My romantic assumption was that as women and as lesbians, my ex-partner and I could navigate a breakup more cleanly than a heterosexual couple could, that we could split the kids equally and fairly. So how did I find myself in the role of the secondary, or "other," mother? And why did I recognize this role only in hindsight and not while sliding out of the position of co-primary parent, when I could have done something about it?
For same-sex couples, and even for everyone else out there, here are five warning signs that can help you see when you may losing your hold on the role of primary parent, so that you can work to correct the problem before it's too late:
1. Questioning your competence: Why does the other parent request lists of foods eaten, naps taken, and accounts of activities that occurred during your parenting time? Is it to avoid duplicating naps and to know when the child is likely to be hungry? Or is it to check up on your parenting? When you take your child to the pediatrician, does your ex call to ensure that you've given the right (or enough) information? In a same-sex couple, sometimes you can find this out accidentally, when the pediatrician finds you confused and says sheepishly, "Well, I talked to one of you," and you know it wasn't you. Whoops.
2. Migration of stuff: Do you find that things you have/find/buy for your child work their way to the primary parent's home and just stay there? It's as if your ex owns your child's belongings because the child really belongs at your ex's as well. This is difficult to change, because you want your little person to have his or her favorite things, but you can't necessarily duplicate or replace the stockpile at your house as the pile constantly falls into the black hole that is your ex's house.
3. Competition for the "mother" signature spot: Do you find yourself lunging at the opportunity to sign a form in the "mother" space? This can be a victory so sweet that you knock your ex out of the way on the way to the paper. You can see it, the "mother" blank! It's a bird so rare that you just have to try to get in there and see how it feels to sign on that line. Or an important-looking form comes home from school in your folder, likely by accident, and you get chills as you sit down to put your name in that coveted spot with your very best ink pen.
4. "Why do you work so much?": Do your kids ask why you work so much and why you are out of town, maybe noting that your ex at the other house says that she has "the most important job in the world," staying home with them? Maybe they realize that money and toys come from your house, while time and involvement come from the other house. See #2: If the toy doesn't come back, stop reading. You are the other mother.
5. Child support: If you're paying child support, you're almost certainly the "other" mother. Your court documents list the mother who is entitled to receive support, it's not you, and this support implies roles: It's your role to provide so that the primary mother has the means to successfully parent. Statements from your ex's attorney of "no money, no kids" are certainly indicators that you, my friend, are the other mother.
Believe me: The "other" mother club is a tough one. But if you can recognize the slide toward "other" mother early in the process, you can work to deprogram it before it's entrenched.