The ‘not needy needy’ mother

Siphiliselwe Makhanya

Sunday Times - - Pulse -

De­cid­ing I was fit to be some­one’s mama is the most ar­ro­gant thing I’ve ever done. I think this of­ten. Some­times it’s on sticky Dur­ban morn­ings as I de­bate whether giv­ing her the ce­real with­out warm­ing the milk first makes me a bad par­ent. Some­times it’s on rainy mid­week evenings dur­ing the squelchy trek from the bus stop to our flat. Me, um­brella-less, weighed down with teach­ing sup­plies, a satchel, the three­year-old’s school back­pack, my arms full and warm with the weight of a droop­ing child. I walk with my whole body clenched. I wouldn’t want any­one to think I can’t man­age.

I try not to need any­one as a par­ent. This is laugh­able, of course. The en­tire ex­er­cise of par­ent­ing is founded on need­ing oth­ers. You need some­one to have your baby with, for starters. Then you need peo­ple to take it out of you. In the first few months, you need some­one to watch your child while you take a shower, or get some sleep, or try to re­mem­ber how to be alone. Af­ter that, you need peo­ple who’ll stop your child from in­gest­ing sand and who’ll give them their food and meds on time while you’re earn­ing a liv­ing so that you can af­ford to not need oth­ers so much.

We’re at our best when we’re alone to­gether, my child and I. Time slows. Our sched­ules loosen. We don’t ra­tion out the hugs. When we’re alone, I’m a sto­ry­book mother. We squeeze into our swim­suits with no in­ten­tion of go­ing out­side, lay out our tow­els and pre­tend we’re at the beach while we watch mini-episodes of We Bare Bears on YouTube for the umpteenth time.

We clean house when we feel like it. I do the sweep­ing, she holds the dust­pan. We sing — badly and with joy. Twirling is her lat­est thing. She raids the closet for the too-big dress that her grand­mother bought her. I leave her to it and go to tackle the dishes in the kitchen sink. Min­utes later, she walks in “dressed” in the gar­ment apron-style, with only her arms through the armholes to hold it up and the ties wrapped sev­eral times around her waist.

At three, she ties im­pres­sive knots. “That’s a very good knot. You have good con­trol of your hands,” I say. I mean it, but it’s also part of the habit I’m try­ing to get into of ac­knowl­edg­ing her strengths. I want her to be ca­pa­ble; and to be that she has to feel ca­pa­ble; and to feel that she needs to know about the things she does right.

Yes, I’m one of those pedan­tic par­ents, the kind who “try too hard”. It’s the symp­tom of an im­poster syn­drome of sorts — if I do enough re­search and try things with enough con­sis­tency, maybe I’ll look like I know what I’m do­ing un­til I ac­tu­ally know what I’m do­ing.

We have a bilin­gual­ism strat­egy. We’ve agreed to let her de­cide who can give her hugs and are hold­ing off on pierc­ing her ears un­til she asks us to. I buy her black dolls and read her books with char­ac­ters in them who look like her. I an­a­lyse long ar­ti­cles about how to talk to girl chil­dren, and google terms like “sym­bolic an­ni­hi­la­tion”. She likes trucks so I buy her books on trucks and we play truckspot­ting games when we’re out.

I don’t know if what I am try­ing to do will work but I do know from ex­pe­ri­ence what doesn’t work — vi­o­lence, con­stant neg­a­tiv­ity, telling chil­dren that they have to look a cer­tain, nar­row way to be wor­thy of be­ing seen. I was a child, once. Those things didn’t work for me.

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