When I was in college, my then-boyfriend shared a memory with me about the one time he said “I hate you” to his mother. The details are fuzzy, but I remember that a short while later he found her sitting on the front stoop, crying.
That story made a profound impression on me for two reasons. First, because I was fascinated by a style of parenting that allowed for such freedom of expression. If I had said anything even remotely similar to my own mother she would have come after me with the nearest improvised punitive apparatus (a brush, a shoehorn…she wasn’t picky) and given me a thorough what-for. (Korean mothers don’t play.)
Second, because I came to understand that motherhood must be a really difficult undertaking.
In the wake of that epiphany, I considered all the hurtful, thoughtless, ungrateful things I had said or done to my own mom over the years. I wondered whether it ever wounded her—whether once the anger had subsided, my mom had to find a quiet place to cry. Just the idea of it filled me with shame.
Well guess what? Karma eventually delivered a dose of my own medicine in the form of my daughter.
After I finished bathing my children the other day, I took Gioia, my youngest, out of the tub to dry off. Well, for whatever reason—that set Luna, my oldest daughter, off. (I did not recognize the calm before the storm in the slightest.) Suddenly, she was weeping and deteriorating into a mass of kindergarten angst right in front of my eyes.
The following conversation ensued:
“Why are you upset?” I asked.
“BECAUSE YOU TOOK GIOIA OUT FIRRRRST!” She replied.
“But I always take her out first! Why is this upsetting you all of a sudden?”
“Okay, well let’s finish so you can come out, too.”
“Well, can I watch a show?”
“It’s not happening, Luna.”
“Fine! After my bath I’m going to my room by myself so I don’t have to hear you anymore! I DON’T WANT YOU, MOMMY!”
I realize this may not seem all that significant in the grand scheme of the constant emotional roller coaster that is motherhood, but it shook me. It was the first time Luna had expressed that level of vitriol toward me and it was like looking down the barrel of a gun and seeing a bullet with “I hate you” etched on it.
It felt like it was only a matter of time until I’d be dealing with the impact of that particular sentiment. Maybe I would never actually hear the words themselves, but she would definitely think them at some point, and the promise of that stung.
To my everlasting pride, I kept it together in this bath time meltdown moment.
I calmly replied, “That’s okay. Go have time to yourself and we can talk about this when you’re ready.” It was like an out-of-body experience. My astral self was floating above the scene, doing a slow-clap at my poised and mindful parenting. Meanwhile my actual self was in upheaval. Hot tears began forming and threatened to make a break for it.
While Luna stomped into her room in a disgruntled huff and Gioia played in the living room, two teardrops escaped and plopped off the end of my nose into my palm. Part of me felt silly having this response to what was obviously a childish outburst, but I also recognized there was real pain there.
So I took advantage of Luna’s absence and Gioia’s distraction to sit for a quiet moment and examine the source, and I made an interesting discovery.
My pain wasn’t pain at all. It was fear.
Here’s the thing—from the moment our babies are born, we know it’s only a matter of time until we’re less needed and less adored. That one day, after the blush of toddlerhood fades, the high esteem we’ve been held in will lessen with each passing year. Our children will someday prefer someone else as a source of comfort, wisdom, or companionship.
And this fall from grace will only be exacerbated and accelerated by our obligation to discipline, to withhold, to make tough decisions that we believe are right but that our children will resent and often fail to understand. We will be blamed for denying our children’s happiness through our responsible parenting, whether it’s saying “no” to ice cream or making them work summer jobs.
It's an eventuality we’re prepared for, at least intellectually.
So what my fear stems from isn’t the notion of no longer being needed or idolized or forgiven or even respected. What I fear is the loss of my daughters’ love.
These girls who I would walk through fire for, whose little bodies I carried within my own, whose every cell I hold in such tender regard, will one day despise me for some reason or another. The unquestioning, unconditional love they once felt for me will be a distant memory. What scares me is, what if it doesn’t come back? What if my transgressions, real or perceived, make it so my daughters never feel close to me again?
All parents make well-intended but ultimately disastrous decisions, and it's impossible to know which ones will tarnish our relationship with our children forever. And so, many families are unable to overcome these struggles—their grievances sit like a stone in the familial shoe, never allowing a step forward without an invisible but painful reminder.
If that ever came to pass for me and my children—if I felt their hearts harden toward me—I wouldn’t be able to bear it.
And that's what was making me cry. Not the impulsive and overwrought "I don't want you!" from my 6-year-old, but the potential of a conscious and deliberate "I don't want you!" from a grown version of her who would mean it.
I sat in the coziest chair in our living room doing this soul-searching for the better part of half an hour when I heard Luna’s door open. She came to me, climbed into my lap, and laid her head on my chest.
We sat quietly together for awhile, she seeking forgiveness and me granting it, both in silence. I stroked her head and sent up a prayer that through the inescapable hurdles to come (which all mothers and children face), it would always be like this. That even if it occasionally became buried under animosity and scorn, even if it took distance and time, her love would surface like a bubble coming up through the mud, and she would seek the familiar thrum of my heartbeat.
No words necessary.