My three-year-old won't let my husband get her ready for bed. Only I will do. Cute, right? Are you imagining some mommy-and-me snuggles, maybe a diffuser spraying lavender into the air and footie pajamas snuggled into the crook of my arm while we read our favorite stories and sing silly bedtime songs? Hate to break it to you, but that's not exactly the situation.
Instead, picture this. I send her with her dad to get ready for bedtime, while I take a break to watch my favorite show. It's called Washing the Dishes—I binge it every night. But about midway through, I have to go rescue them both and finish her bath (and her brother's, who's in the tub, too), get them dried and dressed, teeth brushed and jammied up. All of this happens while I'm simultaneously yelling to see if my 12-year-old is off his iPad (he's not) and my 10-year-old has showered (she hasn't).
Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, my husband is crying silent tears, wondering why his youngest child won't let him spend quality time with her. (That's code for checking his email.) It's exhausting, and by the time I get everyone down, all I want to do is lie in a horizontal position and stare at the ceiling. Living. The. Dream.
Being the preferred parent for every task, every time is hard. It's hard when you've worked all day. It's hard when you've parented all day. And for single parents, it's hard when you're somehow managing to do it all nonstop (more on this further down). You're depleted, and odds are good that you still have a day's worth of work ahead of you when they finally go to sleep. It's not your child's fault. It's not your partner's fault. It's just the way it is right now, and you're torn between loving the honor and drowning in your child's constant need for your help.
But according to experts, this phenomenon isn't necessarily a bad thing. It can be a sign of a healthy relationship between a child and both parents. "Favoring or excluding one parent is your child saying, 'I can choose you right now, because I know my other parent will be there for me regardless,' says Lydia Mays, Ph.D., founder & CEO of See Beautiful. "Child favoritism and exclusion ebb and flow through not only the toddler years but also into childhood." And guess what? It's even expected during a time of uncertainty, anxiety or stress. Parents, meet 2020. This is just one of its gifts to you.
So what do you do? How do you parent one, or even multiple kids, when you're constantly being tapped to provide care and reassurance for your "barnacle child?" (We're not being mean. We didn't make up that term. It's a thing.) If you have a parenting partner, Mays suggests the following ways to help the less-chosen parent swing the pendulum back toward shared parental choice—and avoid hurt feelings and total burnout:
For the "Barnacle Parent"
- Pass the fun baton: Divvy up roles and let the "less-chosen" parent tap in for the things your toddler loves to do most!
- Be gone: When you're physically away from your child, it provides opportunities for your toddler to have reconnecting and relationship-building time with the other parent.
- Hand off: When your child is leaning heavily on you for support and the other parent is home, hand off the toddler's need to the less-chosen one (e.g., "Mommy can't right now, but Daddy can help you" or "Daddy's busy right now, but Papa is free to do that with you.")
- High praise: Give compliments to the other parent in a way that your child can see the wonderful things that person is doing, too. For example, "Mommy makes the up the best bedtime stories!" or "Daddy's dinner is always my favorite. It's so delicious."
For the "Less-Chosen Parent"
- Have thick skin: It makes perfect sense that feeling snubbed by your toddler would be tough, but this action is only because you're doing a great job and your child trusts you and knows you'll be there for them. While hard, it's a healthy phase for your child. Try not to get your feelings hurt. Be patient, understanding that withdrawing or showing frustration could further strengthen the attachment between your child and the "barnacle parent."
- One-on-one: Take some time to establish new one-on-one routines and traditions.
- Be love: Consistently affirm your love for your child and reassure him of your presence and the joy you experience being part of his life every day.
For the Almighty Single Parent
For parents navigating this alone, your goal will be to bolster your child's independence and confidence. Atlanta psychologist Ellen Berman, Ph.D., notes that "single parents are in a unique relationship with their children, in that they must find ways to balance the family responsibilities in age and developmentally appropriate ways, often more so than dual-parent households." To encourage your "barnacle baby's" independence, focus on:
- Routine: During the day, when kids know what to expect and when, they're more likely to take on new responsibilities without feeling overwhelmed.
- Advance planning: Odds are, you're juggling a million tasks at once. When your child needs your attention, it might help to be prepared with a re-direct (if you're unable to help right then) or with a set time during your day when you can help.
- Prioritizing sleep: There's no doubt that you're burning the candle at both ends. Make sure you're giving yourself time to recharge and remember that your child's frustration at sometimes having to take a number is greatly magnified when they're tired, too.
At the end of the day, this phase won't last forever, and we promise you'll get through it. Whether you're constantly being chosen to do all the things, or never—or perhaps you have no choice and are the only option for doing all the things—you're likely doing it very well, and we see you. Keep up the good work, and in the meantime, check out these children's books, which might help spread the love.
For relationship reconnection with Dad:
For relationship reconnection with Mom:
Shelley Massey can be found taking long walks on the beach, sleeping in, or exfoliating. Just kidding. She's a writer, and a mom of 4. Running is literally her only escape. She is the Atlanta City Editor for Red Tricycle. Read more by Shelley here.
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