Of course as a mother, I’m totally biased when it comes to my kid. Every day longer that I know him, the more I love him. And at this point–aside from the dirty diapers and the spit-up–what is there not to love? He’s not all that complicated–he likes food, sleep, and clean underoos.
But what happens if he grows up and I don’t like who he is?
In some ways, I know that’s an impossible scenario. Parents–at least the halfway decent ones–come programmed to always love their kids. No matter the mistakes they make and the disappointments that follow, there’s a reason it’s called unconditional love. But some kids just end up sort of rotten, no matter the quality of parents or the enormity of their efforts, and I fear for that.
It’s no doubt quite premature to be stressing about this sort of thing. I have a happy baby, with the emphasis on baby. But I had an encounter not too long ago that got me thinking about the what ifs of my sweet baby turning into a monster.
Late in the summer, I had a visit from my childhood babysitter. She stopped by to oogle over baby just as she had oogled over my brother and myself when we were wee ones. This babysitter is a lovely, lovely woman. She and her husband ran a daycare out of their home for decades and it seemed like everyone with whom I went to elementary school had spent a good chunk of time at their house, from playing on the jungle gym in the backyard in the spring to building snow forts in their side yard in the winter.
This is a woman who adores children. And children adore her, too. All the kids who went her house have wonderful shared memories of tomato soup lunches, homemade Play-Doh afternoons, garage sales where every kid got 50 cents to make purchases, and personalized cookies for every holiday.
But after all the years that I’ve known her, I saw a lone spot of darkness in her demeanor during the afternoon she visited. My mother and I had asked about her two children and their children. My longtime sitter raved on and on about how well her daughter was doing, but when it came to her son, she just sort of kept to the less-than-glamorous facts about his current situation, which admittedly was troubling.
Finally she said, “Sometimes I just don’t like him.”
I was so stunned that she said that. This wonderful woman, who had so much love in her heart for so many kids for so many years, had reached some sort of limit. It was hard to imagine that someone like her, who also was exceptionally religious, could just be exhausted like that. I mean, it’s not like she had shut him out of her life. No, not at all. She was supporting him emotionally and even financially. And she clearly did so out of love, but there was also a very tangible sense of obligation. I could tell there was little pleasure in helping him, ostensibly because his needs were never ending; it was almost as if she felt like he was undeserving of her support and yet resigned, as a mother, to continue being a crutch or a handout or whatever role she was playing in his drama.
“It’s so strange,” she said later. “Two kids, who grew up the same way, in the same house, and they’re just totally different.”
With that, I knew she also felt guilty, like somehow she had failed her son. But how? It was a question that she must have often asked herself and yet found no tangible answer.
Although this little exchange was such a small part of our otherwise happy conversation, it scared me. I’ve always wanted to believe that nurture could win out over nature, but this situation suggested that the opposite was more likely to be true. Even if I could come in strong on the nurturing side of things, I now have serious doubts that it would be enough to even help course correct if my wee one started to head into trouble. I don’t have half the heart, the patience, and the discipline that this woman possesses.
So, what do I do if my baby evolves into a boy (and then a man) that I don’t particularly like? I could say that I could set limits, but I’ve never seen a parent who’s been able to successfully do so. Most parents talk the talk about tough love, but few walk the walk, despite what they tell their friends at cocktail parties.
I think I’m probably better off just saying a few novenas and hoping for the best.