petite anglaise

January 21, 2005

acting like a mother

Filed under: navel gazing, Tadpole rearing — petiteanglaiseparis @ 12:06 am

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…


  1. Don’t worry PA – children seem to understand from an early age that it is not good form to squeal to grandma, or anyone else for that matter, on your performance as their parent/s. I’m not sure how they work this out, but they do and I haven’t been “dobbed” in yet by my 7,5 or 3 yr old. They become complicit, and you feel more united, rather than less, as a family. Tadpole (probably) won’t let you down.

    Comment by rachel — January 21, 2005 @ 12:41 am

  2. I love the honesty of this post. I don’t have children yet but it seems like an extremely hard thing to do (raise children as best as you can). I’m about to try to conceive and I do have thoughts sometimes, particularly when I am reading a good book or lying in the steam room at my gym where I think: what if I miss these moments so much that I can’t cope with the fact I am a mother? What if I’m not patient enough? Too selfish?

    I guess as long as you love your children and they can feel it and know it for sure, they’ll be fine.

    Comment by Maurine — January 21, 2005 @ 2:05 am

  3. I loved your post today. You are honest and thoughtful about your parenting, which puts you way ahead of many others I know. The mentions of the different situations you share with Tadpole show you spend a lot of quality and varied time with her – in the presence of Teletubbies or not.

    Comment by Popsie — January 21, 2005 @ 7:18 am

  4. I guess you were having doubts about yourself as a parent when you wrote this. I’m sure there are other times when you forget that you are “being a parent” and just enjoy it. That’s how it should be. I think this insecurity – about being a good mother/spouse/lover/daughter/etc. – is part of our self-obsessed culture (see how the “self-help” book section is bigger than most others these days. This anxiety is not “natural”; it’s a cultural creation in contemporary Western societies. That doesn’t mean you have to accept it, however. Set your priorities yourself rather than let them be imposed by others, who then judge you by their standards.

    Bottom line: try not to worry about what others think of you.

    (Oh dear. Do I sound like Dr Phil on Oprah?:oops:)

    Comment by Ria — January 21, 2005 @ 10:55 am

  5. Great stuff once again but how about Mr Frog acting like a father? Seems to me he’s missing out or willfully avoiding or not allowed the joys and sorrows of changing nappies, bathing baby, bedtime storytelling and the rest. Maybe he lacks the time or the inclination to be a fulltime father.
    Which is it?

    Comment by Parkin Pig — January 21, 2005 @ 11:23 am

  6. He’s currently very unhappy in a job which keeps him at the office until after Tadpole’s bedtime. But hopefully that will soon change.

    It’s a Catch22. I want him to leave his job. But we can’t afford for him to resign until he has something else. And he can’t look for something else while he’s working all hours…

    Comment by petite — January 21, 2005 @ 11:40 am

  7. Although I dreaded my mother-in-law’s one month visit (yes, one month!) last spring, her visit did wonders for my relationship with my three children (3, 5 and 7 yrs). I was forced to look at myself from the outside, and to control the screaming and stop behaving as a child myself.

    I agree with Ria above, but sometimes when you are tired of being a mom you don’t even react according to your own convictions.

    Comment by petite suédoise — January 21, 2005 @ 11:52 am

  8. Finally inspired to comment, after enjoying so much of your writing. Personally, I think one great divide is between kids fortunate enough to have parents with some self-awareness and self-questioning, and those who don’t. Another is between those whose parents approach life on the whole with joy and humour and those who don’t. I would guess that tadpole’s doing pretty well on both counts. Re your partner’s stupid working hours, as a recovering workaholic hellbent on leaving the city, I’m probably far too prejudiced to say anything useful. Couldn’t you ‘downshift’ a bit? Can you really only be happy in Paris?

    Comment by Jean — January 21, 2005 @ 1:47 pm

  9. I’m sure your concerns are shared (either openly or not) by many other working or non-working mothers. I’m not a parent so am probably not overly qualified to comment, but the fact that you actively think about your parenting is probably a good sign in itself. Trust your instincts and your intelligence.

    Comment by witho — January 21, 2005 @ 1:50 pm

  10. Following Jean’s comment, to all those who think they are indispensable at work, would you want this written on your tomb?

    If only I’d spent more time at the office

    Comment by Ria — January 21, 2005 @ 2:04 pm

  11. I’d love to downshift à la JonnyB. Specifically to somewhere outside Lyon. I could afford to work less (and blog more), we could live somewhere nicer…

    But Frog claims not to be ready for that.

    We’ll see. I can be very persuasive.

    Tadpole already knows the word ‘office’. And the phrase ‘Daddy gone office’. It’s only a matter of time before she utters the immortal words ‘mummy lives at home, and daddy lives at the office’…

    Comment by petite — January 21, 2005 @ 2:16 pm

  12. Ria has made a powerful and thought-provoking point, and one close to my heart.

    There aren’t many people whose work roles, in the grand scheme of things, are truly indispensable

    Life is about balance

    Comment by witho — January 21, 2005 @ 2:24 pm

  13. we ARE the same person!

    how do you do this?

    in the end, I sincerely believe that they will turn out fine in the end as long as they are loved loved loved (as long as one doesn’t show one’s love by ignoring/beating/laughing at them!)… we can’t be what we are not and I will not believe that there exist mothers who are for 24hrs a day how we are when we are showing off our great parenting skills for a few minutes. They are lying if they say they are…. ooh, I’d better go, my children are just about to burn the house down/electrocute themselves/stab each other with sharp kitchen knives (delete as required) while I neglect them whilst I galavant about on the computer.

    Comment by vitriolica — January 21, 2005 @ 2:30 pm

  14. Brilliant petite! Yet again you have put into perfect words thoughts that have been niggling at me for long enough.

    Only this week I was thinking ‘Thank goodness I am not being secretly filmed as I say ‘hang on a minute’ to daughter while I finish what I am doing and she rampages/desperately tries to get my attention/etc.’

    I often have a flashback to my au-pair days when the frog comes home: Phew! I am actually doing something with daughter. If he had come home 10 minutes ago he would have seen me lying on the sofa watching Richard & Judy while daughter played with a light switch.

    Comment by kjr — January 21, 2005 @ 2:43 pm

  15. The world’s a stage?

    We all play a part that changes as the cast of characters around us change. Ultimately, your daughter will recognize the love that you have for her because that isn’t an act. The caretaker, the grandmother, they all get to take a break from their role. You will always be her mom. You’ll be typecast for life. :-)

    Comment by Bob Barton — January 21, 2005 @ 4:49 pm

  16. I think most honest parents would admit that small children, especially before they can really talk with you, can be extremely boring. That minute-to-minute, all-the-time care – come on – admit it! One reason for having a second child is often in part, to provide companionship for the first.
    Incidentally, one child I know who was parked in front of GMTV every morning while he ate breakfast with his father (this was the ’80s), grew up to be a polymath. I disapproved at the time, but that was before I became a mother myself…

    Comment by Ruth — January 21, 2005 @ 8:50 pm

  17. I think Ria hit the nail on the head with her first comment – contemporary culture encourages us to become totally self-absorbed about such things. I have blogged more than once about how bewildering I find conversations in which parenting (just that word gets my hackles up) is talked about as if it were a job or a skill. It really is all about loving and following your instincts.

    My son’s mother and I split up several years ago, and I can say that I am sure that the moments when I have been the best father – from my son’s point of view, which, after all, is all that really counts – have been since then, when we have spent time together alone, just the two of us, precisely because those are the times when I am just myself.

    I think you just need to trust in yourself. Nothing I have read here over the last few months suggests that you are anything other than a wonderful loving mother. As for the looming miracle of speech, you really shouldn’t worry – on the contrary, you’ll find that it only increases the sense of complicity you and the tadpole feel, because you’ll be able to share so much more.

    Comment by Waterhot — January 21, 2005 @ 9:46 pm

  18. Tadpole will always love you best because you are Mama—and nothing changes that –though heaven knows at times I’ve wished my girls didn’t feel that way. :grin:

    As for the caregiver, thank your lucky stars if she decides to help you potty train Tadpole–my daughters pre-school teacher helped them and as a result the process was (relatively) painless–it always seems to help when someone else gets involved with doing it, because they play control games with the person they KNOW loves them best–and that’s you!

    Hang in there–you’re doing fine!

    Comment by Elizabeth — January 23, 2005 @ 5:18 am

  19. It is so much easier to be the mommmy I want to be when people are watching. I am much less inclined to easily lose my patience and more willing to put up with my kids oddities that drive me nuts. I think that when we are alone i have those golden moments when the core of the parent I want to be shines through but many a hour goes by where I am too busy, or too trapped feeling to take a step back and handle things in the manner I want. I appreciate your honesty in the post, it makes me look at myself and how far i’ve come back from the brink. I fight to be the mommmy i want to be with the demons inside my head

    Comment by Fidget — January 23, 2005 @ 5:50 am

  20. Very honest post. I have felt many of these things myself, and I have put my little one to bed without reading a story, have let her watch too much tv (but NEVER Teletubbies! They scare me!), and then I remember that I need to sit on the floor and be with her more. I have done the whole downsizing thing, quit my full time job, etc, and now owe a bit of money. But life is easier and my husband and I spend so much more time with them. It’s hard to find a balance, and while we have our troubles learning how to mother, our partners need to learn to father. Mine is doing so much better the second time around, more relaxed and all. Good luck!

    Comment by Kathy — January 23, 2005 @ 8:20 pm

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