He was angry at me and said I was exactly like my mother.
The charger for his device was not doing its work fast enough. I endeavored to help him by swapping it out for a different one. He was less than impressed with my efforts and lapsed into a temper tantrum occasionally characteristic of many a disgruntled five-year-old. I told him not to yell or I would take away said device. He then hurled his response with all the vitriol he could muster: “You’re just like your mean mother!”
I stopped in my tracks, was rendered speechless.
My children have heard the tales, have asked for them in fact. My childhood and all its mystery has taken on near-mythical status in their eyes. I have, of course, responsibly edited the more unsavory details of my rearing; but they have heard enough to know that there were good reasons they were never able to meet my mother, were never permitted to spend time with her before she died.
They have concluded she was “mean”—the word taking on its broadest significance when referring to her.
Becoming a mother necessarily forced me to confront my feelings about mine; and it became painfully and pitifully obvious that in terms of role models, my first and most significant was presented in mirror-image: I eventually discerned that if I simply did the opposite of what she did—at every turn, at every moment, I would then naturally become her opposite. Her behavior and choices rendered her cruel; mine would ensure I was good, profoundly decent. It seemed a simple strategy. I never aspired to be perfect—not in motherhood, not in anything. But her opposite? I could and surely should aspire to that.
Then, when I least expect it, my son—the five-year-old boy who still fits dreamily and snugly on my lap and informs me—eyes sparkling, heart radiating–I’m “the most beautiful mother [he] ever saw”—tells me in a fit of frustration and anger that I’m her.
You’re just like your mean mother.
I get it. I truly do. He’s five. He was unhappy with me. And instead of saying, as plenty of children have before him, that he hates me or that I’m the worst mother ever, he says I’m just like her.
And while his aim was to hurt me, to retaliate for his perceived affront, he will never be able to fathom the magnitude of his words because he does not comprehend the sum total of who she was—and was not.
The version he has of her has been heavily edited, and that is how it should be. All he knows is she was mean—very mean; and since he thought I was being mean, it’s the retribution that made the most sense, was the most convenient and accessible epithet he could grab in that moment.
And despite the power of my very conscious, very logical self who knows who I am and who I am not, my head could do nothing but spin, could do nothing but contemplate that what-ifs born of six words .
Then I thought about what she would have done had a similar scenario transpired when I was five. And while I’ll stop short of painting that sad picture, I can say she would not have issued a natural consequence. There would have been no thought.
She would have reacted. She would have been mean.
So, I know I’m not her.
That my son is wrong.
But his words are not without resonance, not without power.
They sting—no less than the realization that the five-year-old I love most in the world, my child, has the power to fell me with a single sentence.