How to Respond When a Child Prefers One Parent (And It’s Not You!)

My eighteen month-old toddler Clare prefers her daddy more than me.

There it is. In black-and-white for all to see. A public indictment of my mothering skills.

How to Respond When a Child Prefers One Parent
C: “What’s she doing here?”
H: “Just ignore her and maybe she’ll go away.”

For the last month, Henry’s been getting up with Clare in the morning so I can sleep like the gestating manatee that I am. Last Tuesday, as Henry leaped from the bed at Clare’s first yammer, I said, “No, no, honey, let me go in.”

He looked disappointed and a little … I don’t know … territorial. Hmm. Strange.

I waddled into Clare’s room, and upon seeing my face her smile faltered then she let out a howl. “What’s wrong?” I thought, “Is she sick? Did her little foot get pinched in the crib slats? Is a one-eyed maniac standing right behind me with a scythe?”

Then she cried, “I want daddy … I want daddyyy!”

“What is this strange language my child is speaking?” I wondered. “‘Da-deee.’ Is that Cantonese? Mandarin? A rare Botswanian dialect?”

“Don’t worry, I got it,” said a deep voice behind me.

I spun around to see Henry standing in the doorframe, a look of concern (or was it accusation?) on his face.

“Daaadddyyyyy!” Clare screamed, with hysteria-tinged joy.

They flew into each other’s arms like lovers separated by war reuniting on a train platform in Budapest. And was it my imagination, or did Clare peer over Henry’s shoulders and give me a “He’s mine woman. Scram!” look?

I left the room with the same gut-punched feeling I had when I caught my ex-firefighter boyfriend with a woman on his couch smoking weed at 3 a.m. and he introduced us to each other.

“Marly, this is Shannon, Shannon this is Marly.” “Glad to freakin’ meet you!”

Over the next week, the scene repeated each morning always ending with me slumping back to bed in defeat. Then it began happening when Henry came home from work at night. Clare would abide me and even pretend to like me during the day, but as soon as Henry walked in the front door she “cast my ruin upon the mountainside.”(Gandalf the Gray, Lord of the Rings).

I found myself competing with Henry; doing a bit of soft shoe, step-ball-change for Clare when we were alone so she’d think I was Fun Mommy.

I felt self-conscious, like I couldn’t just relax and be myself. Whatever that is! I slipped her dime-bags of jelly beans. Only the good stuff. No greens or yellows. Only the purest Himalayan reds.

After one particularly demoralizing incident at Ralphs (involving a shopping cart and who was allowed to lift Clare out of it – spoiler alert – it wasn’t me!), I left Clare and Henry in the checkout lane together and retreated to the mini-van like Quasimodo to the bell tower. I began to mentally sift through the wreckage of my relationship with my daughter, trying to figure out who was to blame.

Could it be me?

It was true, I’d let Henry get up with her in the morning for the last month or so due to my unrelenting insomnia and attractive bloating, but whenever I tried to get up Henry assured me he was happy to do it and that I should “just rest.”

Was it all an elaborate plot to replace me in Clare’s affections?

He was always so damned nurturing and kind, the friggin’ Mother Teresa of fathers, jumping in bouncy houses with her, pretending to be Mr. Noodle. 

Why couldn’t he be like the fathers from the patriarchal ’50s? Come home from “work” (aka: his secret second family), roll out the martini cart and hook himself to an alcohol IV while watching politics he thought “we women” wouldn’t understand?

Perhaps this was his wicked plan all along.

To use me as the vessel for his children then discard me once I’d served my purpose. That meant I had seventeen, maybe eighteen weeks at the outside in the current safe house.

Then I’d be on the lam again.

(Postscript: 15 Years Later!! Guess what? My girl and I have never been closer. What I realized when asked How to Respond When a Child Prefers One Parent is that it’s crucial to just wait.

Relationships ebb and flow, including the one with your child. Like every relationship there will be times you’re not as close and others when you are, without really having changed your approach. 

7 thoughts on “How to Respond When a Child Prefers One Parent (And It’s Not You!)”

  1. I've been there. It hurts. But, it changes. Then it changes back. Then back again. You'll always be the favorite mommy – so there's at least that.

  2. Why did you change the organization of your site? Now, I can’t find your daily blog entry. All I see is blog categories. Help!

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