In memories from my girlhood, the words used to point out my potential for interpersonal growth stand out, hot and threatening like a whirring dentist’s drill: “oversensitive,” “melodramatic,” “manipulative,” and “bossy.” My family meant well. They sought to identify and excise the diseased portions of my personality so I’d be healthier and better received by the rest of the world.
Maybe it worked; maybe it didn’t. What I know for sure is that it hurt like hell. To have those you love more than the New Kids on the Block, or life itself, say that you must change, that you are too much of this and not enough of that, is to feel alone — unloved, unloveable, or only conditionally so.
Three decades later, I understand the corrective impulse.
My 6-year-old daughter recently sat on the lap of a family friend. As he read aloud from Ramona Forever, she toyed with the trim of his V-neck shirt, then tugged on a tuft of chest hair. “Ow!” he exclaimed, adding, “Please don’t pull my hair.”
She looked to me, her expression dripping with dismay. I shot back a glare of reprobation as I echoed, “If you can’t be gentle, keep your hands to yourself.” Her eyes squeezed closed as she hung her head.
I didn’t have to do that.
My family didn’t need to either. In college, a sorority sister whom I’d considered a lifelong friend continued to smile as we drifted apart. Then I learned that she’d begun referring to me as “the pathological liar.” It seems the secrets of my tumultuous early years were too crazy to be thought true. To be fair, I also nursed a penchant for overstatement (remember, “melodramatic”).
Her words felt like a betrayal, of course, but the knife in my back only broke the skin. Nothing vital got hit, and the pain receded. In its place stood a commitment to complete accuracy and honesty going forward.
That wasn’t the only lesson imparted by my peers.
For years, I had refused to take “no” for an answer. “Let’s go to the party at Beta tonight!” I said this time.
“Oh man, I wish I could,” my roommate replied, “but I’ve got to finish some chem studying, and I promised Katie I’d help her choose an outfit. Besides, I’m feeling bloated and lazy.”
“OK, no problem! I’ll help Katie while you hit the books, and then we can go do a kickboxing video together. You’ll feel so much better if you get up and moving.”
How I read the situation: problem-solving. How she saw it: “manipulative” and “bossy.”
Her reaction forced me to look back over my efforts at convincing people. Often a pal would agree to my plan only to flake at the last minute. Other times they’d generate a new set of roadblocks after I dispensed with the first. Sometimes one would go along but grumble or pout the whole time. I finally got the message: Persuasion rarely moves a soft “no” effectively. I learned to back off, to let folks make their own decisions.
When I worked in an office, a superior leveled with me about a related issue. Every time I completed a task within a colleague’s purview, he said, I implied she couldn’t handle it herself. Realizing that my efforts to be both liked and indispensable had backfired, I sat down at my big girl desk, took off my 3-inch heels, and sobbed (“oversensitive”).
This time, too, the wound to my ego healed quickly and — like a fractured bone — ultimately left me stronger. Practicing stepping in only when others want and need assistance even prepared me to be a successful parent, one who inculcates independence and grit. The aches that never went away, the injuries that cut too deep to fully mend, were those first ones. I didn’t need an impartial assessment from my family. I needed a place I would always be treasured, regardless of how much I deserved it.
I know, because, for a time, I had one. My preschool teacher called herself my surrogate mother. She lived with us for a while and freely advertised what others called “a real soft spot” for me. When I was 11, she gave an understanding nod after I confessed a terrible thing I’d said to a friend, an insult that had gotten me summarily exiled from my clique. “They’re just jealous,” she declared, and then listed my many drool-worthy attributes, from my “button nose” to being “more clever than all the other kids.”
I knew it wasn’t true, that I had been cruel and earned my punishment, but her unwavering faith in me provided a guarantee that I had at least some worth despite my missteps. It enabled me to get up and carry on. Now my daughter swings the front door open with such force that it slams against the hall wall, and then she hurls herself at Lucy. The hug that follows is so violently jubilant that the two girls almost fall over.
Ten minutes later high-pitched shouting from the bedroom precedes my daughter’s emergence, her anger-mottled face hurtling toward me. Lucy quietly follows. Vivi points at her friend and accuses, “She just wants to read. She won’t draw. She won’t play post office.”
“Vivi,” Lucy says, her voice wavering with barely controlled emotion, “I said I will draw later. Right now I want to read. You can draw while I read.”
“No! You came over to my house so you have to play with me, and I want to play post office.”
Lucy begins to cry: “I want to go home. And I don’t want you to come to my birthday party.”
My instinct is to intercede, to say, “Lucy is your guest. You’re supposed to make her feel welcome, not shout at her! No one will want to play with you if you can’t be flexible.” I envision the consequences. In my mind’s eye, I see my daughter’s shoulders slump, tears now running down both young faces.
So I don’t do it. I keep my mouth shut. Lucy’s departure and the months it will take before she requests another playdate will teach my strong-willed child the consequences of being too rigid. She doesn’t need me to knock her down a peg.
When it comes to the basics of sociability — things like not hitting, screaming, mouthing off, or being cruel — critiquing my daughter’s conduct continues to fall within my job description. But as she grows, my role is increasingly limited to modeling desirable behavior and adoring her, to listening without judgment, to recounting her strengths.
Only by restraining my desire to do more can I give her what she truly needs: an emotional bedrock so that when criticism from others invariably arrives she can search for the truth in it and rebuild without paroxysms of self-doubt.
My goal is that one day my grown daughter rolls her eyes while saying, “Oh, Mom, of course you’d see it that way, you’re biased.”