It doesn't happen all the time, but when it does it can make equitable decision-making between parents, equitable standing of parents, equitable influence of parents, and even unity of parents more difficult to maintain during their children's adolescence.
I'm talking about the problem of ‘odd parent out.' What seems to develop is a degree of prejudice and discrimination that infects the family system directed against one parent for being in the sexual minority, mother or father. It can be toward a dad in a household of women with only teenage daughters, or it can be toward a mom in a household of men with only teenage sons.
The problem doesn't usually arise until adolescents have reached puberty when sexual maturity causes a change not just in the adolescent but in the young person's relationship to parents as well. Now identification and affiliation with the same sex parent becomes more important as gender development into young manhood or young womanhood begins.
You can often see this change come into play in divorced families when early adolescents at this age want to shift living arrangements to spend more time in the other household. This is done not out of greater love, but out of greater need for more exposure to the parent who is the same sex model.
During the childhood years, boys and girls usually treat parents with equal importance and equal favor, valuing them each for the parental differences they embodied—the mom perhaps more of a relationally focused parent, the dad perhaps more of a performance focused parent. So the child explains, "I talk more with Mom, I do stuff with Dad."
With the arrival of puberty, however, the salience of each parent can begin to shift as the same sex parent provides a role model the young person finds powerfully instructive. The girl sees her mom as a primary example of womanhood; the boy sees his dad as a primary example of manhood.
From this identification with the same sex parent, a number of familiarity assumptions can flow. Gender similarity may cause the young person to feel more in common with this parent. In consequence, the young person may come to believe that this parent understands them better, that this parent's company is more desirable to keep, that this parent has more to offer, that this parent somehow counts for more, that this parent should be favored.
It is when natural gender affiliation between adolescents and same sex parent become the basis for social alliances in the family that inclusion based on sexual similarity and exclusion based on being sexually different can begin. Risk of this change occurring is heightened a family where the mother is the only woman in a household of men (when she has only teenage sons) or where the father is the only man in a household of women (when he has only teenage daughters.) At issue is how this parent, in the sexual minority in the family, going to be treated by everyone else?
In such a family system this adult in danger of becoming "odd parent out," treated as a minority member in the dominant sexual culture of the family because of being sexually different from everyone else. Feeling ganged up on, that adult can feel outnumbered and overpowered when it comes to defining and deciding how family matters should be. In the worst case, a degree of sexism can take place in this family system, complete with prejudice and discrimination, the other parent colluding in the damage.
Prejudice puts the odd-parent-out down. The odd parent out is made to feel inferior (stupid) because of sexual ignorance ("How can a mother understand her son's needs as a man, asks the father?" "How can a father understand his daughter's needs as a woman," asks the mother?)
Discrimination keeps the odd parent out from full participation in parental understanding and decision-making. Declares the other parent: "I'll take care of it, I know best." And the odd parent out is treated as an outsider, excluded from the loop of information in which everyone else is often included. ("I'll tell you, if you promise not to tell Dad." "I'll tell you, if you promise not to tell Mom.") Thus disunity in the marriage is sewn.
Now the parent who shares the same sexual identity with the adolescents is given more confiding, respect, empathy, authority, and support by them than the odd parent out who is still loved, but in a condescending way. "Oh, you're just being a Mom!" "Oh, you're just being a Dad!" Sometimes it feels like being loved in spite of your parental designation and not because of it.
In my book, The Connected Father, I described how one young woman talked about what happened to her dad in the family when the sisters all reached adolescence. "My father? Once the three of us girls hit our teenage years, he kind of disappeared, still working with Mom to support the family, but mostly leaving us to her unless we got seriously out of line. We still loved him and he still loved us, but now it was at more of a distance. Mom started doing most of the parenting because she understood what her daughters were going through when he didn't have a clue. It just felt natural to go to her. I remember him being grumpy a lot during our teenage years, not that we wanted to talk with him that much anyway. He kept to himself at home except for time he took with Mom. Looking back, I suppose I missed him in a way, but to tell you the truth, I really don't know what I missed" (page 189.)
To be treated as a second class parent in the family by children and a spouse you love because of being sexually different can hurt. You are not being equally acknowledged, valued, or included. So what is to be done?
When incidents of sexual prejudice (being discounted) or discrimination (being excluded) are directed at you in the family, no matter how small, no matter how innocently, no matter if done with humor or good humor, assert your equal importance as parent in family affairs. Don't allow yourself to be put down, kept out, pushed aside, or to be shut up.
To suffer in silence can encourage beliefs in same-sex superiority and dominance that adolescents are likely to carry into later families of their own. Of more immediate importance, however, is that they are being denied full access to and full influence from the other sex parent. If you allow your equal worth as a person and parent to be discounted, diminished, or demeaned it will be to everyone's cost. You will lose self-esteem, your spouse will lose an equal partner, and your children will lose the benefit of your full influence and participation in their lives.
When you are the sole representative of your gender in the family, to keep from becoming and being treated as odd parent out, you must remain a salient adult presence in the family. You must be recognized and be reckoned with based on who you are, how you are, what you stand for, what you believe, what you have to offer, what you have to say, and what you want. Just because as parent you are the only one of your gender in the family, don't become odd parent out. Remain odd parent in.
Finally, there is this. Starved for another male presence in the family, or for another female presence in the family, odd parent in or out can truly welcome a child-in-law—at last another family member of the same sex. As one mother described her joy with her eldest son's wife: "Not only do I love her for who she is, but now I've got another woman in the family I can relate to!"
For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at www.carlpickhardt.com
Next week's entry: Parenting a strong-willed adolescent.