The ‘not needy needy’ mother
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.