My kids don’t actually hurt my feelings all that often, even though I sometimes tell them they do.
For example, last week, I made Georgia her requested peanut butter-and-Nutella sandwich by folding a piece of untoasted sandwich bread in half over the filling rather than toasting the bread, spreading it with peanut butter and Nutella, and cutting it into “soldiers,” which, apparently, was what she wanted but did not verbalize.
“Not like that, you stupid woman!” she yelled when I delivered her snack on an Elmo plate.
And she was immediately whisked away to time-out and her unsatisfactory sandwich was withheld until an apology was forthcoming.
“You can’t talk to Mommy like that,” I told her, after the tears had subsided. “It’s not nice to talk to anyone like that. We don’t say anyone is ‘stupid,’ Georgia. That really hurt Mommy’s feelings.”
(Yes, I talk about myself in third person like that, even though I swore to the moon and back, pre-motherhood, that I would never do such a thing.)
But the truth is that my feelings weren’t hurt. I was more shocked than hurt – and honestly, a little bit amused, although I wouldn’t show it. Even when Ruby yells that she hates me, it doesn’t hurt my feelings. I know Georgia doesn’t actually think I’m stupid. I know Ruby doesn’t actually hate me. They’re just kids, playing around with language and its power, saying things just to see how it feels to say them. Of course they don’t get away with it – playing around with something definitely means you have to learn the consequences. And one of the consequences of saying mean things is that you can hurt people’s feelings, often very badly. So I give both of them a good dose of guilt – “you really hurt my feelings, kiddo” – but it’s all theater on my part. I am too thick-skinned to be wounded by the things my kids say when they’re trying to upset me.
(It’s their casual honesty that actually hurts my feelings, the unintentional sting Ruby caused when she said I should wear a cardigan with my dress so my stomach didn’t stick out so much – a criticism she meant as constructive, believe it or not.)
Given all of that, I didn’t expect it to hurt so much when I reached for Ruby at her classroom door on the second day of third grade and said, “OK, bye, baby; give me a hug,” and she looked at me as if I’d suggested she eat a live cricket.
“Um, no,” she said, ducking under my arm and walking away to her desk, to her friends.
I get it. As recently as six months ago, I was actually worried because Ruby was so demonstrative with me in front of her friends. She’d beg me to walk her to class; she’d practically tackle me when she saw me at the end of a long day. And I’d think, “Jeez, I am happy to keep hugging her for as long as she wants, but I sure hope the other kids don’t give her grief about it.”
Walking away on her own without a morning goodbye hug is normal. It’s healthy. It’s a big step on the path to growing up and being independent, and I want her to grow up and be independent.
Being spurned in front of her friends is not what hurt. Again, I’m thick-skinned; I can take it. What hurt was realizing that she’s passed out of the phase of being oblivious to what people around her think about her. It’s not so much that she hurt my feelings as that I hurt, as a mother, knowing how vulnerable she now is – to teasing, to peer pressure, to self-consciousness. I can’t keep her safe from these things, and that’s what hurts.
I think I need a hug, y’all. (And I’m sure Ruby will give me one, later tonight when we are in the privacy of our own home. Please don’t tell her friends.)