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Health & Parenting

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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.

I tried to ignore my gut instinct that something still wasn't quite right. The psychologist recommended that I connect with Sophie over something she enjoys, and as much as Calico Critters weren't my thing, I vowed to try. A few days later, I found her poring over a Mini Boden catalog. Aha! We shared a love of shopping! It might not be the most wholesome or financially sustainable hobby, but we needed to start somewhere. I plopped down next to her and asked, "If you could get one thing on each page, what would it be?" My sister and I had played this game as kids, and Sophie caught on instantly. Too bad life isn't one big catalog game.

Instead, more often, it was Sophie crawling on all fours and meowing, shrieking, jabbering in made-up languages, and asking nonsensical questions (What if day were night, and night were day? What if it snowed in summer? What if our last name was Nebraska?). Even when I tried to help her — by going over the moves that tripped her up in dance class and urging her to stop transferring her boogers from nose to mouth — I only did so because I wanted her to be accepted and liked, which was my agenda, not hers. Sadly, my efforts only made her feel more self-conscious and anxious. And I continued to feel exasperated and annoyed. Why was my own daughter so difficult for me to parent? I gradually got used to the feeling, but I never made peace with it.

Then, when Sophie was 7, a stunning revelation rocked our family's world. At the prompting of our pediatrician, who was concerned about Sophie's sluggish growth, she was tested and diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency that had slowed her development across the board since birth. Her speech, motor skills, and social maturation were three years behind schedule. Wow! It wasn't the diagnosis I expected, but it made sense. Growth hormone regulates so many functions in the body; Sophie's lack of it explained everything from her blue moods and anxious behaviors to her difficulty communicating to her birdlike appetite and negligible muscle tone. My first reaction was relief — a diagnosis! Then hope — help is on the way! Then guilt. All this time, Sophie was struggling. She was 7 by the calendar but only 4 by her own body clock, a pre-K'er thrust into second grade. She 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.

As the diagnosis sank in, I found myself feeling more tender, more motherly toward Sophie. Instead of me pitted against her, it's now us, together, pitted against this diagnosis. My husband is cautiously optimistic about the treatment (nightly hormone shots) but concerned about possible side effects. After all, he has accepted her as is all along. The happy dance I'm doing over this diagnosis is mine alone.

Whether I've finally learned to be a good parent to Sophie — or in spite of the fact that I haven't — my now-9-year-old is in a pretty good place. The hormone shots have delivered positive effects beyond inches and pounds. Sophie competes on the local gymnastics team, aces her spelling tests, goes on loads of playdates, and loves to download songs for her iPod. She makes eye contact and answers direct questions. I'm pretty sure she's genuinely happy most of the time, though she's still fairly anxious and still occasionally meows and shrieks. I watch her sometimes, looking for clues of the emotional scarring I fear I've inflicted, but I see none. Instead, she takes running leaps into my arms, her strong legs squeezing my middle in her signature "cobra hug." Do we see eye to eye? Almost never. But do I try to prop her up every single day anyway? Yes, I do. After all, I'm her mom.

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