By Charlotte Hilton Andersen, REDBOOK
Mother love: For something that is supposed to be so natural it is amazing how unnaturally it comes to some of us. When my first son was born and they placed him in my arms, I remember waiting for that intense feeling of euphoria to wash over me like I'd heard other mothers describe. It didn't. It turned out that I get serious post-partum anxiety and while I felt fiercely protective of him and very attentive to him (sometimes overly so-I also get a touch of OCD in those first 6 weeks and I was sure if I didn't watch him breathe, he would stop), my heart didn't melt every time I looked at him. In fact, it usually sank as I wondered how on earth I was going to keep this fragile little person alive in such a scary world. Thankfully for me, meds and my hormones leveling out helped ameliorate those feelings and by the time he was a few months old I was totally on the gaga-in-love train. But I well remember that initial feeling of coldness in my chest, the feeling that looked down at my newborn and said "Who are you?"
In REDBOOK this month, Jenny (not her real name) writes a poignant confessional essay titled "Why Don't I Like My Own Child?" detailing her struggle to learn to accept her special needs daughter Sophie for who she is and not who Jenny expected her to be. From birth, Sophie was physically and developmentally delayed-the polar opposite of the vivacious child Jenny had always dreamed of having-eventually receiving a diagnosis of low human growth hormone at age 7. The essay could have gone many directions from here but Jenny chose to focus on the most heartbreaking and also most controversial part of her journey: the fact that she deeply disliked her daughter for the first seven years of life.
But this is not a story of mental illness but rather a battle of wills. Indeed when her second child was born she realized, "I might have thought I was lacking a maternal instinct, but when [Lilah] was born, I was blown away by overwhelming Mommy Love. Lilah was exactly the baby I'd envisioned." Lilah was easy to love. Sophie was not. "It got to the point where I viewed Sophie's every move through a lens of failure." (Side note: Where do mom confessionals cross the line? A few months ago, moms were in an uproar over an essay from a mom admitting she liked one child more than the other and now we have a mom admitting to not liking her child at all. What's left to confess? Don't answer that.)
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I think every mom in her darker moments has looked at her child and thought "I really don't like you right now," but what Jenny is talking about is different, a more pervasive and constant feeling of dislike that not only lived in her mind but was manifested in her actions and words to her daughter. Unable to let go of the ideal Sophie she had created in her mind, she unsuccessfully tried to force her daughter into that mold. She writes, "I felt guilty that I was basically repelled by my own child. Who wouldn't? But honestly, the guilt was overshadowed by a colossal sense of disappointment."
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While Jenny says that she had a "moment of reckoning" when Sophie was four and a friend called her out on her bad behavior, it wasn't until Sophie began hormone therapy and made great strides developmentally and physically that Jenny is able to write, "As the diagnosis sank in, I found myself feeling more tender, more motherly toward Sophie. I had resented her for letting me down, when it was I who was letting her down. I instantly regretted scads of horrible things I'd said to her over the years and prayed that the damage wasn't irreparable. What a wake-up call."
Oddly enough that was the moment Jenny lost my sympathy. She only learned her lesson once her daughter was "fixed." A parent's expectations are enough pressure on a child but when you make your love conditional upon meeting them it becomes a soul killer. I remember being locked in a battle of wills with my 4-year-old and losing my temper when he dissolved into a tantrum. My friend looked at me very sternly and said, "He's 4, that's why he's having a tantrum. You're 30, what's your excuse?" The parent-child relationship is unequal from the beginning. They are not our peers or our friends or even our mini-me's-they are our responsibility and that means putting aside our own agendas, our own fears, sometimes even our own feelings for their sake.
Jenny's husband, anticipating the heated reaction his wife's story is sure to draw, tries to explain the dynamic in an addendum titled "My wife is a good mom": "Try as she might, Jenny couldn't "fix" Sophie, and I think that scared her. [...] But sometimes things aren't broken, they're just different and built to excel at things you're not." I don't think Jenny is a bad mom. I give her a lot of credit for recognizing her issues and for trying to fix herself along with Sophie. I also give her credit for talking about something that I'm sure other moms have felt too. I just hope she learns to be gentler to both herself and to Sophie.
Do you see Jenny's essay as a step forward in recognizing the negative emotions that sometimes come with motherhood? Or is this one confession that has gone too far? Is there anything that secretly disappoints you about your child? Take our anonymous poll.
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Reprinted with permission of Hearst Communications, Inc.