Dear Dr. Debbie,
My boyfriend and I have been together for 8 months and moved in together about 2 months ago. I am finishing my college degree online, so I am staying home with his 3-year-old daughter.
I was more than okay with this, as his daughter and I have a great relationship. Her mother isn’t involved in her life and she has started calling me Mama. After talking about it with each other and with her, we all decided that if that was what she was comfortable with, then we were, too.
Around that same time, however, I began to notice some behavioral changes. She will fake a cough or cry about a boo boo that has long since healed, just so she can get her father’s attention away from me. It had just been the two of them for so long, and we feel she’s having trouble adjusting to having a new person in Daddy’s life. We have started having alone time for the two of them to play, read, go to the store, etc. We’ve also tried talking to her about sharing time like you share toys. This hasn’t stopped her from trying to interrupt our conversations or push me off the couch.
Pulled In but Pushed Out
Don’t miss last week’s column Making bedtime a smooth transition — Good Parenting
Dear In and Out
Congratulations on being taken in as a mother figure! And kudos for applying for the position. For your boyfriend’s daughters sake, I hope this new family arrangement is a permanent one. Losing a mother figure can be harder than never having had one.
The phase your relationship is in at the moment — apparent jealousy of her father’s attentions to you — is actually quite normal on two accounts.
First, it is very typical for children of a single parent to get used to being the center of his or her attention — sharing time, inside jokes and even decision-making on issues beyond their years. This is not to say that children should be left out of big decisions, such as what you will be called.
Daddy has you to talk things over with now, and his little girl may sense that her opinion carries less weight than before you came along. Their daily routines, and even Dad’s daily moods, are affected by Dad’s new relationship, and even more so when you have become a member of the household. His daughter is experiencing adjustments to who’s there when she goes to bed and wakes up, who sits where at the breakfast table and how the majority gets to decide what is watched on television.
She’s now outnumbered. Your impact on the household may include the foods she eats, the brand of detergent that washes her clothes and the style of music that gets played in the car. If you and her dad are opposites in any way, as many couples are, this little girl may be experiencing some confusion. For example, one of you may think it counts as dinner time to eat PBJ while watching TV, while the other insists on a no-screen time meal at the table with plates and forks. Either style works when only one adult is in the house, but eventually a common standard, in one direction or the other, will prevail.
As a matter of practicality, and out of respect for your happiness, Daddy and you should clarify which decisions need to be made jointly, which can be made in the absence of each other, which need your daughter’s input and which are totally up to her. Generally, it takes about eight months to adjust to a new member of the household as shifts and compromises work themselves out.
Secondly, there is a stage of child development, typically ages 2 to 5 years (some say 3 to 6 years), that Sigmund Freud identified as the “Oedipus complex” for boys and later, Carl Jung named the “Electra complex” for girls. Oedipus and Electra were mythological Greek figures who unwittingly found themselves romantically hooked up with their opposite sex parent after killing off the same sex parent. Of course, this is all played out in psychoanalytical fantasy. Nobody dies and no child actually marries their parent. However, children at this age wrestle with trying to be the exclusive object of attention of the opposite sex parent as they work through being satisfied with merely being similar to the same sex parent in a much less dramatic fashion.
At age 4, it is considered evidence of a solid gender identification when a girl says she is going to marry her daddy. She may also declare her professional goal to be similar to what she understands her mother does for a living. Or she aspires to be a mommy. Or maybe she’ll be a teacher or a ballerina, or one of the growing number of female superheroes she has learned about. Pushing you away from Daddy is a normal behavior when you are what she wants to grow up to be like. So congratulations on the (temporary) rejection!
You are on the right track with making time for just daddy and daughter. But at the same time, her rejections of you may be less painful if you also make lots of time for just you and her to do things together. This will strengthen your attachment to each other, with your own inside jokes, as well as give her more opportunities to take on speech, mannerisms, opinions, interests and values that define who you are and who she may someday be exactly like.
Being a good caregiver is a noble pursuit. To this end, you can take advantage of an online Help Guide just for stepfamilies. There may always be a glimmer of doubt between you, that if you were her “real” mom, things might be different. Be that as it may, what the two of you have is precious and positive, and by all indications, pointed in the right direction.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com