“Get inside the house!” I say, in a low growl, which I hope the neighbours can’t hear.
“No,” replies George.
“Listen, you brat” – tempers are frayed – “I know I promised a trip to the ice-cream place, but Auntie died two days ago and we are too upset, too busy. We’ll go another time.”
In the emotional-manipulation game, I’ve played my trump card. Now George plays his: “I don’t give a fuck that Auntie died.”
I stare at my eldest child, who meets my apoplectic gaze with blank defiance, and the thought hits me like a saucepan to the head: I don’t like you.
How did we get to this?
George is 10 and reminds me of Two-Face in Batman. He has a capacity for gentleness, is kind, generous and sensitive at heart. Yet his innate goodness – that soft, precious side – is these days mostly hidden beneath an arrogant, flinty exterior. His teacher likes his intelligence and wit, but confesses that her assistant finds him cocky and rude.
I agree. I feel a gouging ache of despair, even though I know that if I question him, he’ll be indignant and exclaim that the assistant always, unfairly, blames him when it’s the girls’ fault. And, immediately, I hate the assistant, for not understanding him, for her ignorant sexism (when he was a reluctant reader, she cemented the problem by forcing him through Eva, The Enchanted Ball Fairy). But mostly, I hate her because her attitude towards my darling son is uncomfortably reminiscent of my own.
So often, George seethes with latent rage and the tiniest imperfection will cause an eruption – last night, a too squashy satsuma. He is ferociously competitive and often casually cruel to his young brother – elbowing him on the stairs, so that the poor child flinches every time he passes his tormentor. He reaches extremes of emotion in seconds, screaming, crying, hurling books or balls across the room. It’s frightening because he is easily as strong as I am.
Recently, he called his father a bastard for forbidding him to watch South Park. If I’d spoken to my parents like that, I told George, I’d have been hit across the room. “And would that have been right?” enquired my son coolly.
I’m not Zen enough to always remain impassive when provoked. I don’t want to be a parent who hits, but I have grabbed George roughly, scratching his arm, to prevent him attacking his brother. I apologised with the weasel caveat, “Listen to me, then I won’t have to physically restrain you.”
My son isn’t stupid. He senses my fleeting dislike and it is poisoning our relationship. I lurch between futile forgiveness and condemnation. If we ban him from his favourite sport as punishment, we fuel his anger. The penal system is not a deterrent. But if we talk ourselves hoarse, he barely listens. Or he might cry, feel contrite, submit to a cuddle, then revert to venom and violence the instant he’s tested.
After 10 years of instinctive, cack-handed, self-analytical mothering, it strikes me I have no idea what to do.
It doesn’t help that on some pathetic level, I goad myself that this was inevitable; dysfunction rumbling miserably down through generations. I was a child who meekly obeyed autocratic parents: I never, ever answered back. My own mother shouted and hit. She was perpetually sour and incandescent with fury at the smallest infringement. Do I secretly resent my son, for his ingratitude, for the happy but exasperating fact that he isn’t afraid of his mother?
Of course my son cares about Auntie but I willfully choose to take him at his silly word and have a fight about it. Meanwhile, George derives grim satisfaction from watching me lose it. He is spoilt – not materially – but he often gets his way. I don’t know what I should deal with: the insolence or its cause – why is he like this?
Mostly, I fear I know. Stress and grief mean his father and I are a-boil with tension. All my unprocessed anger towards other people has accumulated into one bristling ball. Only at home do I give vent. My 10-year-old has seen me stamp and shout. He has absorbed this anger and thrown it back at me.
Yet I’m not like my mother: I cuddle, comfort, praise my children, and can’t hugely care when the light fitting is hit by a tennis ball. But her shadow remains and my reflex reactions are sometimes hers. I speak in her voice: “Get a move on! Pick up your feet!” That harshness is within me.
As I argue with my son in the street, I wonder if I possess the mental strength to be a parent. Perhaps because of my upbringing, my confidence evaporated when the hospital staff let me take this baby home. I was glad to have a part-time nanny, relieved to hand over my son to a professional. I was scared of him; his need for me was so great, I was terrified of failing him. I managed the practical stuff: steamed his organic carrots, overdressed him, read him Elmer. But I connected warily.
Eventually, you must stop excusing your failures, and take responsibility for your attitude and actions. My approval is certainly conditional but when does that spill over into withholding love? We spend a lot of time with our son – some quality, some purgatory. I often wish I worked in an office: despite the home-cooked meals, taxiing to various sports, the reading together, familiarity breeds contempt.
I am critical, correcting him on his table manners 10 times in one sitting. I discipline him supposedly for his good, but also for mine. He is a frequent, casual loser of coats, which maddens me. I am not always accepting of the child I’ve got.
As I start to write this, venting my frustration, each word feels like a betrayal of a small boy who should trust me. My sister-in-law says: “He tries so hard to please you – he always looks to you for approval.”
What she says resonates. I’m so desperate to change the situation that over the following months, I force myself to be warm, tolerant, minimise blame, smile – even when I want to yell my head off, like when he methodically picks the stuffing out of the dining-room chair.
I also consult Gaynor Sbuttoni, an educational psychologist who specialises in emotional issues. She says that as a parent, I must see that I come second. I must allow him to be angry, look for a solution, but limit the behaviour. Tell him: “You can’t hurt anyone, you can’t hurt yourself and you can’t break things. But you can stomp and shout and get your anger out and when it’s over we’ll carry on and we’ll do the right thing.”
Sbuttoni adds, “With most children, anger is covering up their anxiety. If he was feeling you didn’t like him – how scary is that? If your mum can’t love you unconditionally, nobody can.”
At last I recognise what is happening. I also see that I am not a victim of his behaviour; I have the power to stop it.
I comment on his every good deed: “That was kind of you, to read to your brother.” I try to promote intimacy. I have a foolish reticence, as if by pushing myself close, I’m interfering. At heart, I’m scared of his rejection. But when I join him in the garden to play, he is so pleased and surprised I feel ashamed for holding back. He blushes with delight when I attempt to fast-bowl.
I give him credit. I recognise that we expect a lot of him and work on recognising his vulnerabilities.
Sbuttoni explains: “A boy, developing emotionally, is fraught with pain. On the outside they are supposed to be big and strong and tough – inside they’ve got real feelings and are trying to cover them up, understand them – and many people do not acknowledge that with boys. It’s still hard for a boy to talk about feelings and when he has an adult who allows him to, there is friction inside: ‘I can do all this talking but when I get with the gang, I have to be angry, abusive and aggressive so that the male community will accept me as a male.’
“All kids are struggling with so much at any one time and Mum is the one they test it all out on,” she says.
My power to do good or evil is thrown into sharp relief by her words – and with it, my huge responsibility. I also see, with far greater clarity and compassion, his position. When George does explode with frustration, instead of snapping, I charm away his bad temper. I find this supremely difficult. When he swears, I say, “Please don’t speak like that.” I don’t stoop to a squabble. I even – as Sbuttoni advises “stand there, as if you are a gorilla over him” – to indicate on important issues that while he is as powerful as me, I am in charge. But mostly I try to put my ego aside and see it his way. When I help him with an essay, he asks, “Were you the cleverest person at English in your year at university?”
“God, no!” I say. “There were a lot of naturally brilliant people there. I just tried hard.”
He says, “I think it’s far better to try hard and do well, than to be clever and not try.”
“You’re right, George,” I say. “Thank you,” and he beams.
I feel a great rush of love. Because he’s so eloquent, it’s easy to mistake his for an adult mind, to roar, “Oh, grow up!” when he plays the fool or needles me. I am a difficult parent: disorganised, grumpy, sarcastic and unfair. Yet he loves me, as I do him, with painful, primal ferocity. I see I just had to learn to try harder.
Names have been changed
An expert opinion
Is it common not to like your child? It’s difficult to know as it’s such a taboo subject that people won’t readily admit to it. We are supposed to love our children from the minute they are born, like magic, and if that doesn’t happen you can feel you are stumbling from the start.
While it’s perfectly normal to find your child annoying occasionally, or dislike aspects of him or her, not liking them long term can usually be traced back to a reason, or sometimes several. There might have been a rupture in the bonding process. Sometimes children remind the parent of parts of themselves that they don’t like. Or they find it hard to cope with a child’s extreme vulnerability.
How you were parented can also have an impact: if you had a really difficult relationship with your mother (or father if you are a man), it can be really difficult to know how to be a good version of a mother/father yourself.
What is damaging for children is if they can’t get back to a place where they know the parent really does love them – in other words, if there’s never a time at which the child has a secure base. There has to be trust on the part of the child that underneath it all, he or she is loved.
Family therapy can really help if things are cyclical because unless someone steps in to change the patterns – how parent relates to child and vice versa – it just perpetuates. The sooner you get help, the better: younger children are more able to adapt to changes in their parents.Ryan Lowe
• Ryan Lowe is a consultant child, adolescent and family therapist,childpsychotherapy.org.uk