A few weeks ago, I received a lovely text message from my other half during the day. “I want to make you a nice dinner tonight to say thanks for being such an amazing woman! Your choice of a roast lamb or salmon. I love you xxx”.
I didn’t feel I had done anything in particular to be amazing which made it all the more lovely (we are nice like that to each other…when we are not agreeing to intensely disagree!).
It was Friday and the kids were starting their week with their other parents that day after school. Mine off to her dad’s house and Rob’s off to their mum’s house. Dinner was a minute away from being ready…queue the crying phone call.
It was my seven year-old daughter, Niamh, calling from her dad’s mobile and she was doing that thing where children cry so much that they can’t breathe properly.
“Mummy…” she whispered in amongst some laboured-sounding breathing.
OMG PANIC FLASH (where you imagine horrific scenarios and ask yourself a hundred questions in a millisecond). ‘Why is she calling me in this state?’, ‘has there been a car crash and she found her dad’s phone on the car floor?’, ‘my baby’, ‘WTF?’, ‘what is happening right now?’, ‘I need to speak to a responsible adult’.
“Niamh, what’s wrong? Where’s daddy?” My heart was racing.
“Here beside me” she took three short sobbing breaths and I heard her dad in the background. He sounded alive and responsible. Both good signs. My turn to breathe.
“Okay what’s happened?” I asked her.
She started to fully sob “I shuuuu my square finger in the cat door”.
“Your square finger? What do you mean?” I couldn’t really understand her. I started to panic again. She was sounding really upset and wasn’t making sense.
“I want to see you, I want you mummy, come here mummy, my square finger” the sob increased to proper hard-out crying.
“Put daddy on the phone a wee minute” I said this calmly but inside I was freaking out, tears were welling up in my eyes.
I wanted to scream “what’s a fucking SQUARE FINGER, why was a CAT involved and why is she CRYING?”.
Instead I opted for outer calm “What happened James?”
“She slammed the car door closed on her finger. I wouldn’t let her call you until she calmed down. It’s pretty bad but she’s okay.”
OMG PANIC FLASH AGAIN… ‘she’s OKAY?, she doesn’t sound OKAY’, ‘OMG SLAMMED…FINGER…CAR DOOR…she has little, tiny fingers. What if she broke it, if she’s smashed it all up and it’s just mush?’ ‘Was she screaming for me when it happened?’
It transpired that Niamh had slammed her ‘swear’ finger aka middle finger in the car door while exiting the vehicle (Yes, I don’t know either. I wasn’t in the headspace to ask where she had heard ‘swear’ finger from!). Her screams were so loud that the neighbours had run to James’s house thinking something horrific was happening. Tears were streaming down my cheeks, I could hear Niamh in the background crying and I was really worried.
As it happens, her dad had just finished another two-day first aid course. Logic told me she really was okay and didn’t need hospital attention. Amongst my panic, I was able to recall that I do in fact trust her dad. That he actually is a good dad and he loves her very much. He is also way calmer than me in this type of situation. As is Rob, who was looking at a picture of the swear finger James had sent him, gauging whether showing me the picture would send me over the nurturing edge! Men are generally quite practical.
However, my instinct was shouting that I should get in the car and drive straight there to comfort her at the very least. And I felt so guilty at not being there. Although I would see her for a couple of hours on Tuesday when I took her to an appointment, it would be a full week before I had her again. I felt like I was about to vomit.
When she had actually settled down enough to talk to me again, I had to decline her final request to see me. I had to tell her that her dad would give her big hugs and look after her, possibly with ice-cream! I had to, because it was the right thing to do. To have gone to his house would have enabled Niamh to believe that James cannot truly comfort her. It would have enabled me to believe that she can only be truly okay if I am there. And it would have undermined her dad’s ability to deal with the situation.
It was the first time she had properly hurt herself without me being able to comfort her, either immediately or a couple of hours later at the most. I didn’t eat much of my lovely dinner. I was too busy trying to stop the nausea and wipe away tears from my leaking eyes. I didn’t sleep much that night either, wondering if she was awake and in pain. It wasn’t until the morning when she video-called me on FaceTime, and I actually saw she was super chipper, that I felt better. In fact, her finger healed up very nicely within a week and she even participated in her jujitsu class.
I chatted to Rob about it afterwards. I found it interesting that despite the fact that I knew James was more than capable of handling the incident and would comfort her as much as she needed, my instinct to rush in and take over was so strong, I almost had to hold back vomit!
I recall from the early days when Niamh was a tiny baby, I never had to worry whether she would be okay left with James if I went out for a coffee with a friend for an hour or two. I knew he would manage, and if he couldn’t he’d call. But I knew other women who couldn’t be as flexible as me. They genuinely felt their significant others couldn’t cope with being left alone with baby, even when those significant others had expressed a wish to be given that opportunity.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done my fair share (of what I perceive to be) undermining Niamh’s dad when it comes to parenting skills and my instinctual need to nurture. Yes, that old ‘Mother knows best’ attitude. I’ve stepped in when she’s been really upset to take over the comforting process, I’ve insisted I knew best about just about everything to do with raising a child. There are many examples I could give. It may have come from a place I believed was genuinely good parenting, but on reflection, the reality is that for the most part, it was selfish and it fulfilled my needs. Honestly, neither of us are perfect at this parenting lark. We still get it wrong. He still annoys me with some of his parenting ways. I still annoy him with some of mine. In terms of the overall picture though, it’s only recently I have insight I wish I’d had many years ago.
It’s a true story that when a baby comes along, dynamics in relationships very often change. Imagine a new mother who takes that ‘Mother knows best’ attitude to an extreme? And some do, even without intending to.
In situations where both parents are willing and able to care for the children, we need to be asking ourselves a few questions.
What does this feel like from the father’s point of view? Suddenly there is a little person in their lives. Not only have they lost that consistent contact and one-on-one connection with their partners, but what if they are not feeling trusted to fully co-parent? How do they connect with the baby? How do they gain confidence as a parent? Where do they fit? Other than being the breadwinning income provider (which is not always the case these days), what is their role now after baby comes along if the mother is too over nurturing?
What are the consequences for everyone involved if nurturing becomes unhealthy. What is the true definition of unhealthy nurturing? Where is the tipping point?
Shouldn’t a dad set the bar for his daughter? How he behaves teaching her the definition of a man? How he treats her teaching her an expectation of how she should be treated by other men?
And what about a son? Shouldn’t a dad teach his son how to become a man and how to treat women? But for him to do any of this effectively, he needs to be able to co-parent. He has his own unique strengths, qualities and insights. He has a place.
Do unhealthy levels of nurturing take away his place? His ability to fully enter his children’s worlds? Do they undermine him and devalue the relationship with his significant other? They used to be a team didn’t they?!
And when nurturing is at an unhealthy point, do mothers suffer? Taking on too much, trying to fulfill too many roles, becoming over-tired, over-stressed, spreading themselves too thin? Are these a few of the consequences?
What about the children? Surely it is healthier for them to be able to be comforted by both parents? To be comfortable, happy and content in the company of either parent? To live in a world where they are not exposed to consistent undermining of one parent by the other? To not be over-mummed? (no, I really don’t think it’s an actual term but I think you get what I mean?!). To gain the best of what both parents have to offer? There is almost always going to be a lean towards mum, and quite rightly so. I don’t think it’s a bad thing if it’s healthy.
And could good boundary setting skills and recognition of roles help? Yes, I think there are many questions we ought to be asking ourselves.