“No, don’t like mommy,” my 2-year-old son whined. “Why not?” I asked, confused. “Because it’s bedtime?” Ten minutes ago we were peek-a-booing and laughing. Now he didn’t like me. I felt dejected.
As a single mother to my first child, hearing those words stung. I call my mother, a retired psychologist, who’d also raised me and my two siblings alone for a bit. “Do all moms hear this?” I asked.
“Yeah, it hurts. Classic terrible twos,” she assured me on the phone. “Their immature prefrontal cortexes prevent them from modifying their social behavior. It’ll happen again in adolescence.”
I remembered my own tantrums, but they weren’t as cute. At 12 I’d yelled “I hate you!” to my mom, a petite, sweet, energetic blond, who looked 30 though she was 45. After leaving my dad, she’d squeezed the four of us in an affordable apartment with one bathroom. My preschool-aged sister and brother slept with her, in her room. She’d scramble to check door locks when profanity and noises outside broke our sleep. I knew she’d wanted better, but it was the best she could do at the time.
A devout Catholic, she punished herself for divorcing. My rebellious teenage years added to her stress as she changed careers to support us. Eventually, she buried herself in work. She’d idealized stay-at-home parenting, but couldn’t afford to be one. She felt guilty about working full-time, which I didn’t understand back then.
“Sorry I won’t see you until after dinner. I’ll be home late,” she told me on the way to junior high. “Whatever, mom,” I’d said, slamming the car door shut on my way to skip class.
After a long custody battle, we moved to the D.C. area. Switching high schools, I resented her. “Why’d you get married if you were just going to screw it up?” I shouted in front of my siblings.
Monday through Wednesday, and every other weekend, I was aloof under her roof. At 15, I frequently scared her when I slipped out to drink beer and explore concert halls with boys. I’d been difficult when she was at her most vulnerable.
She persevered, marrying a great guy from church who accepted us—even me—as his own. He always knew the forecast and owned a proud handshake. “I pray someday you’ll meet a man of faith, too,” she told me. I shot back: “I won’t prowl churches for guys.”
At 16, I straightened up and mended our fractured relationship. We traveled to Switzerland together in my 20s and she’d been present for the birth of my son.
Yet it was only now, at 29, having spent hundreds of nights alone as a single mom while simultaneously keeping us afloat that I could really respect her struggles and all the adversity she’d overcome. She’d survived my teens while moving to a new state, and at the same time, gotten her PhD, built an impressive career, and remarried.
“Night, momma,” my son declared. He made sure I was still there as he dozed off. I softly rubbed his back.
For many reasons— notably the cost of childcare— I decided to be a full-time mom. I’m proud of that. But like my mother had, I sometimes paid babysitters so I could take night classes. I’d sit in those classes thinking that I should be saving my money, or that I should be with my son.
Then, my mother relieved my guilt. She announced last summer that she was retiring early and had a proposal. “I’d love to watch him two days a week while you work and go to school.” She became my hero- stepping in to help us without asking permission. Though 62, her vitality matches his. They’d finger paint, dance in the kitchen, and venture to the children’s museum on rainy days so I could study for the GRE and research grad schools. She gave my son a room in the new two bedroom apartment she shared with my step-dad. He’d get cozy in his Thomas the Train bed there, and though I’d cry each time I left him, I was calm, knowing he was in good hands.
He was happy there, and she was eager to share her home with her first grandchild.
She understood my maternal insecurities and need to build a sturdier future for us. She’d had it herself. I’m glad I needed her so much. Otherwise, I might have missed appreciating her as an amazing grandma.
Hearing him snore, I walked to the kitchen, and called my mom back. “Thanks for helping earlier,” I offered, “…And for everything.”
“You’re both doing great,” she said. Then, sensing my doubt, she added, “Don’t worry, they all become oppositional at two.”
Thankfully, my opposition ended. And I had new eyes for my mom. I just hope the rest of his terrible twos won’t be as bad as my terrible teens were.
Jessica Milliken is a University of Maryland graduate and a personal trainer in New York.
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