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 firstname.lastname@example.org.