I have a secret that is hard to admit. I really struggle at times with one of my kids. Of course I love him. Of course I do everything in my power to care for him, protect him, and nurture him.But honestly, there are moments when I struggle to like who he is, particularly when he is standing in front of me, stubborn as a mule, ready to butt heads, not willing to give an inch.
This is not to say that I don’t have moments with my other two kids, but at times I wonder why it seems like this particular relationship, with this particular child is fraught with so much angst.This is especially hard for me, because it seems that parents are just not supposed to think this way! There is a very strong message from our culture that we’re supposed to love all our kids equally, be kind, generous and patient in order for us to be proper parents. So, like most things in life that bother me, I’ve decided to take a moment to really focus on what it means to have a child that you love with all your heart, but sometimes find it hard to connect with, to understand, to simply like.
First, I’ve come to realize that this is not an uncommon problem, just a painful, and sometimes shameful, fact that many parents don’t want to admit. The more I talked about it with my friends, the more I realized that everyone feels the same way about one of their kids at some point in their parenting life. For the longest time I worried that this meant I didn’t love this one particular child as much because our relationship can be so difficult. I still think about making his snack for school late one night, teary eyed over a huge row we had right before bedtime. “What if”, I thought, “I’m just not as good of a mom to him? What if I can’t love him the same way that I love my other kids?” Then a saner, more practical voice said, “Of course you don’t love him the way you love your other kids, Joan. You don’t love anyone the same. All relationships are different.” And then it hit me: The definition of love is not set in stone, some ideal that we all have to follow in order for it to be “right.” Loving your kids means different things at different times. Some days it’s cuddling on the couch reading together. Some days, it simply means feeding and washing them before falling exhausted into bed. Some days love means not following through on the desire to whack them upside the head.
I’ve also had to take a long hard look at what bothers me most about this child who I don’t always connect with. And if I am being honest, what I often see in him is……me. Realizing this was a humbling, eye-opening experience. All the traits he shows that bug me most and make me want to count down the minutes to the nearest happy hour are traits that I cannot stand in myself: over-sensitivity, stubbornness, and an inability to follow the rules. It made me realize that if I’m going to help my child be less difficult, I need to be less difficult and more open to changing myself. But I’ve also had to do a little re-thinking about these so-called “bad” traits. Yes, they can make me crazy, and I have always seen them as my child’s (and my own) greatest liability, but at times they are also his greatest strengths. For instance, he is overly sensitive, but also the most empathic child I have. He is stubborn, but boy, can he ever be stubborn about some good things, like not giving in to the kids at school who wanted to start a food fight. And yes, he hates rules (okay, so do I), but I don’t have a more creative, imaginative child than him. He thinks outside of the box more than any person in our family.
So, is my relationship with my “difficult” child always going to be filled with drama, tension, guilt? Maybe. But what I’ve come to realize is that my relationship with my other kids will change too, as they develop, as I grow older, as we all change in this family. Having a child who is a challenge can be, well, challenging. But what I’ve come to realize is that I need to change my definition of what I’ve always thought it means to be a mother. Parenting is many things at different times, and I have decided that I need to ebb and flow along with my kids if I’m going to make this work. There is no “right” way to parent your child, no definite definition of what it means to love your child, and no parent that does it right all the time.
About Dr. Joan Simeo Munson
Dr. Joan Simeo Munson earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Denver. She has worked with incarcerated individuals, families, adolescents, and college students in a variety of settings, including county and city jails, community mental health centers, university counseling centers, and hospitals. She also has a background in individual, group, and couples counseling. Dr. Munson lives in Colorado with her husband and three energetic children. She currently has a private practice in Boulder where she sees adults, couples and adolescents.