Parenting for the Perplexed: Mommyitis: when child prefers one parent over other

Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant who has been working with parents of very young children for more than 25 years. Send questions through her Facebook page: Parenting Counseling by Rachel Biale or via [email protected].

My daughter has recently put my husband in “herem” (a ban), and I am on duty 24/7. Bedtime, dressing, buckling her car seat, spreading jam on her toast: It’s “Mommy!” and Mommy only. I am torn between responding to her needy phase (I hope!) and keeping my sanity. 24/7 Mom in Marin

Dear 24/7 Mom: First, relax. A period of “Mommyitis” or “Daddyitis” is common and often makes several appearances in early childhood (with a possible reprise in adolescence). It often begins in infancy when it seems as if only one parent can soothe a baby when he is really fussy, and/or get him to sleep. In the toddler-preschool years, expect at least one such period, coupled with other struggles about “who’s boss.” If you dig Freud, you will not just expect but welcome an oedipal period: a girl being “all Daddy’s” and a boy glued to Mom’s side.

Let’s take infancy first. It’s natural for a nursing baby to form a stronger attachment to the mother in the early months of life. When she was about 5, my daughter told me, “I am closer to you because you milked me.” Very often, without plan or notice, the mother becomes the “soother of choice.” This is perfectly fine as long as you keep an eye on it. Make sure it does not become so exclusive that Dad (or second Mom) cannot put the baby down to sleep or soothe her when she is fussy. Your partner needs plenty of opportunities to bond with the baby and develop his/her own repertoire of soothing techniques.

Bigger struggles come once your child is verbal and has the vocabulary to insist on only one or the other. Here you need to think of the “only Mommy” demand on a continuum. Visualize the Golden Gate Bridge (Happy 75th!), with the San Francisco side representing going along 100 percent with your child’s demands and the Marin side as total stonewalling: The parents are “the deciders,” never acceding to a child’s preference. You want to be right around midspan, where the gusts of wind from the ocean are strongest. Pardon the metaphor — the idea is that midspan is the “happy medium,” but the ups and downs are more intense.

So, what do you actually do?

Accept that for a while, for whatever reason, your child needs you more intensely than she needs her other parent. Do consider why that may be: Did you go out of town? Are you more stressed? Is your partner working harder so your child picks up that he/she is less emotionally engaged?

For a time, do make yourself more available, but make sure to get breaks. Have your partner develop some simple activities that are his/her “specialty,” be it working in the garden, building bridges with Lego, collecting rocks or making breakfast on Sundays.

Evaluate how much of this is about control. Is your child in the midst of struggling to control every little detail (to compensate for a growing sense that he really controls very little)? Is he flipping out that you buttered the wrong side of the toast so you must make a new one? Is everything — clothes, brushing teeth, going to bed, etc. — a battle?

Probably …

Make a list of things that are “choice” and those that are not. “Choice” allows your child to pick the parent he or she wants, e.g.: helping with pajamas, hair brushing, reading a specific book, etc. “No choice” includes daily activities that are vital for you to share with your partner, such as putting the child to bed, getting ready for preschool, driving places, etc.

Explain “choice” and “no choice” to your child and give her many opportunities for “choice” activities. This method will work even better if you add silliness, such as: ”If you could go to the moon, would you want to go with Mommy or with Daddy?” or “If you stood on your head all day, would you want Mommy or Daddy to help you?” Encourage your child to invent other ideas. As these become sillier, you are defusing the intensity behind the struggle.

And don’t worry too much. If your child sees that she is not “getting your goat” with the Mommyitis, she will soon move on.

Rachel Biale
Rachel Biale

Rachel Biale, an Israeli native, is a Bay Area Jewish community professional and author.