In a novel I read recently, ‘Notes on a Scandal‘ by Zoë Heller, there was a passage that leapt out of the page and struck me forcefully. It has come back to haunt me many times since. Usually when I am reaching for the Teletubbies video. Again.
One of the protagonists expressed an unpalatable truth that I know I was already aware of on some level, but prior to actually seeing it in writing, I would never have dared admit it, even to myself.
“It was so much easier being a parent when one was performing for another adult… Dealing with her daughter is never easy, but it’s pretty much impossible without the motivation of an audience. If there’s no one about to witness her patience and kindness, she finds herself too weary to tackle Polly’s sullen mystery.”
I don’t think I’m a bad parent. But I know for a fact that I am a better one when someone I seek to impress is within earshot. If Mr Frog is in the next room, regardless of whether he’s actually paying attention, I am much more engaged with Tadpole, far more likely to try to teach her a new word, or invest some energy in eliciting a giggle. So that Mr Frog can hear what a good mummy I’m being. It’s a form of showing off: ‘Hey, look what a wonderful parent I am!’ Or of competition: ‘look how much better I am at this than you!’
When daddy’s not around, I may, flying in the face of all those principles I had before Tadpole was born, let the TV murmur in the background while Tadpole is eating her dinner (or smearing it all over her clothes). I may even leaf through a magazine while she splashes around in the bath with her toys. What can I say? I’ve been at work all day, and although I’m thrilled to see Tadpole, I have bathed her more than 500 times in the course of the last year and a half and there are only so many games you can play with some cups and a few plastic animals with holes in (although I dread the day that she learns how to squirt me back).
We have some amazing moments, Tadpole and I. There are instants which are indescribably precious to me, where she gets a particular sparkle in her eye and I just know that she’s going to give me one of those precious little kisses that she rations so carefully. But there are also moments when she is insufferable and frustrating (“no No NO NO!”) and I yearn to skip the evening routine altogether, put her to bed and close the door.
When the audience in question is the mother-not-in-law or the childminder, then I am all the more motivated to play the role of ‘perfect mum’, because with these women, not only do I seek to impress, but I feel I have even more to prove and my abilities are under constant scrutiny. With my MNIL, I feel the need to demonstrate that I am irreplaceable. It took her a while to adjust to behaving like a grandmother (as opposed to a mother) with Tadpole, and initially I felt threatened, and indeed wounded, by her behaviour. This feeling has subsided, but I know it has had a lasting effect on our relationship, at least from my point of view. And I know that it has affected the way I behave with Tadpole around her. I will also admit that I am not above using bilingualism as a weapon to exclude her when it suits me.
With the childminder I am understandably a little insecure. After all, this woman spends more hours per day with my daughter than I do. She is much older than me, and has a huge amount of child-rearing experience which it’s difficult not to resent sometimes. I sense that it will be she who decides when Tadpole is ready to be potty trained, just as it was she who suggested to me that Tadpole was ready for solid foods or a pair of ‘proper’ shoes. So when I arrive to pick up Tadpole and she hurls herself into my arms I experience a mixture of genuine glee at seeing my daughter, and a satisfaction at being preferred. Followed by the perfect mummy ‘act’, wholly for the childminder’s benefit.
Now that I am now conscious of this tendency to play to an audience, it is impossible to gauge for myself where the natural ends and the performance begins. The borders are blurred; the colours weep into one another.
I try to convince myself that it doesn’t really matter at the end of the day. Tadpole will simply be happy that I’m drawing or singing songs with her or reading that extra story. But then again, children can be terrifyingly perceptive. The miracle of speech is also a looming liability.
I fear it is only a matter of time before I overhear Tadpole explaining to the (anti-TV) childminder that she often watches the Teletubbies while she eats her breakfast. Or asks me in front of grandma why we only ever read more than one story at bedtime when we stay at their house. Or worse…