Fear & Loathing in Los Angeles
When I was in college, my then-boyfriend shared a memory with me about the one and only time he said “I hate you” to his mother. The details are fuzzy; I don’t recall how old he’d been, or what prompted him to say it, or what her immediate response was, but I do remember his account of what happened a short while later. What happened was that he found his mom sitting on the front step of their house, crying. The sight of her made a deep enough impact that waves of guilt and remorse still radiated off him even as he told me about the incident years after the fact, and it was clear it had been a formative moment in terms of his regard toward and relationship with his mother. The story made an unanticipated & surprisingly profound impression on me as well, for two reasons. Firstly, because I was fascinated by a style of parenting that allowed for such freedom of expression. If I had said anything even remotely similar to my own mother at any point in my life she would have come after me with the nearest improvised punitive apparatus (a brush, a shoehorn…she wasn’t picky) and given me a thorough what-for. Korean mothers don’t play. Secondly, because I came to truly understand for the first time in my young life that motherhood must be - at least at times - the crappiest undertaking in the world.
In the wake of that epiphany I considered all the hurtful, thoughtless, ungrateful things I had said or done to my own mom over the years; all the times I had rolled my eyes, sulked through family outings or - if I really wanted to send her over the edge - uttered a dismissive “whatever.” Answering my mom with “whatever” was like hitting the detonator on a nuclear missile…her eyes would narrow, she’d turn a dangerous shade of puce, and her kimchi-fueled fury would come erupting out at defcon level 1. I don’t know why she took such grievous offense to that particular form of disrespect but to this day if she overhears some kid saying “whatever” to his/her parents, my mom’s head swivels like a crazed marionette as she tries to locate the perpetrator.
Needless to say, there were plenty of times my snarky behavior resulted in some well-deserved comeuppance, but now I wondered whether it also ever wounded her - whether once the anger had subsided my mom had found a quiet place to cry. Just the idea of it filled me with shame. But close on the heels of that shame came the certainty that karma is a bad bitch, and she was coming for me. Because some day I’d have kids of my own, and when I inevitably got a taste of my own medicine it would be so, so very bitter.
Well guess what, everyone…that day came! Ok full disclosure, it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as an “I hate you” but Luna gave me the first inkling that she is now old enough to inflict actual emotional damage with her words. Here’s what happened. Last week I was giving the girls a bath and everything was peachy. Both of them were in great moods, it was still early enough in the day that I had sufficient energy & patience to engage properly with them, and I was looking forward to having an evening out with Mike to celebrate our 8-year anniversary. All was right with the world. Clearly I failed to recognize it as the calm before the storm, because to my naive surprise Luna turned into Two-Face from Batman when I went to lift the baby out. And not the weirdly jolly, Tommy Lee Jones version but the sinister Aaron Eckhart one fueled by rage and bloodlust. Suddenly she was crying and kicking the tub and howling “why did you take Gioia out first?!” (something I ALWAYS DO) and deteriorating into a mass of kindergarten angst right in front of my eyes. The following conversation ensued:
me: Baby! Why are you so upset?
her: BECAUSE YOU TOOK GIOIA OUT FIRRRRST
me: But I always take her out first because she’s too little to leave in the bathtub alone. You usually like having a few minutes to play on your own while I get her dressed, why is this upsetting you all of a sudden?
me: Ok, well I don’t get it. Anyway let’s hurry up and finish so you can come out, too. You can have a snack and play outside.
her: Can I watch a show?
me: Absolutely not.
me: Because even on a good day tv can make you moody, so if you’re already moody it’s definitely not going to happen.
her: *sputters indignantly*
me: It’s not happening, Luna.
her: Fine! After my bath I’m going to my room by myself so I don’t have to hear you anymore! I DON’T WANT YOU, MOMMY!!
~ scene ~
I realize this may not seem all that significant in the grand scheme of the constant emotional shit-show that is parenthood, but it shook me. It was the first time Luna had expressed that level of vitriol toward me and it was like looking down the barrel of a gun and seeing a bullet with “I hate you” etched on it…it felt like it was only a matter of time until I’d be dealing with the impact of that particular sentiment. Maybe I would never hear the words themselves, but she would definitely think it at some point, and the promise of it stung.
But in that moment, to my everlasting pride, I kept it together. I didn’t get angry, I didn’t admonish. I didn’t even react immediately. I just sat there, drenched from her dramatic flailing and calmly rinsing shampoo out of her hair. After several measured breaths I said, “Luna, if you don’t feel like being with me right now, that’s ok. You go have time to yourself and we can talk about this when you’re ready.” It was like an out-of-body experience. My astral self was floating above this scene, gazing down in admiration at a paragon of poised & mindful parenting. Meanwhile my actual self was in upheaval. I felt exhausted and defeated. To my dismay, hot tears began forming and threatened to make a break for it so I quickly busied myself tidying up the bathroom. True to her word, Luna stomped into her room in a disgruntled huff while Gioia played in the living room, thereby sparing me the need to keep my composure intact. Two teardrops escaped and plopped off the end of my nose into my palm, and while part of me felt silly having this response to what was obviously a childish outburst, I also recognized there was real pain there. So I took advantage of Luna’s absence and Gioia’s distraction to sit for a quiet moment and examine the source, and subsequently I made an interesting discovery.
My pain wasn’t pain at all. It was fear.
Here’s the thing - from the moment our babies are born, all mothers know it’s only a matter of time until we’re less needed and less adored, that after the blush of toddlerhood the high esteem we’re initially held in wanes with each passing year, and that our children will someday prefer someone or something else as a source of comfort, wisdom, or companionship. And this fall from grace will only be exacerbated and accelerated by our obligation to discipline, to withhold, to make tough decisions we believe are right but that our children will resent and fail to understand. We will always be blamed for denying our children’s happiness through our responsible parenting, whether it’s saying no to ice cream or making them work summer jobs. It all stinks, but it’s part and parcel with raising kids and therefore an eventuality we’re prepared for, at least intellectually. So what my fear stems from isn’t the notion of no longer being needed or idolized or forgiven or even respected. What I fear is the loss of my daughters’ love.
These two girls who I would walk through fire for, whose little bodies I carried within my own, whose every cell I hold in such tender and devoted regard, will one day despise me for one reason or another and the unquestioning, unconditional love they once felt for me will be a distant memory. And what scares me is, what if it doesn’t come back? What if their loathing solidifies into something permanent, like a dark chasm between us? At some point all parents make well-intended but ultimately disastrous decisions, but it's impossible to know which ones will tarnish our relationship with our children forever. What if my transgressions, real or perceived, make it so my daughters never feel close to me again? This is a terrifying prospect because, even though I now have a great relationship with my mother despite some very tumultuous years, I know plenty of families who weren’t so fortunate in overcoming their struggles - whose past grievances sit like a stone in the familial shoe, never allowing a step forward without an invisible but painful reminder. If that ever came to pass for me and my children, if I felt their hearts harden toward me, I wouldn’t be able to bear it.
And that's what was making me cry. Not the impulsive and overwrought "I don't want you" from my almost-6-year-old, but the potential of a conscious and deliberate "I don't want you" from a grown version of her who would mean it.
I sat on the coziest chair in our living room doing all of this soul-searching for the better part of half an hour when I heard Luna’s door open. She came to me, climbed into my lap, and laid her head on my chest. We sat quietly together for awhile, she seeking forgiveness and me granting it, both in silence. I stroked her head and I sent up a prayer that through the inescapable hurdles to come which all mothers and children face, it would always be like this - that even if it occasionally became buried under animosity and scorn, even if it took distance and time, her love would surface like a bubble coming up through the mud, and she would seek the familiar thrum of my heartbeat. No words necessary.