family arrangement can have many benefits for your children.
Understanding children’s attachments
The early research on babies’ attachments looked almost exclusively at single mother-baby relationships and assumed this was the primary relationship in the child’s life. However, later research showed that babies form multiple attachments with important caregivers in their lives which can includes mothers, fathers, extended family, childminders and even siblings. What matters for babies and children is having warm and responsive relationships with a small group of adults who love them.
Interestingly, children tend to have a hierarchy of attachments. Usually, there will be one parent they rely on the most and this is the person they go to first. So, as you have discovered, when your son is distressed he will first go to his dad for comfort. If his dad is not available, then he will likely go to you for comfort and reassurance (and to another close figure if you are both not there). This is all normal and healthy attachment.
It is, of course, understandable that you might feel a little jealous of your husband, who is currently the primary port of call for your son. However, you can remind yourself that it is healthy that he is attached to his father and that having warm, connected relationships with both of you is what is most helpful to him in the long term. Having a great relationship with his dad does not mean that he can’t also have a great relationship with his mum.
Building your relationship with your children
One of the big challenges for any busy working parent is making the most of the limited time they have with their children and family. This does mean a little bit of prioritisation and planning. My advice to working parents with a busy schedule to always prioritise ‘relationship time’ over other home projects such as housework etc. This means planning to ensure there is regular fun and connecting time with each of your children in the daily schedule.
Ideally, this relationship time with your children is one-to-one, as this is the best way to build a close, attached relationship. Find your way of connecting and enjoying your children on a daily basis. For example, this might mean that each evening you always do bathtime with your youngest and story time with your eldest. Or it might also mean that you create a regular weekly time when you do all the childminding. This might happen at the weekend when you are not working or you might be able to negotiate with your work that you leave early one day a week so you can have an afternoon with the children.
Finally, as you prioritise and plan your time as a working parent, I would suggest you also do not neglect other important areas of your life. Having worked with many families over the years, a key area of neglect can be the couple relationship itself. In planning relationship time, make sure you also plan fun connecting times for yourself and your husband. Nurturing and looking after the parents’ relationship with each other is key to creating a harmonious family which is best for the children.
John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He is author of several parenting books including Positive Parenting and Parenting Teenagers. See solutiontalk.ie for details of courses and articles