Then they learn how to use them: “I do it?” “Mine!”
Then they learn how to use them against you: “I don’t love you anymore.” “I want you to go away to another home and stay there!”
“I hate you.”
Kostyn has taken to saying all these things to us when he doesn’t get his way. We tell him it’s unacceptable, that “hate” is too strong a word for him — or anyone — to use. We put him in Time Out for using the word “hate,” and talk to him about how to properly convey his feelings (“I’m mad at you!”) instead of projecting those feelings onto someone else.
Sometimes he catches us at the dinner table in mid-conversation. “…and you know I hate it when my boss says….”
“YOU SAID ‘HATE,’ DADDY!”
We exchange glances of guilt and amusement. Chris apologizes and tries to explain the difference, and everyone doubles their efforts to eradicate that word from our home. It works for awhile.
A couple weeks ago Kostyn got mad at me for something and the hate started spewing. “I hate you! I hate you!” He kept saying it and saying it, so after several obstinate minutes in Time Out, I tried to explain to him once again what that means and why it’s so hurtful.
“When you tell me you hate me, that’s like saying if I walked out this door and never came back, if you never saw Mommy again, if I never gave you another hug or made you another sandwich, never kissed you or tickled you or read books to you or anything, ever again, that would make you happy. Is that true?”
His chin quivered slightly but he nodded slowly, his tiny jaw set, his wide brown eyes staring right at me.
I caught my breath, turned and walked into the kitchen. I knew he was just pushing my buttons, trying to make me feel how he was feeling, but I still found my own words stinging me. As parents we’re not supposed to need validation, we’re not supposed to need our kids to say they couldn’t live without us, because frankly we either know they couldn’t, or we’re deeply shaken by the knowledge that they actually might be able to.
As the tears came, I closed my eyes and thought about the first time Kostyn ever acknowledged me. I will never forget that moment, in the first weeks of his life, when his scrawny infant hand reached up while he was nursing and wrapped itself around my finger. I remember the surge of endorphins brought on by that simple gesture, the exhilaration of such a tiny bit of recognition from the being who was actively sucking the nutrients right out of me, the one who in a matter of weeks had exhausted me physically, mentally and emotionally to a point where I no longer knew who I was.
I’m pretty sure that was the moment we both realized who I was.
How far we’ve come from that moment, I thought as I grabbed another tissue. After a good cry I collected myself, wiped my eyes and walked back into the dining room where Kostyn was still sitting in Time Out. “I want to talk to you Mommy,” he said. I knelt down in front of him.
“I’m sorry,” he said, scooting down from the chair and reaching out for a hug. Instinctively I opened my arms, wrapping him up, needing this hug more than he did. That’s when he whispered in my ear.
“I hate you.”
It was a verbal slap so stunning and unexpected it took my breath away; I pulled back from him and he watched my eyes well with fresh tears. He had wanted to see how much power he wielded with his words, but he was unprepared for its force. The sight of his mother crying made him cry. He dropped to the floor in sobs, and I was spun around once again, from wounded child back to soothing mother.
I scooped him up and cradled him in my lap, both of us in tears. While I held him I thought about an incident a few days before when I put him in Time Out and he cried. When I came around the corner to check on him he was on the floor in front of the Time Out chair, curled in a ball. He yelled “Go away! I don’t want you here!” and as I turned to go he grabbed my leg and wrapped his whole body around it.
“You want me to go away?”
“Yes!” he screamed, clutching tighter.
“Then why are you holding onto me?” I asked.
“Well I want you to stay here,” he said. “But I Don’t. Want. To talk to you!”
“So you want me to go away but stay right here?”
So I did just that. Because that’s what parents do, right? We go away but stay right here. The memory reminded me of all the times over the years I’ve done that to my own parents, told them to mind their own business, that I didn’t need their advice, that it was my life, all while silently begging for their approval. Is this OK, Mom? Am I doing well? Are you proud of me, Dad? I need you. No I don’t. Yes I really do.
I thought about how I’d also done it to God most of my life. Don’t look at me! (Please save me!) I’ve got this covered. (Will you help?) I’m not ready for you. (I need you now.)
The two of us sat and rocked on the floor for several minutes while Pandora selected songs for us and I did that thing we parents have to do once in awhile, that terribly cruel chore of allowing it to register in our hearts how much bigger our babies feel in our arms. I thought about the growth spurt Kostyn is in, how his voice is getting stronger every day, his reasoning keener, his opinions more commanding.
I thought about how “in the trenches” I often feel, here at home with both of them all day, every day, picking my battles about getting them dressed, brushing teeth, picking up toys. Sometimes around here love feels like a battlefield. When I fluff their pillows and pull their covers up to their chins at night, Evan kicks his off — one last point at which he will not concede defeat. Some days feel like an endless strategic meeting between two opposing forces. Who will retreat? Who will negotiate an end to the battle? Who will melt into a tantrum? Who will fly off in a rage and plop a small bottom onto the Time Out chair? Who will win? Does anyone ever win?
With Kostyn especially, our relationship lately often feels like a tug of war. But sitting on the floor that day I realized with great relief that I am not on the other side of the rope. I AM the rope, and Kostyn plays both sides against himself, pulling and straining for things to go his way, for me to go his way, burning his hands and expending his energy to make me succumb to his will, beating no one but himself, challenging me needlessly because no matter what happens, he ends up with more of me.
I am the rope. I am the means to a very important end. And getting through our worst tug of war days, when he hugs me and hates me all at once, is easier knowing this, knowing the point is not for him to win or me to win because it’s not a competition between us at all. He’s not challenging me (though I do find it VERY challenging), he’s challenging himself, testing his voice and his power and his place in this world, and in this house.
“Go away but stay right here.”
OK, son, I thought as I kissed the top of his head.