Love and Anger: Simultaneous

As the people they know, trust and count on the most, we are the obvious recipients of both our children's love and their anger. An angry child still loves us and a loving child may still feel anger.

I had the opportunity recently to hold a seven month old while her mother was gone for twenty minutes. This baby was outraged, and let me know about it in no uncertain terms. She started to scream the moment her mother left, and didn't stop or even slow down the entire time.

When her mother came back, she stopped crying immediately. She snuggled into her mother's arms briefly, then started bouncing in her lap, apparently cheerful, but with a noticeable lack of eye contact. Her mother and I were both curious. She had gotten what she so desperately wanted, yet she was avoiding taking it fully in. So we nudged her a little, commenting on all the places her eyes were going: "We know how interesting the ceiling and the walls and the bookshelves and the windows are. But here's your mom. Nothing could be more interesting that that."

She made eye contact briefly--and promptly burst into tears. Then she went off to bouncing and checking out the walls and ceiling again. Whenever she took up our invitation to notice her mom, however, she cried that same mad cry. After about five minutes of going back and forth like this, something shifted. She settled back into her mother's arms, looked deeply into her eyes, and was ready to play one of those loving, intimate mother-baby games. Now they had each other completely.

This little incident stuck in my mind for days. Why, after the rush of relief at having mom back, did she then show such ambivalence? What was going on? As I thought of the experience of my children and others that I know, and of my own experience as a child, I began to find common threads. All young children are passionate about loving and wanting their mothers ("mother," that is, in the sense of primary nurturer; it may also be father or some other person). The love is what we see most clearly, particularly when they are young. But with this love comes great hope--and the potential for great disappointment and anger. Of course these feelings get directed at mom as well. After all, she's the closest one. She's the one they assume wants to know everything about them. She's the one they count on most to make their lives to well.

The pieces were falling into place. Daughter loves mom. Mom leaves. Daughter is outraged (maybe first about mom leaving, but then about everything that hasn't been right since the last time she'd had a chance to feel outraged). Mom returns. Daughter is in a fix. She loves her mom, is delighted to have her back, and is not done being outraged. Unable to figure out how to be both at the same time, she opts for a third solution: ignoring both feelings and looking for distractions in the environment. When her attention is called back to her mother, she has to feel something--and outrage predominates until it is done. Only then can she notice the love and connection.

I don't like it when my children are mad at me. (I don't like it when anybody is mad at me.) But I'm less and less willing to settle for the third solution--of rejecting the love/anger combination in my children as too potent, and encouraging/allowing them to find a more neutral mode of existence. There's a way in which it's more comfortable for both of us--neutrality does not cause sparks or evoke strong feelings that are painful for both of us--but ultimately the price just seems too high. If mad and closely-connected are linked, I'd much rather have both than neither.