First they learn words: "Dada!" "Nana!" "Milk!"
Then they learn how to use them: "I do it?" "Mine!"
Then they learn how to use them against you: "Go away!" "I don't love you anymore."
"I hate you."
Kostyn has taken to saying all these things when he doesn't get his way. We tell him it's unacceptable, that "hate" is too strong a word for him -- or anyone -- to use. We talk to him about how to properly convey his feelings ("I'm mad at you!") instead of projecting those feelings onto someone else.
A couple weeks ago he got mad at me for something and the hate started spewing. "I hate you! I hate you!" he kept repeating in a tiny rage. After he spent several obstinate minutes in time-out, I tried to explain again what it really means.
"When you tell me you hate me, that's like saying if I walked out this door and never came back, if you never saw Mommy again, if I never gave you another hug or made you another sandwich, never kissed you or tickled you or read books to you or anything, ever again, that would make you happy. Is that true?"
His chin quivered slightly but he nodded slowly, his tiny jaw set, his wide brown eyes staring at me.
I caught my breath, turned and walked into the kitchen. Parents aren't supposed to need our kids to say they couldn't live without us, because frankly we either know they couldn't or we're deeply shaken by the knowledge that they actually might be able to. I knew he was just pushing my buttons, but I still found my own words stinging me.
As the tears came, I thought about the first time Kostyn ever acknowledged me. I will never forget that moment, in the first weeks of his life, when his scrawny infant hand reached up while he was nursing and wrapped itself around my finger. I remember the surge of endorphins, the exhilaration of such a tiny bit of recognition from the being who was actively sucking the nutrients right out of me, the one who had exhausted me physically, mentally and emotionally to a point where I no longer knew who I was.
I'm pretty sure that was the moment we both realized who I was.
How far we've come, I thought as I grabbed another tissue. After a good cry I collected myself, wiped my eyes and walked back into the dining room where Kostyn was still sitting in time-out. "I want to talk to you, Mommy," he said. I knelt in front of him.
"I'm sorry," he said, scooting down from the chair and reaching out for a hug. Instinctively I opened my arms, needing this hug more than he did. That's when he whispered in my ear.
"I hate you."
It was a verbal slap so stunning and unexpected it took my breath away; I pulled back from him and he watched my eyes well with fresh tears. He had wanted to see how much power he wielded with his words, but he was unprepared for its force. The sight of his mother crying was too much. He dropped to the floor in sobs, and I was spun around once again from wounded child back to soothing mother.
I scooped him up and cradled him in my lap, both of us crying. We sat and rocked on the floor for several minutes while Pandora selected songs for us and I did that terribly cruel chore of allowing it to register in my heart how much bigger my baby feels in my arms. I thought about the growth spurt Kostyn is in, how his voice is getting stronger every day, his reasoning keener, his opinions more commanding.
I thought about how "in the trenches" I often feel at home with two little boys all day, every day, picking my battles about getting them dressed, brushing teeth, picking up toys. Sometimes love feels like a battlefield around here, like an endless strategic meeting between two opposing forces. Who will retreat? Who will negotiate an end to the battle? Who will melt into a tantrum? Who will fly off in a rage and plop a small bottom onto the time-out chair? Who will win? What does it mean to "win"?
My relationship with Kostyn in particular often feels like a tug-of-war -- in the mud. Just a few days before, I'd come around the corner to check on him during another time-out and found him on the floor, curled in a ball. "Go away!" he yelled. "I don't want you here!" Yet as I'd turned to go, he'd grabbed my leg and wrapped his whole body around it.
"You want me to go away?"
"Yes!" he screamed, clutching tighter.
"Then why are you holding onto me?" I asked.
"Well, I want you to stay here," he said. "But I Don't. Want. To talk to you!"
"So you want me to go away but stay right here?"
So I'd done just that. Because that's what parents do. We go away but stay right here. I've done the same thing to my own parents countless times, told them to mind their own business, that I didn't need their advice, that it was my life, all while silently begging for their approval. Is this OK, Mom? Am I doing well? Are you proud of me, Dad? I need you. No I don't. Yes, I really do. I've done it to God most of my life, too.
But sitting on the floor that day I realized with great relief that I am not on the other side of that tug-of-war rope. I am the rope, and Kostyn plays both sides against himself, pulling and straining for things to go his way, for me to go his way, burning his hands and expending his energy to make me succumb to his will, beating no one but himself, challenging me needlessly because no matter what happens, he will always end up with more of me.
I am the rope. I am the means to a very important end. And getting through our worst tug-of-war days, when he hugs me and hates me all at once, is easier knowing this, knowing the point is not for him to win or me to win -- because it's not a competition between us at all. Though I do find it challenging, I am not the opponent. He's challenging himself, testing his voice, power and place in this world, and in this house.
"Go away but stay right here."
OK, son, I thought as I kissed the top of his head.