Leah McFall: Welcome to pushover parenting
OPINION: "What would you like for breakfast, Madeleine?" I asked our four-year-old. "Toast? Or pancakes?"
I'd bought the pancakes in a nine-pack, ready-made. This is important because I'd like you to know that I could no more make fresh pancakes on a weekday morning than descend from the ceiling in a giant cocktail glass, wearing fluffy stilettos and a modesty patch.
"Hmmm, let's see," mused Maddy, tapping her miniature chin. She brightened, then said: "Surprise me."
As I slapped a pancake into the microwave, I wondered when I'd become less an authority figure to my children than a door-opening footman in a top hat. In the words of perhaps every parenting expert I've ever read, I suppose I've made a rod for my own back; by demonstrating my love for my children with small indulgences (pancakes, piggybacks, colouring books in bed), I've mollycoddled them. I've bred entitlement; I've encouraged them to see me not only as a supplier of breakfast, but as an entertaining supplier of breakfast.
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You are in charge, I remember reading once in a manual describing how Parisians parent their compliant, impeccably behaved children. Make your authority clear in your voice; hoik it up from deep inside you, from your diaphragm. Make it low, unwavering and utterly in command: Non. Répétez, s'il vous plaît: non!
Parisian parents, apparently, see babies and children as rational beings, capable of understanding that some behaviours (sulking; screaming) have no practical value. For example, what's the point of crying at night when Maman and Papa are busy elsewhere in the apartment, smoking, drinking good wine and arguing about Foucault? Why bother to screech when a strange new cheese appears on your dinner plate? It's rational to try new cheese; it's for the good of France.
I wish I'd known, before I read this, that any self-help book comparing you to your French equivalent will make you feel bad about yourself (French women don't age; French women stay thin; French women go back to work three months after having a baby; French women think it's inevitable that the President took a lover. Pout a little, shrug a little: we all have to be a leetle zexy; it's for the good of France).
Sadly, whoever I was before parenthood is exactly who I am now, only so much worse.
Having kids is like running a giant yellow highlighter through everything you were before. Your every weakness is now lit up like the Hollywood sign.
Oprah taught me this. Remember her exclusive interview with Lance Armstrong, when he admitted to her that he had lied for years about taking performance enhancing drugs? "You and I both know that fame magnifies who you are," Oprah said, by the soft light of an expensive lamp, lulling him into her confidence as a fellow celebrity. He nodded with recognition, believing he was on safe ground. Then the zinger: "If you're a jerk, you're a bigger jerk."
You and I will never know if Oprah's right about fame, but it's definitely true of having children. I spend my time differently since becoming a parent, but deep down I know the only significant thing that will never be the same is my ability to cough without widdling.
Everything else is still there: my inability to say no and disappoint people. A less-than-scrupulous attention to personal grooming. A willingness to try things at the expense of good sense. All these weaknesses are now exposed by my children. Because of me, their partings move around their heads. On my watch, they rarely wear matching socks. They enjoy messy games like spooning white sugar from one bowl to another while I hover, indecisively, with a dustpan and brush. (Tsk! says my Parisian conscience, with a moué of disgust.)
Other parents, who had strength in their voices to start with, have remained that way. I see them in the playground and at the supermarket. They expect their kids to behave (while I hope mine do). Their kids get with the programme.
There's no use in wishing I could mother French-style. I'm no more a rational parent than an Olympic athlete. I'm finding my peace with this; I just wish I saw more people around like me.
Once, in the toddler play area of a Wellington park, a sweet-faced little boy was rattling the safety gate to get out. His mother was close by so I undid the latch for him. She came hurrying over, and seemed annoyed.
"He could have done that by himself," she said, tersely.
"Really?" I thought, my eyes narrowing. "Could he do my tax returns, too?"
At home, I told my husband about the chilly exchange. "Why aren't more parents nicer?" I asked him; by which I meant, "Why aren't more parents as bumbling as me?"
"If they're a b**** off the playground, they'll be a b**** on it," he replied.
Isn't that a comfort, and a blessing?
- Sunday Magazine