It’s a midweek dinner-time, and my four-year-old son is falling asleep in his risotto, exhausted after a long day of ‘big school’. “Hey, buddy!” my husband says brightly, in an attempt to rouse him. “Why don’t you sing Mummy your new nativity song? The one about the happy donkey? I bet she’d love to hear it.”
Blearily, my son turns to me with his eyes half-closed and grains of rice stuck to his lip, and – quite without warning – starts belting out the showstopper from his school play with X Factor final levels of bravura. He pumps his fists; he Mariah-Careys all over the notes. He’s not even phased when he forgets the three wise men, subbing in the Hulk, Captain America and Spider-Man without taking a breath.
It is a virtuoso performance, and I applaud it wildly. Then I glance over at my husband, who’s quietly singing along to himself. I might be hearing this song for the first time, I realise, but my husband is so familiar with it he knows all the words. An icy jealousy settles over my heart. I feel resentful and left-out, even though I’m being irrational – because it’s situation I actually signed up to.
This is the latest parenting truth they never warn you about (in an apparently infinite list): when you are two parents with two small kids close in age, each parent inevitably ends up being the “primary” carer to one of them.
Yes, we have another child: our two-year-old son, who – for the duration of his brother’s song – is obliviously shovelling rice into his face. And where my husband is our older son’s “custodian”, I take care of his younger brother.
This has been the case since the little one was born; he was (and continues to be) breastfed, and since I’m the one with the boobs, our arrangement makes sense. Our older son has started school, and I don’t drive, so – again – it makes sense I walk the toddler to nursery, while my husband does the school drop-offs and pick-ups.
The end result of all this, of course, is that my husband and older son are – through no fault of their own – a little clique. And I’m a bit hypersensitive about this, because, for two and a half years, our son was my little sidekick. He slept in my arms, breastfed, and went everywhere cuddled against me in a carrier, right up until I was too heavily pregnant with his brother to be much help, at which point my husband took over as his “primary”.
Now, however irrational it may be to do so, I feel excluded when they share a joke, or refer to themselves as the “blue-eyed boys” (I have brown eyes), or when I discover my son has a new favourite chocolate bar only when I get into my husband’s car and find the back seat covered in sweet wrappers. He accidentally calls me “Daddy” at least three times a week and it breaks my heart.
I know this is a phase. I realise this isn’t the end of my relationship with my older son. It just rankles. It doesn’t help I’ve been occasionally incapacitated with chronic illness over the last few months – or that his toddler brother has entered the wonderful phase of separation anxiety – so we haven’t been able to honour any of the “Mummy dates” we had scheduled into the diary.
For now, my husband and I get by with jokes about “your son” and “my son”. All we can do is wait it out, and make sure that my husband isn’t the only one to hear our son’s stagey song renditions.
He’s finished now, and does a deep bow right into his bowl of risotto. His father and I are congratulating him when a tiny, growly voice bellows: “NO! STOP SINGING! YOU SUNG ALREADY! I SING INSTEAD!”
It is our toddler son, suddenly apoplectic that the attention isn’t on him. We are then treated to a mysteriously aggressive version of “Baa, Baa, Sheep Sheep” with warnings of “YOU NOT SING, YOU NOT ALLOWED TO SING, YOU SANG ALREADY” to his big brother.
My husband turns to me, wide-eyed, and nods at the little one. “When did he start using the past tense?”
Oh, right. I guess this ‘primary parent’ thing works both ways.
More by Robyn Wilder
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.