Kids can’t just be kids anymore; they have turned into little advertisements for their parents.
From page 158 of The F Word: How we Learned to Swear by Feminism by Jane Caro and Catherine Fox
I used to think that kids were like robots, and if you did the hard work of figuring out their operating instructions, you could program them so that they’d happily do whatever you asked them to and would never scream at you or decide you were no longer their friend. I thought that when we were out my perfect little robot would perform beautifully and strangers would ask me how I did it and then they’d tell me how impressed they were by him, and I’d hear all of their praise for him as praise for me (“He’s just so well behaved and polite!” they’d say, which I’d hear as, “You truly must be an amazing mother!”). I’d write books and travel the world telling people about how to
raise children to look exactly like mine, and everyone would wish they could be
more like me. That’s what I wanted.
Up until this year my robot programming was going great guns; of course, there were times when Moses had his technical difficulties, but he was mostly a delight and ran fairly smoothly. I was proud of myself for figuring him out and programming him so well. I must be really good at this job, I told myself regularly. And then Moses turned three. (Or maybe it’s that his little sister was born; I still can’t tell whether it’s the age or the circumstances that cracked him/me.)
I’ve spent a lot of time this year scrambling to work out which settings to adjust to get Mo back to being my good robot again so that I could carry on with my plan to win awards for superlative mothering. I’ve spent a lot of time getting frustrated at my inability to control him and make him the perfect performer once again, and I’ve wondered if maybe I’m not that good at this job. I was supposed to be the mother who Moses would mention, upon receiving some prestigious award, as someone who was always there for him, a rock, constantly sweet and peaceful and helpful, an inspiration and encourager, rather than someone who often felt like yelling at him, “YOUR PROBLEMS ARE NOT ACTUAL PROBLEMS!!!” This was not going according to plan.
After months of wanting to return this faulty robot to the factory and demand a better replacement, I’m starting to untangle what’s Moses and what’s me, and slowly let him go and grow without feeling like everything he does is an advertisement either for or against my ability to look after him. I’ve realised that though controlling a robot would be far easier than dealing with this little person, deep down (like, really deep down) I appreciate the fact that I can’t simply adjust settings or push buttons to have Moses behave exactly how I’d like him to, but that he has a choice. It means that when he acts in ways I’m proud of it’s because he’s chosen to, and I can be happy for him taking any praise he elicits completely for himself; I’m good at other stuff, I don’t need to steal Mo’s praise. I’m becoming less concerned with how my child appears to others now, and more concerned with who he is.
I’m seeing that in many ways Mo is already budding into the kind of person I like being around now and will like being around when he’s older: he’s someone who expresses his emotions rather than bottling them up; he’s someone who questions me when he doesn’t understand my request or feels it’s unfair; he’s (mostly) respectful despite the fact that I’ve never demanded respect from him. He doesn’t jump to do whatever I say just because I’m The Authority and he must therefore submit immediately and happily; he thinks logically and critically and engages with what’s happening around him, and sometimes this means he tells me he thinks I’m wrong (apparently it’s inconsistent to vacuum up the daddy long-legs spiders if I really think that killing things is bad and daddy long-legs spiders are good for eating other bugs).
As the years go by he’ll make choices I disagree with, he’ll yell at me in public, and one day he may even run away from home or join the army or a rugby league team or assert his independence in some other way I’m not a fan of, and I may be tempted to think of him as a robot again and wonder, “What did I do wrong? What buttons should I have pressed instead? Which dial should have dialled? Which lever should I have levered?!” And I’ll have to remind myself that he’s not a machine, and so why on earth am I asking me those questions as if I’m the programmer responsible for his crazy decisions?
Or he may always say ”Please” and look after those around him, and one day he may ace exams and become a champion for worthy causes and win awards and kick bazillions of literal and metaphorical goals or assert his independence in some other way that may tempt me to think, “Look at him doing so well! It must be because of my awesomeness!” And I’ll have to remind myself that he’s not a machine, and so why on earth am I patting myself on the back as if I’m the programmer responsible for his wise and good decisions?
Of course, I’ll play some part in shaping the person he becomes, as will Alan and many others along the way. But it’ll be a guide-y part rather than the control-y part the parenting books so often talked about. This way involves far more analysing and second-guessing and explaining, but we’re learning a lot together, and (contrary to what I’ve feared for a while now) I think we’re going to be okay, my little non-robot and me, his good-enough mother. At the very least, because he’s a person rather than a robot, I can believe him when he says, “I love you, Mum.”