Learning to say 'I love you. No matter what.' Even when your child rejects you.

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock  

I have three children, and each one, of course, occupies a special place in my heart. When my middle child was born I loved him instantly. There was no bonding or settling in period like there had been with my oldest. This tiny creature had my heart from his first breath. To me, he was a miracle.

I remember during the weeks after he was born, holding him close while I sobbed, convinced that he was too perfect to exist in this cruel world. I had postpartum depression, and I was sure he would die at any moment and I needed to soak up every second of his life.

My fears and feelings, while very real in the moment, were not based in fact and my son grew into a perfectly healthy, perfectly unperfect, toddler.

Then when he was barely a year old, I got pregnant with my daughter, and around that time my baby decided he preferred his father over me. It was subtle at first: pulling away, reaching out while I was holding him, crying until his daddy held him when I couldn't. I was pregnant and distracted with our oldest child, and for a while I was grateful for the shift in responsibility.

I'd only just finished breast-feeding, and I was pregnant again. It was okay to need a break, and of course my child would be there waiting for me when it was all over.

Right?

Wrong.

Throughout my pregnancy and the birth of my daughter, my son grew more distant from me. When he was sick, he wailed for Daddy. If I held him, he fought me. If I told him I loved him, he said he hated me. My heart broke a thousand times over that year.

There were days I'd finally give in, hand him to his father and wait for them to leave the room so I could collapse into a puddle of my own tears. I was convinced that on some level I had let him down. Perhaps if I was more fun, or less strict, or hadn't gotten pregnant again he wouldn't have given up on me. I read every scrap of advice I could find.

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The one thing I latched onto was that under no circumstances was I supposed to take his preferences and tantrums personally.

I'm not saying I achieved this without fail. There were many times I cried, many fights I had with my son's father and many times I had to set down my crying toddler and walk away so I didn't lose it in front of him.

I dug deep for those feelings of compassion and love I'd experienced during our first days together. I remembered that this wonderful and spirited creature was not a toy or pet to possess. He was his own person, even as a toddler, and it didn't matter what he said or did to me. I was his mother. My response was always that I loved him. No matter how he hurt or offended me, or triggered personal demons from my own childhood.

What he needed from me - and the only thing I had left to offer him at that point - was unconditional love.

It remained that way for years. On nights when I put him to bed, he fought and cried for daddy, and when I denied him, he fell asleep saying how much he hated me. Two years is a long time to watch the love of your life from a distance. And it never got easier.

Until one day, when he was about 3, something changed.

Bedtime started out as usual: He asked for his dad to put him to bed, I told him it was my night and he protested. But there was an additional spark in his eyes that I'd never noticed before. And when I went to leave he sat up in bed with his arms outstretched. To me. For the first time in almost two years.

"Wait!" he shouted.

"What?"

"You didn't say good night." A smile pulled at his lips.

"I'm sorry. Goodnight, my love."

Then his face burst into a grin. It was the most dazzling thing I'd seen since the moment he was born, and I felt a fresh wave of emotion. He fought the smile down to a smirk and said, "I hate you, Mommy."

I swallowed hard and replied, "I love you, too."

That was the turning point. Maybe it was the perspective I needed to see his behaviour for what it was: A child testing the boundaries of a relationship he didn't fully understand. I heard his words as a cry for safety and an affirmation that no matter what, I would always love him. My baby had been the first to teach me about love at first sight, the humility of unrequited love and now the power of perception. I'd been so caught up in my feelings about his behaviour toward me, and the idea that it was happening to me, that I'd almost missed the real lessons he was learning during those two years.

When he reached for Daddy instead of me, he wasn't learning that one parent was better than the other. He was learning that he had two parents who would always be there for him. When he cried and kicked in my arms, he wasn't learning to hurt me. He was learning that I would hold onto him no matter what. When he told me he hated me, he wasn't learning to be cruel. He was learning that words are only as powerful as their intentions.

I'm grateful that he learned all those lessons, and that he taught them to me along the way.

Few parents will make it through their child's entire life without hearing the words "I hate you." Most hear it over some minor disagreement or rule they feel is unfair. My daughter once told me she hated me because it was raining. Now I know to look past the tantrums and words, to the heart of the child behind them. Now I hear their words as a cry for help, a signal that they are feeling sad or scared or threatened. And I always respond the same way I did during that bedtime when my son was 3.

"Well, I love you. No matter what."

My middle son is now almost 6-years-old. He's gifted and funny and extremely sensitive. He still occasionally tells me he hates me during fits of anger, but he also tells me he loves me every night when I tuck him into bed. He sneaks into my room sometimes after everyone else is asleep just for a hug.

The best advice I can offer anyone going through a similar phase with their child is that it will pass.

Just be there in whatever capacity your child will allow. Cry and scream in private. Remember that you're not alone. So many mothers have fought and suffered along with you. And someday that child will tell you they love you and it will sound as magical as their first words. You waited so long to hear them speak for the first time, to hear their first laugh, to see their first smile.

Keep waiting.

It's worth it.

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Widdicks is a former cognitive psychologist, freelance writer and novelist.

The Washington Post