A couple of weeks back, my husband sent me an article. It was written by a mother whose child was rejecting her, and featured snippets from therapy sessions focussed on the topic. The reason he sent me this was simple: our son – the light of my life, the reason I’m now a (very reluctant) morning person, my one true love – has wanted absolutely nothing to do with me, the second his father is within reach, since before Christmas.
Which is devastating, I have to say, and is not something one can deal with rationally when so heavily pregnant.
I had theories about why this was happening. Google suggested my ‘scent’ had altered due to hormone fluctuations. I went down the road of ‘maybe I’m just a terrible mother,’ often. There was of course the dissection of the very true fact that his dad is simply the ‘fun’ parent, and then there was the most rational idea, which was solidified for me by the article in question: that we spent so much time together that he felt secure in my presence, while his father was less of a safe bet (you know, working upstairs and all.)
“Which one of you does Ben see more?” Oh, definitely me. Before the pandemic, I did both drop-off and pickup at day care, and by the time he awoke each morning, Kevin was usually gone. Back then, Ben reliably got his dad for only an hour each evening and then on weekends. “Right,” Dr. S. said. “So every day, your presence is certain but Kevin’s is a question.” Kaboom. No wonder Ben clutched Dada so tightly. Who knew when he’d vanish again, only to return on a timetable Ben’s toddler brain could make no sense of?
Having my own assumptions validated via the medium of another woman’s struggle helped, a little. But it also opened another door. The ‘that makes sense, but why isn’t the same thing happening to any of the mothers I know?’ door. Which is a door you do not want to open, my friends, not at any stage of this journey we call ‘being parents’.
And another door slammed open, too. The one marked ‘don’t forget you did something bad, this did not spring from nowhere.’
Rewind to the start of these shenanigans. We had been in one form or another of social distancing hell since March 2020. It was now December 2020, one week before Christmas, and on the few days I had booked to work, my son came down with a nasty temperature, and had to isolate for COVID-19, until his test results came back. As his mum, all I wanted was to be with him, take care of him, and nurture him back to good health. But as a freelance worker whose contract requires no prior notice before termination, I couldn’t justify cancelling on short notice, when my husband was able to take days off his ‘proper’ job in order to step in.
So he stepped in, and I stepped back, and my little boy – the best grudge holder I have ever had the pleasure of meeting – was outraged. No matter that, as often as I could, I came out of the home office to snuggle him as I worked from the sofa, to my own great discomfort. No matter that I sat pressing re-dial for hours until I had secured the appointment that finally had him diagnosed as having come down with a nasty case of tonsilitis, and no matter that I was the one that set a four hourly timer to ensure he got his antibiotics on time (which may have made things worse for me, come to think of it.) I was not THERE. I was not doing what he expected of me. But Daddy was. And Daddy became the hero.
And in that position he has remained, cape-a-flying, ever since.
(Which was hard to handle in front of my in-laws, I have to say. When someone hasn’t really seen you parent before, and then sees that when you do parent, your kid wants absolutely nothing to do with you, it can be a tad humiliating.)
Most of the time, I can handle it with grace. I know that toddlers go through phases, I know that having to work when he was unwell couldn’t be helped, and I also know that separation anxiety is a very real thing, and it’s possible my actions of the festive period had nothing to do with this at all. But some days it’s hard. Some days I break down a little over it. And that’s OK. Because a) toddlers are hard work, especially when they’re being a little ‘off.’ And b) as I said, I am heavily pregnant – I am not a rational being.
So yes, mostly, it’s fine. But this week… This week, we reached peak rejection.
It happened at nursery drop off. As I mentioned before, the problem outlined above takes place exclusively when my husband is within reach. As soon as he’s not, we’re absolutely golden, and my mummy crown is restored in all its glory. So nursery drop offs, which are my domain, are usually a happy experience. As we wait patiently outside for little man to be collected, he will smile at me, pull down my mask to give me kisses (and then pull it back up again, he is a child of his time) and generally just be a little cuddle bug. On hand off he’ll then blow me kisses and wave goodbye until he’s out of sight. It is my favourite thing about taking him in for the day, and I look forward to those little affections.
But on this day, something was different. On this day, I had taken away his dummy en route, after he had so carefully smuggled it out with him. And he was not impressed.
On this day, at drop off, he glared at me. I handed him over, and in place of kisses, he pursed his lips, stuck his chin in the air, and deliberately averted his eyes. And when the nursery worker asked him ‘shall we say goodbye to mummy?’ he SHOOK HIS HEAD and turned his face completely away, so he didn’t have to look at me.
My heart shattered into tiny pieces. But also I found it mildly hilarious, so… There’s a lot to be said for having a sense of humour in times of personal crisis.
That night, dejected, rejected, devoid of hope, I went about the usual bedtime routine with toddler and husband, fully expecting to have a tiny hand push my face with force when I attempted a goodnight kiss.
But you know what happened? R chose me for his cuddles. He chose me to put him to bed. He chose ME.
And he has slowly been coming back to me since.
I don’t know what changed his mind. I don’t know why I am suddenly worthy of his love.
But I do know now, for certain, that there is no amount of rejection he could impart to make me withdraw in the same way he did. He will always be worthy of my love, even if he deems me unworthy of his, however temporarily. Which means, in short, that none of this happened because I am a bad mother.
And that is the only answer I need.