I knew that one day it would. And so I shouldn’t have been shocked, or hurt. I tell other people not to be shocked or hurt when it happens to them. It’s developmental, I say.
I had just taken Sophia to her ballet class with Miss Marissa. It is one of the highlights of our week. She goes with two of the girls from our block. I watch them, stealthily through the cracked door (Miss Marissa shuts it to keep out the distracting moms who point their ipads at their kids and instantly upload images of their budding ballerinas to Facebook or those who wave manically at their child, like me.)
Sophie is holding hands with her BFF, Leah, their free hands in surprisingly graceful arcs over their heads, and walking across the floor on their tippy toes. They are dressed in almost identical leotards and tutus. Sophie’s has rhinestone ballet slippers on the front and Leah’s has a rhinestone heart and a variety of mysterious stains that result from daily wear. Both are beaming. I get that tight feeling in my chest, tears sting my eyes, and I am choked up with the pleasure that I am able to give her this.
Afterwards, we meet up with her other friend, her sister and mom at a local café for dinner. We arrive first, as they are on a post-ballet diaper run to CVS. Knowing that Sophie is napless and likely to break down soon, I put in our order. I run the options by Sophie first. Turkey salad trail mix, with walnuts and cranberries sound good to both of us. I get a wildberry smoothie to wash it down. We sit in a comfy chair, reading and waiting for our friends to arrive. I am relieved that the place is empty. It takes the heat off of me, knowing that there are no strangers whose judgment I fear. Just me, the other mom, and our kids. Our friends arrive and put in an order for chicken nuggets and a bagel.
I know in that moment that I’m about to have a problem. Sophie will not want to sit and eat turkey trail mix when her friends are consuming a carbolicious meal. Still. I’m used to asserting my parental will in front of others, and I figure the die is cast. She’ll eat the turkey.
Sophie is wild, an edge of hysteria to her voice as she shouts nonsense words and rolls around on the pre-owned overstuffed chairs. The girls organize a game of house, but are far more interested in assigning and reassigning roles than actually playing the roles. “You be the mommy and I’ll your little girl. No No NO. I’ll be the mommy and you be the little girl and I’ll be your older sister. No No NO.” Sophie’s voice rises above the others, and I am disturbed by her bossiness. I sit there, talking to the other mom and trying to figure out if it is my voice I hear coming from Sophie’s mouth. If that is the way I talk to her.
I give her a couple verbal warnings: for her voice rising, for her bossiness, and when she steps into the back office and says, “Let’s play in here.” I turn to the other Mom and say, sarcastically, “If there’s a boundary she’ll cross it.” As soon as the words leave my mouth I feel badly, as though I have betrayed Sophie, speaking ill of her this way to another parent, just a few feet away.
Soon after, the food arrives. Sophie is galled to watch her friends be served kiddie culinary delights and a turkey wrap (light on the mayo) to be set before her. She runs to a couch, buries her face it in and says:
“I don’t want you as a mother. I want another mother.”
I understand what she was feeling. She was exhausted. I was being particularly negative. And, to add insult to injury, I had insisted that she eat what I had purchased—not a bagel and not chicken nuggets. Still, the words cut deep.
I try not to reveal my hurt, growing sterner instead. I demand that she comes to the table and takes a bite. She does, reluctantly, and then spits out the mouthful onto the plate, her face twisted with disgust.
The other mom offers Sophia part of her daughter’s bagel. I let Sophie have it because I don’t want the situation to escalate. Because I don’t want a scene. And, secretly, because I don’t want Sophie to want her over me as her mother. Sophie eats it happily and peace, for the most part, is restored. She still has difficulty staying at the table, and occasionally lures her friends away from their dinners, but I manage to keep bringing her back and keep her eating.
Throughout dinner her words continue to echo in my head. They perturb me and so, in turn, I am more curt than usual. The sharper I become, the worse Sophie behaves. Refusing to listen. Refusing to leave. Refusing to hold my hand as we cross the street. I feel like we’re caught in a downward spiral of reinforcing each other’s poor behavior.
Later, in the car, I try to explain the impact that her words had on me. “You really hurt my feelings, Sophia. If you’re mad at me, that’s okay. You can tell me that. But telling me that you want a different mother is mean and hurtful.”
“I’m sorry, Mom,” she says, a little too sing-songy to sound truly sincere. But, I’ve made my point. I try to let it go. Cognitively, I recognize that she had to say it, that it’s part of the process of her separating from me and individuating as a human being. That this is only the beginning, and I will hear much worse from her over the course of my life time. I realize our relationship, my love, has to be strong enough to tolerate her anger. I have to watch my sarcasm and the dangers of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. I can’t dismiss her rude comments; I need to let her know that they are not acceptable. At the same time, I can’t give them too much power.
Still, hearing these words for the first time felt a little like a chip in the wedding china. The first scratch on a new car. It may not look like much. I may even forget it tomorrow. But in a small way, it has changed the thing forever.