Thursday, August 27, 2009

When your toddler prefers one parent

Last week, Gail and I got some time to spend just with Leigh. Grandma (Gail's mom) spent a few hours with Ira while we both took Leigh downtown for a carousel ride and lunch. We had a wonderful time, just the three of us like old times, and noticed two things.
  1. Wow is it ever easier to go out with one kid than with two!
  2. In all of the late-pregnancy-early-infant chaos, Leigh has developed a bit of a preference for Gail.
Like all parents, we've been down this road before. At 6 months Leigh developed a strong preference for me and would cry if I was in the room and not holding her. During early toddlerhood she favored Gail, often in inconvenient ways, like insisting that only Ima could put her shoes on or take her to the potty or push the stroller name it. This latest preference isn't on the scale of either of those previous times. It's not taking the form of outright rejection of me, but rather as a kind of warmth between Gail and Leigh, which in and of itself is absolutely delightful.

During our trip downtown, Leigh wanted to hold Gail's hand a lot. She preferred that Gail to ride the carousel with her, but didn't object when I rode with her on the second ride. But being out without the baby, and seeing the strength of their relationship right now made me realize that I have some work to do. I wrote before about how late pregnancy, particularly with all of the health concerns and my lack of sleep, was hard on my relationship with Leigh. Things have gotten better between us since Ira was born. Truly, even with the newborn sleep hit, I am in a much better place now and have many more resources for her. Since things have been better, I thought we were back to our old form, but now I realize we aren't quite there.

What do you do when a child who prefers one parent to the other? Anything? The usual advice given by many is is that you just need to ride it out, wait for long enough, and the "preference" will fade or tip the other way. But both of these previous times that Leigh developed a strong preference, we didn't find that was the case. We waited. And we waited. And the constant squabbles with Leigh over who was going to do what really started to take a toll. We felt like our only choices were
  1. to let her choose completely who did what, but then one of us felt completely run ragged (especially during her toddler Ima-kick), or
  2. to insist that she could not control everything, sometimes requiring she accept care from the non-preferred parent, leading to a giant tantrum which then led back to letting her control everything.
It wasn't pleasant for anyone, so we decided that the conventional wait-it-out advice was not for our family.

For the 6 month separation anxiety, we were already planning for Gail to spend more time with Leigh that semester, and that naturally helped to smooth things out. The toddler preference was a bigger fish to fry. Our friends Marc and Amy have written about this, about how in their family, they work hard not to let toddler whims govern their parenting. Inspired by them, after waiting-it-out failed, and we felt our whole family spinning into frustration and disarray, we drew some parental limits. We decided to work on the morning routine first, and trade off who would get Leigh dressed. Come hell or high water, when it was my day to dress her, she would either let me put her clothes on, or she would not get dressed, and she couldn't do any fun stuff until she was dressed. We explained to her that in our family, both Mama and Ima take care of her, because we both love her a lot, and because if one of us does everything that person gets tired and crabby. We told her clearly about the new morning routine, and she understood. She already understood something similar because we have always traded off bedtimes.

But my first morning to get her dressed, it was meltdown city. She was screaming and crying for "IMA IMA IMA!!!". We had decided that in this case, I would take a break so I could keep an even keel, so I headed to the porch for my own parental time out. As Leigh continued to wail and gnash her teeth, at first Gail ignored her, but then as the demands escalated, she explained to Leigh, again, that Mama was going to put on her clothes. Another uptick in the screaming, and Gail said that she was not going to dress her, flat out. Finally Leigh got it. Once she knew this was truly not negotiable, she came out to the porch, and handed me her shirt. I got her dressed. We had a recovery snuggle.

And that was it. One awful morning and we had broken out of the vicious cycle that was leaving our whole family miserable. Since then, we have talked a lot with her about how Mama and Ima both take care of her.

Our current situation is nothing like her previous demands. It's not really problematic that she and Gail are close right now, because she is much more flexible than she was at one and a half, and accepts care from me just fine. I certainly don't feel threatened that she and Gail are close right now, and I'm tremendously grateful she had such a strong relationship with Gail to rely on when I was less available to her. But neither Gail nor I want this to become the "new normal." So to this end, for the last week or two, I've been taking care to take time just with Leigh. We've had some pool trips and some park trips, just the two of us. And you know? I think that's all it took. She's been coming to me for snuggles spontaneously and just yesterday said to me that she thought I should spend the day with her (it was Gail's day home, so I told her I'd spend time with her on Thursday, and that seemed fine with her). She's sometimes been asking to pull her chair next to mine at dinner, once even explaining that "Today, I want to sit close to Mama. Ima, I'll sit close to you at breakfast, OK?"


Cindy said...

I love your commitment to equal parenting!

One other idea is for the "favored" parent to invite the other parent to join in whatever they are doing. So, for instance, in the getting dressed example, Gail could say, "Oh, seems like it's important for you to have me get you dressed today. I will do that, but I need Mama to help me. So let's have her come here and we can tell her how to help." and then (to Mama), "Do you think that you could put on Leigh's shirt while I get her shoes and socks ready?"

Of course, this doesn't always work just like the other techniques, but it's another option to try.

One thing that D tried the other day when our son E was demanding me to get him into PJs was saying, "But I AM Ima," speaking in a higher voice. They turned it into a game with him putting on my headbands and they both ended up giggling. And D did put on the PJs without me. Humor helps a lot.

Amy said...

That Leigh is a smart cookie! She figured out that good times come from two sources, and...really...why miss out on either? Strong work, G and L!

oneofhismoms said...

Kudos. I find this part of parenting very tricky.

Lex said...

We've experienced this nearly from the start of our mothering journey. One of our twins preferred my wife at bedtime, and the other preferred me, basically from birth. I think it was probably helpful that we were each being preferred by one of them--no one was feeling especially rejected--and we never really made a big deal out of it. Over the years, all of our older three kids have gone through phases of preferring one or the other of us. I'm not sure that it's ever gotten as severe as what you describe with Leigh . . . I can't remember any tantrums about this specific issue . . . but we've definitely heard plenty of, "NO! I want Mama!" or "I'm not talking to YOU, Mama, only MOM!" We do find that when only one parent is home, regardless of who is the preferred mother of the moment, it's never an issue; the kids do wonderfully with each of us one-on-one (or one-on-four). We generally see these sorts of demands ("I only want Mama to put me in my car seat!") to simply be a toddler's attempt at gaining some sort of control over a largely parent-dictated existence, and while we never give in to ANY demands our children make, we're usually happy to compromise if someone is making a kind request. Of course, there are lines drawn. Sometimes a certain parent has to push the stroller, and if that's not the parent the kid wants pushing, he's out of luck. We try to respond with humor and keep things light. Playful parenting is SO helpful in the toddler years!

Our nearly-3-year-old has been preferring me since my wife gave birth to our fourth baby a couple months ago. We've been reacting much the way you guys have, trying to increase the amount of time my wife and 2-year-old spend together (having her bring him to and pick him up from preschool has been especially helpful). We also recognize that this is a huge transition for him--becoming a big brother, losing his spot as the baby of the family--and so we don't push it when he's tired/hungry and only wants me. We know, from our experience with our older sons, that there will be just as many times in the future when he prefers my wife over me. This too shall certainly pass.