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Dear Jenny: My Toddler Says He Doesn't Love Me

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Our resident advice-giver-outer Jenny True provides shouty, full-hearted answers to your niggling questions about pregnancy and parenthood in her column Dear Jenny. Warning: This is not a baby-and-me singalong, this is about yelling into the cosmos and actually hearing something back, sometimes in the form of an all-caps swear. Jenny isn't an ~expert~, but she has a lot of experience being outraged on your behalf. To submit your questions to Jenny, email advice@romper.com.

Hi, Jenny,

I'm in the middle of a nasty divorce and my can't-be-ex-soon-enough-husband and I share custody of our 3-year-old son. I have about 60 percent of the timeshare. The problem is, for the past several months (we separated about two years ago; it's taking forever to finalize) my son has been telling me things like, "I don't love you; I only love Daddy" and "Mommy doesn't love me anymore." I just have this terrible hunch that my almost-ex is programming him this way. (The hunch is partly based on my son telling me so.) And whether he is or not, I don't know what to do.

I tell my son I love him all the time; I create mantras that stick for a little while and then (usually after a couple days with daddy) he doesn't repeat them anymore; I give him plenty of physical affection; I try to be a good mom in all the balanced ways. But I am still so scared that he might not be sure whether we love each other. Do you have any ideas how I can reassure my son that I love him and that it's OK for him to love me too?

Heartsick

Dear Heartsick,

Your ex sounds like a dick.

Why do people do shitty things to each other, especially the people closest to them? Why do I? I've been thinking about this a lot these last 17 months, since I brought a child into the world. It has made me consider the previous 40 years, and I am aghast that someone who once shoplifted from a cancer charity has been put in charge of a child.

When my son arrived in the world, I decided to change. He was perfect. Smooth-skinned. Healthy. And I had the idea, as many parents do, that I would make every right choice — just make every right choice, every day, calmly and with intention, considering all options and going with the right one — until my child was 18, and his happiness and health would remain in my control.

Then one day, when he was three weeks old, I tried to cut his nails. Almost immediately I nipped the tip of his index finger, drawing blood and making him cry. It took my breath away. My son's happiness and health had spun out of my control already, and for his first scratch I DID IT MYSELF.

Many months later, he rolled off the couch. Then he fell off the back porch. And he has continued falling and bonking his head and collecting bruises, including a few right on his face, scratches, and even — I CAN'T EVEN HANDLE IT — a tiny burn across his right index finger and thumb from when he reached right past me and touched the edge of a frying pan cooling on the stove.

I try to balance my son's daily dance with Things That Can Hurt Him by letting him know, every day, that I love him and have his back. My way of doing this will be different from other parents', but the things I'm sure all kids need are human touch, consistency, and a sense of security, so I kiss him, hug him (unless he screams NOOOOOO and hits me in the face), and tell him I love him every day.

The dread that I am doing it all wrong, or that I don't have the capacity to do anything right, or that factors outside my control — including other people — are going to hurt my son remains. Then, this morning after breakfast, my husband said, "This morning he said, 'Blub, blub,' and pulled the Blub Blub book out of the pile and brought it to me to read to him, and I thought, He's having such a nice childhood. All this consistency and calm."

Then he continued loading the dishwasher as I burst into tears. MY SON IS HAVING A NICE CHILDHOOD. ALSO MY HUSBAND IS LOADING THE DISHWASHER.

It's definitely possible that your son isn't sure whether you love him. And unfortunately, unless you hide a microphone in his backpack when he goes to Daddy's house ALWAYS AN OPTION, it's impossible to know whether your ex is causing this. It could be your ex. Kids parrot what they hear, but if your son is parroting your ex, it could be that your ex has, in fact, "programmed" your son to believe you don't love him… or he has said things like, "Mommy doesn't love me anymore" or "I don't love Mommy," and that's what you're hearing — your son trying these things on to see how you'll react in his quest to understand what's happening.

It could also be that your son senses the turmoil between the two of you, feels unstable, and is testing whether, if he says the most destabilizing thing of all, he will be met with love. Believe it or not, he might be saying the same things to his father.

Either way, it's our job to meet kids with love and understanding (patience is great, but show me a parent who's patient all the time and I will hand over my son). When kids are consistently met with love, it feeds their positive self-image — their sense that they exist and have agency in the world. When they are not consistently met with love, they develop a negative self-image and grow up to make bad decisions, such as snorting something on a table without asking what it was first and not negotiating a starting salary of $28,000.

Whatever the cause, your son isn't saying he doesn't love you because he doesn't love you. But for whatever reason, at this time, he needs reassurance, and he's looking for consistency in your response. So although it's killing you, it sounds like you're doing the right thing already. Whenever he says, "I don't love you; I only love Daddy," say, "Well, I love you, no matter what," and give him a hug.

When he says, "Mommy doesn't love me anymore," say, "Of course I love you. I love you very much. I will always love you."

You can make a game of it, too: "How much does Mommy love you? Thiiiiiis much? More than all the mugs in the kitchen? More than all our furniture? What do you think?"

It's very likely that this phase will pass, because eventually your son will be conditioned to understand that every time he feels uncertain and expresses it to you in his way, he will get love (rather than, for example, defensiveness, anger, hurt, or the third degree about what's happening at his father's house).

On a practical note, if you're hammering out a custody agreement in court, you may be able to ask the judge to rule that neither parent can disparage the other in front of your child. Not disparaging the other parent then becomes a court order, and violation of a court order is a serious offense with serious ramifications.

HEARING YOUR SON DOUBT YOUR LOVE MUST BE INCREDIBLY PAINFUL AND I CRIED WRITING THIS. KNOWING WE CAN'T PROTECT OUR CHILDREN FROM PAIN IS DEVASTATING. BUT OUR JOB ISN'T TO PROTECT THEM FROM PAIN, IT'S TO PREPARE THEM TO DEAL WITH IT, AND YOU ARE DOING EVERYTHING RIGHT BY SHOWING YOUR SON CONSISTENCY AND LOVE.

YOU GOT THIS.

<3 Jenny

Dying to ask Jenny a question? Email advice@romper.com.