For a fairly long while, maybe nine months or so, I had been quite convinced that my daughter didn’t particularly like me. Or rather, that I was fine, but that she would much, much rather spend time with her “dada” than with me. This wasn’t just hormonal, sleep-deprived paranoia. The evidence was incontrovertible. She would cry if I, rather than my husband, gave her cuddles. She would cry if I, rather than my husband, helped her with her meals. She would cry if I, rather than my husband, changed her nappy. She would cry if I, rather than my husband, sat next to her. You get the gist.* She learnt to say duck, dog, light, car, cat, lion, tiger, up and “dada” (obviously), before she came up with “mama” (and even then only because circumstances forced the issue, on which see below). The only thing she was agreeable about me doing rather than him was breastfeeding. (Which was useful, as he is a bloody good father but he absolutely needs to work on his lactation.)
My husband, of course, found this completely brilliant. I’m not sure he would ever admit it but I think he believes it to be divine justice for the fact that my son was the founding member of the Mama Fan Club (No Daddies Allowed) and his fandom continues to such a degree that my teenage Take That fixation looks positively half-hearted.
Because of my son’s approach, I had already read most that the internet has to offer about what to do when a child prefers one parent to the other. I had consulted that oracle of respectful parenting, the mighty Janet Lansbury, whose advice has seen me through many a parenting conundrum. And her words are so wise that they bear repetition here (although I would heartily recommend that you read the article in full** if this is pertinent to your family):
- “Our children’s adoration is a given, and hard as that may be to believe in the face of “go away, Mommy,” it isn’t at all personal.
- Young children live in the moment. So, “I don’t want you” (or even “I don’t like you”) means “I don’t want you in this moment,” or “I don’t want you to do this activity with me”, etc. These are temporary and superficial, rather than deep and permanent rejections.
- Our child only feels safe rejecting us because he or she is secure in our love. So, rejection is a back-handed compliment of sorts. We’re doing something right. Of course, it still feels crappy.”
Janet advises, essentially, that the “Rejected Parent” rises above it, remaining constant, loving and (ideally) keeping a sense of humour about the whole thing. It’s important for the child to know that the Rejected Parent hasn’t taken it personally. And for the “Preferred Parent”, they should feel confident in their child’s ability to accept their firm and loving limits (so not just caving in and changing the nappy or running the bath or whatever it is that the child has decided the Rejected Parent should not do). They should also (and I think this is particularly important so I’m going to quote) demonstrate their “utter faith in [the Rejected Parent] as an able and loving parent”.
This is Good Advice. And, it turns out, much easier to follow when you are the “Preferred Parent”. So I must apologise to my husband for the fact that I doled out Janet’s sage counsel with all the sensitivity of Donald Trump negotiating border security with Mexico.
I mean, don’t take it personally?! Are you kidding?! Every rejection feels like a twisted knife in my stomach or a punch to the throat. My heart wrenches with every turn of the cheek, with every plaintive cry of “dada!”. And my husband (although he would deny it) has been absolutely revelling in it for the past few months. He has categorically failed to follow Janet’s commandment of not thinking “poor baby” when our daughter remonstrates; the pity pours from him when he extricates himself from her grasp to go to work or even just to another room. “Don’t worry, baby, Daddy’s here,” he says, as he comes to calm her in the night.*** I hate it! How has my husband not spent the last two years in a state of perpetual hysteria? It is AWFUL.
Well. Awful, with a tiny side of convenient, it must be said. We have been able to share the day-to-day care of our daughter to a degree that felt unthinkable with our son. My husband finally knows what it is to have a child who would prefer that you never again take a pee in private. Although he has basked in her adoration, he has also gained experience of the suffocating weight of being seemingly indispensable.
And (the clue was in the past tense at the beginning of the post), the times they are a-changin! Our daughter is hugely, magnificently stubborn. And when my husband told her he was going back to work after a blissful three weeks off over Christmas, she suddenly (and immediately) learnt to say “mama” and turned her focus almost entirely to me. It was so deliberate as to be pretty hilarious. (For me, at least.) She spent three full days doing her absolute best to ignore my husband, indignant as she was as to this apparent betrayal of their special relationship. The following week brought a certain rapprochement, for sure, but I am still receiving considerably more affection than previously.
And so we find ourselves here. Both Preferred and Rejected, not quite in equal measure any more but probably to a degree that we can both tolerate. We have a better understanding of the position of the other. Neither of us can find a moment of peace in our busy home.
We are both bloody lucky.
Life is good.
* I knew she didn’t despise me entirely because she was quite content for me to do all of these things in the absence of my husband. Which was fortunate for all of us, I guess!
** Janet Lansbury’s great article is here http://www.janetlansbury.com/2015/02/when-children-prefer-one-parent/ I would also really recommend her amazing book “No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame”, one of the very few parenting books I have ever reached the end of! A complete game-changer.
*** I realised, after a while of growing increasingly outraged by this flagrant undermining of my position, that my husband was actually just mirroring what I have long said to my son when coming into his room to soothe him upon a tearful night waking: “Don’t worry, darling, Mama is here.” I never for a second meant that my son should take his comfort from the fact that it was me and not my husband who was there. Sorry again, darling!