As I sit and watch a little girl - blonde-haired and wearing a pink coat, probably less than two years old - run in the sunshine and laugh while her parents gently guide her with outstretched, cautionary hands, I can't help but think "She is going to grow up and break their hearts."
I never claimed to be a perfect mother. I made - and continue to make - mistakes. I've called my kids "stupid." I didn't always want to sit on the floor and play Barbies or cars. I did love reading to them and doing art projects. I love watching them perform - singing, acting, dancing, sports. They make my heart swell with pride almost daily.........and they break it.
I remember when my own little girl was that toddler laughing and running through the grass; I, the mom who ran just behind with my hands out in front of me to catch her should she fall. My little girl - so smart, so cute, so sweet - so many compliments on her strawberry-blonde hair and her precocious nature. She was my sidekick, my constant companion. When she was sixteen months old and I lost the sibling I was carrying for her, she somehow knew and was extra-sweet to me that awful day, patting my cheek and cuddling up to me.
Now all she has for me is contempt. At nearly 20, living back at home after a year at a university, she is caught between child and woman; too young to see how her choices and actions now will affect her future and too old for the restrictions, rules and chores of her childhood home. If I ask her to clean her room, she accuses me of wanting a magazine-perfect house, or challenges me by asking "What does it matter? It's MY room, how does it affect you?" She cannot respect that it's my house, my rules. If I ask her to do dishes, she says "They aren't mine!" or sighs heavily. If I comment that she should embrace the full-time job she's been offered for the summer, she shoots back that she hates the job and "deserves" a summer break.
She spends most of her time on the internet, scrolling through Tumblr or Skyping with friends. When I tell her she needs to focus more on face-to-face relationships, she becomes angry and defensive, saying I am insulting her friends or that she "hates people." She's a cynic, a self-proclaimed atheist who can't stand anything remotely conservative; a staunch Democrat with a basic distrust for people. She is angry and bitter and prefers to be alone. She is anxious and depressed, on meds and in therapy.
And she blames me.
"It's not a coincidence," she states, "that all four of your kids, one of them not even biological, are all in therapy. You're the common denominator - because you're so condescending and mean."
I rack my brain and try to figure out how a request to clean her room leads to this - words that slice and dice my heart into little pieces. I can't un-hear those words.
There is a saying, "People might forget what you did for them, but they will never forget how you made them feel." Did I make her feel unloved? Not good enough? Not smart enough or pretty enough or accomplished enough or nice enough? Can she not un-hear my words when I called her a slob for having a messy room or an ungrateful bitch because she says living in my house is like living in a "hell hole?"
I've given her permission to leave. Told her she could go live with her dad. Welcomed her to grow up instantly, get a place of her own, pay her own bills. But she is not motivated to be on her own. It's too easy - this free life where there is always a good wifi connection and food.
Is it really too much to expect her to do her part? To not eat in the family room and leave dishes all over? To rinse out and toss the tuna can after she makes a tuna fish sandwich instead of leaving it on the counter overnight to dry out and attract flies? To run a load of dishes without being asked or wash a load of towels so we don't run out? To keep her room picked up, take care of her own laundry, not throw clothes on her floor? To pick up after she's used the common bathroom, not leave her contact wrappers on the counter right next to the garbage can?
When I was her age, I lived on my own. Paid my own bills. Worked, and went to college. She says not to compare; she is not me. But I did those things because I was motivated by wanting independence, by what I felt was society's expectation of someone my age, to please my parents. It was a struggle at times, not always fun, but I would have felt foolish being my parents' child when I was an adult and could take care of myself. She wants independence with no responsibility.
And yet.....she accuses me of only hearing the negative. I accuse her right back. I know in my heart that she, my firstborn, is the reason I stayed home to raise my babies. It was such a privilege to be a mother, to be given that gift by my first child. It's the only job I've ever loved and felt I was really good at. Until now. Now, I question my wisdom - did putting my kids first send the wrong message? She seems angry me all the time if I am not singing her praises. But who gets sunshine blown up their ass all the time? No one. Every day we are beaten down by the world and it's our own self-worth that keeps us getting back up. The little voice that says, "I'm ok. I'm a good person. I am worthy." No one has their own personal cheerleader. We take the good with the bad and keep on going.
My parents didn't sing my praises all the time. Sure, they celebrated my accomplishments but they also yelled at me, spanked me, screamed at me when my room was messy (which was all the time). I knew to listen to them, to do what I was told. But I also grew up knowing that they busted their asses to raise four kids in sometimes trying times. They had my back and supported me in whatever I wanted to do. They encouraged me and helped me reach my goals, and, yes, we had some big fights along the way. I don't blame them for my shortcomings or bad decisions I've made. It's not their fault I got divorced, have had financial difficulties, lost friends, or made bad decisions. Those are all on me.
So, is my daughter's hatred of me a result of being raised in the "me first!" generation? Where everyone "wins," and everything is equitable and praise is handed out so often it becomes meaningless? So that any ounce of criticism is seen as an insult or a means to beat her down and make her feel terrible about herself? Eleanor Roosevelt said no one can make you feel inferior without your permission. And while I know words can sting - and I'm still reeling from hers - can she make me feel inferior about my role as a mother? I never promised to do a perfect job. I knew I would do a good job and make some mistakes. Are we destined, as parents, do be hated by our young eventually? Is it a necessary rite of passage to fully enter the world of being an adult?
And do I even have a fighting chance of defending myself in her one-sided therapy sessions where she can create a fictional world that no therapist could ever see through? It certainly seems like a lost cause. Is it fair that I should fee like I'm fighting a battle in my own house - that asking her to contribute in the most basic human ways - to pick up after herrself, put things back, keep her own space clean - is often so much emotional strain that I find myself not saying anything at all? But when I do, I ask nicely, only to be met with the eye roll, "I'm busy," "I'm relaxing," or "It's not my job!" Is it any wonder with that reception I might get the least bit angry or lose my fucking mind? Especially since I'm almost always overwhelmed with a job, four often difficult kids, a big house to take care of and clean, all of the errands, grocery shopping, calendar-keeping and juggling.
What if I had pursued a career, hired a nanny to raise the kids, a housekeeper to clean the house, and fed my kids fast food every night before I spent a couple of hours with them until bedtime? Would I be happier? Have more "me time?" Feel more fulfilled as an individual? I'll never know. I like to think I made the right decision, because I never imagined any other life for myself. But sometimes parenting seems so futile. Like, no matter what you do, you're bound to fuck up and give your kids a million reasons to trash you in therapy, in public, or in a tell-all book.
I feel like things will come full circle. Like one day, she will come back to me and realize that we're a lot more alike than we are different. Maybe when she has her own daughter on the cusp of adulthood. Maybe when she goes through a divorce of her own. Or maybe the first time the novelty of being alone in her apartment wears off and it's too quiet, and she longs for the noise and laughter and chaos that was once her home.
But what if it doesn't? I've been around long enough to know that sometimes the mother-daughter relationship doesn't work out. What then? What if she doesn't want me to be a part of her life when she lives separate from me? Can it really come to that over an argument that started with "I want you to clean your room" and ended with "You're the reason I'm in therapy!"
As I sit in the car, alone at the beach, hearing the rumble of passing trains and watching the people around me, I see moms and kids, dads and kids, grandparents and kids, and I wonder how many other broken hearts are all around me and if this is just the beginning.