If you relate to the title of this blog, you're not alone. Parent preference is something that so many families deal with. Here's our experience and a few things that helped make it easier at home.
My baby and I enjoyed that special mother-daughter bond. I felt overwhelming love every time I looked at her, and it genuinely felt like I could understand what she was communicating to me through her cries and expressions, long before she could talk.
My husband, on the other hand, struggled to feel that same closeness. He was often baffled when she would scream till she became red in the face, and would get triggered to anger by what seemed to be unreasonable demands.
By the time our daughter was a toddler, we had a well-established pattern of parent preference. My daughter wanted me for everything: from bathtime to bedtime to fetching a glass of water or helping her with her shoes. My husband felt rejected and I was becoming exhausted by constantly having to be the sole caregiver.
One day, I was out for dinner with some girlfriends and talk turned, as it always does, to kids and spouses. I remember ranting about how tired I was, how I wished my husband could take on more, how I wished he and my daughter enjoyed a better relationship. Then my friend turned to me and asked me point-blank, "Well, does he actually want to help?" To which I replied, well sure. Then she asked me "And do you think he loves her?" And I replied, of course!
The next words she said had a profound impact on my perspective. She said, "Oh, then it's your problem - not his problem".
At first, I was completely offended. Of course, I wasn't the problem! If only my daughter would be ok with my husband caring for her, or if only my husband was better at communicating with her, we wouldn't be struggling with parent preference, right?
I later realised that my response and guilt over stepping away had inadvertently contributed to the situation. If any of this sounds familiar, don't despair - we've since enjoyed more equal parent-child time and here's what you need to know.
If you're the 'rejected' parent:
Try to control negative feelings
I know it can be hurtful and triggering when your beloved child shouts "don't want you, want mummy!". Know that your child expressing a preference for the other parent is not an indication that she doesn't love you, so try not to take it personally. In fact, it's also a sign that she feels safe enough with you to express herself so strongly.
Hold the boundary with kindness
There will inevitably be times when the preferred parent is unavailable or needs a break. You can confidently hold the boundary with kindness. This might sound like, “I know you wish Mummy was here to read you a bedtime story, but today she is out so I will be reading to you tonight”.
And when big feelings come up in response to this, simply accept and support them with your calm presence. Every time you can hold this boundary calmly and confidently, it gets easier the next time.
Intentionally build connection
Often (but not always), children tend to prefer the parent who is their main caregiver. You can intentionally build and strengthen the connection with your child. This could look like committing to being fully present at breakfast or joining them in one of their favourite activities. The key is not to force meaningful connection to happen, but to simply be present and enjoy them, trusting that the relationship will develop over time.
If you're the 'preferred parent':
Have faith in your partner
Trust that your partner is a capable and loving parent. Don't expect them to do things the same way you do. It's alright if you change diapers differently or have different opinions about meal choices. Just remember that you're two individuals with different ways of interacting with your child.
State your limit with confidence
Be clear about your own limits and be confident about asking for what you need, like when you need to do something else or just need a break.
Don't ask your child's permission or try to convince them to accept the other parent. Be calm and firm without wavering i.e. "I need to go out for a meeting. Papa will take care of you and I'll see you in 2 hours."
Get out of the way
Give both your child and the other parent time and space to work through it together. It can be helpful to physically remove yourself so that your partner has space to handle things on their own.
Encourage and commit to designated activities for your partner to do with your child i.e. bathtime, changing or reading a book together before bed. In my case, I decided that I needed 10 minutes to run every morning and that could be special father-daughter time where they would go on their own walks. Then I would literally run away and leave them to it.
One final note, be sure to distinguish between want and need.
While your child may want you in every situation - do they really need you to be the one to help them button their shirt while you're on the toilet or can Papa do it just as well?
Ultimately, there is nothing cruel about allowing the non-preferred parent and your child to have time and space to deepen their relationship while you take the time you need for yourself.