The other day, I pick up Coraline from school 10 minutes early because I haven’t seen her for exactly 24 hours and miss her like crazy. I walk through the door; she runs to me, wraps her arms around my neck and squeezes — mama heaven. But when we get in the car and I ask her how her day was, she says “Bad. Because of you. It’s all your fault.” Her look is sour and accusatory, and she has her arms crossed sternly over her tiny little chest. And she keeps going: I don’t love you. You are not my friend. I wish you weren’t my mama. Ouch, ouch, and double ouch. I say nothing, though my tight jaw and white knuckled grip on the steering wheel betray enough of a reaction that she continues. I only love my daddy and my grandma. I’m breathing very deeply now. And when she asks where we’re going and I tell her home (instead of the bookstore, which had been our destination prior to the anti-mama meltdown), she starts screaming and crying and I can’t help but explain to her why we’re not going to the bookstore: She’s being mean and hurtful and needs to chill out. This only adds fuel to her anti-mama fire.
When we’re finally home, my inner three-year-old wants to cry and scream and call her a meanie and find my own mama for a hug and reassurance that I am, in fact, not as unloved as I feel in that moment. But since I can’t do that, I just go about unpacking her bag, checking the mail, and ignoring her, which feels awful. It clearly felt awful to her as well, because after a few minutes of the silent treatment she followed me around professing her love and apologizing (while requesting television and a snack). Her fury passed, but I felt so disappointed, insecure, and hurt that I couldn’t help but meet her renewed sweetness with more silence.
This is what I hate the most about parenting: These moments when you feel you lack the grace and maturity necessary to remain a warm, unconditionally loving teacher to your child as they lash out at you. As if they handed out thick skin and reinforced hearts to all new parents on their way out of the maternity ward, but somehow you went out the wrong door and never got yours. So your toddler says “I don’t love you,” and instead of letting it roll off your back as the impulsive, frustrated exclamation it is, you just feel hurt, vulnerable, and very, very child-like.
I could only maintain the silent treatment for a few extra minutes before my own guilt started to overwhelm me. I scooped up Coraline for a little talk. I pointed out that she seemed to be really frustrated and angry, and asked if she knew why she felt that way. She told me she just had a hard day, and wanted to leave it at that. I told her that saying mean things to the people we love because we’re frustrated or angry isn’t okay, and she apologized again. Then she asked if we could watch Pinky Dinky Doo together, and the afternoon went on.
That wasn’t the first, or the last, of the anti-mama rants — there was a particularly lovely “Mommy is the meanest” song today after I put the kibosh on her pouring out all her new paints into her tea set — and I know that I just have to get used to it. But I eagerly await the day when I can take a cue from my doula, who once shared that her go-to response to her teenage daughter’s “I hate you!” was always a sly and bewildered “But I’m so cool.” Parenting Rule #1: Fake it ’til you make it.