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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.

A moment of reckoning came when Sophie was 4, at a playdate with my best friend and her daughter. I was judging Sophie as usual, criticizing how she was painting with the stick part of the paintbrush instead of the bristles, when my friend turned to me and said point-blank: "You are Sophie's mother. You're supposed to be her rock — the person she can count on most in the world for unconditional love and support. It doesn't matter if you like her or not; you still have to support her." I started to cry, because I knew she was right. And deep down, I was ashamed of how easily I had betrayed my own daughter. If I looked at my behavior objectively, it was disgusting.

My friend consoled me but didn't let me off the hook. "What are you going to do about this?" she asked. I honestly didn't know. Then, a few days later, we got a flyer from Sophie's preschool. It advertised a workshop by a clinical psychologist called "Loving and Honoring the Child You Have, Not the One You Wish You Had." Bingo! I called the psychologist to see if we could meet privately, which we did. At her prompting, I described Sophie's various limitations, which I had jotted on the back of a business card:

  • Has uneven skills (as a toddler, she knew the whole alphabet and could count to 60, but could barely string three words together).
  • Hurts herself, perhaps out of anxiety (used to tear out clumps of hair, then began scratching herself).
  • Doesn't express needs or even recognize them (will cry when hungry even as her peers use full sentences).
  • Freaks out at high-pitched noises (like the beeping of an ATM).
  • Prefers to play alone (when other kids try to play with her, she ignores them, or tries to play but doesn't seem to grasp how).

She nodded as I listed my grievances, and I got excited, expecting to hear a diagnosis that would finally make sense of Sophie's quirks and lead to an effective treatment. But no luck. She felt I wasn't attuned to Sophie's vulnerabilities — she's a sensitive soul; I'm a bull-in-a-china-shop type. But something is wrong with my child, I kept thinking. Why can't anyone else see it? Instead, she made suggestions designed to help me bond with her. I took notes.

The first thing I had to do, said the psychologist, was identify my expectations of Sophie so I could understand whether they were realistic or unachievable. As long as I wanted her to be someone she could never be, I was setting her up to fail, in my eyes, every single day. I explained that I wanted Sophie to make eye contact. "That's too hard for her," the psychologist said, recalling my own checklist. "She's acutely sensitive — you whisper, and for her it's like a megaphone." I realized that I wished Sophie were tougher (she's hypersensitive), more outgoing (she's shy), and "cool" (even now, as a 9-year-old, she favors kittens and angels). Scrap those things. Start over. I needed to stop seeing what Sophie was not and start seeing what she was. A few months later, when Sophie drew a unicorn on a piece of construction paper and said she wanted to use it for her birthday party invitation, I resisted the temptation to hide it in the garbage and order glossy invites instead. Color copies of Sophie's rainbow unicorn went out to 45 kids — and I got emails raving about it! Score one for Sophie.

Still, denying my expectations day after day was hard. I wondered if my upbringing may have set the bar too high. As the daughter of a local politician, I was expected to be a role model — to dress appropriately, smile and make small talk, write thoughtful thank-you notes. And I was a natural. My mother used to say, "Nothing succeeds like success," and I stepped up. Why couldn't Sophie?

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