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Why Don't I Like My Own Child?

It's the most given of givens: Moms love their kids. But not for Jennifer Rabiner*. In this riveting confession, she admits that her young daughter disappointed her from day one.

WebMD Feature from "Redbook" Magazine

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A mom is never, ever supposed to admit this, but here goes: I've never liked my child.

Growing up, I had hoped to someday have a daughter, and I had a clear vision of what she would be like: vivacious, spunky, and whip-smart, socially savvy and self-assured. What I got was the polar opposite. At birth, Sophie was skinny and weak. She nursed poorly, and she cried so hard that she vomited — daily. As a toddler, she was strange. She wouldn't make eye contact, and she'd scream bloody murder at the sound of ripping paper. Instead of scribbling with crayons, she'd line them up at the edge of the paper. She'd climb to the top of the slide and then cry to be rescued. She couldn't — or wouldn't — answer direct questions. She didn't make friends. Life seemed hard for her. It broke my heart a little every day.

As you can probably imagine, I felt guilty that I was basically repelled by my own child. Who wouldn't? But honestly, the guilt was overshadowed by a colossal sense of disappointment. This just wasn't the magic mother-daughter bond that every book I read, every movie I saw, and every family I'd ever met had led me to expect.

When Sophie was 18 months old, we visited my sister, now a psychologist, who said out of the blue, "You know, Sophie is an odd kid." I asked what she meant. "She's just kind of — off," she said. Her comment upset me but only confirmed my suspicions that Sophie might be on the autism spectrum. I spoke to her day-care director and had her tested by the school district. Neither found anything wrong. I found a pediatric neurologist, but when they sent me forms to fill out, Sophie had none of the physical symptoms in the boxes under "Reason for Visit." I canceled the appointment. My husband accused me of searching for a diagnosis that didn't exist, but I needed to know why my daughter wasn't meeting her developmental milestones, let alone my expectations.

My husband, by contrast, has always loved and cherished Sophie for who she is. And he makes it look so easy! Instead of gritting his teeth through her most eccentric behaviors, he imitates them in an exaggerated way, which makes her howl with laughter. Then he starts laughing too, and they collapse in hugs. I envy his ease with her.

I might have thought I was lacking a maternal instinct, but when my second daughter was born, I was blown away by overwhelming Mommy Love. Lilah was exactly the baby I'd envisioned: strong and healthy, with a penetrating gaze. She nursed vigorously and smiled and laughed easily. She talked early and often and, even as a toddler, befriended everyone she met. When I hugged her, she squeezed back hard, and I felt my own heart beating in two bodies at once.

As Lilah grew healthy and robust, Sophie looked noticeably meek by comparison. It's true that I, like all my relatives, am petite, but Sophie was beyond small — weak, skinny, and pale. The contrasts between Lilah and Sophie went beyond the physical. There was Lilah, initiating a joyous game of peekaboo at 6 months, while her sister, then 3, sat on the floor babbling phrases from books and TV shows. We'd ask, "Sophie, wanna join the game?" And she'd say: "Look, a clue! Where? Over there!" I called it her Rain Man act.

It got to the point where I viewed Sophie's every move through a lens of failure. At a birthday party, when she walked away from the parachute game the other kids were playing, I said, "There she goes again, being antisocial." But another mom said, "Sophie's doing her own thing. She wants no part of that dumb parachute. Smart girl." I thought, Whoa! I would never have seen it that way. 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.

 *Why did the author change all the names? "I don't want my daughter to ever know how I struggled with her."

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