Second bananna.
Also ran.
Lesser than.
Opening act.
Chopped Liver.

Chopped Liver is what I have been so often since this whole parenting journey began that in our household, the words are shortened to a hand signal. The letters “C” and “L” shaped in the air by my thumb and forefinger. My woebegotten, self-pitying face in the background.

This undeniable subordination is probably the most visceral, protracted feature of parenthood that I share with new bio-dads, the thing that reminds me so consistently that whether or not I pee sitting down or standing up, whether or not I have mammaries and enjoy processing my feelings, whatever I choose to call myself, I am Not The Mother.

Again, the caveats: if we both adopted, another set of dynamics would create the delicate fissures that separate our roles and distinguish what our kid(s) want from us. But we have a bio-mommy in the house, an estrogen-pumped, milk-producing, birth-giving marvel of womanhood, inside of whom kid A spent nine months, and kid B has spent seven already, with every intention to spend another two.

Then there’s me. Baba. Lovey-dovey, diaper-changing, bottle-filling, toy-repairing, kiddle-hoisting, Baba.

I note above that I, along with other non-birth mothers partnered with birth moms, share this feeling of lonesome subordination with new bio-dads. It’s important to note the qualifier “new” though, becasue I presume the condition to be distinctly time-bound, in this rosy-fingered dawn when the kid has breastfed as many months of her life as she’s fed herself. Right now, in the kid’s memory, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump back to the good ole, wet cramped dark ole days of the womb, when food and oxygen just got pumped in, no effort, no muss. Inside her body. Mothership connection.

I don’t begrudge this centrality of Mama, though. How could I? It feels quite simply to be the reward (and sometimes, when she needs a break, the curse) for the arduous, Everest-climb of pregnancy and childbirth. Followed by the long, slow descent of breastfeeding. There damn well should be a dramatic distinction between the two of us. For nine months I did not:

  • watch in horror as my ankles, face, thighs, and other body parts swelled past recognition;
  • feel as though I was on an endless Ra Expedition-like reed raft journey back and forth across the Pacific, with no dramamine in sight;
  • hurl in the toilet pretty much weekly for months, and when I didn’t hurl, wish I could;
  • haul the weight of a hefty grocery bag strapped to my midrift everywhere I went, like it or not;
  • … and so on. Many of you all know whereof I enumerate.

    A time will come — won’t it? — when the cellular intensity of the mother-child connection will become mixed with the richness of our lived experience. I hope so. Because that will be my dawn. The richness of lived experience: that’s all I have to offer our children. I’m all nurture; no nature. And I need to be patient.

    Which is a darn good thing. Because so far as I can tell, abundant patience seems like it’s one of the top three qualities to cultivate for healthy parenthood. Along with unconditional love and a clear sense of one’s role as teacher (as vs. boss, e.g.). It’s a bit of a cheat to list teacherliness, since good teacherliness entails a host of other practices I also find critical to parenthood, most significantly (a) the habit of viewing the world empathetically from the kid’s point of view, the better to understand the motivation behind their behavior, and (b) the conviction that people learn best by doing, by discovering and experiencing their own capacities, all the while believing that failure or error is simply the sign that they are moving out into untested territory.

    Good teaching and good parenting seem to share a great deal, but this most of all: that one is honor-bound to create, cultivate, and protect the conditions under which the person — student, kid, whomever — can thrive the most. And then you jump back and get out of the way and let the unstoppable force of learning and growth happen. At its own pace. Because good teachers know that you don’t always see the results on your watch. Often you’re just tilling the soil and planting seeds.

    I learned this before I left grad school. I ran into an old student at an on-campus conference. She said something like, “You know, you might not even remember me. I took a class from you a couple of years ago.” (Oops: and I just barely did remember her; of the dozen-plus classes I taught in grad school, one was a large lecture class I collaborated on for three years with a dear friend and colleague; alas, a fleeting recognition of face or name was often the best I could muster.) “I didn’t even do that great in the class,” she went on. “But I want to tell you that even though I didn’t realize it at the time, you guys totally changed the way I think. I just wanted you to know that.”

    I smiled and thanked her profusely, and filed that moment away as the priceless lesson it was. Now, when our kid is still a seedling, and I so long to occupy a place as viscerally central to her as her mama, I go back to that lesson in patience. I hunch myself over it, and run my fingers back and forth over the page, mouthing the words silently. Reminding myself. As with so many such things (jealousies, injuries), I suspect that the moment I am no longer wounded about my Chopped Liveriness, the moment I finally have accepted it and no longer pine for more, I will turn to look for it — and it will be gone.

    9 thoughts on “Subordination”

    1. Possibly the most useful thing anyone has said to me (and Jill) on this subject is this:

      Who the “stalked” parent is will go back and forth over time.

      I cannot express how much I hope that is true.

      I think these early months and years are so hard for both bio and baba mothers. (I think I may start using that instead of the “less than” sounding alternatives like “other” and “non-bio.”) You yearn for that intense connection with the little one that we have by virtue of birth and nursing. We yearn for moments of physical comfort alone.

      And although you didn’t address this, one of the other missings in the new baba’s life, as distinct from the new bio’s, is overwhelmng physical intimacy.

      Before Noah was born, Jill and I cuddled on the couch together many evenings, and slept spooned together until I was too pregnant for that to work. But during the last 9 months, a growing person has hung from my breasts for hours every day, slept sprawled on my lap, and increasingly climbed, hugged, kissed, pulled and otherwise been a barnacle-like presence on my body for a lot of the time that used to be occupied by cuddling with my wife.

      Even back then, sometimes I needed a break. A little time to just have my body to myself. Now, those minutes come at the expense of that cuddle time with Jill. I try to still snuggle with her for a few moments, but some days, I just don’t have it in me. And they’re the hardest days, when Noah has been whiny and fussy and difficult, and both of them need me the most.

      Let us hope hope hope that these things will pass. Soon.

    2. This is interesting to me. I was worried about that subordination. I was VERY worried about it. Because, unlike you (I think, from what I remember of your Other Mother contribution) I always wanted to give birth. I expected to feel like chopped liver, and I expected to be resentful of such mangled meat status. And, for the first few weeks, I was. Both there and resentful of it. At the same time I was ecstatic and in love and in awe of my wife and all those good things. And tired. Very, very tired.

      But. That dynamic changed. And for us, I think it changed so early simply because Kristin couldn’t breastfeed. Once Kristin went back to work full-time, and the baby wasn’t being completely sustained by her body, our dynamics evened out. Now, if anything, our daughter is more attached to me (I blogged about this today, how I’m the only one who can get her to sleep — the only one she emphatically wants at night) than to Kristin. And, surprisingly, given how I felt during the pregnancy and when she was born, I’m not thrilled about this.

      I think you’re absolutely right that it’s time and circumstance which relegates the lesbian dads and non-bio moms (GOD how I hate that term) to a more peripheral importance in their child’s life. And you’re right as well that patience and understanding are the only antidotes.

    3. As we anticipate kid #2, I’m wondering: maybe it’s like how parents love more than one kid. Everyone says your heart expands, accordingly. And I remember as a kid often asking my parents whether they loved me more or less than my sister. Every time, they said — and we all know the answer — they loved us each as much, and each differently.

    4. I have spent the past 3 years of my life teaching small children and had to comment because you so eloquently and perfectly captured the essence of the task. I am daily cognizant of the connection between good teaching and good parenting, even as I am not yet a parent myself (but earnestly hope to be one day!). For me, the most delightful and often overlooked task of the teacher is in fact that “habit of viewing the world empathically from the kid’s point of view.”

      And I constantly struggle to give my students the opportunity to learn by doing – to break out of the defective mould that our current public education system has created and imposed on teachers nationwide.

      I truly do believe that my job is to cultivate the conditions for growth for each and every student – and what a delicate and complex task! As a teacher (and a person), it is so easy to get lost in the details — I always appreciate being reminded of the bigger picture. So thank you.

      P.S. I saw you read at Ti Couz for the mommylit event and have been enjoying your blog ever since. It is a gift. : )

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