A mom is never, ever supposed to admit this, but here goes: I've never liked my child.
Growing up, I had hoped to someday have a daughter, and I had a clear vision of what she would be like: vivacious, spunky, and whip-smart, socially savvy and self-assured. What I got was the polar opposite. At birth, Sophie was skinny and weak. She nursed poorly, and she cried so hard that she vomited—daily. As a toddler, she was strange. She wouldn't make eye contact, and she'd scream bloody murder at the sound of ripping paper. Instead of scribbling with crayons, she'd line them up at the edge of the paper. She'd climb to the top of the slide and then cry to be rescued. She couldn't—or wouldn't—answer direct questions. She didn't make friends. Life seemed hard for her. It broke my heart a little every day.
As you can probably imagine, 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. This just wasn't the magic mother-daughter bond that every book I read, every movie I saw, and every family I'd ever met had led me to expect.
When Sophie was 18 months old, we visited my sister, now a psychologist, who said out of the blue, "You know, Sophie is an odd kid." I asked what she meant. "She's just kind of...off ," she said. Her comment upset me but only confirmed my suspicions that Sophie might be on the autism spectrum. I spoke to her daycare director and had her tested by the school district. Neither found anything wrong. I found a pediatric neurologist, but when they sent me forms to fill out, Sophie had none of the physical symptoms in the boxes under "Reason for Visit." I canceled the appointment. My husband accused me of searching for a diagnosis that didn't exist, but I needed to know why my daughter wasn't meeting her developmental milestones, let alone my expectations.
My husband, by contrast, has always loved and cherished Sophie for who she is. And he makes it look so easy! Instead of gritting his teeth through her most eccentric behaviors, he imitates them in an exaggerated way, which makes her howl with laughter. Then he starts laughing too, and they collapse in hugs. I envy his ease with her.
I might have thought I was lacking a maternal instinct, but when my second daughter was born, I was blown away by overwhelming Mommy Love. Lilah was exactly the baby I'd envisioned: strong and healthy, with a penetrating gaze. She nursed vigorously and smiled and laughed easily. She talked early and often and, even as a toddler, befriended everyone she met. When I hugged her, she squeezed back hard, and I felt my own heart beating in two bodies at once.
As Lilah grew healthy and robust, Sophie looked noticeably meek by comparison. It's true that I, like all my relatives, am petite, but Sophie was beyond small—weak, skinny, and pale. The contrasts between Lilah and Sophie went beyond the physical. There was Lilah, initiating a joyous game of peekaboo at 6 months, while her sister, then 3, sat on the floor babbling phrases from books and TV shows. We'd ask, "Sophie, wanna join the game?" And she'd say: "Look, a clue! Where? Over there!" I called it her Rain Man act.
It got to the point where I viewed Sophie's every move through a lens of failure. At a birthday party, when she walked away from the parachute game the other kids were playing, I said, "There she goes again, being antisocial." But another mom said, "Sophie's doing her own thing. She wants no part of that dumb parachute. Smart girl." I thought, Whoa! I would never have seen it that way. To me, she was trapped in her own strange world, driven by her own mysterious motivations, and hopelessly incapable of being normal. I knew I was being hard on her, but I couldn't seem to stop.
A moment of reckoning came when Sophie was 4, at a playdate with my best friend and her daughter. I was judging Sophie as usual, criticizing how she was painting with the stick part of the paintbrush instead of the bristles, when my friend turned to me and said point-blank: "You are Sophie's mother. You're supposed to be her rock—the person she can count on most in the world for unconditional love and support. It doesn't matter if you like her or not; you still have to support her." I started to cry, because I knew she was right. And deep down, I was ashamed of how easily I had betrayed my own daughter. If I looked at my behavior objectively, it was disgusting.
My friend consoled me but didn't let me off the hook. "What are you going to do about this?" she asked. I honestly didn't know. Then, a few days later, we got a flyer from Sophie's preschool. It advertised a workshop by a clinical psychologist called "Loving and Honoring the Child You Have, Not the One You Wish You Had." Bingo! I called the psychologist to see if we could meet privately, which we did. At her prompting, I described Sophie's various limitations, which I had jotted on the back of a business card:
- Has uneven skills (as a toddler, she knew the whole alphabet and could count to 60, but could barely string three words together).
- Hurts herself, perhaps out of anxiety (used to tear out clumps of hair, then began scratching herself).
- Doesn't express needs or even recognize them (will cry when hungry even as her peers use full sentences).
- Freaks out at high-pitched noises (like the beeping of an ATM).
- Prefers to play alone (when other kids try to play with her, she ignores them, or tries to play but doesn't seem to grasp how).
She nodded as I listed my grievances, and I got excited, expecting to hear a diagnosis that would finally make sense of Sophie's quirks and lead to an effective treatment. But no luck. She felt I wasn't attuned to Sophie's vulnerabilities—she's a sensitive soul; I'm a bull-in-a-china-shop type. But something is wrong with my child, I kept thinking. Why can't anyone else see it? Instead, she made suggestions designed to help me bond with her. I took notes.
The first thing I had to do, said the psychologist, was identify my expectations of Sophie so I could understand whether they were realistic or un- achievable. As long as I wanted her to be someone she could never be, I was setting her up to fail, in my eyes, every single day. I explained that I wanted Sophie to make eye contact.
"That's too hard for her," the psychologist said, recalling my own checklist. "She's acutely sensitive—you whisper, and for her it's like a megaphone." I realized that I wished Sophie were tougher (she's hypersensitive), more outgoing (she's shy), and "cool" (even now, as a 9-year-old, she favors kittens and angels). Scrap those things. Start over. I needed to stop seeing what Sophie was not and start seeing what she was. A few months later, when Sophie drew a unicorn on a piece of construction paper and said she wanted to use it for her birthday party invitation, I resisted the temptation to hide it in the garbage and order glossy invites instead. Color copies of Sophie's rainbow unicorn went out to 45 kids—and I got emails raving about it! Score one for Sophie.
Still, denying my expectations day after day was hard. I wondered if my upbringing may have set the bar too high. As the daughter of a local politician, I was expected to be a role model—to dress appropriately, smile and make small talk, write thoughtful thank-you notes. And I was a natural. My mother used to say, "Nothing succeeds like success," and I stepped up. Why couldn't Sophie?
I tried to ignore my gut instinct that something still wasn't quite right. The psychologist recommended that I connect with Sophie over something she enjoys, and as much as Calico Critters weren't my thing, I vowed to try. A few days later, I found her poring over a Mini Boden catalog. Aha! We shared a love of shopping! It might not be the most wholesome or financially sustainable hobby, but we needed to start somewhere. I plopped down next to her and asked, "If you could get one thing on each page, what would it be?" My sister and I had played this game as kids, and Sophie caught on instantly. Too bad life isn't one big catalog game.
Instead, more often, it was Sophie crawling on all fours and meowing, shrieking, jabbering in made-up languages, and asking nonsensical questions (What if day were night, and night were day? What if it snowed in summer? What if our last name was Nebraska?). Even when I tried to help her—by going over the moves that tripped her up in dance class and urging her to stop transferring her boogers from nose to mouth—I only did so because I wanted her to be accepted and liked, which was my agenda, not hers. Sadly, my efforts only made her feel more self-conscious and anxious. And I continued to feel exasperated and annoyed. Why was my own daughter so difficult for me to parent? I gradually got used to the feeling, but I never made peace with it.
Then, when Sophie was 7, a stunning revelation rocked our family's world. At the prompting of our pediatrician, who was concerned about Sophie's sluggish growth, she was tested and diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency that had slowed her development across the board since birth. Her speech, motor skills, and social maturation were three years behind schedule. Wow! It wasn't the diagnosis I expected, but it made sense. Growth hormone regulates so many functions in the body; Sophie's lack of it explained everything from her blue moods and anxious behaviors to her difficulty communicating to her birdlike appetite and negligible muscle tone. My first reaction was relief—a diagnosis! Then hope—help is on the way! Then guilt. All this time, Sophie was struggling. She was 7 by the calendar but only 4 by her own body clock, a pre-K-er thrust into second grade. She was coping with enormous challenges every day without a mother who believed in her. Even worse, 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.
As the diagnosis sank in, I found myself feeling more tender, more motherly toward Sophie. Instead of me pitted against her, it's now us, together, pitted against this diagnosis. My husband is cautiously optimistic about the treatment (nightly hormone shots) but concerned about possible side effects. After all, he has accepted her as is all along. The happy dance I'm doing over this diagnosis is mine alone.
Whether I've finally learned to be a good parent to Sophie—or in spite of the fact that I haven't—my now-9-year-old is in a pretty good place. The hormone shots have delivered positive effects beyond inches and pounds. Sophie competes on the local gymnastics team, aces her spelling tests, goes on loads of play- dates, and loves to download songs for her iPod. She makes eye contact and answers direct questions. I'm pretty sure she's genuinely happy most of the time, though she's still fairly anxious and still occasionally meows and shrieks. I watch her sometimes, looking for clues of the emotional scarring I fear I've inflicted, but I see none. Instead, she takes running leaps into my arms, her strong legs squeezing my middle in her signature "cobra hug." Do we see eye to eye? Almost never. But do I try to prop her up every single day anyway? Yes, I do. After all, I'm her mom.
"My Wife Is a Good Mom"
The author's husband knows she says some harsh, even shocking things in this essay. Here's what he'd like you to know about the woman behind those words.
My wife likes to fix things. She's an extrovert, a fighter. Her greatest fear is being alone. As a parent, it's hard to watch your child, this tiny creature you love more than yourself, struggle and remove herself from the group; harder still when you're a parent with a personality like Jenny's. Try as she might, Jenny couldn't "fix" Sophie, and I think that scared her. The search to find something wrong was her quest for an instruction booklet. But sometimes things aren't broken, they're just different and built to excel at things you're not. There's a laundry list of things no one ever tells you when you have children. One of them is that your child will teach you how to be the parent they need—if you're willing to listen. And I know Jenny is listening, because whenever Sophie has good news to share, a problem to solve, or a hurt to soothe, she goes looking for Mommy first.
*Name has been changed