I’M JEALOUS OF THE ATTENTION MY WIFE GIVES MY SON. AM I A MONSTER?
It’s embarrassing to admit I envy their relationship, but it turns out I’m not alone.
By Jared Bilski
He’s got dreamy green almond-shaped eyes, a head of golden blond locks and a dazzling smile that crinkles the corners of his eyes and transforms him from handsome to beautiful. The guy I’m competing with in the battle for my wife’s affection is so out of my league that it isn’t even a fair fight.
He’s also my 2-year-old son.
I’m not proud of it, but sometimes I’m jealous of my wife’s “little boyfriend.” She actually calls him that. Some mornings, I’ll walk into my son’s room and find that my wife has already gotten him out of his crib and transported him to the recliner where both of us have spent so many sleepless nights. On these mornings, she clutches our sleepy toddler like he’s still her helpless little baby and rocks him in that recliner until he’s awake enough to begin his daily pillaging of the home we just restored from his rampage the previous day.
Most days, the feeling I have when I look at my fully content wife and my semi-sleeping son is pure love. But other days — days when I’m moody, irritable and eager to find something to complain about — I’ll feel a pang of something else. Something sharp, uncomfortable and completely unexpected. I’ll feel jealous.
It took me a while to recognize the green-eyed monster for what it was because I had so many other competing and contradictory feelings. When I found out that my wife and I were expecting a son, my mind immediately conjured up high-definition images of the two of us hiking challenging trails in remote natural parks, screaming at the refs over blown calls at Sixers games and singing our hearts out to Stone Temple Pilots songs from the ’90s. Surely, I, a dad who was overjoyed at the prospect of raising a boy, couldn’t be jealous of the kid I’d always wanted. Could I? Yes, yes I could.
As it turns out, I’m not an outlier for feeling this way. “With 67 percent of new parents experiencing a decline in relationship satisfaction and changing dynamics, often leaving one partner vying for the attention of a spouse, jealousy toward a child isn’t all that uncommon,” said Ashurina Ream, Psy.D., an Arizona-based psychologist, citing a study conducted in 2000. “But jealousy is one of those taboo topics, like anger and rage among new mothers, that people just don’t like to talk about.”
The shifting dynamics in my relationship with my wife are key to these pangs of envy. Before we had kids, I was the one my wife needed to look after. I’d always operated under the notion that my brand of helplessness was endearing, adorable even.
It seemed like an unspoken agreement between the two us: I promised to provide constant laughter, endless adventure (one of our first dates involved jumping off a 40-foot high railroad bridge into the murky waters of Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill River) and a steady stream of ridiculous stories to keep her entertained well into our golden years.
All she had to do in return was accompany me on my many soul-crushing stand-up comedy gigs in exotic locations like Scranton, Pa., and Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and help me limp through my adult life without accidentally killing myself or winding up in jail.
But when a baby comes along, those spacey, idiosyncratic behaviors like, say, putting the lunch meat in the cabinet under the kitchen sink, aren’t quirky fun things to tell your girlfriends about — they’re infuriating.
The more understandably annoyed my wife becomes with my antics (“You’re almost 40, when are you going to stop with the prank emails?”), the more enamored she seems to become with her pint-size prince in diapers. And I can’t help but feel resentful of the attention he receives, even if I find him just as enamoring.
I’ve all but lost my ability to charm my way back into my wife’s good graces these days. Little boyfriend, on the other hand, can take a permanent marker to her favorite dress, and all he has to do is look at her with those dreamy eyes and say his trademark anger-defusing phrase: “I like ya hair.” Those words in that lispy, high-pitched voice get my wife every time. How could they not? In terms of cuteness, it’s the sonic equivalent of sleepy Boston terrier puppies.
Even though I can’t stop these little twinges of jealousy, I do appreciate the absurdity of it all. And according to experts, the ability to laugh at one’s self can be a wonderful coping mechanism. “Jealousy doesn’t feel good,” said Marissa Zwetow, L.M.F.T., a California-based family therapist who specializes in maternal mental health. “So to have the humor to be able to laugh at ourselves and come out of it and say, ‘This is common. This is normal’ — that allows us to connect with others and know we’re not alone in how we feel.”
If humor alone isn’t enough, just being open about how you’re feeling is a healthy approach. “I would recommend having open conversations, sharing how you feel and using ‘I’ statements to take responsibility for the feelings you’re having,” said Michelle Bell, Psy.D., a psychologist and owner of Inwood Family Guidance and Psychological Services in New York. And to prevent these nagging feelings from morphing into something more serious, Dr. Bell said, “The best thing you can do is tend to your partnership. That’s the foundation.”
When she talked about sharing my feelings using “I” statements, Dr. Bell probably meant with my spouse — not scores of strangers from all corners of the internet. But this is one of the most effective ways in which my wife and I communicate. My parenting-related essays — essays that tend to include incredibly personal details about life in the Bilski household — usually leave my wife laughing, sometimes spur further conversations about difficult subjects and almost always bring us closer together. When I showed her this essay for the first time, she not only loved the subject but also offered some significant copy-editing help (“You’re sending it like this to The New York Times?!”).
It wasn’t easy to admit I’m jealous of my own son, so it’s good to know my wife wasn’t appalled and was even amused. That’s why I want to remember this feeling. I suspect it will help make me a more empathetic partner. I can even foresee the day my son starts dating. When he does and my wife feels that unfamiliar gut punch, she may ask, “This can’t be jealousy I’m feeling, can it?” I’ll be right there to say, “Yes, yes it can.”