Friday, 13 November 2015

Tiger Child

Picture the scene: I was just getting a roast chicken and trimmings out of a hot oven, when my daughter sidled up behind me and told me she'd had a bad test score. My mother was hovering in the background, my son was creating merry hell somewhere nearby. I had five minutes between dropping him back from an activity, before I headed off to his school for a parents' evening. 

Dear Reader, what do you think my reaction was? 

Sadly, no, it wasn't the measured, calm, 'Oh dear, darling, never mind, I'm sure you'll do better next time – what do you think went wrong?'

No. I looked down, and all I could see was that the trimmings were overcooked – blackened, actually – and I lost my temper.

I stormed off out of the house, and my husband found me, fuming as I looked through son's books, predicting dire reports and spitting tacks about the National Curriculum.




I emerged from son's class with a renewed respect for teachers, the sense that they understand his little ways, and that they have somehow developed that understanding within six weeks of exposure to him. Kudos. 

I went home a little calmer, and pottered about clearing up. Then just as my daughter was going to bed, she whispered from the top of the stairs that she'd had her school report, and was really pleased with it. 

All the air went out of me, standing at the foot of the stairs and looking up at her little worried face – why hadn't she said anything before? Why had she told me about some unimportant test result, when the bigger picture was actually fine? 

But I knew why. I'd blown a gasket, and she was terrified. Of me.

This morning, I was trying to talk to my mother, my long-suffering, patient mother, who does nothing but listen to my endless list of woes. As I went back over the events of the previous evening, I started to cry, realising the harm I'd done. What on earth had made me explode?

But of course, there she was, my old friend perfectionism. What had I been doing? Trying to cook a perfect chicken, while simultaneously out of the house taking son to breakdance, while reading King Lear, while rushing back to find it burnt, while beating myself for failing to cook a special meal for my mother. And what ingredient had I forgotten? Calm. Not just a sprinkling of it, but a great, saturating sauce of calm. 

Yes, my daughter probably could have chosen a better moment to tell me about the test. But she's twelve. Yes, my mother might have been able to save the potatoes. But I didn't ask her to check – no, I wanted to prove to her that I had it All Under Control. Yes, I could have chosen to cook pasta. But I wanted to Do Something Nice for Mum.

And it had all blown up in my face. I'd ruined the meal – not because it was burnt, but because I'd lost my rag and upset everyone else. 

As I talked, and my mum said nothing, and just listened, the spectres of woes past began to present themselves, like the procession of kings that appear to Macbeth, each one showing me my hand in my own destiny. 

My mother is the only real witness to the fact that she was never a Tiger mother, I was a Tiger child. I found maths difficult at secondary school, in part because we were never actually taught. The teacher, who looked like a grumpy toad with a lorgnette, sat at the front of the class, and we were expected to work through the SMP maths books, silently and alone. To go up and ask for help was quite clearly a humiliating sign of weakness. I didn't find maths as easy as the girl who sat next to me (who ended up studying maths at Oxford), so I went home and bullied myself into going over and over stuff until I cried. I ruined one Christmas holidays by trying to do Chapters 5 and 6 of one of those wretched books, in tears every day, until my father could stand it no more and shouted at me. It wasn't my parents asking me to do this – it was me. They used to try to make me stop working. 

So why, thirty plus years later, did I explode, with a steaming chicken in my hands, and my daughter's anxious words in my ears? 

Because at some level, I am so desperate to protect her from pain, yet such a relentless bully to myself, that I become her pain. I could not stand the feeling of failure in myself as a little girl, and so I whipped myself on and on until I met my own standards, regardless of the impact on those around me.

My daughter is not me, and thank goodness. She has quite normal reactions to not being particularly hot at maths – she avoids it. That's not to say, of course, that she shouldn't be trying a bit harder to work out what it is she doesn't understand so she can ask for help with it. What she doesn't need, though, is my overweening anxiety and perfectionism ripping through her quiet attempt to tell me what was happening. 

The longer I live, the more I realise that I was born with that feeling of never being good enough, that it did not originate outside me, that it WAS me. And that never feeling good enough is at the heart of all the bullying that I have experienced. It began with my relationship to myself. 

And unless I accept that I am good enough as I am, I am set fair to ruin my daughter's growing sense of self. I can put down my Motherload tomorrow if I only, only accept myself. I only hope it is not too late. 


litlove said...

You're a brave, strong and admirable woman, my friend, to face up to the things we do that we shouldn't. And heaven knows we ALL do them. I suppose the point is that we are all going to make mistakes but the great grace of existence is that we can say sorry and laugh at ourselves. Don't beat yourself up - just consider yourself slightly ridiculous, as we all are. My son (now 21) was talking to me on skype a few weeks back and reminded me that I had exploded in temper over him at times (and this with the strictest injunction on myself not to!) and so I said, 'yup, all mothers have the nuclear button and we all choose inappropriate moments to use it' and we had a laugh. Don't worry - there will always be opportunities further down the line to right any wrongs we commit, and with your fierce desire to be fair and just, you'll not miss them.

Kirkegaard said...

Thank you litlove!