Monday, 27 May 2013

Detachment Parenting

Why do you have to look after me some days? My daughter asks me. I want Daddy to look after me for ALL the days. I'm a little bit taken aback. Well, I say It's is Mummy's job AND Daddy's job to look after you. We are the grownups in the house and you and Blue are the children. And she says, all matter of fact,  But I don't want you to live in this house. I want to live with just Daddy and you and Blue can go and live in a different house. 

This is how being with daddy makes her feel.
Cue heartbreak. Not just because of the words, but because she is looking at me sideways to see how I'm taking it, like a tiny little three-year-old Mean Girl. I surprise myself by bursting into tears, suddenly and uncontrollably, noisily and messily, like a balloon bursting or  a dam bursting. Saltwater is gushing out of me and Jay comes home a few minutes later to find me howling on the sofa and Pink watching TV, unconcerned. 

You don't have to tell me I overreacted; I know I overreacted. It was just so... unexpected. I did not see it coming; not at all. Pink is crazy about her Daddy, but I would also say that Pink and I are pretty tight. I regain control and Jay tells Pink that Daddy loves Mummy, and Mummy and Daddy both love you, and you will not make yourself more popular with Daddy by being mean to Mummy. We put them to bed. 

What should I have said to her? Crying wasn't the right response, but what would have been? What would I say if it happened again? Twenty four hours later, I have the chance to find out when she has another go. She looks at me seriously and says But I really do want you to go and live in a different house, Mummy. Matter-of-fact, again. I'm prepared, this time, and I say I'm staying in this house with you, Pink, because I love you and it's my job to look after you. 

And score one to Mummy! I think. Calm, positive, affirming and yet firm. Who could not want to live in the same house as a mother like that? Nobody, that's who. And then: But I don't really LOVE you, Mummy, she says. I only love Daddy.  As if that settles it. 

 What am I supposed to do with this? I have no idea. Is there attachment stuff going on? I don't know. There could be. The way she has started to push me away verbally certainly sounds like it. And frankly, her behaviour lately has been a bit like something from the before section in The Connected Child. But... it just doesn't fit. It doesn't really fit with how she has always been. I don't think this is trauma, I think this is something else.  I'm not saying there isn't any stuff there for her - of course there is - but this feels different. It feels like fairly secure little girl trying to see what she can get away with. And it feels like she's been reading Freud, is what it feels like. I love that she loves her father, but could we please leave out the part where she resents her mother? 

I'm surprised by how hurt I am by all of this.  

I keep reminding myself: She is three. 

She is not my friend.

She is three. 

She is my daughter. 

She is three. 

I can't let myself get sucked into her crazy. I can't let her push my buttons. If I'm going to cry about this, it has to be after she has gone to bed. Which will be at seven o'clock, because: 

She is three

I walk her downstairs after helping her to get dressed. She reaches up and puts her smooth and tiny hand in mine. She grins at me and pads down the stairs and we do her favourite puzzle before bed. I want to say you do love me, Pink, I know you do but for once I'm smart enough to keep my mouth shut. 

Forget attachment parenting; I think I need to start practising detachment parenting with this girl. I need to remember this relationship is not reciprocal. I have let myself get into too much of an easy rhythm with her. Attachment-wise, she has always been my easy one. She is so precious to me, and she knows it. 

And it makes me think: what am I doing with my life? How can I give so much love to a person who will calmly look at me and tell me she doesn't want it? 

Some days I really hate parenthood. 

But I guess this is the way it has to be, this asymmetrical love. This is the only way that families can ever really work. It's my job to love her. It's not really her job to love me. 

I know this in my head, but sometimes my heart is slow to catch up. 


  1. Ouch, I know the words themselves hurt. But I think you're right--she's just testing the waters. For all you know next week she could say the same thing to your DH and only want to live with you. And by the way, I can TOTALLY imagine my little Pink saying such words to me.

    My hubs and I joke ALL THE TIME "they won't even really remember this" when we're taking them to the little airport to watch the planes take off, when we go to the zoo for the umpteenth time, when we read another book for the zillionth time, when we make another meal and cut up another grape, but yet of course know intellectually that of course they 'remember' it all in the imprints on their brain but STILL--it is exhausting and sometimes for extremely little reward. And you're right--WHO WOULD DO THIS??

    Hugs from across the ocean.

    PS Right this second my daughter is having a raging tantrum over having to pick up toys and I'm just drinking Diet Coke trying to steel myself for the rest of the morning :)

  2. If you think this is rough, wait 'til she's 15. By then she'll know *exactly* where to twist the knife.

    Not helpful, sorry. It sounds like pretty normal behavior for a kiddo that age. In my (extremely unqualified) opinion and (limited) experience, they don't push unless they feel pretty secure to begin with - so congrats! It is maybe the cruelest irony in the world - being a good parent is an exercise in making yourself obsolete.

  3. She's three! Three is tough!

  4. Asymmetrical love. So well put. And yes, three is... well three kind of sucks, doesn't it? We are in the throes of it as well. Regarding when she's 15... I have a theory that toddlers who are "difficult" (for lack of a better word) are easier teens. So, go with that. :)

  5. Oh Claudia, my heart goes out to you. That hurts like a son-of-a-gun. I know this because BG had been doing this to DH pretty much since we got back from China. It was hard for me to watch her push him away over and over, and it was devastating to DH. BG did not actually have the words to hurt, she did it with her actions. It was sooooooo difficult.
    It seemed to me that she felt she could be loyal to only one person at a time. If she loved and attached to me, she was cruel and mean to DH. Same with the DSs. She would attach fiercely to one and was cruel to the other. She seemed to not be able to or maybe she was afraid to spread her love around. Whatever it was, I never figured out exactly WHY she acted that way, I only know it came from her insecure attachment to us all.
    The good news is that she is more relaxed now and more attached. I won't say she's 100% attached but she feels confident enough in her relationship with us and her sure and stable place in the home to open up and show affection for ALL of us. It took a ton of reassuring which is really what they are looking for when they *test* you by saying things like that.
    In the face of those kind of statements the best thing to do IMHO is to do what you did the second time. Calmly and firmly tell her you're sorry she feels that way but that you are her Mother now and your job is to care for her and that you are not going away--not now, not ever. That part is key. That's what she's looking for. She wants to know that one day the few days you are gone won't turn into ALL days you're gone. Try, really really try hard. Dig really deep to see past the hurt you feel and know that her words come from fear. She's getting attached to you and now she's afraid to lose you.
    Sheesh, I'm rambling but I know what you're going through.
    sending you hugs and strength,

  6. I'm so sorry. It sucks - I know - I've heard much worse. I have in turn been teary or angry. But when I am detached, it's the best. I also take it as the opportunity to remind said child that Mom and Dad are in charge and make the decisions. But it is defeating, no way around it.

  7. Ouch. This had me remember my own experience of my four year old. After I bathed him, read him stories and tucked him in, I would say, "I love you, C" and in the same tone of voice, he would say,"I hate you, Mommy". He was definitely Daddy's boy, and loved it when his dad would come home...with a celebrity welcome--the guy worked hard sixty hours a week and so it was a big deMl when he was home. Ny heart ached when he told me he hated me. Definitely. But it didn't fit with all the times in the day when he asked me for milk, a story (with a cuddle), for a kiss for his latest "owie" and so on...and so I did my best to hang on to what his actions told me, not what his words said. Still not quite sure what it was all about back then, but he doesn't even remember it now, years later...though I know he loves the part of the story where I say that I still told him every day that I loved him despite his response.

  8. I am sure if you miss for a few days from home she will cry for mommy. May be this is because you are giving a little more attention to blue because he had attachment issue when he was a baby? I have been reading your blog for a while and you are a great mother. Don't worry God will watch over you and fix this issue. God Bless.
    From an Ethiopia

  9. Oof. It's the worst. Detachment is exactly what you need in those moments, at least the kind of detachment that keeps you from getting angry or bursting into tears. I guess Bryan Post calls that being regulated, but whatever. You are right; she is testing you. Whether this is about attachment or not, it is right to teach her that this isn't how we treat people. With Z, who is going through HUGE attachment stuff right now, we are very firm about how she treats people and how she uses her words. I was just talking to her social skills class teacher (who is also a therapist) about this, and this is the way girls try to get what they want. Boys will use their physicality for it, but girls use words to manipulate, and just as we teach boys that hitting is not an appropriate way to express yourself, we can also teach our girls that using words in an unkind way is not an acceptable way to express yourself.

    In our house, the script goes like this, "That is an unkind thing to say. Saying unkind things is not okay, and you will need to sit with me until you make it right." Often the response is more hurtful words, but I just sit there with her, being as boring and neutral as possible, and wait for her to be ready to do it. It doesn't take as long as it used to. (Words of advice: have a book handy and something fun for Blue to do while you wait.) Then later, when it's not the heat of the moment, we talk about how unkind words hurt people. I have gone so far as to say that if you use unkind words with people to try to get them to do what you want, or to get a reaction so you feel like you're in charge, then they will not want to hang out with you, and you will not have many friends. I tell her that I love her and I always will, that I will always want to be her mommy, but I want her to have friends, too, and so I am teaching her how to treat people so that she will have friends and she won't hurt them with her words. That might be a little much for three, but you get the gist. We also talk about how good friends will forgive you as long as you make things right and don't keep doing the same hurtful things over and over again. We are all human beings, after all.

    Good luck holding it in while she is testing you. This is not about you or her loving you, and I hope that remembering that will help. If it doesn't, I find chocolate and a good cry in the shower sometimes does the trick. Then maybe a glass of wine after that. Do what you need to do. You're doing a great job.

  10. Ah yes, even as single parent I've had a variation of this. I hate you mommy! I'm not your friend anymore! You can't be my friend! I don't want to live in this house with you. I want X to be my mommy. I think it is testing. I think in my son's case it was about lining up a fall back plan in his mind because he genuinely believed I'd just leave one day.

    I'd just put on my heavily sedated kindergarten teacher voice and say 'Oh, well, that's okay. I will always love you and be your mommy no matter what you say or do.' A few times I did say that children do not get to pick their parents (because he's a preschooler looking for security, not discussing best practice in older child adoption), and he was stuck with me, tough luck. Minimal reaction has worked best. Quick, calm reply and I still want the toys picked up now please, and no, you are not going to watch any more telly.

    I wonder if part of it is not yet grasping that one does not have to choose. My son is currently a bit confused about having more than one friend. I know he plays with lots of kids, but if you ask if A is his friend, he'll say quite firmly no, B is my friend. I've yet to hit on the magic explanation that it is good to have several friends.

  11. I get it! I receive similar speeches from C.

    I know nothing about attachment, etc. but I do know 3 year olds are tough little so and so's.

    XXX hang in there - don't let them smell your fear!

  12. Oh, gut-wrenching. Hang in there. You are doing your job well.

  13. 3 is one hell of an age. Still...ouch for sure.

  14. Oh, man. That has to hurt. To me, it absolutely sounds like a testing the waters behavior. For sure. But it still stinks--I'm sorry. 3s can sure be mean when they want to be. Sounds like you all are handling things really well!

  15. Oooohhhhh, this is hard. I get this all.the.time. Like pretty much everyday. On my good days I am mature and detached enough not to take it personally and then I let my daughter know that I love her Daddy too and that I will always love her with my whole heart, no matter what. On a bad day I get teary, snap back in a really immature way and start looking up options for full-time daycare.
    Love your asymmetrical love point - never really thought about it like that before. Makes sense. Must remember.

  16. Um, yes, she's not reading Freud, he was reading her. Some of his now-nonsensical ideas were kind of true. She'll lighten up.

  17. So I read this post soon after you wrote it and thought "Ouch. that would really hurt my feelings." And then? A few days after reading it he looked me right in the eyes and said "I don't love you. I love my Daddy." Ummmm. I burst into tears. I told him that it wasn't nice and very hurtful. He didn't seem to care. He went back to playing with his airplanes. He hasn't said it to me since and I know I overreacted but wow. Ouch. My mom said maybe it was a good thing he saw me cry because he knows it's hurtful. But year, three year olds are mean. My friend's 3 year old told her in anger that she wasn't going to call her Mommy anymore and just call her by her name. And another friend's 3 year old son told my friend that he doesn't want to eat breakfast with her anymore and she should eat in her room. They suck sometimes. I feel your pain.

  18. I don't have an adopted little one yet, so I have no wisdom to contribute on that front, but I do have a daughter with Aspergers, and ... yeah, a lot of the time, she kind of seems like a robot or an alien who is running tests on me to see what statements get what reactions. I turn off my emotions (or my visible ones) and try to ... I don't know, take control of the conversation, find something positive to say and end the little chat ASAP. As in, "I'm so glad you love Daddy so much. I do, too." Or, "I could never move out; I would miss you too much!" Or, "I still love you and am so glad I get to be your mommy."

    About to cry? "Hey, those were mean words! I feel like taking a break from them. I'll be back in a few minutes." Then give yourself a time-out.

    At least in my situation, I tend to think it's best not to get into a big thing about how the child hurt mommy's feelings ... because that's what the child is trying to do, and it gives them lots of attention. My friends who respond to I-hate-yous with "You're breaking Mommy's heart!" or vinegar in the mouth or whatever get a lot more I-hate-yous ... I've gotten exactly one (girlie lost TV privileges for lying; I just told her, "I'm sorry you feel that way, but I care more about you being an honest person than whether you love me").

    Sorry ... I'm definitely not promoting myself as a perfect parent by any means ... but this is one area in which I've had some success ... perhaps I am part alien-robot myself? :)

    ~ Jordana


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