Care and Feeding

My Daughter Strongly Prefers Me Over Her Dad

Will that ever change?

A mom with daughter in her lap reading a book.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Our 5-year-old has had a very strong preference for me, her mother, since forever. I have been primary caretaker her whole life, and when I am working (I’m a freelancer) she is great with Dad taking over the primary duties. My husband is an incredible father—endlessly patient, playful, emotionally present, and supportive. He is crushing it. And yet she REALLY prefers me. She kisses and snuggles me all the time, volunteers “I love you” to me on the regular, writes me notes about missing me when I’m working, and so on. She misses her dad when he travels for work (which is—or was—often) but it’s not the same intensity. The other night they were playing and she told him she loves him “10 and loves Mama 100.” His response was to say how lucky we all are to love each other but it’s starting to (understandably) wear on him.

I keep telling him that soon enough she will want nothing to do with me because adolescence comes for us all, but he just can’t imagine that ever happening. For the most part, she gets equal amounts of time with us day to day. She does things with both of us separately and the two of them even have games and jokes they share that are just for them. But it is still very clear that if I’m around, then he is chopped liver. What can we do? Do we just keep on keeping on and trust that things shift? Her actions show us that she is attached to and feels safe with us both but there is no question that her words and her constant need to be in my presence puts him at a disadvantage. Are we reading too much into the words of a 5-year-old or is there a way to address this imbalance?

—Beloved Mama and a Tolerated Dad

Dear Beloved,

I feel for your husband. Nobody wants to be loved 10 when it is plain that there is 100 love to be given. But I do think you need to keep on keeping on. Lots of kids prefer one parent, even when both are loving and utterly emotionally available. Who knows why? Maybe she’s more like you than she is like him; maybe she’s more like him and therefore drawn to you (yin to yang). And things will likely shift at some point (and they may shift back and forth, too). But even if they don’t—even if your daughter loves and trusts you both her whole life long but prefers your company to his—I would try to reframe your (and his) thinking about this. She’s not “putting him at a disadvantage.” She’s expressing her feelings. And honestly her continued stated preference for you might be an expression of feelings that are more complicated than “I like Mama better.” She might be testing him. She might be testing you. She might be trying, in the only way she knows, to keep the status quo (you mention that you’ve been her primary caretaker since the beginning and that Dad sometimes takes over “primary duties”; maybe she wants to make sure things don’t change now—or too quickly—as she’s getting older).

I wonder too what exactly you mean by “primary caretaker” when she spends equal time with both of you: If this means that you are the one who nearly always prepares and serves her meals, bathes her, gets up to start the day with her, and puts her to bed, it would be unsurprising that she expresses a preference for you. Perhaps he could rise to the occasion of co-primary caretaker and regularly take charge of some of these. (Now would be a particularly good time for this, given the circumstances of all of our lives currently.)

But if I am misunderstanding your use of “primary,” if he is already taking an active part in the care (and not just the play) of your daughter, I don’t think anything either of you can do or say will “fix” this (and I put the word in quotes because, honestly, things aren’t exactly broken—things sound pretty good).

I understand that her dad’s feelings are hurt, but it would be great if he could find a way to rise above this. Instead of letting it wear on him, can he find a way to be lighthearted about it even as he takes it in stride? The one thing you (he) will not want to do is give your daughter the message that it’s her responsibility to make him feel worthy. That’s too much to put on a child. When she tells him she loves him 10 and loves you 100, could he cheerfully say, “Cool. I love you a 1,000—no, 10,000,” and keep going about his business? And then when the two of you are alone, you can help with that bruised ego problem, reassuring him about what a good dad he is, and reminding him that this is not abnormal behavior for a child in any case (see below).

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am the nongestational parent in a two-mom family. My daughter is 2½, and she is great, and I am trying to figure out how to be the best parent to her I can, but I am stuck on something. She has always preferred her other mom. Since she was very tiny, she was more easily soothed by her mama, and these days that is who she wants when she is tired/cranky/overwhelmed/anything. That’s not to say that everything is easy with them (she is 2½—it’s a hard age to be), or that my daughter and I don’t have sweet times together too. But the preference is clear and I feel very bad about it. And the feelings of grief or inadequacy I have about this are amplified by the reality that I had to adopt her to be totally legally square (second-parent adoption is still necessary here even if you’re on the birth certificate!) and that some extended family members don’t totally think of me as her parent.

When I feel especially bad, I talk to my wife and my therapist and I read articles online that say things like “don’t take it personally” and “manage your feelings elsewhere and not at your kid” and “you are the parent your child needs,” and all of this seems like good advice, but I still feel like hot garbage sometimes. Do kids always like one parent better than the other? Does it stay that way forever? Is she just toddlering superhard? Are her distancing behaviors secretly a sign that she’s securely attached like the books say? I know she has a special relationship with her mama (who is a great parent), but I don’t want to be second fiddle parent until she goes to college and we get a puppy who wants to be around me because I feed it bacon.

—Weepy in Winnemucca

Dear Weepy,

No, kids don’t always prefer one parent. But lots of them do. It usually doesn’t stay this way forever (though sometimes it does). And all the advice you’ve been reading is good advice, but that doesn’t make it any easier to bear, does it? The problem with giving parenting advice is that it’s all about putting the child’s needs ahead of their parents—which is precisely what good parents do—but the sticky, never-ending problem of being a parent is that we are human beings with needs and terrible insecurities of our own, and parenting tends to shine a harsh light on some (and maybe all) of these.

Nobody really knows why some kids gravitate toward one parent. There are some theories, of course. One is that it’s a way for children to demonstrate that there is something they are in charge of. There’s precious little that kids as young as yours, or as Beloved’s 5-year-old, have in their control (which is why I have always been a noisy advocate for allowing them to have control over things that matter to them that are not, in fact, important, such as letting them wear whatever the hell they want to wear, whether it matches or not, whether you think it’s occasion-appropriate or not, and thus not turning getting dressed in the morning into a battle of wills). Getting to choose which parent comforts her when she’s cranky may be fulfilling your toddler’s need to make her own choices (i.e., toddlering superhard, as you say). And you already know that one theory is that children will only reject a parent to whom they feel securely attached—that some children will cling harder to the parent to whom they feel the need to “perform” love. I’ve mentioned some theories of my own in my letter to Beloved.

The main thing for you to deal with here is your own insecurity and grief. I’m glad you have a therapist to talk to about this. I hope you’re looking at whether, and how, this experience with your daughter may be stirring up old hurts, needs of your own that weren’t met in your childhood, and other painful feelings. This moment with your daughter may pass, and it may come and go. Your wife may have to deal with her own hurt feelings at some point, when and if your daughter suddenly pivots to you. (And I can tell you that as the preferred parent during my daughter’s childhood, there can also be a lot of guilt and anxiety—and exhaustion—around that.)

Like everything else about parenting, one has to learn to roll with the punches. But while you’re rolling, and keeping your eye on the prize—your child’s well-being, her healthy growth, and your support of it—you need to take care of yourself, too. I know this is easier said than done. Spend some time thinking about what you need. You’re not going to get it from your daughter (this might sound obvious, but I fear that we often forget that our needs are not meant to be fulfilled by our children). Your task for yourself is to find out how to meet your needs—and how to make peace with those that cannot be met.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 2½-year-old decided a few weeks ago that he prefers his father to me. While I understand this is totally normal behavior, and I could cope with it when he was going to day care and we were both going to work, it feels impossible to deal with while we are all social distancing and are at home together all day. His father and I are both working from home, taking turns, and while it’s fine when I go upstairs to work, when his father does, he’ll tell me, “Go away, Mama,” and, “Don’t talk, Mama.” I have to pick him up and physically prevent him from chasing after his father. I’m completely emotionally exhausted from the pressures of my job, the anxiety about the state of the world, and the normal struggles of trying to keep sane while staying home, and now I am really struggling with how to be a kind, loving parent while my kid is pushing me away and refusing to speak to me. What is the appropriate response? His father saying, “Be nice to Mama” and trying to force him to hug me only makes me feel worse. On the other hand, my husband can’t be the sole caregiver for our kid. He needs a break, too. How do we get our toddler to stop practicing social distance from me?

—Rejected in the Pandemic

Dear Rejected,

As you can see, you are far from alone (spiritually, anyway) in this. And my heart truly goes out to you. These are such hard times all around, and being constantly rejected by the small person you love most must feel unbearable.

Some of what I’ve said to Beloved and Weepy may be useful to you. For your particular circumstances, though, I have a few thoughts to add. One is that this just started. This really suggests that it’s a developmental phase, one that fits nicely into the whole toddler assertion-of-will period. Another is that this really may be one of those situations in which secure attachment is being (aggressively) demonstrated—in other words, he knows you love him no matter what and feels confident he can afford to treat you badly. As I’ve said above, though, reminding yourself of this won’t necessarily help when you’re nursing your own hurt feelings. It also doesn’t help with the practical problem of your husband needing a break. (I’ve been suppressing the urge to recommend a wonderful novella by Jane Smiley, The Age of Grief,  in which a child attaches herself to her father and refuses to allow her mother near her for a time—but I can’t suppress it any more. It’s so good. And a quite good movie adaption, written by Craig Lucas and directed by Alan Rudolph, exists, too—with the dreadful title The Secret Lives of Dentists—although it is sadly not streaming anywhere. But given the entertainment needs we all have right now, I hereby suggest buying the DVD as well as the book.)

Unfortunately, there’s not much I can offer you in the way of getting your toddler to change his behavior. Anyone who tells you they can make a toddler change their behavior is either lying or employing some very dubious methods. But I will say this much: While your husband urging your child to “be nice to Mama” is absolutely not going to help matters, it might help if he, from time to time, 1) intentionally tried reverse psychology on your toddler, who is just the right age to fall for it (and who is only being egged on in his meanness toward you when he’s told to be nice), and 2) mentioned some specific activity that you and your son have recently engaged in together and that he’s enjoyed. The latter would have to be done both casually and sneakily: “I wish I were as good as Mama is at building with blocks/making a collage/playing pretend/dancing”—something along those lines, to remind your son how much fun you are and how much he’s missing out on. This may or may not work (and anything that works won’t work all the time). It also may or may not work if you loudly announce that you’re going to make cookies and it’s going to be so much fun but you absolutely do not need any help—or that you’re going to take a walk and you do not want any company. But it’s worth a shot.

And if none of this works and your husband, like the husband in the Jane Smiley story, really is the only one who will do for a while, I think you two—like Beloved and her husband and Weepy and her wife—are just going to have to deal. So much of parenting, really, is just having to deal.

—Michelle

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