On the way home from my daughter’s first day of preschool I felt, not for the first time since becoming a mother, an overwhelming burst of emotion.
I was overcome with the desire to give my kid the middle finger—with both hands.
I should have known where the day was headed before it even began. We’d been talking up preschool all summer. The night before the big day, she couldn’t fall asleep. She woke up earlier than usual, complaining of a stomachache that even a pink, berry-flavored Tums couldn’t cure.
The drop-off went smoothly. When school let out, I was waiting outside the school with the baby on my hip. Chloe looked tiny, as she emerged through the school’s double doors. I watched as her eyes, ringed with purple circles, squinted in the bright sun, scanning the sea of waiting parents, oblivious to my waving and calling her name. When her gaze fell on the school bus, her furrowed brow finally relaxed.
“Chloe!” I called again.
When our eyes met, she began to wail. It was then that I noticed the card she clutched in her left hand. On it was a cartoon rendering of a school bus. In black marker were the words “Chloe R. #609.”
I had no idea who Chloe R. was or whether she’d gotten on the right bus. I only knew that Chloe M., my Chloe, was ugly crying on the school’s front steps while yelling, “I don’t want to go with you! I’m taking the bus!”
I rolled my eyes and smiled at the other parents, as if to say, “Kids and their shenanigans! Don’t you hate when your kid acts like you’re a kidnapper?!” Except all the other kids were running to their moms with outstretched arms and sunny grins. I was in this by myself.
I took a deep breath. I told myself not to take it personally. “I know it must have been disappointing that you thought you were riding the bus. They got you and the other Chloe confused. I’m taking you home.”
“No. NO. Nooo! I want to take the bus!”
“I know, sweetie.” I reached out to stroke her back, but she swatted my hand away.
It’s not personal.
This had been my mantra all summer, since my sweet, affectionate 3½-year-old had begun to sass me on a regular basis. I reminded myself she was jealous of her baby sister, and this was how she was expressing it. She was tired, overstimulated and disappointed about the bus. Of course she was glad to see me.
“But I wanted Daddy to pick me up! I hate you.”
I was hurt and embarrassed. I felt like shouting, “I hate you too!”
Instead, I said nothing. I didn’t want her to know she’d gotten a rise out of me.
By the time she’d calmed down enough to don her helmet and strap herself into the bike trailer, we were the only ones left in front of the school. I started pedaling home. As we rolled past the rushing creek, she declared, “I don’t like you because you don’t do enough favors for me.”
She might as well have followed it up with, “What are you going to do about it?”
Favors for you? Favors for you?
You lived in my body for the better part of a year.
I pushed 8½ pounds of you out my vagina for 30 hours.
I lost sleep for you.
I am still losing sleep for you.
I gave up my professional life for you.
I am your teacher, your chauffeur, your chef, your butler, your personal shopper, your hairdresser, your housekeeper, your laundress, your secretary and your assistant.
I am your mother, and I love you more than you could ever know. I love you so much it hurts.
Exactly what favors have I failed to do?
At the next red light, I craned my neck to look at her, and in my most patient, saccharine, flight attendant voice, I asked, “What kind of favors would you like me to do for you that you feel I am not doing, honey?”
She peered up at me from underneath the visor of her fuchsia helmet.
“Don’t talk to me!”
I love my kid. Of course I do. But motherhood is hard in ways I could never have imagined. As Chloe begins her formal education, I am reminded of something my sixth-grade earth science teacher told me.
“There is a fine line between love and hate.”
I was crying in the girls’ room over a hurt inflicted by my older brother over lunch period. I didn’t understand what she was talking about. She said I’d get it someday, pulling me into a hug against her very pregnant belly.
If I ever saw my science teacher again, I’d admit that I defer to my husband on questions about planets, rock matter and cloud formations. But that thing about love and hate? I get it now.