For those of us who don’t enjoy our ‘relationship’ with our parents there is the compensatory thrill, when we have kids, of watching the ‘rents try on the grandkids the same fuckery they tried on us. This sort of gladiatorial bloodsport is not everyone’s idea of a good time, but it is one of the few meaning-making opportunities available to myself when I have to endure the (occasionally necessary) meetings with my estranged mother.
Her visit in the spring was full of her typical power hungry fuckeries. But the moment that I mull over often is when she watched me set a limit with R. He was clambering onto some benches in Borough Market and the security guard wandered over and asked me to take the kid off them. I explained all this to R and helped him down off the wooden seats- being the cheeky, curious lad he is he immediately tried to climb back up. I started to tell him I couldn’t let him climb on the benches and started to pull him off—
‘Your mommy is going to win,’ my mother interjected with animation. ‘You can try and disobey her and you can cry but you’re not going to win this one kiddo.’
As I write those words, my skin crawls. What was more disturbing than her words was her looming frame towering over him, the glee in her voice, her eager face. She was enjoying the power trip. Who gets off on holding power over a three year old? My mother. My mom does. One of my favourite lyrics from Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is when he sings, ‘well maybe there’s a god above/but all I ever learned from love/was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya.’ I know exactly what he is talking about: sometimes when people- like my mother -say they love me what they really mean is I want to have absolute power over you and I find your independence threatening. Love has, in the past, meant either killing off my authentic self to please the other (I famously ‘weaned myself’ off the breast at three months and it’s been downhill from there) or not letting anyone in lest they tame me. Neither of these relational options is particularly satisfying: these days I aspire to stay true to myself and stay connected to people I love.
Setting limits is one of the most sacred things I do as a parent and I see it as the opposite of a zero-sum game where there is a winner and a loser, where the only choice is whose will be done. To me, limit setting is an opportunity to treat him with dignity and affirm his agency and selfhood even though I’m using my authority to mark a boundary. There are myriad ways to show respect to a three year old in these moments: make room for his (often dissenting) feelings and validate them, speak from the ‘I’ not from a place of objective moral truth, offer choices, explain why, choose carefully which limits are important to enforce.
All of the above mentioned relational options build relationship and minimise the need to coerce my kid. I don’t want him to be blindly obedient to me, I want him to know there are limits (particularly in relation to other people or public spaces) but not shame him for bumping up against them. I want him to learn how to be-with others, how to negotiate difference and boundaries and consent.
This last trip my mother made to London in the spring, I wouldn’t engage in the usual power games she speaks. And because she only speaks the language of power, because she only feels safe if those she ‘loves’ are saying and doing her script, there was much silence between us.
For me there are only two real relational options: choosing to control another person or choosing to see who they are and then authentically turning up to take a stand in relation to them. My mother always chooses power at the expense of relationship: I was a very obedient child. We don’t talk much these days.
Copyright Diana Smith 2018
The different love lessons I’ve learned- of limit setting rather than obedience- can be found in the books How to Listen so kids will talk and how to talk so kids will listen, Dibs: in search of self and Janet Lansbury’s excellent podcast series, Unruffled