mother (Page 2)

Would you get your hands off my child, please? How would you like me to poke you in the belly? Want me to try and tickle you? Maybe I’ll insist you hug me and not take no for an answer? I’m sure we both think not.
Even the most well-intentioned adults around me lately have let me down. Sure, our daughter is off-the-charts-cute. Not just in the parents-always-think-their-kid-is-cute kind of way, she’s simply gorgeous by most objective standards. She’s also very small for her age with a huge head and huge eyes. Just calls out to the mother in most every person (male and female) she meets.
Why is it, though, so few adults on this earth seem to have a clue that children are people?
I heard the beginning of a great This American Life on the subject of “talking to children.” It began with interviews with children about what annoyed them most about adults talking to them. The children were obviously older than Maya (she’s 4 and a half), but they are still putting up with some of the same shit.
Adults seem to flail around wanting to say the right thing, thinking there’s some kind of code language children speak. The adults get goo-goo gah-gah when talking to them. Really sing-songy. Trying to connect, they instead treat the child as some kind of stuffed fluffy toy who might enjoy being bent this way or that.
Maya even has a defensive “cutsie wootsie” mode she goes into where she swings herself all around, hanging on to my legs, looking up in an almost flirting coy sort of way that shocked the hell out of me the first time she did it. I asked her after why she was behaving that way (didn’t say it was wrong, but was surprised) and she told me that when people talk to her in baby talk, she just wants to do that. The goo-goo-gaa-gaa talking tone that grownups often take with her sometimes slips past me until she begins her little “I’m just cute” dance behind my legs.
Some advice to those of you who really, truly would like to communicate with that little person in the shopping cart in front of you at the market? You are looking at a small person. An individual. A human being.
They like smiles, but feel weird if you stare at them too much. Sure, if they’re very small infants (not holding themselves up, yet), they might like a little peek-a-boo. For any child, though, your best bet is to just imagine children are just small adults.
Speak in your regular voice. Bring up something you might bring up to an adult if you were going to be so outgoing and bold as to talk to a stranger at the market. Perhaps you might comment on the pretty flowers nearby, or compliment an article of clothing the person is wearing. Maybe you, too, enjoy sweets, so you could empathize with the experience of enjoying a lollipop (that surely some bank teller thrust into the child’s hand without regard to her parents’ wishes).
Think of how odd you’d feel if someone came up to you and started cooing, “Oh, you are so beeeeeautiful!” Sure, you might feel flattered. If you were available, you might hope to get lucky later that night. But, under most circumstances you might feel pretty freaked out.
Yesterday at Target I decided I needed to help out my little girl. I said, “When someone says something like that (a woman had just said over and over and over, “you are so beautiful! adorable! so cuuuuuuuute!”), they would love to hear you say, ‘thank you.’ What that means is you are telling them you appreciate they are trying to be kind. You don’t have to say anything, but a ‘thank you’ is probably what they are hoping for.”
Maya, like any normal human being, tends to freeze up in shock when these strangers begin gawgling all over here. And, no, she’s not “shy,” she just thinks you’re being really strange and it makes her a little confused and uncomfortable.
And, no, I’m not going to make her give you a hug even if you are a relative. I’m not going to expect her to kiss you or even accept a hug from you. I understand she’s so cute you want to gobble her up, but even her Father and I check in before we slobber all over her (most of the time).
Thankfully, my closest family dwells in the realm of respect. I think they may sometimes wish they could force the issue (LET GRAMPA HOLD YOU we all sometimes want to say). But they see clearly that Maya gives her affection and receives her affection on her terms (she loves being held by Grampa when she’s in the mood). Knowing her body is hers, that she decides who touches it, how, and when, may be one of her greatest (thus far, well-learned) lessons.
We’ll continue giving her tools for responding to adults who mean well but don’t have a clue. We’ll continue not forcing her to interact with strangers, and we’ll continue not expecting her to give hugs or kisses to anyone when she doesn’t want to. Without apology.
Once again, let me encourage you. The next time you are interacting with a child, try to imagine the roles reversed. Whatever you do or say to that child, what if someone did or said that to you? Would you be comfortable? How would you respond?
Because, seriously, the next time someone tries to tickle my child or tries to get her to say something to them (“come on, tell me about your little doggy-woggy-woo”) I might just haul off and slug them. Now that’s not a lesson I want to teach my cute as a button sweet as a plum little angel girl.

Lately, the evils of four year olds has me losing perspective. I keep telling myself, “they’re four, they’re only four, they’re just four year old little kids!” But, when my sweet daughter Maya tells me a classmate said, “you can’t play with us” within some particularly nasty context (playing doggy, no one would be her owner) I want to rip out the classmate’s hair and throw her into a locked dark closet. Would that be inappropriate?
Life is like ocean waves. My self-awareness and understanding always reaching and finding new sands, new treasures. Always uncovering new old rubble. I’ve come to love The Ride even when storms make it scary. The Ride always rocks and rolls me. I’m always safe.
From this perch, I’ve been revisiting what it was like. What it used to be like. My happy tendency these days is to live in what it’s like now, finding the past an ordinary place with the present full of mystery and joy. Then these little brats came along. These little excluding and nasty and superficial little crap heads.
I’ve started reading Reviving Ophelia.No matter what parents do, Pipher reports in Ophelia, young girls risk losing their authentic selves. It’s only by being “high in acceptance and strong in controls” that we parents have a chance to find our daughters reclaiming themselves in their later teens. Apparently, our daughter is doomed to begin hating herself and hiding herself at around 11 years old, just like every girl I’ve ever known. The parents are not to blame.
Overbearing parents, absent parents, cool parents, geeky parents, they’re all facing the same thing. Girls who used to be outgoing, unabashedly intelligent, confident, and creative turn into little puddles of quietude, bitterness, or fear. Everything the girls are is wrong — their hair, their bodies, their thoughts, their words.
Early on, I was entirely a Good Girl. I didn’t get in trouble, I followed the rules, I did my homework, I was Responsible. Before junior high, I was an artist. I wanted to be an architect, among many other things. Then on career day, an older woman groaned at me when I told her this and said, “Oh, no you don’t, dear! You’d have to major in math and science!” She said this in an honors seventh grade math class. Not only was she not accurate about the “majoring,” but she was talking to someone who (at the time) loved math!
In the seventh grade I decided to become popular. I set about it like I would any homework assignment, I read books, magazines, studied up. I realized I’d have to drop the friends I had, even the ones who were hoping to climb the social ladder with me. It would only be by publicly rejecting them that I’d move into the cool crowd. I did what it took. I began flirting with boys, too, and found them flirting back. My life began revolving almost entirely around how others perceived me and I did, as Pipher reports as so common, lose track of my real self.
In the 9th grade I wrote a play in AP English as a class assignment. I have no idea why I thought it a good idea, but the play ended with me, standing alone in front of the class saying, “I’m lonely.” It was meant to be a Waiting for Godot flavored performance, but I look back now and see that I was speaking the truth.
There are other pivotal moments that shoved me into the typical self-hatred so many of us experienced in the brutal years of junior high and beyond. For a while in my 20s I blamed my parents, of course. But I think Pipher’s on to something in her position that it is our culture, our misogynistic surroundings that damn girls (and boys, I could argue in another essay) to the Hell of self-annihilation. Blaming the culture may sound like a cop-out. But now that I’m living life as a parent of a child, and now that I’m reflecting on my own history from this perspective, I see no other explanation.
Now I’m examining my role as a grown woman, a mother. How can I help Maya survive with her Self intact? Or, help her have a chance of reviving her true self when the storm of adolescence calms?
I’ve already strayed. When Maya went to a summer camp (mornings doing crafts and music) I began to pack little “treats” in her lunch box that felt inconsistent with who we are. I bought the little sugar drinks (claiming to be yoghurt, with Disney characters on the bottles) or pre-sliced cheese. I included bits in her lunch bag I knew “all the other kids” would have. Already I was concerned about her experiencing the ostracizing that comes from having the “wrong” foods in a lunch bag. I was giddy doing this, knowing I was “helping her” be one of the “cool” kids. Oh my god. What was I thinking?
Last week I again packed a lunch for Maya, but this time I was grounded. I was joyful and held true to our family’s priorities. I did pack a little treat, but it was some plastic spider rings we got at the dollar store last year (the lunch was on Halloween) rather than some crap food that would only make her feel tired. The environment for this lunch was also not typical — I knew that in this group “cool” was actually healthy and wholesome and genuine. Authenticity and kindness are the norm and the children are much less likely to say, “eeeew” to Maya’s lunch choices (as they did when I once included a box of carrot juice).
Just as I am revisiting this insane pressure to be what others expect — the same pressure that forced me over the cliff into self-hatred as a young girl despite my loving supportive family — I’m finding my own life to be a comfortable, firm, and perfectly fitting shoe (is there a prettier more accurate metaphor? I’m sure there is…). I am coming into being myself, fully accepting and pleased.
As a mother, I think I’ve caught myself early enough — I’ll do my best to focus on being true to myself, modeling the self-respect I want for Maya. I don’t need to buy the Disney. I will also focus on supporting Maya’s choices, encouraging her to realize that she has choices, that she alone determines her value — no matter what those around her say.
Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today, I’ve read. What I got from the Ophelia book wasn’t despair or hopelessness. I got guidance. The book recalls a study done on strong and successful women like Eleanor Roosevelt. She describes a common theme for all the women was intellectual curiousity about something and a generally lonely adolescence filled with solitude or social rejection. Armed with this information, I feel encouraged. If Maya turns out to be a girl who loves horses, or a girl who loves Broadway musicals, or a girl who loves field hockey, I’ll be overjoyed. Passion for something, no matter how unfamiliar or even distasteful to me, will be her go-home-free card. I also won’t let myself get sucked back into the “if she’s liked, she’ll like herself” trap. As I begin experiencing the pain and joy of watching my daughter work her way through the system, I’ll try to remember to let go. I’ll practice having faith that everything will turn out okay.
Tonight a friend asked Maya who her best friend at school was. Wouldn’t you know her answer was that very same girl who had so wretchedly spurned her before? I can’t say I’m pleased about this since I am still nursing a tidy resentment. However, I am more comfortable remembering that not only is she only four, she’s out there practicing life. She’s learning about who she is just like I am. All I can do is just hang on for the ride.

She climbed into my lap, assumed the nursing position and asked quietly, “nah-nah.” Without thinking about it, I lifted my shirt and unsnapped my bra. After her sucking began I was suddenly self-conscious. We were at the library story hour; a room full of mothers with their small children and babies. I believe I should never have to tell my daughter we can’t nurse because other people don’t like it. The thing is, as she gets older I’m uncovering levels of discomfort and ignorance that make my insides ache. Why should I have to tell my little girl some people don’t understand that nursing is a beautiful thing? Why should I have to say, we can’t nurse in the doctor’s office because I’m worried the person sitting next to me might get uncomfortable?
When I’m in line in the supermarket – the example even the most passionate “lactivists” use as a place where they might not nurse their toddlers – I want to shout, would you be uncomfortable if I gave her a bottle? Would you be uncomfortable if I gave her a favorite teddy bear or hugged her? Why should she have to give up this perfect source of comfort because our culture seems to think a plastic pacifier is more civilized and that breasts are just for sex?
Yesterday I was in a small hotel suite with my in-laws and Maya was painfully over-tired, obviously fighting a cold, and meeting new grandparents for just about the first time. She wanted to nurse. I had on a sling, so I found it easy to let her nurse even in such close quarters – I was surprised when my father-in-law bounded off of the couch we were all sitting on and burst into the other room, apparently finding a sudden desperate need to wash his hands. When he came back, he sat in the chair on the opposite side of the room and his eyes looked everywhere but at me and my beautiful two year old, who was snuggled inside the colorful fabric of her favorite “tsing.”
Today in the same little hotel room, I told her she’d have to wait – she grew more persistent, since she’s not used to me saying no to nah-nah for what must have seemed like no reason.
I began to tell her that some people don’t understand how special nursing is. Then I stopped myself.
The world can be such a hard place.
She has a lifetime to learn about pain and disappointment – I’m not going to force those lessons on her. Frankly, I think the people who don’t understand the power of the nursing bond are missing out on one of life’s greatest miracles. Until she wants it to be different, we’re going to have nah-nah whenever and wherever she wants it.
In fact, I’ve got to go now. Maya’s asking for some nah-nah.