The Red Button

We were in a hotel at the end of last summer and, as most kids do, Connor wanted to push the elevator button. As we approached, he saw the red emergency button and simultaneously went to push it and asked what it was for. My husband told him what it was for and said, “When you see a red button, don’t push it.”

I was surprised Connor didn’t push the button anyway. If I had offered the explanation and told him not to touch the red button, we very likely would have been explaining to hotel management that there was no emergency, terribly sorry and thank you, it’s just our five-year-old’s tendency to push buttons his mother asks him not to.

Most of the buttons he pushes are mine. I’m not really sure how to describe our relationship without making you think it’s typical of life with a five-year-old boy. Which is not to say that your challenges with your five-year-old boy (or whatever) aren’t difficult too, but this, to me, has often felt different.

I think all parents think they suck at some point. For a blessed few, maybe it’s just a one-time feeling on a particularly bad day. A lot of parents probably have that feeling at 7:23 on a Saturday morning when they’d rather be sleeping and instead are dealing with kids who have been up for over an hour and are bored or restless or just plain loud. And some parents probably have the I-suck-at-parenting thought on an almost-daily basis.

I am all of those parents, but this situation with Connor isn’t the Saturday-morning variety. I’m not entirely sure I suck at being a parent. Most days, I just think I suck at being Connor’s mom.

Way back when he was still a nursing baby, he used to slap me across the face. He got me good some days and it eventually led to a very abrupt ceasing of breastfeeding. I lasted a long time, through the slapping and the biting and the scratching. By the time he was 16 months old I had cut nursing down to once a day before bed, and then one day I stopped. Cold turkey, baby. I’d had enough and I decided in a moment of anger and frustration that I’d wasn’t going to take it anymore.

Connor didn’t seem to notice, just like he still doesn’t seem to notice when I try to take a stand on things I’m not willing to tolerate.

He doesn’t seem to notice when I withdraw after he’s smacked me on the back first thing in the morning or dug his fingernails into my arm while we’re watching TV. He doesn’t notice when I ask him not to do something nor does he notice when I say DON’T DO THAT! He doesn’t even notice when I take Lego away. He’s not like this with Rich or with my mom or at school. It’s all part of his belief that Mommy is no fun and she’s not my friend. And before you start with the platitudes, let me tell you this: It’s not something I’m imagining. And another piece of evidence surfaced a few months ago.

I walked into our bedroom one afternoon to get something and realized Connor was in our bathroom. He was talking to himself and before I left the room again I heard it: “I don’t like my mom, but I do like my dad.”

broken bridge over water

The extent of this problem—because it’s most definitely a problem and not just a parenting challenge or a phase—has become abundantly clear, again, in the last few days. It doesn’t matter if I try to play with him or suggest outings or let him have an extra show on Netflix. It doesn’t matter if all I’m trying to do is prevent him from injuring himself, or me, or his little brother. This is how it is: He pushes, I push back, we collide.

It’s time to do something about it. Past time, actually, but who wants to put yourself out there and say, Hi, I think I might be the worst mother in the world because I can’t deal with my own child. Other parents seem to manage fine with only the occasional raised voice or extra glass of wine after a challenging day – WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME?!

I sure don’t want to do that.

But I also don’t want to live with this constant frustration and my parents’ phone number on speed dial for those days when I just can’t deal with him for another second. I’m worried that if I don’t do something about it we (he? I?) will have an ongoing, perhaps increasing, problem.

I’m not sure where to look, but it’s time to find a cover for that red button.



  1. I’m crying a little for you. I can’t imagine how hard that must fave been for you to post. You brave momma. I love you. All I have for you is hugs. I hope one day you both can look back and laugh at this. xx

  2. This sucks, Robin. Lately I’ve been dealing with my 5-yr old saying “You don’t love me!!!” whenever I discipline him for anything. Complete with tears and all the drama. It hurts. I’m hoping it’s a phase, and I haven’t found a solution. But I wanted to know I read and can relate (even if it’s in a small way).

  3. Robin, I relate VERY much to this. Except I’m not quite brave enough to put it into words and hit publish, so thank you for being brave for all of us in the same situation.

    I have a very hard time with my 4 year old. Always have. He doesn’t listen to me, and it’s not my imagination. The very same thing I ask of him that his father does, he only complies when it comes from his Dad. I’ve tried the gentle, soft approach. I’ve tried yelling and time outs. I’ve tried negotiating and bribery. I’ve tried being with him 100%, then not at all. NOTHING WORKS.

    That said, I love him, and he loves me. When he hurts, he comes to me. When he needs a hug and a cuddle, he comes to me. I am, in many ways, still his soft landing place. That gives me hope that whatever our issues, we can work it out over time.

    I hope the same for you, my friend. That your relationship with Connor will, well, turn a corner.

  4. Sweetie, I hear you.
    It’s so hard, parenting a 5 yo boy.
    Sure feels like the trenches here too.
    Once again you write so beautifully about something so painful, and you give voice to what so many are afraid to admit, let alone describe in detail.
    I love you so much.

  5. I really want to hug you right now (even though I’m not actually sure if you’re the hugging type. That could just end up being really awkward). Kids can just as easily break our hearts as they can melt them. You’re very gifted at giving a voice to mothers who might be too afraid to say these things. I feel like relating to my kids is supposed to just come naturally and a lot of times it doesn’t the way that it seems to for others. Thanks so much for this.

  6. I’m sorry you’re having these difficulties, and I hope you are able to find a way to cover the red button.

    I’ve had my own stages with my kids too, and I don’t know if you’d consider them the “normal” type or not, but the main consolation (if you can call it that) is that it seems the people they most comply with and “obey” are the people they are least comfortable “acting out” in front of.

    My parents would probably say the same. They always came home from parent-teacher meetings saying they didn’t know how the teacher was talking about the same kid. We weren’t “bad” at home, but I think we felt more comfortable letting our guard down. I know I was more likely to be the model student at school, the obedient child with my dad, and then not try so hard with my mum.

    My kids have been somewhat similar, and it’s definitely waxed and waned and gone through stages. And yes, they’ll say they don’t like me, or worse, and then later they’ll come back and be all cuddly when they need something. And I definitely want them to feel comfortable coming to me, so I’ve had to accept that sometimes it’s going to work that way.

    I don’t know if any of this helps you, but I just wanted you to know there is hope. I’m not actually sure what to “do about it” but I do think that continuing to do your best, and be there for him, and let him know you love him no matter what, things you’re already doing, are probably a huge step in the right direction.

  7. Hi Robin

    As you know, I’m much too early in my journey to offer you any advice or comfort I just wanted to say how brave you are for posting that. You are strong and wonderful and I know you’ll find a way through this.

    You tell truths that few other parents seem to admit and I respect that so very much.

    Take care of you
    L x

  8. A conversation that happened more than once:
    Mommy, I don’t love you any more.
    Oh, sweetie, I’m sorry, but you know, that’s temporary.
    Oh good!

  9. Hi Robin – It was very brave of you to reveal your inner family life in this way. So sorry to hear of this situation….I hope you can find the local help that you need. Sometimes, parenting can bring out older, inner losses we didn’t know we had experienced…and it’s a good opportunity to heal ourselves even more, to learn to develop other aspects of the self and experience more quiet joy… namaste, Kathy

  10. BRAVE, BRAVE GIRL!!! Step One is now complete…you’ve acknowledged there’s a problem. Now, go get help!
    I was in the deep throws of a divorce when I realized I sucked as a Mom…I couldn’t be there for my children as emotionally, I was a wreck. I went to a counsellor and sought out help with my parenting and my children’s emotional well-being and in doing that…realized one amazing gift…I WAS a good Mom…because I knew when to ask for help.
    Sounds to me, like you’re a pretty awesome mom as well.
    xo Colleen

  11. Robin, I called on Friday and made a therapy appointment at my psych’s office for my 5 year old. It’s gotten that bad around here with the meltdowns. As I type this, she’s upstairs completely enraged because I went downstairs to prepare breakfast and her tights don’t fit. I know of this pushing each other that you speak of. I find myself wondering, “is this how loving your kid is supposed to feel?”

  12. you are incredible for posting this. Thank you for writing this for so many others who are going through the same thing. I colided with my daughter for so long and I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was “mean mommy” while my husband was the fun one.
    I get this.

  13. Robin, thank you for posting this. I completely related to it all. I too feel like the “less than” parent in my boys’ eyes. My parenting seems to fall on deaf ears and my instructions are merely suggestions. Very rarely do they listen to me in any way, shape or form. As soon as my husband speaks, they are star struck and will 95% of the time comply with whatever he asks. I can ask the same thing not one minute before and it is like I didn’t even speak. I feel like I’m the text book mom on Nanny 911 or a similar show where the kids walk all over the mom and she’s trying her damnedest to connect with them so they respect her and she’s so frustrated, hurt and unsure what she does differently to garner such a lack of respect compared to other people. It is hard on our heart and I know how much that hurts. It is no fun standing in the shadows of the parent they prefer.

  14. Beth Armstrong Leahy says:

    Please go see his pediatrician (maybe with this great post in hand) and then ask for a referral to a family therapist. They may even have one on staff. I’m sure it would help in so many ways. Kids are soooooo hard but this seems like a situation where you should bring the professionals in. Good luck and all best. Remember, you are doing the best you can.
    PS Does he start school soon? (I hope)

  15. Oh Robin. This is so hard. I would talk to his pediatrician. Maybe you two could use some sort of counseling…together. I think you are donig all the right things and you clearly love him very much. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t want to figure your little boy out. Know I love you and have you in my heart.

  16. I’m sending you so much love, Robin. Hoping you and Connor find your way together.

  17. This brought back some dark memories.

    I was most certainly not my son’s friend and it was a battle of wills that was particularly painful and exhausting when he was between the ages of 12-14 or so. It eased up in the later teen years only because I became distant to survive.

    Oh we did the family therapy – lovely and phenomenally experienced and capable child psychologist. She couldn’t really get a handle on what my boy was about.

    About all we could pinpoint was insecure attachment that didn’t seem to be re-attachable. And even then, it was more shoulder-shrug suggestion than definitive diagnosis.

    Until he hit 12, I was the only one who faced the battle of wills. But by the time he was 12, then he was as serene about removal of privileges and ignoring rules whether they were meted out by me or the all important alpha-male too.

    I admit that around that time I was sure that my son was a sociopath — he was so incredibly detached from my distress that I felt like I was looking into a reptile’s eyes. And that thought never really left me until there was a particularly intense episode when he was 18 and about to graduate from high school.

    When he first came to me (he was adopted into our family at age 6) he was a hitter and I was rabid about nipping that in the bud while I was still larger and taller than him. I had heard more than enough stories of teenage boys breaking their mothers’ arms in heated arguments and I did not want to be there.

    If he smacked me, everything would stop. Didn’t matter where we were or what we were doing, it was home for a timeout. Which, as we know, did nothing. But what did seem to work was the post timeout experience of having to suffer through listening to Mom drone on and on about what he had done, how it was not going to be acceptable, how to use words to express frustration…I could even bore myself on those lectures! Basically it was a form of verbal erosion — like water erosion of rocks.

    We would sit at the dining room table. He was not allowed to leave and there was little in the way of distraction available to him. He was required to respond to the questions I asked and he was expected to identify and put into words how he was going to find ways to change his behaviours in future.

    While my son never listened to me when it came to rules and requirements, I was the one he came to when he had questions about the world around him, especially if he was anxious about what he had read, learned or heard somewhere. You would think that after the hours spent having to listen to Mom on changing behaviour that he would never want to hear my voice on any topic ever again!

    In any case, the hitting did stop. Not much else did for many years to come though.

    At 18, he got into some trouble that was thankfully not serious but could have been very serious. Family meetings were incredibly fraught during that time that’s for sure. But something shifted. I don’t know how or why, but although he always listened to me and yet ignored me at the same time, this time he heard me.

    I have always fiercely, and I mean fiercely, loved my son. As much as I droned on at him, I also listened to him when he expressed his fears or anxieties — even when I thought I was harbouring a sociopath in my home.

    Our relationship now (he is 20 and out on his own) is solid. I am often the first person he calls with good news and I am still the one he calls for advice and reassurance when it comes to the myriad tough adult decisions he faces now. He is an exceptional (completely empathetic and non-sociopathic) and conscientious young man and I had little to do with that. I’m ok with that too. I was never his friend and I will never be his friend, and I’m also not particularly fun either, but I am his mother.

    I don’t know the road ahead for you Robin but I just feel, given your ability to communicate, that you do not suck at being Connor’s Mom, but maybe being a Mom to Connor is a bit more like me being a Mom to my son.

    Years ago I read an article in Outside magazine interviewing the long-suffering partners and wives of those extreme mountaineers who do what they do because the mountain is there. One woman said being with her guy was like “Therapy. Hard therapy.”

    Maybe you and Connor are each other’s hard therapy. I know that’s how I would describe my relationship with my son when he was growing up.

    Some boys, and girls too of course, don’t need a fun Mom or a friendly Mom or even a cuddly Mom, they need a resilient Mom.

    My apologies for such a long response. Gwyneth.

  18. Oh, Robin. My heart.

    I’m so sorry that your relationship with your son causes you to doubt yourself. I have no advice, only to say that I know you are strong and that you will do what you need to nurture your relationship.

    Much love and prayers to you. xoxo

  19. I can relate very much to this post. When younger my son was mommy’s boy. Unfortunately I was so depressed and alone and frustrated that I could not bear his pinching hands on me one more second even though that was his comfort. I withdrew. I resented the chronic sleeplessness. And now he is daddy’s boy and mom is the one who is never fun. I feel such a lack of connection and that scares me because as difficult as things are now, they won’t compare to the real issues we will face when he is a teenager.

  20. Remember the good-cop bad-cop routine? I think Connor’s scared of his dad that’s why he listens right away when he’s told to do things right. I know it can be frustrating at most times if your kid doesn’t listen to you but don’t give in to frustrations. Maybe he feels you lack affection for him that’s why he exhibits preference for his dad a bit more. It’s always best to talk to your kid in a calm and caring voice so he won’t feel irritated by hearing our voice. Show him more of your tender love and affection. Maybe that will work but nothing can be done if we don’t try.

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