In a blog post last year, I said I’d write a post about my second daughter and how, through her, I learnt to be a better mother.
That was easier said than done, believe me. Once kids reach a certain age, it’s difficult to write about them other than in a general sense: They’re entitled to their privacy; they’re sensitive and self-conscious; and they’re easily embarrassed. As a parent, the last thing you want to do is add to all of that.
You also don’t want them to be judged, and people aren’t as forgiving of teenagers as they are of toddlers.
I have four children and all of them are different. Different temperaments, different interests, different talents. That means some are easier than others and that I have more in common with some than others. And it fluctuates. It’s not their fault, or mine; it’s just human nature.
I found parenting our first daughter easy—I used to tell people she didn’t need a mother. She was obedient, tried to please, put her heart and soul into everything—school, sport, music. She still does. She fitted the mould of ‘good’ child, and all I had to do was sit back and enjoy the ride.
Then came Daughter #2. At not quite two years-of-age, she decided she didn’t want to wear a nappy, and, no, even though we were going out, she wouldn’t put one on just in case. Nor would she wee before we went.
She was particular about her clothes—they had to be pink. In the middle of winter, she’d wear only singlet tops. In pink. And the higher the heel on the shoe, the better.
She didn’t like school and wasn’t particularly interested in any subject, except music. At the end of primary school, she won a violin scholarship, but seven weeks into high school, she gave it up.
She went to school only to see her friends and they talked make-up, nail polish, fashion—especially shoes—, movies, celebrities—especially the Kardashians—and MasterChef. If it was a friend’s birthday, she spent the night before baking cupcakes for the class. Her homework might have been incomplete and she may not have studied for the test the next day, but the cupcakes were baked. And iced.
I tried to laugh off her carefree attitude towards school, but at the same time, I worried about her future. What if she failed? What if she didn’t graduate? What if she didn’t get into Uni? I tried to talk to her about it, but increasingly her door was shut. Slammed shut.
I kept hoping that one day she’d realise the importance of school and study and learning, and that she’d change. But the years passed and, still, she showed no interest. The big crunch came when she got 3/20 for a Human Biology assignment. Her father and I were rather upset because, being doctors, we knew a bit of human bio and could have helped. If we’d been asked. We were even more upset because the assignment was on the lung, and her father’s a respiratory physician.
There was a lot of lecturing from us, and yelling and door-slamming from her, and I spent many sleepless nights. I could see our approach wasn’t working. In fact, it was driving her further away, but I didn’t know how to fix it.
Because I still wanted to hold onto my values—that study and learning were important—and I wanted her to change. I wanted her to become like us; to fit in; to be who we wanted her to be.
At the same time, through all the yelling and the screaming and the slamming doors, I could hear her frustration because we weren’t hearing her.
In the end, I decided I had to change. It had to start with me. I was the adult, after all, and the bottom line was, I wanted her to be happy.
So, I did three things:
Firstly, I let go of worrying about her school marks. And I mean really let go. Whether she studied or not was her choice. So when I saw her baking, I didn’t ask if she had study she should be doing. I stopped asking if she had a test coming up or an assignment due, or telling her that if she wanted a tutor, she only had to ask. And I stopped asking about her marks.
Secondly, I made sure we did something together at least once a week. Sometimes it was a walk, sometimes a movie. A couple of times, I even went for a mani/pedi with her, even though I hate having my toenails filed.
We both love classical music, so our special treat was the Opera. No matter what had happened at home, as soon as we walked out the door, we were friends. It seemed to be an unspoken agreement between us.
Thirdly, I started using the phrase, ‘Tell me more …’
When she was angry and yelling at me, instead of telling her to stop yelling, I said, ‘Tell me more: What am I doing that’s upsetting you?’
She told me, and sometimes she said things I thought were wrong or unfair, but instead of correcting her or defending myself, I said, ‘Tell me, what would you like me to do instead?’
It was hard to resist the urge to correct or defend and just listen, but it was powerful. I began to hear what she really thought.
I heard how, because no one shared her interests and she didn’t share ours, she felt alone in the family.
I heard how when everybody else did well and she didn’t, she felt stupid.
I heard how she was mean to her brothers because she wanted them to know what it felt like to be her.
I heard how much she hated it when I laughed at her nail polish collection, how we seemed to think she was superficial because she liked shoes and the Kardashians, and how we didn’t ‘get’ her.
I heard how she loved singing and music and music history, and foreign films and animals and children.
I heard how she wanted to go to the Academy of Performing Arts and become an opera singer.
All along, she’d been trying to tell us and show us, and we’d been ignoring her, trying to make her the same as us.
But as soon as I began using those words, Tell me more, everything changed. A respect, a mutual respect, replaced the anger. And a tenderness. I started getting pats on the arm, or an arm around my shoulders. And the nickname, ‘Lulu’.
I get visits of a night for ‘girl-chats’, and we talk about how similar we really are: How both of us keep our dreams close to our chests; how both of us have passionate natures; how both of us are determined; and how both of us resist people trying to mould us to fit.
And one day, when her brother told her he was annoyed at her, I heard her say, ‘Tell me, what have I done?’ And when he told her, she answered, ‘And what would you like me to do instead?’
I saw the changes in her brought about by the changes in me.
I’m in awe of her and how she managed to stay true to herself despite the pressure to change. In my concern for her marks and study, I lost sight of all the beautiful things about her, and no wonder she felt alone and unhappy in our family.
Sometimes, in a quiet moment, I wonder what might have happened for me, if instead of seeing the faults in the daughter in front of her, my mother had seen the beauty.
Our first daughter was easy and unchallenging and let me off lightly—I didn’t have to examine my mothering.
But this daughter taught me how to be a good mother. She taught me, too, that we don’t always know what’s best for our kids. That if we just let them grow into who they want to be, they become something so much more beautiful than anything we could have imagined.
And here’s the proof: