Being the “second” parent

About 16 years ago, when my wife, Rachel, and I were contemplating having our first child, we talked a lot about how we would share the responsibilities for parenting.  In the end, she decided that she’d like to leave full-time hospital nursing to be able to spend full-time with our future child.  A few years after he was born, he was diagnosed as having high-functioning autism.  Needless to say, the job of parenting went from pleasantly challenging to downright daunting.

At the same time, I was building my career as a software engineer / manager.  It was (and still is) very demanding work which often requires a fair bit of overtime, and leaves me with very little time for anything else: even being a father.

So, the dynamic in our family is that my wife has taken about 75% of the burden of parenting, while I’ve taken on the rest.  This includes a lot of things: physical care (esp. during younger years), playing / supervising play, driving to appointments & activities, food preparation (and actual feeding, at least early on).  To be fair to myself, I’ve always shouldered my share of those tasks when I’m home.  But, the reality has always been that I’ve worked full-time out of the house, and I simply haven’t been physically present to do those things nearly so often as Rachel has.

Which leads me to my point.  In our family, I’m the de facto “second” parent.

Being the “second” parent is not remotely the same thing as being an absentee, uninvolved, or disinterested parent.  It also does not mean that I don’t carry my own weight in household chores or coping with parenting challenges.  But there are a few important differences.

First, it is completely true most routine decisions are made without my direct input.  I’ve always felt welcome to comment on them or suggest improvements, but my wife nearly always handles these out without any need for me to weigh in.

Second, my wife and I routinely set time aside (our date night) to talk over those decisions which aren’t routine.  Whether this is making some choice about schooling, correcting some nascent behavior problem, helping our son get started with a new activity, or altering some routine around the house, we always have a time and manner to make sure we address them together.  Often, these are situations where my wife will raise the issue, and I’ll give my feedback: leaving the final call in her court.  Most of the time, though, we come to a consensus on the spot.

Third, I have to be more deliberate about spending time with my son.  Since my calendar is often pretty full, it’s frequently the odd moments here and there which I need to capitalize on.  As one would expect, the exact form this takes has changed over the years.  Recently, he has begun to share my interest in fantasy & science fiction, movies, video games, and a number of other things.  So, recently, these odd moments have taken the form of late-night conversations which range all over, but most often start with one of those shared interests.

Finally, I’m often the member of the tag-team who is “tagged in” when things get intense.  Being on the autism spectrum, our son’s tantrums have always been intense, and they still can be.  By the point when my wife is getting frustrated and starting to lose patience, I’ll jump in and take over the conversation.  Both because of my particular personality, and especially because I’m “tagging in” fresh, I’m able to remain calm and detached from his intense emotions.  In these cases, I sit with him and help him calm down by gently refusing to react to his intense emotions (sometimes over the course of an hour or more), and by helping him talk though the issue.  These conversations often get very philosophical and talk about ethics, character, and principles for addressing the situation at hand.

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It’s easy to dismiss the “second” parent.  In fact, the disconnected, bread-winning father figure, by now, is beyond clichéd.  It’s also not how things have to be.  Whether the “second” parent is the mother or father—and I know at least one family where dad stays home while mom works outside the house—both can be full partners as “the parents”.  It takes some deliberate choices of who’s going to step forward, and how often, and for what things, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an equal partnership in keeping a home and raising a family.  So, all of this is really just to say: while the roles are different, there really isn’t any “second” parent.