Parent Q&A: When kids prefer one parent, part 2: This time it’s personal

I wrote recently about how hard it is when children prefer one parent over another, acknowledging:

…how painful it is when our child is “just not that into us.” When the sight of us makes them cry and they scream for the other parent, as though we are terrifying and awful, it can break our hearts.  

I wasn’t being falsely conspiratorial when I stated, “I feel you on this one – no parent is immune.”

Indeed, I keep joking that my new name around here is “No, Mommy!”

Yep, my 2-year-old isn’t that into me right now (read, the past few months). If I try to collect her from her nap, change her diaper, or put her to sleep, hysterics ensue. A few weeks ago, when I was caring for her by myself, she shrieked in panic for nearly an hour. I kept telling myself what I tell the parents I work with, that strong emotions come and go, and hers would be no different.

Except she kept on going.

For an hour.   

Eventually I wound up turning on Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood to help her regulate her emotions, as she was clearly stuck in fight/flight overdrive. When the episode was over, she was fine and ready to reconnect, but I was still feeling upset and resentful that she had spent the entire afternoon we we were supposed to spend playing together screaming like I was a serial killer.

In other words, this is heartbreaking for me too, and sometimes I have no idea what I’m doing either.

Renowned Tavistock Clinic therapist Louise Emanuel, in a nod to child psychotherapist/analyst Margaret Rustin, noted that parents need to be to “helped to accept being hated as well as loved,” stating,

Only when [parents] feel supported by the therapist or helped to support each other, are they able to withstand the barrage of anger and hatred a small child can level at them.

I have to hold on to this wisdom for dear life when I’m on the receiving end of shrieks, being pushed away, or being told, “I don’t like mommy anymore.” Because, to tell you the truth, I’m getting tired of it. And it hurts. I want my cuddly little daughter back, and am a more than a little jealous of her recent superglue bond to her daddy.

My husband reminded me that, of the two of us, I’m the one who keeps taking comforting things away from her: my womb, my breast, my body.  “True,” I told him, “but your weanings are coming.”

You see, it’s not just mommies who wean their babies, and we’re not just weaning them off of the breast or bottle. My colleague Diane Reynolds offered some wisdom on this whole business during a recent training:

Weaning isn’t about your child no longer breastfeeding. It’s a series of separations between parent and child. It is not just one process. But for each time you wean, you have to find new ways of loving each other.

While I’ve certainly been the “weaner-in-chief” up to now, each day represents a small weaning for my daughter in terms of her relationship with both daddy and mommy. And she feels the pains and joys of that as keenly as we do. Each weaning, each separation, means a step away from dependency and into life as an independent person.  Each feeling expressed, each emphatic articulation of the first-person singular (“I want it!” “That’s mine!) is a decisive line in the sand demarcating two distinct territories where there used to be one.

And, as Diane pointed out, with each step we take away from one another, we must work to find new sources of love and joy.  I know that even though she doesn’t like me sometimes (and is well within her rights to tell me so), I am still mommy, the one and only. Groups of three objects (toy animals, fruits, crayons) are still the “mommy, daddy, and baby” things.  When we are out together, she clings close to me for safety and comfort. She tells her babysitter she wonders where I am and sometimes looks for me. When we all sit at the table for a meal, she beams and says, “Family!”

And I recognize that, in this age of rapidly developing toddler autonomy, my child is incredibly vocal about many things that she does not like.

I don’t like this song. It’s too scary.

I don’t like my creamy noodles (as she proceeds to eat more of them).

And, yes sometimes even, I don’t like daddy.

It’s so hard not to take all the dislike and rejection personally (and, as noted earlier, I do take it personally sometimes). And yet this is my job. To withstand the barrage of anger and hatred a small child can level at me.  So I withstand it, but how to respond?

Well, I try to be transparent about my own experience when holding her feelings – after all, I’m a person too, and both her daddy and I are modeling ways of handling myriad types of big feelings.  She shouldn’t be burdened by having to manage my reactions, but we are in a relationship together, albeit a hierarchical one (i.e., I’m a grownup. She is not.). I played around with it, and this response felt right to me. I said it to her today, and I imagine I’ll be saying it many more times before our weanings are through:

I hear you. You don’t like mommy right now. It makes me sad to hear that, and you are free to say it and feel it.  Sometimes you like mommy, sometimes you don’t. That’s okay. I love you even when you don’t like me, and even when I’m sad.

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