What if you don't like your children?
Yes, you probably love them. But what if you don't like them (whether one or all)?
Over the years, I noticed that in every family, there is at least 1 child to whom the parent finds very hard to relate.
If you have 2 kids, then it will be one of them.
If you have 10 kids, then it will be at least one of them.
And if you have one child? Well, it shocked me to realize how many only children suffer lots of friction or emotional distance from either their mother or their father.
Certainly, it doesn't always happen. But I've seen it happen a lot.
As one only child (secular Jewish mother, non-Jewish father, secular Jewish stepfather) described, "I could understand my mother if she had other children. But I'm all she has. So why not try harder to develop a relationship with me, even if she can't relate to me so much—because after all, I'm all she's got?"
Sometimes, it's the same child for both parents. Other times, one child presents a challenge for the mother while another child presents a challenge for the father.
Sometimes it manifests in a particular age the parent finds difficult.
For example, some women dread the first 4 months of dealing with an infant more than they dread giving birth, and feel much relief when the child turns into a toddler. Others love the baby months, but feel miserable dealing with toddlers or small children. And others dread the teen years. And so on. (This is all normal, by the way.)
Sometimes, it's based on gender. Traditionally, the focus has been on those who favor a boy over a girl. But I've seen several cases in which mothers who dislike men bring that into her parenting by disdaining her son.
(Interestingly, parents who favor a child based on gender rarely feel bad about this. They admit it outright, sometimes even with pride or an attitude that it's self-evident to love more or less according to gender. I'm not into people feeling bad, but whether a parent dislikes a child for being a girl or a boy, it actually is a problem and should be dealt with in a compassionate manner, rather than being justified or ignored.)
Sometimes, it's obvious to all why the parent struggles with that child; the child is objectively challenging.
Yet other times, it's the sweet, quiet, thoughtful child who continuously drives the mother out of her mind—for no apparent reason.
As one mother of such a child told me, "Because I'm insecure, his insecurity makes me feel worse."
She favored her energetic rambunctious son over the sweet, obedient one.
The odd thing was...her sweet quiet son wasn't insecure!
Yes, she saw him that way. But he wasn't actually how she viewed him.
Seeing this dynamic repeatedly made me realize that Hashem created families in a way that a parent will find at least one child very challenging—and dealing with that challenge is exactly what helps a person grow.
In fact, mothers have told me that when they worked on liking the child they related to the least, they found themselves liking other people with that child's personality—people they either did not like or could not relate to before.
In other words, the child most personally challenging to the mother paradoxically became the catalyst for the mother's increased ahavat Yisrael in general.
This is a wonderfully positive outcome of being honest with yourself about your true—albeit initially negative—feelings toward a child, which allows you to get to work in that area, which then reaps unexpectedly positive results.
Another friend accidently admitted that she could not see any positive qualities in any of her kids' personalities, except for one positive quality in one child (tactfulness).
Occasionally, one parent behaves in a way that places a wedge between the other parent and one or more of the children (bad-mouthing the other parent, siding with the child against the other parent, rewarding difficult behavior—such as crying, insulting, tantrums, chutzpah, tattling, physical aggression, etc., which makes the child extremely unpleasant for the other parent to deal with).
Anyway, because such feelings are taboo in society, plus mothers themselves feel terribly ashamed of such feelings, it's hard to get help.
This presents an odd paradox because the surrounding secular society demeans (and even subtly discourages) family, family values, children, motherhood, consistently focusing on the negative aspects (while occasionally offering lip service to the positives of parenthood)...yet this same society looks down on a mother who doesn't like her child.
And it's hard to even admit to oneself that one doesn't really like one child, let alone all or most of them.
Furthermore, not everyone responds well if you confide this to them.
Yet if a parent feels this way, it's important to address the issue WITHOUT self-flagellation, toxic shame, and all that negative static.
Personally, I don't see a need to look down on a parent for such feelings (especially since the parent really doesn't want to feel this way & is unpleasantly taken by surprise by the negative feelings).
But if the parent refuses to deal with the issue and instead treats the child badly or neglectfully without trying to improve the situation? Well then...hmm.
Fortunately, Rabbi Shimon Gruen brilliantly & compassionately addressed the issue of a mother who finds it difficult to like her children. The question & answer (used with his permission) are presented in full here:
Dear Rabbi Gruen,
I have a very short question, yet it really affects every part of my Chinuch Habonim.
It’s not something I’m proud to say, yet I wonder if I’m the only one who’s feeling this way, or simply the only brave enough to admit it to myself, and present it in an anonymous forum.
I honestly find it difficult to like my children.
I find them annoying and bothersome, and not at all enjoyable or likeable. I once heard someone mention the difficulty of liking the people you love, and I can really relate to it.
Of course I love my children, but so often I have this feeling of them being so unlikeable, if you know what I mean. Is there anything you can tell me that will help me out?
Maybe there are others who will benefit from hearing your response on this as well.
Thanks in advance.
I will start by affirming your letter, you are definitely definitely not the only one not the only one who sometimes feels this way.
While others may experience such feelings, many people wouldn’t address it and therefore leave these negative feelings resolved.
As unfortunate and sad as this might be to acknowledge, it is still important to be aware of our feelings.
Trying to deny them or bury them won’t be helpful to anyone. Knowing the problem is half the solution.
Additionally, when we are open about the way we feel, we often learn that we are not the only one experiencing an issue, and we might find support and/or help from others who are going through, or have gone through, the same thing.
It’s interesting to note that we have quite a bit of autonomy when it comes to choosing certain people that we are surrounded with. We get to pick friends, vet neighbors, and choose country-mates. In fact, in some sense, we even have a choice when we decide upon a spouse! But when it comes to our kids, we have no choice.
That is because as much as we’d like to enjoy our children and see nachas from them, that was not what they were made for.
As much as we daven and plead for nachas from our children and that we should be able to take pride in the way they turn out, it is not something that we can always acquire.
In fact, many people never get to be proud of their children, no matter the efforts they pour into them!
Raising children is a responsibility, and while we hope and pray that it will be gratifying and fulfilling, it isn’t about the profits or the gains. It’s about putting in the work.
The outcome isn’t up to us, and doesn’t even matter, because the whole point of being a parent is to perfect our middos and become better people.
This might sound a bit idealistic, but it’s the truth.
Often, when a parent feels negative emotions towards their child, it is because the child failed to live up to the parent’s expectations of him. We expect to see returns from our hard work, and when they fall short, we love them less.
Remember that you are not spending time with your child so that you can enjoy yourself.
Even if you find every moment agonizing and annoying, it is still part of your job. It is your responsibility to build your child up and give him a good atmosphere, and your interpretation of the experience doesn’t even factor into the equation.
But it generally doesn’t end at fulfilling your obligations.
Giving breeds love, and the more you give to your child – selflessly – the more you will come to like him.
It doesn’t mean giving in to your child’s every whim, but it does mean giving away from yourself.
We sometimes might wonder why we love babies so much. We don’t realize that babies take a lot out of us, and we give to them without expecting much in return. After all, they’re just babies! Because of the selfless nature of our giving, it is so easy to love them.
As kids grow up, they need us less and less as they learn to be more independent, and thus, we have less opportunities to give to them.
We can see this a lot by parents of special needs children. They will often admit to loving their special needs child more than they have ever loved any of their kids.
Why is that?
Because they don’t expect anything from these kids. They have complete clarity over what their role with this child is and so they give and give and give.
It’s also possible that they don’t blame themselves for their child’s deficiency, whereas when there is a different kind of disappointment, some parents do blame themselves.
When a person is looking for ways only to gratify himself, he will find many things difficult.
But if he lives his life in the context of serving Hashem, his lifestyle will be completely different.
If we would sit inside the succah for our own pleasure, we can find 100 reasons to complain. It’s hot, it’s cold, it’s cramped, it’s wet. When we go inside the succah because we want to serve Hashem as He has commanded us, we enter feeling privileged and excited to be able to do this mitzvah.
It isn’t about attaining super lofty madreigos; it’s just about a mindset switch.
What am I doing here, and why?
When you understand that your children were given to you as part of your avodas Hashem, and not as “nachas machines”, raising them will turn into an entirely different experience.
Children help us work on our middos, teach us to be givers, help us practice our patience.
The Gemara says that a parent is an “oseh tzedakah b’chol eis” – one who does good deeds all the time.
Giving a bottle to a child, listening to a long and winded report of his day, or driving him to a friend’s house, all of that is part of our exalted avodah.
When our goal is to give, not to get, we develop a newfound appreciation and love for our children.
Another way to accomplish this would be to focus on our children’s attributes.
Don’t make your affection dependent on their good qualities, but do yourself a favor and remind yourself often of what it is that makes your child special.
Of course, all this is often easier said than done, especially when we are granted children who are especially challenging.
We need to be very careful, though, never to be ashamed of our children.
Children should never feel like their parents are disappointed in them or that they’re constantly being compared to others.
They are not equipped to handle such feelings.
Moreover, the ones that you think cause you the most embarrassment, might be the very ones that need you on their side the most and the ones who will help you reach your ultimate tachlis.
If you sit around waiting for your child to bring you nachas so that you can then finally find it in your heart to love him, you are essentially killing the messenger.
Most kids can only grow into their best selves once they feel accepted and loved by their parents.
When you are willing to put in the work, no matter what the outcome will be, you will often be surprised by the positive results.
When we will view our children through the lens of our avodas Hashem, it will help us approach parenting the right way.
With Hashem’s help, we will then merit to see much nachas from them gezunterheit.
With best wishes,
Rabbi Shimon Gruen
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