What we're saying may not be what they're hearing.
By Ruth Whippman
“Another theme park? My goodness!” reads the text from my mother. Although, perhaps, rather than a text, I should be calling it a “subtext.”
She is referring to the desperate outing that I am about to embark on with my three boys, ages 8, 5 and 10 months, in order to avoid spending one more minute listening to them arguing in the house. A close reading of my mother’s message reveals rich and multilayered depth of meaning. The “my goodness!” (complete with jaunty exclamation mark) keeps the tone light, while the use of “another” neatly undercuts that levity, conveying disapproval. The overall take-home message: I spoil the kids.
This text is a classic of the genre I think of as the “Little Comment,” the signature mode of communication of a certain type of close relationship between a mother and her adult daughter, especially when that daughter has children of her own. The Little Comment is the product of the female socialization that insists that we be the ones to handle the emotional busywork of life, but prevents us from tackling any of it directly.
Both loving and barbed, it uses a kind of weaponized casualness to criticize, but with complete plausible deniability.
You know that you are dealing with a “Little Comment,” as opposed to just a comment, when on hearing it you feel a stab of either irritation or self-loathing (or more often, an uneasy blend of the two). But at the same time, a perfectly reasonable response to any objection or hurt feelings would be an innocent, “What do you mean?? I’m just saying …” and then repeating the same statement in an entirely different, newly defanged tone.
Examples of the Little Comment might include, “Oh! The full fat kind?” “Isn’t it interesting how he isn’t wearing a coat?” and “Do children watch their iPads at the table now?” In the right context and tone, even an “oh dear” can qualify.
Although I bristle, my mother is actually showing amazing restraint. The Little Comment is really the recourse of the powerless. People always say that being a grandparent is all of the fun parts of parenting with none of the grind. But the flip side of this deal is that grandparents also have all of the adoration with none of the agency.
My mother loves my kids just as much as I do, is every bit as invested in their happiness and success, yet she has no genuine say in their upbringing. She can’t decide how many theme parks they visit, or whether they wear a coat, or how much television they watch, or how to respond when they call their brother a “poopy diaper.” She sees my absurd helicoptering, my bookshelf groaning with parenting books, my inexplicable inability to get my kids through a single dinnertime without a tantrum. At best she can hope only to influence from the sidelines like a low-ranking medieval courtier.
At both its best and its worst, the mother-daughter relationship can at times be as close as two humans can get to telepathy. With two people who are both heavily socialized to anticipate and meet everyone else’s emotional needs, the dynamic can become a kind of high-alert empathy, each constantly attempting to decode what the other might be thinking, hypersensitive to any change in pitch or tone, like a pair of high-strung racehorses.
My mother understands me better than anyone, and I crave her approval more than anyone else’s. I could recite her entire value system if I were in a coma. Every meal needs a salad, music is good and sport is suspect, children should learn a stringed instrument, sleeping late is a moral failing. She doesn’t actually need to criticize. She did her job so effectively 30 years ago that now she need only raise an eyebrow and I fill in the blanks on autocomplete.
In our case, all this is intensified because we live 6,000 miles away from her, having moved to California from Britain when our oldest son was a baby. Her visits are highly charged for us both. For her, staying with us is a once-a-year opportunity to spend time with her beloved grandchildren. For me, it’s my chance to prove to her that I have a handle on parenting, to get her to provide the answer to the question that claws away at me for the rest of the year. Am I a good mother? Can I ever be a mother like she was?
As soon as she arrives from the airport, I am on edge waiting for things to unravel. I know it’s only a matter of time before my kids start behaving in ways that would have been unthinkable for me growing up.
It doesn’t take long. Solly’s haunted Lego spy-base doesn’t conform to the overly ambitious picture in his head and he hurls it across the room in a fit of fury. His brother Zeph calls him an idiot, enraging him further. The baby starts crying. “I see everyone is getting very angry” I bleat, desperately quoting from some positive parenting article I read online. Solly storms off.
“Oh dear,” says my mother. I am crushed.
The uncomfortable truth is that my defensiveness comes not from disagreeing with her assessment of my parenting, but from the painful shame of agreeing.
Like many people, before I had my own children, I thought I would be better at this, that I would be a mother like my own mother was. Strong and sure-footed, enforcing calm and respect armed with nothing more than the prospect of a strongly worded expression of disappointment. My mother didn’t need extravagant sticker charts or parenting podcasts to get us to put our socks on. In my memory, we didn’t have tantrums over “transitions” or throw forks at our siblings or need participation trophies to put a plate in the dishwasher.
Whatever the elusive balance of indulgence and firmness, love and limits that makes a great parent, my mother knew it instinctively. She had the invisible sorcery of quiet authority, always kind, never needing to shout or threaten. She knew when coats and candy and comfort were in order and when they should be withheld. She knew the exact number of theme park visits that would ensure a happy and productive life. I’m furious with her because I want to be her.
It’s a strange evolutionary misstep that even the most powerful and noble of all the human emotions can, in any given moment, be trumped by irritation. But really, perhaps this is the ultimate compliment. I can push back and prickle, safe in the cozy belief that all the questions, big and little, still have answers, and that my mother knows what those answers are.
And I try not to think about the unbearable day when she will be gone and I will have to come up with my own answers, and no comment will ever be Little again.
Ruth Whippman is the author of “America the Anxious: Why Our Search for Happiness Is Driving Us Crazy and How to Find It for Real.”
Your comments are encouraged. Please type your comment below, and click PREVIEW, in the next window click POST COMMENT. Thank you!