Do You Have to Like Your Kids?
Unconditional Love Does Not Mean Unconditional Like
Thursday, May 29, 2008
I was swaddled in nursing bras and burp cloths when a married-and-childless friend came to visit me and my 6-month-old. I needed the company. And she needed answers.
Emotionally, she felt the pull of parenting. But intellectually, she had doubts.
“What if you have kids,” she asked, tentatively, “and you don’t like them?”
She flinched when she said it, as though the words might puncture and deflate our friendship. She didn’t know that a mere hour prior I had been explaining to my drooling neo-human that if he and I were going to get along, he would need to cease from spitting up in my hair.
“You really don’t need to worry about that,” I chuckled.
“Because when they’re yours,” she reasoned, “you can’t help but like them … right?”
“No!” I said. “Because you most certainly will dislike them. Frequently. Intensely, even. And it won’t matter much.”
It was the first time I heard anyone give voice to that quiet little corner of the parenthood puzzle - the notion that a mother, the person we expect to love us unconditionally, might not like us unconditionally.
In fact, she might find us obnoxious.
It’s a taboo topic, but any mom who has thought to herself, “I like them best when they’re asleep,” or has stared curiously while her two-year-old stomped, shrieked and swatted his way through a grocery-store tantrum, has come to this inevitable conclusion: It’s possible to live with someone - even to create someone - whose company you don’t find especially charming.
“I do not always like my children,” says a friend whose ten-year-old daughter recently told her she should wear more make-up.
“I don’t like them when they stink,” admitted another friend, a mother of boys. “I don’t like them when they say, ‘Why are you talking to dad like that?’ And I sometimes like my book better than I like them.”
“What I hate more than anything is when they are judgmental or intolerant,” added a girlfriend with teenage daughters. “That sends me straight for the bottle of vodka.”
These are three women whom - I promise - you would consider to be amazing mothers if you knew them. The truth is we have a kaleidoscope of feelings for our kids: Love. Hope. Pride. If “Constant Unbridled Delight” isn’t in the spectrum, don’t sweat it. We choose our friends and spouses expressly for their likability - funny? smart? kind? - but we don’t get to custom-blend our kids’ behavioral traits. And some of them, frankly, suck.
Take the Florida teen who was arrested for deliberately spiking her mother’s dinner and sending the poor allergenic woman into anaphylactic shock. Mom’s probably not brimming with affection today.
But how do we address our feelings of, well, unfondness?
“My mom would say, ‘I love you but I really don’t like you much right now,’” says a mom I know, who takes a similar tack with her own brood. “I’ve told them they were no fun to be around. Or that being in the same room with them just wasn’t working for me.”
I’m a proponent of natural consequences. So when my kids’ behavior becomes so selfish, unreasonable or insulting that I can’t stand to be around them, I tell them so as I’m walking away. But to be honest, it doesn’t feel great.
Another friend of mine - one I apparently chose for her brutal honesty - insists that it doesn’t matter what words we use to describe our displeasure.
“Your kids are too busy watching everything you do to listen to a word you say,” she reminds me. “If you want to like them more, be more likeable. They will probably follow suit.”
Needless to say - sometimes I don’t like my friends either.