Jenna Overbaugh

Being the preferred parent can suck: Here’s how you can cope

By Casey Newman

If you’re the preferred parent, you already know… It can be hard to go to the bathroom by yourself, let alone leave your child with the other parent or expect the other parent to be able to put your child to bed while you relax.

Despite the best efforts, it usually ends up with a frustrated other parent, a screaming kid and an even more frustrated you. What’s a preferred parent to do?

Well, first, take a deep breath and realize it’s a phase. Most little kids — toddlers and preschoolers — go through phases where they prefer one parent to the other. That doesn’t make it any easier while you’re in the moment though. 

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Being the preferred parent can come with a range of emotions: You can feel frustrated that you don’t seem to ever get a break, you can enjoy it or you can feel anxiety over your role if you try and let your partner assume more of the parenting duties, especially if you’ve got an infant.

Whatever your feelings, try to become comfortable with them, suggests Jenna Overbaugh, licensed professional counselor

“Try to resist jumping in and ‘saving the day,’” she says. “It might be hard to sit back and let the baby cry or let the other parent struggle to figure things out, but it won’t always be that way.”

Overbaugh, who works with moms and patients experiencing anxiety and OCD symptoms, says that the other parent and child need time and most importantly the opportunity to figure things out.

“The crying won’t end and the clumsiness of the other parent won’t necessarily improve unless both of them have the opportunity to sit through it and learn to figure it out,” she says. “So as the default parent, we have to sit with our own anxiety before we jump in to correct.” 

Overbaugh continues, “It’s also important to make sure that we don’t do what’s called ‘maternal gatekeeping.’ This is when we jump in and correct how others do things. For instance, if my husband is getting our son ready for daycare but then I get upset because his socks don’t match… as much as I would like to point it out and correct it, it’s good for me to just leave it. Maternal gatekeeping not only increases and encourages our own negative rigidity about situations but it also reduces the confidence of the other parent and discourages others from trying or offering help in the future.”

If your child is older and you’d like them to start forming a better bond with the other parent, set boundaries and expect an upset kid. Parenting expert Janet Lansbury suggests being direct and definitive with your child, acknowledging that yes, they may want you to put them to bed, but the other parent is going to do it tonight.

But what about if you just need a break? Feel like you’re going to snap if someone tells you one more time to take a bath or read a book? Once again, examine your feelings and own them, says Overbaugh. 

“Try to be compassionate with yourself and try your best to not avoid or fix your feelings” she explains.

You can get comfortable feeling uncomfortable by being mindful, noticing your feelings, labeling them without judgment (that means saying “I’m feeling angry” instead of “I’m feeling angry. This will never improve. I’m a terrible person.”).

“Allow yourself to feel the feelings and let them come and go,”  she says.

If you have anxiety, Overbaugh suggests doing respiratory control. (Here’s a simple respiratory control exercise from Overbaugh’s podcast All the Hard Things, in episode #3).

And then there’s self-care — and while you may roll your eyes at the “take a bath” suggestion, Overbaugh points out that self-care is different for everyone. 

“For me, it’s time away from my home some days. Other days it’s wanting to be in my home and work on work. It really changes,” she shares. “Be willing to ask yourself what you need right now and also not just ‘ask for help’ — work on setting very specific boundaries about what it is that you need. For instance, I work out six days a week, my husband knows my schedule, and that’s non-negotiable. It’s not up in the air. That’s my time, that’s my getaway, and I would be unable to give back to my family all day unless I was able to maintain that myself and have that time. If you have a supportive partner and network, I would encourage thinking of it as less of ‘asking for help’ and more like outlining boundaries around what you absolutely need.”

For more tips on maternal anxiety, OCD or anxiety, follow Overbaugh on Instagram or listen to her podcast “All the Hard Things.”

Casey Newman is a mother of two from Green who depends on wine to get her through bathtime and bedtime. She is a maternal and women’s health advocate who volunteers with several birth and maternal rights organizations and has spoken to Congress members about issues affecting moms.

Photo provided by Jenna Overbaugh