Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“My Toddler Prefers My Husband”

I know this isn’t the usual sort of “relationship” type of question you answer, but I wanted to write to you about a topic you’ve touched on in the past from your own experience. To cut to the chase: My toddler prefers my husband and it breaks my heart. While I’m happy my husband and child have such a good relationship, it’s hard (and draining) to see this preference day in and day out. I’m the primary caregiver and responsible for a lot of the boring stuff — washing, dressing, feeding, but also a lot of the fun stuff — play dates, park visits, cuddles. My husband is also very hands-on and involved, but he has much less time with our child due to his job.

I see such a natural closeness with my other friends and their young children, and usually a strong “mommy” preference among them. And I know this is ridiculous, but I feel like since I suffer through all the night wakings, doctor appointments, worrying, etc., that I should be rewarded with Favorite Parent status, not some very distant runner-up. Anyway, I fully acknowledge that my feelings right now are a bit silly, but I can’t help but feel hurt and sad about it. It’s also a topic that none of my mother friends can relate to, making me feel like a bit of an outcast. You always write and frame your mothering experience with humour and grace, so I guess I’m just looking for some words of wisdom, or maybe just a strategy to develop a thicker skin! — Distant Runner-Up Parent

I think if you Google “My toddler doesn’t like me” or a variation of that, this post I wrote over three years ago must be one of the top results because, to this day, I get emails or comments like yours on a weekly basis. You are not alone. And while it may seem like all your mom friends have a natural closeness with their toddlers that you think you don’t have with yours, I promise you — and you already know this, I’m sure — that things aren’t always what they seem. Or, more specifically, what you see is probably real, but what you don’t see is just as real, too. There’s a lot that goes on in people’s private relationships that you don’t see on the outside, and that, even if you’re privy to some private information, you can’t ever fully understand. It’s so important not to compare all of what we know about our own lives — the joy and the messes, the struggles and the stresses — to the little bit we know of other people’s lives.

Here’s what I can tell you about my own experience as a parent who felt like a “distant runner-up,” as you put it: it sucked and then it got better. My son, now 5 1/2, went through a phase — and now it seems so long ago! — where he seemed to not really like me. And to be honest, there were times I felt I didn’t like him as much as it seemed my friends liked their kids. They didn’t talk about being as exasperated and emotionally exhausted as I did. Their kids clung to them, whereas mine would even wince when I picked him up. Was I a bad mother? Did I just have a particularly challenging child? Did my son and I simply not click, and if so, how on earth were we going to manage another 16+ years of living under the same roof together? But it got better. I can’t tell you exactly when or how. It was a gradual thing. I’m not sure there was anything I/we even did, really. It was just time, and the natural evolution of maturing and growing up (for both of us).

These days, Jackson’s love and adoration for both his parents seems pretty equal, though between you and me and everyone else reading this, he will sometimes say: “I love Mom the best! Mom is the best parent ever! I love Mom even more than Dad.” Remembering how rejected I felt three years ago when Jackson so obviously preferred his dad over me, I feel two things when I hear comments like this: relief for myself and protectiveness for Drew. He’s such an amazing dad, and I don’t want him to feel the way I felt. I know he doesn’t though. I know he knows what it took me a little while to learn: What kids say isn’t always what they feel. And what they feel in a given moment isn’t necessarily what they feel all the time or even in the next moment. Plus, we have another toddler now, and guess who her favorite is? Good ol’ Dad! Joanie, though, is a different kid than Jackson is, I’m a different mom than I was a few years ago, and my relationship with her feels warm, affectionate, and loving. I never doubt her need and love for me. And, in a lot of ways, the strength of the relationship I have with her is thanks to Jackson and the learning and growing I did parenting him through his early years. He was a great teacher for me!

I enjoy a strong and loving connection with Jackson now. I like him a lot, and I think the feeling in mutual. He’s one of the most unique people I’ve ever had the privilege to know, and to get to be his mom and watch him grow up is such an honor. We still have our struggles sometimes. He still annoys me on occasion and pushes my buttons (he knows them so well); I still behave in ways I regret later. I’m not a perfect mom, but I do think I’m pretty good, and when Jackson says he thinks I’m the best, I know that’s his way of reassuring me I’m doing ok.

To think back on where we were and how far we’ve come is very rewarding. Jackson’s at an age now, and is such a thoughtful kid, that — can you believe this? — he actually thanks me for doing those tedious things we primary caregivers do the most: packing his lunch, doing his laundry, taking him to school and his various activities, cooking his dinner. And let me tell you, at the end of another day full of these mindless, usually thankless chores, to hear my 5-year-old say, “Thanks for making my lunch today, Mom — it was really good!” is such a salve on my weariness, and it gives me the little boost I need to finish my chores for the next day.

Your feelings are not “silly.” They’re real and they’re ok. Of course you feel a little rejected that your child, whom you sacrifice and do so much for, seems to prefer your spouse. That is a normal and natural reaction. But so is your child’s behavior. It’s normal and natural to long for the parent you don’t get to see as much as the one who’s home the most. As time progresses and your child matures, there will be swings in this preference. Sometimes you will get to be the Chosen One, and sometimes it will be your husband. Maybe you’ll have another child one day, which will further change the fluid dynamics of the family.

As I said earlier, there’s not a whole lot of concrete advice I can offer except to give this time and to continue loving your child with as much ease as you can find. And take care of yourself. When you’re feeling low and like your domestic efforts are unnoticed or unappreciated and like you’re practically invisible, that’s when you know you need a break. Get out and do something just for yourself: see friends, take a weekend getaway, go watch a movie, sign up for a weekly evening class doing something you love or always wanted to try. You need to remember who you are as a person, and who you are as a woman, besides being a mom and a wife. The moments of renewal — and sanity! — will give you the strength to get through the more draining parts of your life. I’m also a fan of tequila.

***************

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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at [email protected].

12 comments… add one
  • avatar

    csp March 20, 2017, 9:55 am

    LW – My son was like this with my husband. To the point if I did something like clean his nose or change his diaper and he didn’t want it, he would scream out “DaDa” for my husband to save him from me. Then one day, it switched dramatically and now he is all about me. My husband the other night asked me “What do you think I did to make him not like me anymore.” That kind of broke my heart too. Just try your best to not take it personally. Keep loving him and maybe try to take a little extra time for fun and less for chores. That would be good for both your souls. This will pass.

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  • Lianne

    Lianne March 20, 2017, 9:56 am

    Love this letter and response. Being a parent these almost ten months (!) has been the most rewarding and challenging times of my life. While my husband and I both work outside of the home, my job requires travel and dinners, etc., which have me outside of the home more regularly and frequently than my husband. There are times when my son seems to prefer my husband and I get so jealous! It makes me wonder if I should find a new job or not go out for that happy hour on a Friday night when I just NEED a break. But, then I remember that we’re both his parents and he’s so loved and what a wonderful thing that is. Being out for a few hours, or even away for a night or two isn’t going to break the bond that I have with my son. Just like your son, seemingly preferring his dad to you doesn’t break YOUR bond with him. When I am feeling less optimistic, it helps me to reframe the thought as, “my son is so lucky to have two adoring, present, caring parents. Not all kids are this fortunate!” Hang in there, mama!

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  • avatar

    Vathena March 20, 2017, 10:19 am

    The whole time I was reading this, I was thinking, “This mom sounds like she needs a BREAK!” I wholeheartedly concur with Wendy’s response, and especially the last paragraph. You need to have some time away too. Just as it’s important to maintain an identity outside of the relationship with your spouse or partner, it’s important to have an identity apart from your child. That’s especially difficult when they’re babies and toddlers, but becomes easier with time. (I remember going to a party when my daughter was 7mo, and I really struggled to make non-baby-related small talk!) You may feel better about getting the occasional cold shoulder from your kid if you are not hanging your whole self-worth on being Mom.

    My daughter is now almost 4 and is in a very prolonged pro-Mommy phase. She’s not anti-Daddy but clearly prefers me, and has for months. As the current preferred parent, I can say that’s not much of a picnic either. It’s exhausting! She wants me to play with her constantly, and the only way I can get her to “let” me make dinner or do anything else is bribery with the dreaded Screen Time. So you probably have that to look forward to…!

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  • Skyblossom

    Skyblossom March 20, 2017, 10:50 am

    I think sometimes it comes down to the child just needing more time with the parent that they don’t see much and so they try demanding it. Your child gets lots of time with you and so doesn’t need to demand it. Part of the situation is also your frame of mind. You are taking your child needing daddy time as rejection of you and it probably is just your child needing daddy time, nothing more and nothing less. If the child demands dad and he is there consider yourself on a break and relax and enjoy the time dad spends with your child. Sooner or later your child will be demanding the time from you and you won’t get these breaks. If you can reframe these times in your mind from rejection or second favorite parent to some well deserved, well earned free time I think it can make a big difference. You’ve met your child’s need for mommy time so enjoy a little time off when they demand daddy.

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    • avatar

      SpaceySteph March 20, 2017, 11:52 am

      Aw this is a really nice way to think of it. It does sound like a “give them the opportunity to miss you” situation– they prefer daddy because they miss him all day, and they don’t really have an opportunity to miss you because you are the primary caregiver. So when daddy gets home and then run to him, there’s your opportunity to take a shower in peace, or some other me-time. Consider even like a once-a-week workout class or girl’s night… something, that gets you out of the house.

      And don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because your husband goes to work all day that he should get to relax after work while you keep doing everything. You’re not (as my mother would say) sitting on the couch eating bonbons all day.

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  • avatar

    findingtheearth March 20, 2017, 12:06 pm

    My daughter is 4 and there are times she tells me she loves Grandma or Grandpa best (I’m a single parent). I just smile and say “They love you lots!” I know she doesn’t mean to hurt my feelings, but sometimes, especially on the tough days, it does.

    Hugs mama. And I echo the sentiment above – go out and spend sometime away. Take a “mom afternoon” and do something you really enjoy and don’t get to spend a lot of time on. You deserve it!

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  • avatar

    Ale March 20, 2017, 12:12 pm

    The whole time I was reading this I felt that there are some hidden feelings about LW’s husband’s involvement that the LW is not talking about. Like maybe she feels resentment that Dad is not as hands-on, therefore doesn’t deserve the attention.

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  • avatar

    Brise March 20, 2017, 1:20 pm

    Don’t set the situation in “preference” terms. Let you chid navigate between the two of you, and don’t even think in terms of preference. Children need to be able to oppose in order to define their own identity. You are more present, your husband is less, that explains a lot: your toddler needs more independence regarding you, and more time from your husband. Then it will go to the next phase. What is important is that the child feels your love, and your husbands, and a non-dramatic reaction to his phases.
    Anyway, later, your teenager will reject you both, and then somehow emulate you both, while accepting you both as you are.
    Everything is normal!

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  • avatar

    RedRoverRedRover March 20, 2017, 1:35 pm

    LW, I hear you. This “phase” lasted almost 2 years with my son. And it wasn’t just a preference, it was an outright dislike of me. To the point where if he cried at night and I went into his room, he’d scream “I don’t want mommy, I want daddy!”. Or when he came home from daycare and saw me he’d say “I don’t want mommy here, I want her to leave”. Like, I literally felt like he hated me.

    I think it came about because we had a ton of change all at once – we moved and had to temporarily stay at the old daycare, which meant a 1/2 hour drive each way, which he hated; I’d started a new job with longer hours and had that on top of sorting the move and the extra two hours of driving to daycare so I was very stressed and had no free time; I got pregnant and showed very early and my stomach “pushed” my son out of my lap after about 3 months, etc. And then when the baby came she was extremely difficult for the first 4 months, and she and I basically “disappeared” from my son’s life. I barely saw him for those whole 4 months.

    It was awful. He wouldn’t hug me. He wouldn’t even look me in the eye. If he did, you could feel a distance there. It broke my heart. And like I said, we had 2 years of this. It was also very hard on my husband because it left so much of the childcare to him, because my son wouldn’t let me do a lot of it. Anyway, it did pass eventually. He’s even occasionally said “I don’t want daddy”, and he now cries for me when my husband is being tough with him. Not that that’s a good thing, just goes to show that he loves us both to the point that he’s fine playing one of us off the other, lol. He still loves daddy more, but I’m just so happy to be part of his life again that I don’t mind. It’ll pass. Just keep loving him, there’s not much else you can do.

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  • avatar

    dinoceros March 20, 2017, 3:48 pm

    It’s going to fluctuate over the years and depending on your child’s personality, and what’s going on in their life at the time. Most likely, if you were the parent that your child saw the most, you’d be the “favorite” right now. Kids take for granted that they see their mommy (or daddy in some cases) ALL THE TIME, and when there’s a parent they see less, it becomes more of a novelty.

    This isn’t a toddler thing, but when I was a child, my mom and I didn’t get along. She made a comment once about how I was so good for my dad, but not for her. But it was honestly because I found my dad to be really stern and scary and felt like being snarky around him would probably not end up in a good place. My mom perceived some deeper meaning to it, but it was just because I was around her more and saw her more as a person than some authoritarian figure.

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    • avatar

      dinoceros March 20, 2017, 3:50 pm

      And I’ll also say, my dad worked out of state when I was a baby, so I cried when he tried to hold me. My mom in theory could have relished being the favorite, but instead, she had to deal with a screaming baby and no time to herself. Count your blessings that your kid hasn’t insisted that you’re the only one who they want to see, so that you can have time to yourself without a huge commotion.

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  • avatar

    Morecoffeeplease March 21, 2017, 5:46 am

    I remember my son saying things like I only love Daddy. I don’t like you Mommy. I love Daddy. Or if he was being naughty and had consequences he would say I don’t like you anymore! When he was 3.5 he would even yell out he hated me. He went through both a Daddy phase and a Mommy phase. But then he grew a bit and matured and stopped. He is 13 now and is a great kid! My daughter only went through a I love Mommy More phase. She would say that out loud to my husband. Poor guy! She outgrew it.

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