Clearly, the downside of socialization for little ones – in Lily’s case, daycare – is that they’re just as likely to pick up ugly behaviors and words from other kids as they are positive ones, and they lack the capacity to discern any difference.
I hadn’t even considered this before, because nothing all that troubling had arisen thus far. But then, last Tuesday, I got quite the slap in the face.
A parent picking up her child at Lily’s daycare – an acquaintance and owner of our awesome local bakery, the Sunflour Bakehaus – told me that her husband was going to be part of a Dr. Seuss birthday party event that night at the library that’s down the street from our house. Lily loves the library generally, and wants to go there all the time – we often go straight from daycare to the library for a while – so I thought I’d get her home, get her some dinner, and we’d go to the party.
But since she’d heard us saying the word “library” at daycare, she’d clearly expected to go directly there. So as I turned her stroller into the driveway, her whole body reached down the street, toward the library, and she began crying and saying “Bee-bee” (her version of “library”). I told her, “We’re going to go, but first, we have to get some dinner.”
I get the front door open while she cries and tries to wrest herself from the stroller, and I wheel her in. She’s still going strong, so I settle myself in front of her with a blank expression, girding myself to ride out the tantrum with calm.
And then, through the tears and the red face and the snot and the gasping, she says something that sounds disturbingly like, “I hate you!”
I pause. “What did you say? Did you say you hate me?” My voice cracked.
“Yeah,” she says.
I try to tell myself that she doesn’t understand what she’s saying. That she’s heard a rambunctious girl in her class, who has an older sister, say it when she’s upset, and so she’s simply parroting that. But emotionally, it doesn’t matter. I don’t think any words have ever stung me so intensely, so painfully, before.
In that moment, I thought, is this what comes of all this sacrifice? Changing my entire life in countless ways; losing daily freedoms; losing professional and personal opportunities for the forseeable future; losing the treasured closeness I’d cultivated with friends who now live far away – and I’m despised in return?
Furious, I got up and walked out of the room. Let her cry, I thought. But I took a breath and reminded myself again, “She doesn’t understand. She doesn’t know what she’s saying.”
So I re-entered the room, resumed my place in front of her, and stared her in the eye. “Lily, you should never, ever say ‘I hate you.'” Again, I’m struggling to keep it together myself, but I keep my voice level and serious. “To anyone. I don’t want you to ever say that again, to anyone, no matter what they do to you. Because it’s the worst thing you can say, and it hurts. You hurt Mommy by saying that.”
I don’t know how much of that she understood either, of course, but if nothing else, she will get the gist of “you hurt Mommy,” and that’s something.
“Will you say you’re sorry?” I ask. She was calming down, still sniffling, so I unbuckled her from the stroller and scooped her into my lap.
“Lily, will you please say you’re sorry?” She’s letting me hold her, a sure sign she’s coming back to herself. And maybe this should be enough; a kind of unspoken reconciliation. But it’s not, so I keep pressing, asking her twice more, begging at this point, for an apology.
For whatever reason, even if she’s unaware of its meaning or importance, I need it. I will have enough difficulty getting past this exchange as it is.
Finally, she barely whispers “I sorry” into my shoulder.
“Thank you, Lily. Thank you for saying you’re sorry.” I kissed her on top of her head. “I love you.”
I’d always expected to hear a declaration of hatred from my child at some point, I guess, but I’d assumed she’d be an adolescent, slamming the door to her room and turning music on loudly – not a 21 month old sitting in her stroller.
I’m trying hard now to mentally prepare myself for the long haul of parenting, since I know this is not the last time I’ll hear “I hate you.” And in the future, she’ll know full well what she’s saying when shouting those words. I wonder if it will hurt me even more then, or whether I’ll be so broken in as a parent that I’ll dismiss is as manipulation and go back to whatever I’m doing.
But inevitably, I thought, over the next few days, about how I’d screamed that at my own mother for an extended period of time one afternoon. At age six, I think, I’d gotten head lice, and after using the shampoos and micro-toothed combs, she took me to get my treasured, long, thick hair cut short. I was furious about her going against my will and changing something about myself that I loved and wanted to keep growing. She was making me ugly, I thought. So I stayed in my room, with the door closed, and screamed “I hate you!” as loudly as I possibly could until I went hoarse. And even then, I tried screaming it a few more times. She wasn’t getting off the hook that easily, I’d thought to myself.
Now, of course, I wish I could take it all back. And I’m so sorry I ever put my mom through that. We like to tell ourselves, in these situations, “You were a kid. You didn’t know any better.” But in my case, I did. I had wanted to hurt her – and now I viscerally understand precisely how much I did.
Payback’s a bitch.