When my mother was born, her father was told by the doctor, “Congratulations, you have a daughter!” Wanting, craving and expecting nothing less than a son, my grandfather stormed out of the hospital without so much as a glance in my mother’s direction. He spent his life both intentionally and unintentionally doing his best to make her regret the fact that she was born a girl. So, when I encounter stories of parents who are genuinely disappointed in their children I’m not surprised, nor am I sympathetic.
Having grown up on the other side of a mother who was raised to believe in every way she was never meant to be, I’m downright mortified that someone would confess to being disappointed in her child, let alone put that confession in print. Yet, that’s exactly what Jennifer Rabiner (name changed for publication, presumably to spare her own ego, of course) did in a recent issue of Redbook when she wrote, “A mom is never, ever supposed to admit this, but here goes: I’ve never liked my child.”
She rambles on and on about how her first daughter, Sophie, never lives up to her expectations. You see, Rabiner always imagined what her future daughter would be like and Sophie didn’t fit the bill. Rabiner felt guilty, sure, but more than that she felt disappointed. And that disappointment manifested itself in consistent acts of revenge:
It got to the point where I viewed Sophie’s every move through a lens of failure … To me, she was trapped in her own strange world, driven by her own mysterious motivations, and hopelessly incapable of being normal. I knew I was being hard on her, but I couldn’t seem to stop.
Eventually, a friend’s confrontation motivated Rabiner to seek out a psychologist, not for her own failings as a mother, but so a medical professional could back up Rabiner’s theory that Sophie was somehow abnormal. Instead, the psychologist told Rabiner how much of a failure she was to her own daughter who, by that point, was pulling out chunks of her own hair.
While Rabiner struggled to make peace with her disappointment, Sophie continued to experience health problems until finally her concerned pediatrician performed tests to determine that she had a medical issue. According to Rabiner, the diagnosis was “a wake-up call” that still somehow managed to be all about her:
[Sophie] was coping with enormous challenges every day without a mother who believed in her. Even worse, I had resented her for letting me down, when it was I who was letting her down. I instantly regretted scads of horrible things I’d said to her over the years and prayed that the damage wasn’t irreparable. What a wake-up call.
In one of his short videos on “Being an Inspiring Parent,” Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks talks about placing unfair expectations on your children. The rabbi explains that for Jacob and Leah their first three children were disappointments. By the time their fourth, Judah, arrived, Leah simply resigned herself to being grateful for having a healthy child. As it turns out, the first three sons experienced miserable lives. Judah, on the other hand, not only redeemed himself within the Joseph story, but would become the patriarch of Israel’s kings. Accept your children as a blessing and their lives will be blessed in return. See in them only disappointment and disappointment is bound to follow:
That is how to have a good relationship with your child. To look at your child even on the days when you are most angry and disappointed and allow a smile to come on your face and say… ‘Thank you God for giving me this child.”
There is no redemptive streak in Rabiner’s tale of woe. Her husband penned a defensive footnote to the article detailing what a good mother his wife is, but the message is clear: Sometimes parents are disappointed in their children and, according to Redbook, that’s OK. No, it isn’t. While their actions can be disappointing, children should never be seen or allowed to believe they are a disappointment. That is a brokenness no child should ever have to bear.