Life Lessons: Small Shoulders

My son told me he hated me tonight. My oldest child– the child who split my soul wide open and cut a chasm into the wilderness of motherhood, the child who introduced me to God and allowed my bright tears to fall on his fiery copper hair while he was still wet and folded and trailing the scent of heaven– told me he hated me.

It doesn’t matter why– it was trivial and meaningless– and it was selfish the way only a child secure in the love of his mother can express. Even as part of me recoiled at his vehemence, I could recognize what was happening. I leaned on the doorjamb as he glowered over his scowled brow at me, using his stocking feet to shove the messy piles of Legos and dog-eared Calvin & Hobbes paperbacks littering the floor around his bed.

Motherhood teaches us lots of inimitable lessons and this one was about the removal of yourself– the you who is unique and hurts and hopes and wants– when your child needs something precious and specific from you. In that moment, watching him kick tiny plastic pieces and throw all his anger at me, it was my job to understand, to actually see him, and help him have what he needed- my own feelings were inconsequential comparatively.

He trusts me. The stresses of his life, though they seem simple and childlike from an adult perspective, are all new to him. In the last year, he has lost the only home he remembered, the freedom and security of having a stay-at-home mom, and most devastatingly, he has lost his father. The shadow of a man who occasionally shows up and looks vaguely like the guy who used to function as his father is fragile, untrustworthy, and must be handled with care. My children cling to what they can eek out from the three hours a week he might show up, watching themselves and exercising protective care over the repository of their ideas of what “father” means. They cannot, at this parting of paths in the road, tell their father they hate him- it would blow apart any fragile dream they have cobbled together.

It is for me they reserve their expressions of pain, anger and sorrow. It is for me they are safe enough to throw themselves on the bed and wail about the breaking of their hearts- and this is what I thought of as I sat down next to my angry son and laid my hands on his back in love. He folded his arms and harrumphed, scowling at me deeper. Taking his face in my hands, I told him how much I love him, and how proud I am of the vastness of his heart, the courage of his convictions and the soul contained within his growing strong body. I reassured him life would not always be this way, and that we can do hard things- we have, we will, and we will continue…

His face softened and he leaned over into me, now flushed and a little embarrassed, trying to hide a chagrinned smile. “I’m still mad at you..” he mumbled into his folded arms, brows still drawn down, but eyes brighter. “Yes, I know. It’s okay. You can be mad at me- I’ll still love you forever. I may not always like you- but will love you forever.” His head popped up- surprised and indignant that I would say something like that. “Well, you do have the power to hurt my feelings. I’m a person, doing the best I can, just like you.” Contemplation rolled across his stormy eyes, and I could see him processing the idea of mom as someone besides just “mom”, filler of bellies, laundry baskets, backpacks, bathtubs.

He’s nine years old. It’s young for the load placed upon his shoulders– oldest child, absent father, grad-school mother, courageous boy with a heart of gold– but I see those shoulders broadening already, and I suspect he will someday be quite the man.

(Cross-posted at my personal blog, Dandelion Mama)


  1. Marjorie Conder says:

    Oh, yes! And in my cosmology God feels the same way about us.

  2. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    I feel the same as Marjorie. There’s a great moment in “Girl Genius” (Haven’t read it? Go. Now.) where Gil says “I try to be nice. I try to be fair and just and no one ever takes it for anything but weakness! If they want a Mad Boy, I’ll show them just how Mad I can be! (…!) This must be the way my Father feels ALL THE TIME!”

    I’ve had moments like that, where I’m really frustrated or irritated or disgusted with humanity and where God has basically laughed and said “Welcome to my world.” It sounds weird but it helps me look at things more like Tracy M. is talking about and it’s easier to deal with that way.

    Tracy, congratulations on being able to pull through that moment and see it for what it really meant and being able to connect with your son in a way that was helpful and meaningful for both of you. I look at my daughter, still pretty fresh from heaven herself, and remember some of the stuff I did and said to my mom (and I was the easy one!) and I’m not looking forward to that at all!

  3. God bless you and your family, Tracy. I can relate to this post so well, in the middle of raising six strong-willed kids over the past 20+ years.

  4. Great work, Tracy.

  5. PDoE and MC- it’s pretty much my cosmology, too– which is why I cross-posted what looks at first like a piece about motherhood…

    Thank you, Ray and SMB.

  6. I’m glad John told me to read this post. My same-aged son came over and said, “It’s (your son’s name)!” Beautiful, beautiful, thank you. You are wonderful.


  7. Stephanie says:

    What a wise woman you are, Tracy. I can imagine God holding you and loving you and reassuring you and strengthening you as you strengthen your children.

    (The less mature side of me wants to kick your ex-husband in the shins and scream at him to realize the hurt he is causing. No, it wouldn’t do any good, but that’s why it’s not mature.)

  8. Nicely said, Tracy.

  9. Thank you Tana– hoping we can get the boys together this year.

    Stephanie, thank you. And yeah, it would do no good. Sometimes, believe it or not, even with all the collateral damage, divorce is the best choice. Mine is one of those. My ex is truly gone.

    Thank you WVS.

  10. Beautiful and timely, Tracy. Much needed and appreciated today.

  11. Like.

  12. Tracy, he is one luck son to have a mother like you. So well said and deeply expressed. Thank you for sharing this.

  13. Read Anne Lamott’s “Plan B: Further thoughts on faith.” It’s incredible – for me, a voracious read! And a great guide for the hopeless hapless teenage years.

  14. I forgot to say, love your post, as always.

  15. Awesome, Tracy. I wish I was always smart enough and mature enough to handle my kids as well as you handle yours. You are a genius mother.

  16. Beautifully written, you are an artist with words. I wish I had been able to find that perspective when my children were young.

  17. StillConfused says:

    I never tolerated the “h” word in my family. I think if one of my children had ever said that about me or their father, I would have slapped them. (And I am not a physical kind of gal)

  18. Still Confused, do you suppose that would have helped my son, who is already dealing with tremendous loss, had I slapped his face, instead of seeing through to his pain?

  19. Great post, Tracy!

    I really like that you told him, “I’ll love you forever.” That reminds me of one of my favorite picture books that my boys are far too old to listen to anymore–“Love you forever.” Reading it always made me cry.

  20. I think everyone you said was great, but I believe it would have also been appropriate to tell him that saying “I hate you” is not ok in our family.
    I agree that all children have many stresses and adults often forget it. However, it this day and age many parents forget that besides being showered with love, children need boundaries to feel safe. In your situation it is entirely on your shoulders to figure out and enforce the rules. Not easy.

  21. My husband sent me here to read your beautiful post. I’ve raised seven children and had them say things like, “You’re mean. I hate you.” and, my favorite, “You’re not my friend anymore.” My middle son – who had his share of those kinds of comments – returned from a year in Afghanistan 18 months ago. He’s been suffering from PTSD, but didn’t want to get help because he didn’t want to let his unit down. He called me two nights ago and said, “Mom, I’m ready to talk to talk to someone. Will you come with me?”
    I know our children don’t mean the things they say in anger. And I agree with you, if they weren’t in our love for them, they would never have to courage to say them.
    Good for you. Your son is blessed to have such a loving and understanding mother. You are building a foundation of trust, understanding and love that will last forever.

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