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'Mommy, is there something wrong with me?'

As our kids head back to school, how do we protect their hearts — and ours?
My son and I when he was in third grade.
My son and I when he was in third grade.Courtesy Rebecca Morrison

When my son was in elementary school, every day that I picked him up from the bus stop I’d ask him the same question: “How was school today?” Each day, he’d say the same thing: “Fine.” 

That word usually meant one of two things. Either nothing monumental happened, or something did happen, but he’d wait to share it with me until he was ready.  

So, I accepted his “fine,” grabbed his little hand and walked him home, hoping things were going more or less smoothly at school.  

One night at the beginning of third grade, while I was putting him to bed, the moment I had anticipated came up. As I brushed the hair out of his face and leaned down to kiss him goodnight, he looked up at me with his big brown misty eyes and revealed a piece of himself.  

“Mommy, is there something wrong with me?” he said, in a small shaky voice.

“Of course not, my love. Why would you ask that?” I said, my feathers up.

“Jack doesn’t like me anymore,” he said, turning away from me, his body curled in a fetal position and his face pressed into his pillow.

My heart thumped in my chest and heat rose to my face. Memories of my childhood rejections and the isolation and hurt of those friendship struggles flooded back as I felt a sharp ache for my son. 

All I wanted to do was to take away his pain. I suppressed the instinct to pepper him with the hundred rapid-fire questions boiling up inside me. And instead of showing him my own insecurities and primal anger about someone hurting him, I took a deep breath and looked into his tear-filled eyes. 

“Tell me what happened, my love,” I said, trying to stay calm.

He told me that now that he and Jack were not in the same class, Jack — the same friend he’d loved since they were in kindergarten — didn’t say hello to him in the lunch line.

That’s when I saw the tears escape his eyes and stream down his face onto his pillow. 

This was the same sweet, rambunctious boy I’d had over to my house dozens of times and whom I adored. But he was now my mortal enemy. He'd broken my baby's heart. I couldn't imagine how I'd ever forgive him.

I tried not to hate Jack with every fiber of my being. This was the same sweet, rambunctious boy I’d had over to my house dozens of times and whom I adored. But he was now my mortal enemy. He’d broken my baby’s heart and at that moment, I couldn’t imagine how I’d ever forgive him for that. 

I struggled to find the right words to comfort my son and help him deal with this friendship struggle, which I knew was just one of many to come. 

What I wanted, needed, were the perfect words.

Lifting him up, I held his body close to my chest and rocked him back and forth as he cried in my arms. Then I kissed each tear-soaked eye as I told him it was going to be OK. 

“There is absolutely nothing wrong with you, ” I said, as I stroked the soaked baby hair around his soft face.

I told him I loved him and his friendship with Jack would be fine. I explained that the first week of school can be complicated and everyone, including him and Jack, can get a bit lost trying to find their place at school and figure out new friendships in their own classes.

He stared at me, eyes wide, looking for reassurance that the change in Jack’s behavior toward him was not his fault. 

“I promise, what happened with Jack doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you or what you’ve done,” I said, forcing myself to smile even though inside I was still raging that someone had hurt him. “It’s possible he didn’t even see you! Don’t worry, my love, Jack is still your friend and cares about you,” I said, giving him a confident nod.

“Are you sure, Mommy?”

“I’m sure,” I said, lying to him. I wasn’t sure about anything. How could I explain to my 8-year-old that sometimes friends stop liking you, or that friendships fade as the people you once loved don’t love you back anymore? How could I tell him that the deep hurt he felt was inescapable but that it would go away eventually, and that it’s all just part of being human? 

Today my son is getting ready to head to college.
Today my son is getting ready to head to college.Courtesy Rebecca Morrison

That night, sitting next to him, I decided there were no perfect words and the only thing he needed to understand in that moment was that he was loved. I tucked him into bed, pulling the comforter up to his chin and covered his warm baby face in goodnight kisses.

My son is 18 years old now and doesn’t come to me with his friendship struggles as much as he used to. He’s learned to figure out those bumps in the road by myself. But on those rare occasions he does share his pain, I try to assure him, like I did when he was a young boy, that everything will be OK. That he is loved. 

As he prepares to leave for college in a few weeks, I’m scared about not being there for him when his heart breaks or his friendships change. I’m worried he’ll ask himself the same question he asked me all those years ago: “Is there something wrong with me?” And I won’t be there to hold him in my arms and make things OK. 

Even though in my heart, he will always be my baby, I know he’s not a child anymore. And that I need to let him go live his own life. I just hope wherever he is, he’ll take the things I taught him and the love I gave him as he navigates those inevitable heartbreaks.