Ok, serious topic. But don’t self-torture yet.
The other day I was in conversation with one of my good friends and she confessed to me that she didn’t really like one of her kids. She didn’t dislike them, but just couldn’t muster up the same snuggy feelings she had with her other child. She was heartbroken and crying, and of course felt like a terrible mother. So what did I do? Tell her she was a terrible mother? Of course not– I told her just the opposite.
Now, don’t get me wrong… not liking one of your children is a problem. It is something you want to fix as quickly as possible. But usually the moms who recognize the problem and lament over it are the ones who do not have to worry. The moms who don’t recognize it, think their kid deserves it, or are proud of their aloofness are the ones who need serious help. If this is you–you actually hate or have thoughts of harming one of your children, please stop reading the post here and call a counselor. This is still a fixable problem–and not altogether uncommon–but still requires professional help.
For the rest of you who are just upset or guilty for preferring one of your children over another, and don’t know what to do about it, keep reading.
Usually the fact that you can’t muster up the natural love for one of your children (like you can for another) means the mother-child bond is not as strong as it should be. This can be for several reasons including:
1. You didn’t want to be pregnant in the first place, which translated into rejecting feelings towards the child from birth (usually subconscious). Or you had a very difficult first year with lots of conflicting feelings.
2. You and your child have opposite personalities– i.e. they are melancholy and you are sanguine, or vice-versa. You push each other’s buttons.
3. Your child has a particularly strong will in comparison with other children. They may struggle with common, nonpleasant qualities like bossiness, bitterness, and disciplinary issues.
For these reasons, firstborn children are slightly more likely to be unbonded. Some other things unique to the firstborn include:
1. You had/have no idea what you are doing as a parent the first time through each stage, which makes everything difficult and anxiety-producing. (Subsequent children are often a more peaceful, familiar experience).
2. The firstborn may be the apple of Daddy’s eye (or the extended family’s), which makes you feel like you need to counterbalance the extra attention, praise, or spoiling given to that child by making up for it with subsequent ones.
There of course a million reasons why you may not get along well with or just be comfortable around your child, but assuming that there is no real anger with that child (i.e. just because they exist!), you probably just need a combination of techniques, healing experiences, and releasing the pressure to fix this problem.
Let’s go in reverse order:
First, let go of the pressure. This means stop hating yourself for being partial. People are people–even as mothers, we are flawed, which means we naturally like some people more than others. We’re not friends with everyone, we like different relatives more than others. Challenging characteristics are challenging for us, no matter where they crop up. Children are no different, even though we wish they were. We wish we could treat all our children EXACTLY the same so that none of them would grow up and say that their mother didn’t like them as much as Sister Sally or Brother John. Most of us have known someone who grew up with lifelong resentment about this (or did, ourselves), and we shudder at storylines which repeat this theme.
But the fact is that even if we were to treat all our children exactly the same–even if we were to feel exactly the same love for each child–they would still grow up thinking we didn’t! When was the last time you heard someone with sibling rivalry say, “but I know Mom loved me just as much as Susie…”? Sibling rivalry simply leads to accusations of injustice. And children are utilitarians with brief memories–there is no way they will accurately compare your treatment of them with their siblings, from birth, and evaluate them as fair and equal. Whoever got to use the car first, or went to a more expensive college, or got to skip leftovers because they were allergic to dairy, will always be seen as “loved the most.” So stop trying so hard! You can’t prevent this!
Moreover, different children need to be treated differently. Your child is half of your relationship with them, and you have to adopt different strategies to deal with whatever they present. You will have different feelings about those strategies. Sometimes being the “easy” child even has down sides. Easy children need less rebuking, but probably get less attention overall. Difficult children will need more correction and more attention but may become better thinkers in the end, because of all the trial and error. This divergence of paths from “difficult” child to “easy” child starts even from the first days of infancy, depending on what the newborn’s unique set of issues are.
Bottom line is, challenging children (even if they are challenging just in your eyes) are going to evoke more animosity from you, and this is liable to cause hostility. The best parents will eventually figure out how to calm themselves and love the child unconditionally even when provoked. But this desirable trait is still LEARNED and UNNATURAL. It doesn’t develop overnight just because you’ve given birth. So seek it by all means, but don’t condemn yourself.
We all have a lot to learn about being good parents, and for some of us, loving is not the most basic. Desire the unconditional, unnatural love, and by all means deal with your baggage that is making it difficult–but don’t compare yourself to your mother, your best friend, June Cleaver, or the model in whatever psychological book you’re reading. You may have to start forgiving your child for the offenses they commit daily, even if that sounds silly or unkind. You don’t have to tell anyone about it–just deal with it in private, if you feel you have been wronged or let down in some way. Or talk it through with a trusted friend. Forgiving will foster more mercy.
This brings us to the second strategy: healing experiences. You probably need to have more positive experiences with the child you don’t naturally prefer, in order to bond deeply with them. This doesn’t mean you will achieve the same exact bond that you have more easily with another child. Perfect equality is not the goal. But to erase any hard feelings between yourself and them, the burden is on you. You are responsible for taking action since you are stewards of your children and in control of the relationship. In no way can you wait for your child to become more lovable–that’s backwards. It starts with you because you’re the adult.
Practically, this might mean to plan a vacation for just you and that child, or to start a weekly or monthly date with them. If they are at a difficult age, the challenge will be to find something that encourages the least amount of discord–you want to have a positive experience! So don’t take a noisy baby to Panera or a covetous kindergartner to the mall. Try to find something that both of you will find pleasing and easy. And do not fall into the trap of assuming you can repeat a good experience you had with another child, with your difficult one. Just because Billy enjoyed Little League practices so much with you doesn’t mean Johnny will. Don’t chat with an argumentative child, play games with a competitive one, or cook with somebody who hates to share. Don’t take a long trip with one just because you did with another. Keep the healing experiences appropriate for the age, maturity, and relationship you actually have with your unbonded one. But plan more in.
Positive touch is also very important. Anytime you can hug your child or touch them affectionately, do it. You might not realize how little they have been touched in comparison to your other kids, so if you’re not a big hugger, make check-in points three times a day: when they wake up, when they come home from preschool or school, and when they go to bed. Try allowing them to be around you quietly when you’re reading or something and they can just lean on you. You’ll be surprised how much this behavior can conjure up the right feelings.
Which brings us to the last strategy of re-bonding, and that is: proactive techniques. Try to be practical about why you don’t like or get along with your child. Are there any things which need working on, that are fixable? Is the child completely wild and undisiciplined? If so, the best way to start fixing the relationship is to deal with that. Always take age into account, but don’t use it as an excuse to ignore the elephant in the room. Is the child very rude or standoffish? If so, start with manners and some hang out time. Maybe the child needs a special nickname, a game they always play with you, their own space/room, or some combination of things you can give. The goal of parenting, after all, is to keep your child open to your influence, so if there are practical issues which will decrease hostility, address them. You will be helping them as much as you.
(BTW, as you brainstorm, don’t get into huge arguments with your spouse, who probably doesn’t share your feelings or understand why you have them. Own your relationship with your child and do what you have to do.)
If in the end, you still can’t have grace over your child or you can’t get over your hard feelings, consider going for counseling (with or without your child, depending on the age and maturity). If you don’t like your child even after they have made efforts to please you, that is a sign that deeper intervention is necessary.
But if, like my friend, you are normal mom just feeling guilty about how easy it is to love one child versus another, or to hold and hug one over the other, then just start at home. If you don’t naturally praise or move towards one child, especially the difficult child or the “golden one” whom everyone naturally loves, there are ways to start. There are likely techniques and experiences, which along with releasing the pressure valve, will go a long way.