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A Child's Angry Words Expose a Grown-Up's Pain

May 14, 2000|SANDY BANKS

We are walking the aisle at the grocery store, grabbing the makings of a dinner already too long delayed.

My daughter is dawdling as she pushes the cart, reading labels, checking prices, begging for things she knows we don't need.

I am exhausted, distracted, my patience worn thin. I snap at her to "hurry up!" I snatch the cart. "You push too slow."

And as I head for the candy aisle--to get the Gummi Bears I'd promised her--I realize she is no longer beside me. I look back and spot her where I'd left her, standing stock-still in the greeting card aisle, in front of a Mother's Day display.

Her face is red, her eyes are wet. I beckon her, but she shakes her head. She is trying--but failing--not to let her tears show.

"I hate you," she blurts out, in a voice loud enough for the whole store to hear. "You always try to make me feel bad."

She hates me. They all hate me sometimes, it seems.

This time, I am more embarrassed than hurt. What must the other shoppers think, witnessing such wrath from a 9-year-old.

I punish her with the only power I have: "No Gummi Bears for you, young lady," I say in a voice that I hope--for the sake of onlookers--conveys both love and authoritative control.

I pay for our goods, and we head for the car. She tags along behind, not looking at me, singing in a voice just loud enough for me to hear: "I wish I had a mommy who's nice, a mommy who likes me. Why do I have to have a mommy so mean?"

And as I slide the grocery bags past her on the car seat, I'm not sure whose tears are landing on my arm, hers or mine.


I am always, it seems, a moment away from tears at this time of year.

There is something about this whole Mother's Day celebration that makes me feel not honored and cherished but inadequate, unappreciated.

A kind of melancholy settles over me, sends me spinning through an identity crisis that rocks my confidence, unhinges me.

It is partly, I know, that I miss my mother, who died when I was just 19. For 25 years of Mother's Days, I have been held hostage by memories, mired in my fantasies of what we--mother and grown daughter--might have been. And what I'd be like as a mother if she were here to guide and measure me.

When I look in my internal mirror, I see not a mother of three growing daughters but a girl who still needs mothering.

And I feel unmasked as an impostor . . . a grown-up child clomping through life in my mother's high-heels, stumbling every time I move, banging clumsily against my children's needs.

It wasn't so hard when they were babies. I had instincts and enough sense to trust them. I could figure out when to change, feed or cuddle them; knew when to scold, to praise, what to ignore. Not perfectly, certainly, but well enough to escort them through those years safely.

Now--at 9, 11, 15--they are people . . . little women, even. And I am no longer sure what's required of me, no longer certain how to navigate terrain that seems to shift with each child, every day.

I am always saying something wrong, doing something stupid, somehow failing to meet their needs.

"I wish I had a mother who had been a middle child," my middle child told me the other night, in her earnest attempt to explain why I could never understand how she knows, for certain, that I love her older sister more.

"I wish I had a mother who . . . " seems to be their refrain so often these days.

Surely they must know it wounds me. Am I raising children that uncaring? Or am I too dense to realize they like me, they just need validation, reassurance that, despite my failings, I am all the mother they'll ever need.


It is well past 10 when my 9-year-old falls into bed, exhausted from her spelling homework, sibling battles, still-simmering feud with me.

We are curt, exchange kisses and good-night wishes. I turn the light off in her room and leave.

A few minutes later, I hear her crying. She is rummaging through her backpack for the homework she missed . . . "the most important one," she tells me, handing me a piece of paper: "Create a one-page essay on why your mom is special," it says. And I smile in spite of myself. This is one assignment I cannot help her with.

I hush her and carry her back to bed.

"It's too late to do that one tonight, honey." I cover her and rub her head. "It's time for you to go to sleep. Maybe you can work on it tomorrow."

She closes her eyes, nodding gratefully. And I kiss her and turn again to leave.

She stops me this time with a voice so tiny, it reminds me of the baby she once was.

"Mommy, I don't really hate you. I just said that because I was mad."

I kneel down by her bed and whisper, "Thank you. I love you very, very much." And this time, I recognize the tears as mine.


Sandy Banks' column is published Sundays and Tuesdays. She is at

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