When Your Toddler Prefers One Parent More Than The Other

by Amber Leventry

When my first child was born, I couldn’t breathe. I mean, I could and I did, but suddenly it felt hard to do things just for myself. With so much awe and love already in my chest for my child, it felt wrong to think about myself anymore. How could I breathe when this magical creature relied on me to be her everything? The lump in my throat told me I was ready to give up everything for her.

Fast forward about 10 months, and I couldn’t even give her a sippy cup. Nothing I did was good enough for my precious baby, the one I had vowed to stop breathing for. I couldn’t soothe her, help her, stand too close to her, or even look at her. She only had eyes for my partner. We were in the thick of what friends told us was the “Mommy Phase.” But in a house with two mamas, this defied logic. I was Mama too, damn it!

This is a common thing, and at the time, I was not the right mama. I blamed it on the fact that I did not carry said baby in my body, nor was she pulled from my womb. And while I was very good at providing middle of the night bottles, my boobs were useless to her. There was something primal in her attachment to my partner, and I was not going to break the spell.

For months, I felt completely rejected. I tried not to let the tantrums of a young toddler define my worth as a parent. When she ran screaming from me to claw her way into the bathroom where my partner was trying to poop, I tried not to take it personally. When she screamed “Mama!” and ran at and then past me to get to my partner, I did my best not to feel like my heart had been ripped from my chest.

And it’s not like my partner exactly cherished this preferred status. Sure, the attention and affection from our child was nice. But since we had always shared kid-related duties, it was a slap in the face for her to now have to do all of the things. Unless we wanted the wrath and tears of our child, my partner had to bathe her, rock her, and hand her the proper dinner fork. My partner was rightfully annoyed and frustrated with always being the on-duty parent.

I looked to my father-in-law for advice. I wanted to know if he or my mother-in-law had experienced this kind of preferential treatment by my partner and her brother. He said he had. His kids had disowned him for periods of time too.

“Well, how did you handle it? What did you do?” I asked him, hoping his wisdom and experience would help.

“I played tennis,” he told me without missing a beat. “What was I supposed to do?”

Gee, thanks, Dad.

But he was right. There wasn’t anything I could do but wait. Eventually, just as quickly as she seemed to hate me, my daughter loved me again. It was like she had finally let go of a big fight I didn’t realize we’d had. I had somehow said the right thing to earn her forgiveness.

The same thing happened with our twins a few years later. By that time my daughter had shifted her focus to me and managed to wrap me around her little finger. It was like she already knew that her other mama was going to be very full with the needs and love for her twin siblings. It’s not that my partner had less love for our first born when the twins came along, but loving the second and third babies is different. It’s hard. Your heart expands and makes room for each child, but it’s not always love at first sight.

We brought our twins home from the hospital the same day we moved into a new house. My breasts were once again useless, and my three-year-old daughter, the one who had refused to let me hold her, now wouldn’t let me put her down. I struggled to connect with my new babies, but I worried a bit less about my ability to love and be loved by them. I also knew they would eventually despise me for a period of time too.

And they did. Right around their first birthday, I couldn’t do anything right for or by them. I was once again the non-preferred parent, but this time I was also the stay-at-home parent.

For about six months, my twins would cry and scream and cling to my partner as she tried to get out of the house to take my daughter to preschool and herself to work. It made me feel like shit, but it was mostly just annoying because it was loud and unnecessary. Once my partner was gone, my twins picked themselves up and we went about our day.

But you know what? When the other mama came home and all of the sacrifices and fun and love I provided throughout the day were forgotten by my twin toddlers, I didn’t care as much. I knew they would come back around eventually. I didn’t play tennis, but with a little experience I knew to take advantage of my time without kids attached to me. Because just like the first time, a switch was flipped and my twins suddenly showed me that the attachment was always there.

So if you are feeling the pangs of being snubbed by your toddler or overwhelmed with frustration because you are the center of your toddler’s universe, have no fear: You are not alone. This is normal toddler behavior. Yes, it’s annoying, but totally normal.