Lessons from one exasperated parental moment . . .

Here is what I remember . . .

I was, perhaps, four or five years old.  We were standing near the wall heater by the living room at the end of the hall.  You were sending me to my room – I don’t remember the transgression for which I was being banished.  As I turned and walked down the hallway, I mumbled something under my breath.  Then I remember sitting on my bed crying. I remember feeling a sense of injustice.  Something I thought was unfair had just happened.

You came into the room and asked me, “Why do you hate me.”  I felt confusion that morphed into feeling wrongly accused.  I answered, “I don’t know” because I had no idea that I did hate you, let alone why.  I was afraid to contradict you and say that I did not hate you.

You accepted my “I don’t know” as an admission of hatred, not hearing the confusion from which it arose or seeing your culpability in setting up the conversation.  You continued, “I hope you never have a child that hates you.”   And, as was typical for you, you walked away before I could respond any further.  You always claimed the last word and left me no chance to speak,except to your back, or be heard.  Whatever  upset feelings I was experience, clearly, were not of interest to you.  Your feelings were hurt because you perceived an upset child as hating you. That was all that mattered to you.  It is too bad there was no adult in the room.

I have analyzed this event many times.  I can see many messages that I took from it and carried with me throughout my life.

The question, “Why do you hate me?” was a loaded question that contained the underlying assumption that I hate you.  I was quite young and used to you being the authority on everything, so I internalized that assumption and accepted as true that I hated you.  I was probably angry and upset, so one of the more superficial messages I received was that being angry or upset at Mom means I hate Mom.

You taught me that hating was bad and I accepted that as true, but it left me in a difficult position because whenever I felt anger, I thought it was hatred.  I felt guilty and ashamed for hating.  When people would say, “Of course you love your mother, she’s your mother” I felt inadequate as a daughter and as a person.  I was afraid that people would discover that I was hateful.  I have carried that guilt and shame into other relationships and have been afraid to express or even feel anger because I did not want to hate the other person or have them discover how hateful I was.

I wish I had been taught to just say, “I’m mad.”  I wish it could have been okay to be mad at you.  I wish I could have felt safe being angry and safe expressing it.  I wish I could want my way or want whatever it is that I wanted that day without feeling like wanting something you cannot give means I hate you.

I realize that what I mumbled as I walked down the hall may very well have been something like, “I hate you.”  I know it wasn’t because I cannot recall ever feeling hatred before that day.  It was more likely something like, “you’re so unfair.”  But, it was typical for you to not ask me what I said or meant.

I have since learned that kids use the language of hate when they do not like a decision an adult has made.  They use “I hate you” because they do not have the reasoning and language skills to say they are mad and explain why.  I wish you had been able to interpret whatever I mumbled and understood that I was just mad because I did not get what I want or did not get my way or did not like a decision you made.

I would have loved for you to have come into my bedroom and comforted me instead of confronting me with that loaded question.  I wish you had the skills then to say, “I hear that you are upset, but when I hear ‘I hate you’ I feel hurt.  Can you just say you are mad instead?”  A hug might have been appropriate.  Perhaps a chance to tell you what I had actually said and meant would have been appropriate. Even just leaving me alone with my upset feelings to work it out for myself would have been better.

The statement, “I hope you never have a child that hates you” is also loaded.  It contains the implication that you, yourself, would prefer to not have a child who hates you.  Again, I internalized.  I had just been identified as a child who hates you and was now being told that you did not want that kind of child.  The message I took away was that you did not want ME.

I can see that it might have been a statement of love – wishing for me something better than you had.  But, I was much too young to feel anything but unloved, unwanted, misunderstood and sad.  That feeling of being unwanted was reinforced every time you or dad joked about your marriage lasting only because you had an agreement that whoever asked for divorce had to take the kids.  As an adult, I can see the humor in that joke.  As a child, when I heard that joke, I just felt unwanted and burdensome.

I still cannot even talk about the conflicted feelings I had throughout my nine pregnancies and the loss of eight children.  I was not sure I could risk having a child who might hate me.  I was not sure I could risk being a dismissive mother like you.  I can say that I am very careful with how I talk and, more importantly, listen to my one miracle daughter.

I learned some other important lessons from that day.

I learned to be very careful to say what I really mean.  I have spent my life learning to be precise in my word choices and selective about how I communicate.  This has benefited me in the practice of law, in teaching, and in most of my relationships.

I learned to hear, “I hate you,” when spoken by a child, as an expression of anger or upset.  I learned to say, “I hear that you are angry, would you like to talk about why?”   I learned how important it is to teach children how to express their emotions and how important it is to make it safe for them to do so.  I learned to not take it personally when a child cannot express herself well.  I understand how fragile children are and how powerful adults are in relation to them.  I also understand the responsibility adults have to nurture children.

I wish we could have a “do over” but life does not work that way.  Instead, we can only move forward choosing a new way to be.  I want to write.  In fact, I write frequently, but I am afraid to even try to get anything published.  I am afraid that I might have said something wrong or that what I write might upset somebody.  Mostly, I am afraid that you will take things I write personally and think I hate you.

It is sad that one small event – one you likely do not even remember – could have had so much impact on me.  What is more sad for me is that you still refuse to hear what I have to say about it; that you refuse to acknowledge that any events in my childhood had any impact on me whatsoever; that you cannot help me undo the damage and heal.  What is most sad for me is that, because you refuse to acknowledge my pain and do anything to help me heal, I do hate you now.  It is too bad you could not have a sign on your back that says, “I’m sorry,” so I would get that message somehow.