It was hard for me to accept that toddler seemed to favor his dad. But I soon learned that my son's behavior didn't mean he loved me any less.

By Katie Arnold-Ratliff
Updated October 09, 2020
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Sasha Gulish
Sasha Gulish

Early in our son Ben’s life, my husband, Kevin, often said something I realize now was only half in jest: “I’m just the butler-janitor.” As in, “All I do here is empty the diaper pail.” As in, “You’re his parent, I’m just the help.” Ben was permanently suctioned to my breast; his dad, milk-less, was useless to him. So I was the one Ben reached for post-needle at the pediatrician’s, the one who coaxed out his first chuckles, the one whose cheek he lived to stroke. And I was ignorant and arrogant enough to think that this arrangement was permanent.

But soon—surprise!—it all flipped. From Ben’s 11th month to his 23rd (who’s counting?), he abandoned me for Dada. The shift was swift and total. He longed to be as close to Kevin as physics would allow—a bone-deep desperation, like the urge to breathe. If Kevin left the room to make a sandwich, Ben sobbed as though Dad were heading off to war. My husband didn’t pee without his kid’s moral support for almost a year. And as they ran laps around the kitchen island or clung to each other on the sofa, I’d park myself on the love seat (the unloved seat?), paying bills and folding laundry like a spectator in my own life. My, how the butler-janitor tables had turned.

Kevin assured me that having a 20-pound barnacle was no fun. He felt alternately like a prisoner or a monster for wanting a break from all that love. He swore I was the lucky one. “Sure, I get that,” I’d lie. Freedom is nice; a clammy toddler hand in yours is nicer.

I asked mom friends for advice and soon realized, horrified, that none had any. Each had experienced this dynamic—but from the other side, as the favorite. “Oh,” said one, “I’ve only ever heard of the dad getting ditched.” This leveled me. I went from “Kids and their phases, right?!” to “I am human garbage.” I knew I wasn’t a mean, scary mom, but maybe I was cold in a way I couldn’t see, sending Ben cues that if he came to me for tenderness, I’d stiff him.

And this wasn’t just some private demon I had to wrestle. People noticed. When Ben fell at the zoo and pushed me out of the way to be hugged by his father, or Ben and Kevin wiggled on wedding dance floors and I drank at an empty table, I felt not just sorrow but embarrassment. “Wow, Ben really favors his dad,” a tactless relative once said. Everyone in the room suddenly became fascinated by their shoes; they wouldn’t have said it, but they were clearly thinking it. I was so ashamed I felt faint. Moms are supposed to be loving and beloved and I was a failure at both, and here was proof for all to see.

Sasha Gulish

I see a therapist once a week (aren’t you surprised?), and naturally I laid all of this trauma at Dr. S.’s feet. Her advice was pragmatic and unconcerned: Don’t show Ben you’re hurt. Don’t pull back when he rejects you. Keep trying. The age-old advice to the lovelorn: Put yourself out there! So I began joining in Ben and Kevin’s play wherever I could. While Ben would still occasionally snub me—“Hey, should we go outside while Dada takes a shower?” I said once, and he looked like I’d asked if he wanted to go out back and saw his arm off—he mostly just scooted over and made room. “Run around the kitchen with Dada” turned into “Get chased around the kitchen by Mama and Dada.” Movie night was soon a three-person snuggle instead of separate but unequal couches. Make no mistake: Ben still orbited Kevin like a frantic moon. But I was realizing that deep in my child’s burgeoning psyche, he loved me, and the more I inserted myself, the more he was reminded of that love.

I reported back to Dr. S. that it was working; I thought Ben might maybe potentially like me! Then she asked, “Which one of you does Ben see more?” Oh, definitely me. Before the pandemic, I did both drop-off and pickup at day care, and by the time he awoke each morning, Kevin was usually gone. Back then, Ben reliably got his dad for only an hour each evening and then on weekends. “Right,” Dr. S. said. “So every day, your presence is certain but Kevin’s is a question.” Kaboom. No wonder Ben clutched Dada so tightly. Who knew when he’d vanish again, only to return on a timetable Ben’s toddler brain could make no sense of?

Then Dr. S. made another point. Hadn’t I been an attachment-theory zealot when Ben was born, kangarooing him in various complicated carriers, leaping at every cry, keen on teaching him I’d be a safe home base for the rest of his life? Hadn’t I said during therapy that a good thing, maybe the best thing, a parent can be is a benign presence who can be taken for granted? Well, I had succeeded. Ben knew I had his back, and now he was preoccupied with making sure Dad’s devotion was as ironclad as Mama’s. They had their own road to travel. Ben and I had already made the trip.

Sasha Gulish

Even if I (OK, Dr. S.) hadn’t cracked the case, it all would have turned out OK. First of all, phases end. (But try believing that while in the throes of one.) Second, quarantining as a trio some months later solved a lot of this: Dad was always around, and the novelty wore off. (Sorry, Kevin.) Third, around Ben’s second birthday, we moved to a new house, and something about this sent him back to a primal place of maternal need. For months, he curled against me, making his goofy declarations—“Sock! Duck! Hat!”—before demanding that we watch Ratatouille while sitting cheek to cheek. Now he’s 3, and he likes both parents the same. Some days he likes me more. I try not to gloat, but boy does it feel good.

Who knows where the great rock tumbler of time will hurl us next? But I know now that Ben will never ditch me fully. He can’t. I’m plastered onto his subconscious like a billion billboards. In all the chaos of diapering and snot sucking, you sort of forget that you are the universe to your kid. I’m his mother. Whatever happens in the next four or five decades, however often he and his dad—and friends and partners—traipse off without me, ours will remain the most durable bond there is.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's November 2020 issue as “No Mama! Just Dad!” Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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Comments (2)

Anonymous
October 14, 2020
Thank you so much for this article, I could have written it myself (except we’re still in the thick of the clingy stage). I’ve been feeling a bit down over the past few days - as the primary caregiver, I feel I do all the hard work without the cuddly rewards. My boy is obsessed with his father. But you’ve made me feel a lot better that I’m not alone!
Anonymous
October 14, 2020
Thank you so much for this article, I could have written it myself (except we’re still in the thick of the clingy stage). I’ve been feeling a bit down over the past few days - as the primary caregiver, I feel I do all the hard work without the cuddly rewards. My boy is obsessed with his father. But you’ve made me feel a lot better that I’m not alone!