'Why do I feel so bad and sad about this?': Mom seeks advice on her pandemic baby's dad phase

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"Even though we've always had a strong bond, since the age of 1, it's daddy everything. Sometimes she lashes out at me".
"Even though we've always had a strong bond, since the age of 1, it's daddy everything. Sometimes she lashes out at me".

It can be a terrible shock when the child you carried and birthed suddenly finds a new favourite: daddy.

And while the daddy phase is typical, it can be off-putting for primary caregiving moms to learn that despite all their constant love and care, they're not their little one's preference.

For one local mom, her daughter's daddy phase began early, starting from the age of one and has continued until the age of two. She says it's become so evident that she gets insensitive remarks from family members about it.

For the mom, it's left her guilt gauge at total capacity.

Also read: Worrying about being a perfect mom makes it harder to be a good parent 

Sharing her experience, she writes:

My daughter is all about her dad, especially at weekends. When I ask her something like 'do you want your fruit?', I get a meltdown, and she screams "daddy, daddy" at the top of her lungs. Then daddy appears, and she calms down and eats her fruit.

The thing is, I had my daughter in the middle of the pandemic. I had her prematurely and needed an emergency C-section. I had Covid then and went onto a ventilator.

I didn't meet my daughter until two weeks later, and I have a lot of mum guilt because of my condition.

Even though we've always had a strong bond, since the age of 1, it's daddy everything. Sometimes she lashes out at me. Other times she's so loving. I hate seeing her upset. But sometimes, she runs past me saying, 'daddy'.

I'm my daughter's full-time caregiver. People have commented, 'she doesn't like you; she prefers her dad', and 'she doesn't care about you'. Those came from my family.

Why do I feel so bad and sad about this? I hope this is a phase. I love her bond with her dad, but I would love her to come to me when her dad is here too.

'A preference for dad' 

"It is fairly normal for children to develop 'favourite' parents during their early years, and this is generally nothing to worry about from a development perspective," assures educational psychologist Lloyd Ripley-Evans

It turns out that our attempts at figuring life out begin much earlier than we think. At the toddler phase, Ripley-Evans says, children begin to explore their relationships and their newfound ability "to exert a sense of control". 

And while there's no exact time frame for when this phase begins and ends, the educational psychologist says it typically starts at age 2 and ends at age 5. 

In the case of the toddler daughter's early daddy phase, Ripley-Evans says that it may be due to the mom's traumatic birth experience and the stress of living through the pandemic. 

"Due to mom being away and unable to spend time with her daughter, dad was the parent that she initially bonded with, so this could contribute to a preference for dad… During periods of stress and disruption, children tend to seek out a 'favourite' parent more as they attempt to manage their situation by focusing on their comfort zones". 

According to clinical psychologist Tsholofelo Jood children also tend to favour the parent who is not their primary caregiver. 

"This is because, in their minds, the primary caregiver is always there to meet their needs. When the other parent is around, they want to try and get their needs for affection met by them as well," she says. 

Also see: Working mom burn-out: How to recognise it, and how to prevent it 

'Many moms feel this guilt' 

Be that as it may, Ripley-Evans urges the mom not to engage with the mom guilt she feels since her traumatic birth left her completely powerless. 

"The reality is that many moms feel this guilt for factors that are completely out of their control. They did nothing wrong". 

If the feelings of guilt persist and starts affecting relationships with other family members, Ripley-Evans suggests seeking professional support. 

Jood agrees, adding that it is common for new moms who've experienced a traumatic birth to carry on with the business of caregiving without prioritising and processing their intense feelings. 

This tends to result in the repression of feelings and stifling of the mother-child bond.

"It is important to note that a traumatic birth affects a mother's mental state and that mothers who have experienced this type of trauma need to process the impact of the trauma on them. Most moms continue with child minding, and their unprocessed trauma affects how present they are for the child. Processing these feelings through therapy will allow the new mother to work on bonding with the child". 

Societal perceptions

Counselling Psychologist Reabetsoe Buys, also known as Shrink Mama, says that mom guilt often arises due to unfair societal expectations which imply that motherhood should just come naturally. 

"The societal perception and expectation is to immediately bond and feel maternal, but this does not always happen. It is important to recognise this," she highlights.

Like Ripley-Evans, Buys says that due to the mom's initial separation from her baby, the dad and daughter may have formed their bond first; however, there is still time for the mom to build her connection with her daughter. 

"While the feelings of guilt are completely normal, it is important for mom to forgive herself for what has happened. None of it was intentional, and she has been doing her best since she recovered. Mom needs to focus on building a closer relationship with her daughter by ensuring that their time together is not only around everyday tasks like bathing, feeding and bedtime routines but also fun and free play," Buys advises. 

'How to create future opportunities of closeness' 

Kate Armstrong, an educational psychologist, specialising in infant mental health, says mom guilt and feelings of inadequacy are all too common among moms.

And while striving for parenting perfection may seem sensible, being 'good enough' is the sweet spot parents should aim for instead. 

"Studies suggest that children need mothers who are 'good enough' and that 'too good' or perfect mothering is not always helpful as it does not give the infant opportunities to overcome challenges and develop resilience. Mothers who show up, do their best and have enough moments of connection are able to buffer the effects of the negative experiences that life provides," she says. 

Armstrong, who has a special interest in neuroscience and parenting, also highlights how a baby's brain is incredibly resilient.

"Many studies show the capacity of an infant's brain to develop new neural networks and adapt to the environment. This is called neuroplasticity," Armstrong explains.

The educational psychologist assures the mom that since she has been able to bond with her daughter, the connection will only grow with time. 

"It would be helpful for you to focus on those moments of connection, joy and shared pleasure that you have with your daughter. In these moments, pause to think what you are both doing and what made this time of connection possible. Ground yourself in those moments, take a breath and notice what is happening. In this way, you learn how to create future opportunities of closeness and connection," she advises the mom.

How to deal with tantrums 

Armstrong, Buys, Jood and Ripley-Evans provided a few tips on how to deal with tantrums, which at two are completely normal. On a more positive note, Armstrong says that this shows the two-year-old has managed to grow and mature as she should despite a challenging start.

And even here, the mom should feel proud, she says.

"It sounds as though you and your daughter had a difficult and traumatic start. Despite this, a healthy attachment is developing along with the normal milestones such as tantrums. Well done, after such a complicated start. I wish you all the best on your parenting journey," Armstrong says.

Here's a look at the experts' advice on dealing with tantrums.

Buys' advice:

Tantrum triggers

"Try and understand why the tantrum is happening - what triggered it? Avoid situations which tend to trigger tantrums. Make sure that your child has a good routine so that they know what to expect. Sometimes tantrums are triggered by feeling overwhelmed by sudden changes. Be mindful of when your child is tired or hungry; they are more likely to get upset by small things in these instances".

Check for safety 

"When a tantrum is happening, ensure that your child is not going to hurt themselves or if you are holding them, make sure you're holding them firmly. Also, give your child 'choices' so that you are not saying no to everything (e.g., you can brush your teeth now or after you put your toys away). They will still do what you need them to but feel they had some agency in the decision".

Focus on the positive

"Praise good behaviour by positively reinforcing the things they do well or right. This is likely to motivate for more 'good' behaviour".

Ripley-Evans' advice: 

Stay calm

 "Tantrums can be difficult to manage, irrespective of the reason for it. In these challenging moments, we need to try our best to stay calm as the child is already distressed. Adding a distressed parent to the situation can antagonise things further. By staying calm, we can try to offer some sense of comfort and reassurance to the child. Sometimes distractions work very well to shift the child's attention off the issue at hand (but remaining calm as the parent while distracting is important)". 

Give them alone time 

"Other times, it may be necessary to walk away calmly (after offering some reassurance). This can allow the child a moment to themselves, after which the parent can return and attempt to address the situation. It is important to remember that in these moments, we need to manage our own emotions as a parent; adding our emotions only complicates the situation".   

Armstrong's advice:

Understand their emotion

"Her developing brain does not yet have the capacity to process the feeling, and she needs your help to build the brain architecture to process it. A useful approach is noticing the tantrum and first connecting with the emotion she may be feeling. E.g., 'I can see you are really angry you wanted daddy to give you your fruit and mummy is doing it, it makes you angry when mummy does this'. By reflecting back what she is feeling, she starts to learn the word for the feeling and feels you acknowledge her emotion. For a child to hear that her parent understands her distress and there is a name for it can be reassuring and comforting. We need to encourage our children to feel things and find the language. Once we have connected with the emotion, then we can then address the behaviour".

You are not a bad parent 

"Toddlers need help to learn how to regulate their emotions. To be able to do this, we as parents need to manage our own feelings first. It is helpful to see the tantrum as a learning opportunity and a time to 'step up' your parenting game. Tantrums are not a sign of a bad parent or a parent who can't control their child; they are a moment that child needs more assistance".

Jood's advice: 

An alternative approach

"The best way to help a child find another way of communicating their needs is through modelling what the alternative is. So when a child is having a tantrum, you acknowledge the feeling they may be feeling, what the trigger is (perhaps the reader's daughter does not enjoy fruits and may want something else instead) and let the child know that the situation will not change because of their tantrum. Show them you are there to offer them comfort because they may feel upset. By using this method, you are validating the underlying feeling, acknowledging the trigger, maintaining limits (letting them know that their behaviour will not change the outcome) and offering them soothing". 

Hold the line

"Children sometimes use tantrums to see if parents will change their rules, and we don't want kids to learn that their tantrums can conquer rules. If a child learns that their tantrums are powerful enough to undermine rules, they may feel triumphant in the moment. However, the developmental implications are not good, as no child wants to feel that they are more powerful than their parents. It is tremendously scary for a child to feel that they are more powerful than their caregivers. It is psychologically safer for a child to know that the caregiver is robust enough to contain them". 

The experts: 

Kate Armstrong

Mother and grandmother Kate Armstrong has been an Educational Psychologist in Cape Town for over 20 years. She recently completed a Master's Degree in Infant Mental Health through Stellenbosch University. This training focused on the early years (first 1000 days of a child's life) and the importance of the attachment relationship for optimal brain development. Kate is passionate about helping children and families thrive.

Reabetsoe Buys

Reabetsoe Buys, AKA Shrink Mama, is a registered and experienced Counselling Psychologist who is also a parent to an adventurous little boy. She practices online and in Midrand, Johannesburg. She has experience working with children using play therapy and offering parental guidance via resources to assist parents in supporting their children in the home environment. 

Lloyd Ripley-Evans 

Educational Psychologist Lloyd Ripley-Evans is based in Bryanston and is passionate about working with families as they navigate the often turbulent transitions that naturally occur over time. He practices from a systemic perspective, focusing on the individual and the environment in which they exist.  

Tsholofelo Jood 

Tsholofelo Jood is a clinical psychologist based at the Tara Psychiatric Hospital (The H Moross Centre) in Johannesburg. She is also a lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand.


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