She Loves Me/She Loves Me Not
By Karen Dempsey
Seven-year-old Liddy is playing with a balloon in the living room when I tell her we need to leave to pick up her brother Brennan. After a long delay as she seeks out the perfect “safe place” to leave the balloon, I tell her I’m not waiting any longer.
“If that balloon pops it’s your fault,” she says, stomping past me. “And that’s the truth. I’m not even just saying it because I hate you.”
* * *
Every day in preschool, Liddy drew pictures of me. Sometimes she drew me as a flower with a smiling face, holding hands with a tiny, petal-haired mini me. Mommy Liddy Mommy Liddy, she wrote around the border. Sometimes she covered the page with tiny ringlets to reflect my brown curls. Once, she put me in an elaborate, floor length purple gown. (“Today’s a fancy one,” her teacher said. “Wow,” I said. “She even gave me cleavage.”)
Liddy would cup my cheeks and pull my face to hers as if she were breathing me in. “Oh, my mommy,” she’d whisper. “I love that you be my mommy.”
I even found, in her bedroom, a square of paper that read, I thik abawt Mommy.
But there was a flip side to being so ferociously loved.
“Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!” Liddy screamed at me, with her face twisted in a red spasm of fury.
And, “Go be somebody else’s mommy!”
And, “Poopy mommy! Flush you down the potty!”
Like the love pictures and love notes, these proclamations were most often directed at me. My husband John and our son Brennan felt her ire at times, but I was the one who really drew venom.
It was hard not to either laugh or take it personally. I didn’t want to reinforce her wrathful behavior. And I didn’t want to shame her, either. But, I worried, was I raising some kind of monster?
I flipped through parenting books, but she didn’t seem to fit any of the molds. She wasn’t The Explosive Child. She wasn’t Difficult to Discipline. She was just — mean. Mean, in particular, to me.
I talked to her pediatrician, who asked if she was gentle with other children. She was. Always. Without exception.
Was she aggressive? Anti-social? Disruptive at preschool? Nope. Uh-uh. Never.
“Well, we know she has the tools to get by with other people — that’s important,” he said. “She just needs time to develop them at home too. Try not to let it get to you.”
When she was calm, we would talk through her outbursts to try to sense what was happening. The question, “Why did you say you hate me?” might be met with, “I missed you” or “I needed you.” Or, more simply, “Because I hate you.”
“Because I needed a hug,” she once answered. But then the next time she was angry with me, she screamed, “No hugs!” and folded her arms decisively across her chest.
Still, she was unfailingly kind and well-behaved at school. Her teachers said that, if anything, she tried too hard to follow the rules. They explained that maybe she would only explode with me because I made her feel safe. She knew I’d love her no matter what.
The idea that she worked extra hard to be perfect at school would turn out to be an important one later on, when we realized Liddy struggled with anxiety.
“It’s really hard for kids like Liddy to hold it together all day,” a child psychologist told me. When they come apart … they really come apart.
As she turned from three to four, her threats and evil wishes became more … specific. And creative. “I hope you never get dismissed from work!” she screamed. And once she said, “I hope you be burned by fire.”
But, then, an early morning whisper: “You’re in my heart and no one can ever grav you out.”
And, after another mean outburst, a tiny crumpled note of apology appeared under my door.
I’m sore mommy. So so sore.
One day a mom on my parent’s listserv recommended a series of books that was first written when I was a baby myself. The language was pretty dated, she said. But some of the advice was spot on. Sure enough, the title for the one geared toward Liddy’s age could not have been more perfect: Your Three Year Old: Friend or Enemy?
And right there in the index was a section labeled “difficulties with mother:”
Accept the fact that at this age the child’s big emotional struggle is with his mother. She is the one who matters supremely to him. She is the one he needs to conquer. Almost any young child is at his best but also his worst with his own mother. Never more so than now.
Like my other sources, the book reassured me that the behavior was to be expected, something Liddy would outgrow the behavior with time and patience. “The child is not intentionally being naughty, but behaving this way because of his physical self,” it said. And, along with the recommendations of patience, understanding and gentle consequences espoused by the other experts I’d consulted, Friend or Enemy had some other timeless, stand-out advice:
“Enlist the services of a good babysitter as much of the time as possible,” the authors said.
And, “We strongly recommend nursery school.”
* * *
Liddy is tender and kind with me now — most of the time, anyway. But, as with the balloon incident, we still see flashes of feisty Liddy. Especially when she’s feeling anxious.
Still, it’s a relief to look back on that stage and know we are (mostly) through it. Liddy and I even talked about it recently, sitting on the porch swing and looking out on our quiet street.
“Liddy,” I said. “Do you remember how mad you used to get at me sometimes?”
She nodded and smiled a little, but her eyes were serious.
“If I were writing something for parents, to help them understand why kids say mean things sometimes, what would you say I should tell them?”
She looked over at me quickly. “Are you writing about that?”
I said yes, and she stared ahead for a few minutes, thoughtful. Then:
“Tell them that it’s because it’s so hard when you’re little,” she said, threading her fingers through mine. “And because you just want everything to be perfect.”
Sometimes, you just need to go straight to the source.
Karen Dempsey’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Babble and other publications. She lives in Massachusetts with her family. Follow her on Twitter @KarenEDempsey or read more of her work at kdempseycreative.com.