This is what Sofia, my 4.5 year old first born told me over dinner 2 nights ago, just 4 days after Mother’s Day.
My immediate reaction was amusement.
“I don’t love you?” I repeated with half a grin. “Are you doing backwards day?”.
We had just read Fancy Nancy: It’s Backward Day! a few days earlier, and I thought she was starting a game with me over dinner. Games have become a favorite dinnertime pastime for my kids, who seem to be completely bored by food lately.
“No” she stated. Calmly. Deadpan. No smiles.
My stomach twisted a bit and I put down my fork, the pink flakes of salmon still speared by the tines. I looked at her and said in my serious voice, “Sofia, do you really mean that? Why do you think I don’t love you?”
“Because, I just think you don’t love me.” Oh, of course. Because she just doesn’t think she loves me. Mystery solved. Let’s all go back to eating.
I pressed further and we went in circles for several agonizing minutes, while I asked her in various ways why she thinks I don’t love her, and Sofia kept answering in the preschooler equivalent of “because I said so”.
The minutes ticked by and Hugo finished his dinner. I broke him out of toddler mealtime jail (aka: the tray-fitted booster seat), and as he flitted back and forth from the play room with offerings of plastic cookies and corn on the cob clutched in his tiny, red gingham oven mitt, Sofia and I continued our stalemate.
“Sofia, if you think I don’t love you, there must be a reason. Did mama do something to make you feel sad? Is there something you want me to do that I don’t do?”
After a few more minutes of this excruciating, mind-numbing exercise — during which I raised my voice more than once in frustration, and she started crying — she finally broke.
“Sometimes, you shout at me.”
My heart dropped into my groin. Fuck. I’ve turned into her. My step-monster. And now my daughter thinks I don’t love her. Fuck. Fuck. FUCK.
I’d been afraid of this moment from the second I found out I was pregnant. I was afraid of the kind of mother I’d be. I was terrified that I’d model my stepmother’s irrational and terrifying behavior.
In the months of therapy I attended before divorcing my first husband, I had the pleasure of discovering things about my tendencies in relationships and life, and where they came from.
My therapist, Dr. N, was a specialist in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), and had recommended the book, Hold Me Tight. The book opens with a mention of research done in the 1960s by Harry Harlow, an American Psychologist who performed breakthrough research in attachment theory. Coincidentally, Harlow was also highlighted in a This American Life (TAM) episode, called Unconditional Love (which I listened to years later, after I got married to Matt).
In Harlow’s research, baby monkeys were given two synthetic mothers. In the simplest experiment, one mother was made of wire, which was equipped with milk, and one made of fluffy cloth, with no milk. The general consensus at the time was that children did not need affection, only basic physical needs, so with that in mind, the expectation was that the monkey would like the wire mother better.
But the monkeys only drank from the wire mothers’ bottle and immediately went to cuddle with the fluffy mothers for hours. When the fluffy mothers were around, they’d play and explore better. Later, the researchers upped the ante on the experiment by turning the fluffy mothers into “evil” mothers, equipping them with blunt spikes that would shoot out, making the mothers shake and vibrate violently while the babies were cuddling them, etc. Despite this, the babies would keep returning to them, cooing and playing, trying to get their mothers to be nice again.
Their fluffy mother’s validation was so important to them. Heartbreakingly so.
When I read about Harlow’s work in Hold Me Tight, and heard about it again in TAM, I new that I’d been raised by a wire mother. Who, despite her cutting and hurtful ways, I constantly looked to for the validation I never received.
I vowed to never be a wire mother. I’d always be the fluffy mother, I promised myself. Without spikes. Who never shook her baby away from her.
GODDAMIT. I’m the fucking WIRE MOTHER.
“Because I shout at you? When do I shout at you?” I calmed my tense voice, and treaded carefully. I felt like such a failure. How could I let this happen? Did my years of therapy and reading do nothing??
I cleared my throat and opened up my arms. “Would you like to sit with mama, Sofia?”
Her face crumpled as she broke down even further. As she wailed, she crawled out of her chair and climbed up my seated legs into my arms, hiccuping with sobs. I cradled her in my arms like I used to when she was a baby, and she laid her head on my chest as I stroked her hair.
“You shout at me at dinnertime, when I don’t eat my dinner” she moaned.
Wait. Dinnertime? When she refuses to eat and plays? When she employs every negotiation tactic to eat as little as possible? The way that she has for every single meal in the past month?
“And what should I do instead?”
“Just say, ‘Sofia, please eat your dinner'” she offered.
“Don’t I do that already? I ask you many times very nicely to eat your dinner, Sofia”.
“Yes, but you should only ask me nicely. No shouting.”
To be fair, I do raise my voice when she picks at her dinner for over 30 minutes at a time, and then asks, “can I have something else? Dessert? Can I have a special treat?” It used to be funny.
Now, it enrages me. I feel like I spend my entire life in that kitchen, trying my best to cook healthy, well-balanced meals from scratch. Like my mom used to. Not my stepmom. My mom mom. I’m constantly thinking, what would mom do? It’s an ideal that is impossible to live up to. After all, my poor mother has been dead for 35 years, and I’m constantly invoking her name to reach some unachievable level of motherhood that is completely unrealistic.
I know this. I do. But I just can’t help myself. I try my best not to shout, but I do get a bit high-pitched despite my intentions. Wire mother.
“Do I shout any other time?” I pressed further.
“Yes, when Hugo is pushing me. You shout, ‘NO HUGO! STOP PUSHING SOFIA!'”
“And what should I say instead?”
“You should say very nicely, ‘no, Hugo, stop pushing Sofia‘” she demonstrates in a syrupy-sweet voice.
I started to smile.
“And what if he doesn’t stop?”
“What should I do if I ask him nicely many times and he still continues pushing you?”
More silence. Shifting eyes. Chewing of a bottom lip.
“Well, I guess you can shout a little bit. Like a little exclamation point” she concedes. I can’t help but find this a bit amusing. Little exclamation point. I love her so.
“Hmm. Ok. Any other times I need to know about?”
“What about daddy?” I ask. “Does daddy act like he doesn’t love you, too?”
Ok, guys, I know what you’re thinking. WHY ARE YOU THROWING YOUR POOR HUSBAND UNDER THE BUS? But hear me out.
Matt is the nicest and calmest person. He rarely gets frazzled. Rarely raises his voice. Everything is small potatoes to Matt. Which is sometimes infuriating to a type-A, higher strung person like me. I just wanted to see how Sofia views this difference since she apparently (at least partially) equates love with a lack of shouting.
“Daddy? Maybe… sometimes. Not really.”
Ok, so she observes correctly. Smart cookie.
But wait a second. Matt spends 1 hour in the morning and on a good day, maybe 1-2 hours in the evening with these kids. I’M the one cooking and cleaning every meal and snack, 5+ times a day, 7 days a week, even on vacation. Not to mention doing the majority of the parenting. And apparently, too much of the shouting.
“You’re right. Daddy doesn’t shout much. Only sometimes. But you know, you only see daddy in the morning and before bedtime. I’m here all the time.”
She looked up at me with wide eyes, remnants of tears on her cheek and chin. She paused and cocked her adorable, nubby little chin sideways. Totally Matt’s chin.
“Hmm. Well that’s pretty interesting” she concluded. Her little 4.5 year old mind was blown.
I started cracking up with laughter and she followed. The tension was starting to ease and the tingling at my temples and fingers started subsiding. We giggled together for a few moments and I asked her if she wanted to finish her dinner.
“Sofia, I promise to speak in a kinder voice about dinner, and to Hugo when he’s pushing you. But I do raise my voice sometimes when I need you both to pay attention and listen to me. Do you promise to try to listen to mama when I ask you nicely?”
“Ok. But you’ll still love me even if I don’t eat…?” She was still unsure.
“I love you and Hugo no matter what. Even if you don’t eat. Even if you and Hugo fight. Even if I raise my voice. Just like the book. I love you no matter what.”
(We’d been reading a book called No Matter What, which is the sweetest little bedtime story.)
“No matter what?” Her face brightened.
“You couldn’t do anything that would make me stop loving you. Never, ever.”
Satisfied with my answer, Sofia turned her attention to her dinner again and we fed each other bites of salmon, rice and cauliflower while Hugo delivered plastic desserts to us in green play-dinnerware from the toy kitchen.
I was back to being the fluffy mother again. I breathed a sigh of relief.
To read what happens later while I discuss this conversation with my husband, Matt, see Part 2: The Aftermath