Several months ago, my 3-year-old son completely rejected me. From the time he got up and only snuggled with Daddy, to every step of getting ready in the morning shooing me away from him, even to seeking comfort in the middle of the night – Daddy was it. I could have disappeared from his life, and he wouldn’t have batted one of his ridiculously long eyelashes. I teasingly asked him, “do you love Mommy?” and he looked me dead in the eye with a straight-up “No.”
I reminded him he grew in my body, was nourished from my body, and hey – remember how I didn’t sleep for a year so I could be there for him? No gratitude. As moms we give our literal bodies, our souls, our hearts, and get a metaphorical (and sometimes actual) slap in the face.
Thankfully, I’m too tired and busy to actually worry that his outright rejection has any deeper meaning. I enjoyed my quiet breakfast while my poor husband waited on the dictator hand-and-foot (“sorry honey, he just won’t let me near him . . . “). I stayed warm under the covers at 3 am as my husband scooped him up to return him to his room. I mean, it’s not all bad . . . but should I worry?
My instinct tells me no, as does developmental psychology. This assertion of independence from Mom may actually show a secure attachment because your child trusts you are always there. Often, the baby years are all about Mommy – so much of the nurturing, attention, and interactions are Mommy heavy. Kids often hit a point in toddlerhood or in the preschool years where they get to flex their “I got this” muscles, and show that they are their own little person without Mommy. This happened abruptly and boldly with two of my three children, so again, there are always personality differences!
Beyond developmental theory, there are instinct and common sense: HE IS THREE YEARS OLD. Three-year-olds are the definition of unreasonable (and what could be more unreasonable than not wanting Mommy?).
Second, my daughters can’t get enough of me, constantly arguing about who sits next to me or snuggles with me at bedtime, so it does not seem to be a referendum on my love-ability as a parent.
Third, I genuinely do not feel any differently around him – I attack him with kisses and tickles and enjoy much of my alone time with him.
I have heard from other moms, however, that this common rejection for the other parent can cut pretty deep. Think about what we do as Moms. I'm sure most of us have heard the recent chatter about the “emotional load” carried by one of the two caregivers, which is often the Mom (more complicated with two Moms? It would be interesting to look at).
I have seen it published across social media and journalistic platforms: we do the often unseen labor of managing the family (aka “mental load”). Planning play dates, birthday parties, doctors’ appointments, cleaning the house, doing the laundry, grocery shopping, meal planning, cooking . . . the list goes on for what seems to be a regenerating to-do list. And for many of us, THIS IS IN ADDITION TO WORKING A FULL-TIME JOB, in which I include taking care of the children at home all day, which certainly does not easily lend itself to whipping through these family manager tasks.
So when one or many of our children go through the developmentally normal phase of rejecting us, it can hurt. He doesn’t want me around him? Does he know what I do for this family? It can rub salt into a wound we may not have realized was so raw and open. Where is the gratitude for what I do for our family? This is where we may have a very human response to what can feel like superhuman expectations as a parent.
There are tips and strategies out there for those truly struggling with this phase, but sometimes it just helps to know it is normal, and our reaction may be telling us something more about what we need on an emotional level.
As (bad) luck would have it, our son swung to the mommy side of the pendulum during his phase of waking up every single night around 2 am and ONLY WANTING MOMMY. For weeks. We finally moved through that act of sleep terrorism, and now he’s back to pushing away my kisses at bedtime and telling me that his best friends are Daddy and his two sisters, “NOT Mommy.”
I love you, too, son. I really do.