When you don’t connect easily with your child

If your relationship with one of your children doesn’t flow effortlessly, you’re not alone. Two mamas share their stories and a family therapist offers advice…

difficult relationship with child

When my first daughter was born, I knew nothing would ever be the same again. She instantly had me by the heart and soul.

For the first two years of her life, we were besties. I took her to the beach, the park, swimming lessons and music classes. I read to her constantly. I taught her how to speak French. I breastfed her tirelessly for 21 months. I woke up to her several times a night (for far too long). I pureed organic food like a champ.

But then something happened that would change the course of our lives forever. When Arabella was two, I fell pregnant with twin girls.

To say that everything changed overnight isn’t an overstatement. I quickly became too tired and heavy to keep up with our previous schedule of fun. I needed a nap every day. Fun Mommy suddenly became Tired Boring Mommy.

The moment everything changed

One day, Arabella hurt herself and started wailing. Instead of coming to me for comfort, she ran to her dad. And from that moment on, he became her number one. She would turn to him for everything – fun, comfort, hugs, snacks, bike rides and tea parties. Some days, I felt invisible.

I struggled with a mixed bag of emotions. On the one hand, I felt guilty because I wasn’t able to be the mom I used to be and I worried that I was pushing her away. On the other, I felt a sense of relief because I just couldn’t keep up with the demands of a toddler while I was growing two more babies in my belly.

I also felt jealous of Arabella’s relationship with her dad. And embarrassed about feeling jealous because I didn’t want to take anything away from them. It was heart-wrenching.

And then we were five

When the twins were born, I did my best to make Arabella feel important and included. I spent as much one-on-one time with her as I could. But the fact was that the twins demanded a lot of my time and attention.

Over the course of the next couple of years, our relationship went up and down like a rollercoaster. Sometimes she’d have “Mommy phases” where she’d turn to me for comfort and ask me to play with her again. It felt like the old days and I loved it. But other times, she’d shrug off my hugs and constantly ask me where Dad was when he was at work.

I teetered between periods of acceptance and periods of guilt and worry. Sometimes I thought, “Arabella and her dad are two peas in a pod. They look alike, their personalities are similar – they’re genetically wired to be closer. It’s fine, I’m OK with it.” Other times I’d think, “What’s wrong with me? This is all my fault. I’m not trying hard enough to work on our relationship and make us closer. I need to stop being so lazy – I’m the mom and it’s up to me to fix this.”

So, which was it? What was I supposed to do?

A family therapist weighs in

After years of worrying about it, I finally asked my friend Liza Kramer, a brilliant family therapist and mom of five, for her advice. And this is what she told me.

“I think there’s such a thing as ‘goodness of fit’ when it comes to relationships between parents and kids,” she said. “Some kids flow so easily with our personalities. One of my sons looks like me and talks like me… it’s just easy.

“There are others who make us work harder. One of my daughters and I are chalk and cheese in every way. I feel guilty so often: am I not warm enough, not loving enough? Lately I’ve been trying really hard to say, ‘Of course it’s all enough!’

“She’s a super-independent kid who knows exactly what she wants, so she doesn’t need me all the time. She doesn’t need endless time or kisses. What she needs is to know that I SEE her. That I see what she’s doing, what she’s struggling with and what she’s great at. The minute that I let her know that I saw her – my strong, smart, independent kid – she calmed down so much.

“It’s really challenging raising independent kids because we feel guilty for not being MORE. But sometimes I feel like they’re 15-year-olds trapped in five-year-old bodies. They have stuff to do and they need us to get out of their way! Just see me, Mommy, and watch me fly. When I put my daughter in this context, I dropped a lot of the guilt.”

Mom guilt is universal

While I was shocked to hear that such an experienced mother and family therapist experienced the same #momguilt as me, it made me feel a lot better. I realized that we’re all in the same boat and we’re all petrified of getting it wrong.

Mama-of-two Samantha worries that she broke her daughter’s trust when she was just a baby. “Ava is four and we have such a fractured relationship,” she says. “I think it’s because I didn’t breastfeed her long enough and I also did some pretty intense sleep training with controlled crying from when she was really young. While she’s a great sleeper, I think it did emotional damage, so I’m not doing it again with my second.

“There’s just this barrier between Ava and me. I try hard, but then it feels fake which makes the relationship more strained. And when I see how easy the relationship is between her and my husband, I feel jealous. It’s terrible.”

Mom guilt may be universal, but Liza believes it’s “so unhelpful” because most of the stories we tell ourselves about how we’re messing up our kids are plain wrong. “Even if it feels like your child is slipping away from you, they’re not,” she says. “You just have to figure out the right way of being there for them.”

As for the Daddy obsession, Liza says she struggled with it too. “One of my daughters always chose my husband over me for a long time,” she says. “While a part of me felt upset, the bigger part of me thought, ‘Wow, what a sweet, sensitive little girl. Instead of breaking down because I was busy with the baby or acting jealous, she went to my husband. How clever is she? She’s living every little girl’s dream.’”

Liza wants all moms to know that they’re irreplaceable. “No matter what your child’s relationship with their dad or anyone else is, there are many times when all they want is Mommy. And you will be there. Seeing them as they are – in all their strength, independence and brilliance.”