‘I was sitting on the sofa, watching our daughter dissolve into giggles as my husband Karl threw her up in the air then caught her back in his arms, when a knot of jealousy twisted inside my chest. I should have been happy to see my husband and baby playing so beautifully but instead, the resentment bubbled up inside me,’ says Sarah Lloyd, 44, founder of IndigoSoulPR, from Hampshire.
‘How could she whine and cry with me for over an hour then magically transform as soon as he stepped through the door? Why did she never laugh so loudly with me? Strangely, their lovely interaction made me feel discarded and ignored; their special father-daughter bond somehow turning into a statement against me and my poor mothering.’
Surprisingly, parental jealousy isn’t as rare as we might think. In his 2020 autobiography Reboot, former footballer Michael Owen admitted to seeking professional help when he retired from football, and found himself becoming jealous of his wife Louise’s relationship with their eldest daughter, Love Island star Gemma.
‘For years, because of my own inner demons, I was intentionally really hard on Louise about subjects that I knew would push her buttons most — not least her close relationship with our daughter Gemma,’ wrote Michael. ‘Let me be very clear and say that none of this was in any way a reflection on how I felt about either Gemma or Louise. I love them both with all of me. [But] I'd take everything out on Louise, though. I'd accuse her of spending all her time with her eldest and ignoring the other kids. It wasn’t even true.’
Something that resonates with Sarah. ‘I’d blurt out to Karl, “How come she prefers me to you?”, even if the words sounded ridiculous as soon as they came out of my mouth. “Look how tired you are. You just need a rest,” he’d answer diplomatically. But I couldn’t get rid of this feeling that my daughter preferred him to me. At my worst, I’d think she was manipulating me, flaunting their tight-knit bond in front of my face to make me feel bad, even though she was a baby. It was ridiculous, irrational, and shameful.
‘And yet these feelings of jealousy continued, even after the birth of our second daughter. While Karl and I were both working full time, like many mothers, I was the one doing the nursery drop-offs and pick-ups, packing the bags, making sure the fridge was full, the house was tidy, and the girls had everything they needed.
‘Karl, on the other hand, was the archetypal fun dad; the one who played wonderful make-believe games in the garden, took time to talk and explain things or wrestled and tickled them until they were squealing with laughter. It was exhausting, being the boring parent, and jealousy was my default emotion.
‘I’d experienced the same emotions thirty years ago at school in the playground and was often envious of the other children’s friendships, wondering why this one or that one wouldn’t play with me. It left me feeling the victim and it was still doing the same now with my own family – and it was a feeling I was desperate to shake.
'I started to think my husband was right, and that my jealousy actually stemmed from exhaustion'
‘I started to think about my own journey to motherhood and how it had come as a real shock. One minute I was in my early 30s living in a flat on my own and the next I suddenly had a boyfriend, then a house, husband and two kids in the space of two years. Up until that point, I’d lived quite a selfish life without being around children and now my life was the total opposite - selfless and all about kids.
‘I started to think that perhaps Karl was right, and my jealousy actually stemmed from exhaustion and a loss of myself.
‘I signed up to a women’s-only retreat in Glastonbury and in one session, I broke down, tears streaming down my face, the physical and mental exhaustion of full-time working and mothering for nearly four years finally leaking out of me.
‘I came home and started to rethink my life, knowing the way we were living wasn’t serving any of us. Our family dynamic and way of working had to change. I no longer wanted to be the person who simply ferried my children to and from nursery, and instead I wanted to have a proper relationship with my girls where I could be the fun one too.
‘Handily, this revelation coincided with me being made redundant from my corporate job as global head of leadership and my oldest starting school. Suddenly, I had the creative space to think about what I wanted, and I was able to take the leap of faith to set up my own business, which gave me more time and space to manage my mental and emotional health.
‘By the time the pandemic struck, the balance in our household was already shifting and my feelings of jealousy were receding - but lockdown put paid to them finally.
‘With all of us at home, Karl and I were forced to share the domestic load more equally and I was no longer simply the go-to parent for cooking or cleaning but was able to spend quality time with the girls, reading stories, playing with them and being the parent I’d always felt envious of.
‘Now the girls are 4 and 8 and the green-eyed monster rarely surfaces.
‘Occasionally, I’ll see Karl and the girls entwined on the sofa, chatting and laughing, eyes only for each other, and I’ll feel a familiar twinge. But I’ll just take myself off and go and do something for me, like have a bath or a rest. The jealousy, I now realise, is rooted in my needs and is a sign to be kinder to myself. It’s not a reflection on something lacking in me or my relationship with my daughters.’