When Baby Plays Favorites

Most new moms return to work after a maternity leave with mixed emotions. She may be excited to reconnect with adults from life before baby, but may also feel some pangs of sadness, maybe even guilt, at leaving her babe in the care of someone else. Perhaps dads don’t feel quite the same pangs because most (although this is changing) have not stayed at home with their babies as long as mom has. The majority of primary caregivers are still women, so men may not feel that their position is threatened by another caregiver. Most women say they experience these additional feelings of jealousy, resentment and fear when or if their child shows a preference toward the surrogate caregiver.

When my daughter was younger and in the care of Lucia, the most wonderful in-home daycare provider that I could have wished for, several of the children in Lucia’s care referred to her as “Mommy.” Despite wanting my child to see Lucia as close to what she could have hoped for in a maternal figure, I worried that she too might call her “Mommy” or heaven forbid, even compare her to me. I feared that if she did, she might want to spend more time with Lucia–playing games, doing arts and crafts and snapping puzzles together–because being at Lucia’s house was undeniably more fun than what we could squeeze into the few hours in the evening when there were so many domestic responsibilities to take care of.

Eventually, I came to see Lucia as a second mom to my daughter. I reminded myself that it takes a village to raise a child and that my daughter was fortunate to have another wonderful, loving person to enrich her life. The children in Lucia’s care were so attached to her because of what she offered them and I hoped that their mothers slept better at night knowing that they had chosen their caregiver well.

It’s amazing the power that a child has when he or she doesn’t show you the kind of unconditional love you expect all the time. She has the power to turn you into an even more guilty, fearful and insecure parent than you ever thought possible. But when she chooses to sit on your lap, you most likely view this as a reflection of the good job you are doing as a parent. Her non-verbal gesture assures you that you matter more to her than anyone else in the room.

Some moms even feel a twinge of jealousy when their child seeks out dad first, but most are okay with this, knowing that dad should be equally important to their child. But, if your child seeks out the nanny or a grandparent first, then your first question might be, “What am I doing wrong? Am I not spending enough time with my baby?”

In most cases, your child’s affection toward you has nothing to do with how he or she ranks you or your degree of connection. Does your child welcome others into his circle of support easily? This may serve him well in later life. Is she perhaps seeking out others because there’s a new baby in the house and she’s looking for additional attention?

Children have the ability, as we all do, to connect in different ways with people with whom they have created a trusting relationship. So long as they choose you most of the time, relish in the knowledge that not only do they have others in their lives who care for them, but that you do, too.

Through the Ages

Before age 1: Even though infants recognize their primary caregivers, so long as they have their physical and emotional needs met, they can usually be handed off from one adult to the next. At around eight months, however, they begin to show a preference toward their inner circle of family members and show their displeasure when being touched or spoken to by strangers.

Preschool: Most young children are very trusting. If they feel well taken care of and nurtured by another adult, they will look forward to being with him or her. Note how preschoolers cling to or sit close by their teachers. Consider it a positive sign if your child sometimes resists leaving a teacher or caregiver’s side at the end of the day.

School aged: In the younger grades, children may continue to show a preference for a particular adult over you at times. However, as they grow into the older grades, they are more likely to reject other adults (including yourself) for their peers. It’s completely normal for a parent to feel somewhat rejected during this time so consider it a healthy sign that your child is developing normally.

Teenagers: Parents of teens can often feel shut out. Most teens choose their friends over spending time with you and go to their peers for advice before coming to you. So long as you feel that you have established a strong enough foundation, you can rest assured that this is a normal stage during which teens flex their muscles and assert their autonomy. Try not to take this personally. Chat with other parents of teens. They will quickly show you that you are not alone.

Sara Dimerman is a Toronto psychologist who has provided counselling to individuals, couples, families and parents for more than 25 years. She has written four books and is a columnist for various North American and international media outlets. Sara is a regular guest on radio and television shows and is frequently interviewed for newspaper and magazine articles. Sara is married and has two daughters. Contact her on Twitter.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, May 2014.

Image(s): iStock