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Jun 13 2013

When Your Child Prefers His Father Over You

By at 4:18 pm

tova ross fathers dayIt’s one of the first rules of parenting: don’t play favorites. And I don’t, really, even on those days when my daughter’s initially polite gurgles turn into screaming demands for a bottle at 5 a.m. and my son strolls downstairs closer to 9, well after I’ve had my coffee and am a cheerful–well, functioning–human being.

But when it comes to my son playing favorites (my daughter is still a baby, and thus still unversed in the art of emotional manipulation), it’s hard not to be delighted when I am clearly the preferred parent. There were always certain things–breakfast, shopping trips, snuggling, and especially bedtime stories–that were entirely my domain. And I liked it that way. Our home was Mommyland and I was the queen, minus the Corgis and inflated salary. It wasn’t so much being picked over my husband, really, that gave me a rush, but being so utterly adored and needed and the only one who could kiss a skinned knee, clean and bandage it, and make it all better.

Few of us can deny loving being needed, and fewer can deny the exceptional high that comes from being so unabashedly admired.

But over time, thanks to a combination of the terrible twos which more experienced parents will recognize as a warm-up for the really terrible threes, a healthy dose of chutzpah that must have been partially instilled from hanging out with Israelis at day care, and increasing verbal skills, my son’s enchantment with me as an absolute authority and beloved, benevolent ruler began to fade. My chocolate chip muffins were suddenly found wanting. I was putting on his sneakers all wrong. Why couldn’t we take the nice big kitty cats (re: mountain lions) home from the zoo?

I began feeling a vague sense of indignation, but, for the most part, my son remained, if suddenly a tad whiny, a fairly loyal subject.

And one day, gearing up for a marathon book-reading session at bedtime, my son casually said, “No, I don’t want YOU to read me books tonight.” And, with little more than a wave of his hand and an apologetic look from my husband, I was suddenly replaced as the official bedtime story reader.

I have never understood Shakespeare so keenly as at that moment. Will totally nailed it–it really is sharper than a serpent’s tooth to have a thankless child.

There were other betrayals. There was that bitterly cold winter day where I literally trekked in the snow to purchase my son’s favorite dinner after a long day of work. When I arrived to pick him up at day care, dripping with wet snow yet triumphant like a mama bear who successfully foraged food for her cub, he casually told me, apropos of nothing, “I don’t love you today. But maybe I’ll love you tomorrow.” There were almost comical ones, like when he came downstairs in the morning and I opened my arms wide, and he came toward me, did a fake out, and bypassed me to run into my husband’s arms. It really would have been funny, if it hadn’t happened to me.

I found myself demoted. No longer a queen, I was, at best, a lady in waiting….waiting for my son’s untarnished admiration and preference for me to return (thank you, I’m here all day). I laugh, because otherwise I might cry.

It’s a special kind of bittersweet when my firstborn child rejects my company or capabilities in favor of his father’s. This, from a child I sheltered and nourished for nine long months, through hunger pangs so ferocious they could not be quelled until the entire pint of mint cookies n’ cream was consumed and over a decade of vegetarianism was thrown out the window in favor of a juicy-looking steak; the child for whom I probably bade farewell to certain little black dresses forever; bled for while he learned the art of latching on as I gritted my teeth in sheer pain and imagined the entire La Leche League watching, judging, in my living room; and the child I do all those hundreds of more monotonous little things for, like the knapsack-packing and pantry-stocking, the memorizing of TV channels and library hours, the making and keeping of doctor, dentist, and haircut appointments.

Thankfully, now that I’ve gotten over the shock of being overthrown, and with my head intact too, I can realize that this is only natural. Just like it once dawned on me that my parents are not infallible people, so too, my son has begun to realize that I have flaws. I still read books at bedtime, but my husband just does the voices better. And there will be bigger weaknesses as parents, and with higher stakes that our son, probably as a teenager, will take note of in each of us. Moreover, this whole experience is an early lesson in parenting. The heart and the soul, the sweat and the worry that you pour into your children’s well-being and development, their entire foundations for the future: it really is entirely selfless, because they probably won’t realize the enormity of that act of love until they are parents themselves.

Favoritism, I’ve also learned, is fluid. There are still times, though more infrequent, when only a kiss and fuss over a paper cut from Mommy will do, or when my son would rather go to Trader Joe’s with me than work on a puzzle with his father.

So, as Father’s Day rapidly approaches, reminding me that I have yet to choose a gift reflecting my husband’s excellence in being a father, I’m taking the time to reflect on the fact that I’m no longer the favorite, but more of an equal. Sometimes, my son will just prefer his father, and if I have to sometimes slide down the totem pole, there’s no better person to move upwards than my husband, a natural at fatherhood and a very capable person, at that. It really couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

Happy Father’s Day!

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