Discussing the “A” Word of the Week: “Acceptance”
With every episode of THE A WORD comes an “A” Word of the Week. Catherine Connors, creator of HerBadMother.com, discusses that pivotal moment as a parent when you choose to accept your child for who they are.
In the season finale, we see a moment that should speak to – and break – any parent’s heart: The moment that Alison fully accepts that her Joe is not the ideal Joe of her maternal imagination. Her fear of never finding Joe, who has gone missing, forces her to confront what she is losing – not just her Joe, but the real Joe, the Joe who is his own person, his own boy, Joe “as he is” – the Joe who is on the autism spectrum.
Every parent knows, or will know, the complicated feelings that come when you are forced – and yes, you are usually forced – to confront the tensions between how you see your child, and who your child really is.
As a writer and as a student of storytelling, I believed that I had a unique immunity to the common parental impulse to impose narrative upon one’s children. I had written academically on the subject of authorship and authority, I was self-reflective about the problem of authority in my own work – I was hyperaware of what it meant to impose a narrative on someone. So, of course, I believed that I wouldn’t do it.
My daughter is, in many respects, a carbon copy of me. She looks like me, she talks like me, she squints when she’s concentrating, just like me. I look at her sometimes and I see myself, in miniature, right there in front of me. She is, of course, not me, in miniature or even in variation; she is herself, wholly and entirely herself, and the elements of me that I see in her are just threads of color – and I know this. I know this. But I can’t help, sometimes, twisting my lens such that those particular colors are more saturated, that they pop more brightly into focus when I think about her and write about her and talk about her. As I’ve already said, I thought that I was alert to this: Maybe I would be vulnerable to looking for myself in my daughter, but I would never let that shape my understanding of her – or my stories about her.
I was wrong. And she told me so.
The argument that prompted the moment when she told me so was one of those standard-issue mother-daughter conflicts. She was being unpleasant to her little brother and she didn’t like it when I called her on it. That we had family friends over made the tension even more complicated; I had pulled her aside but we were both keenly aware that the other kids and adults were still within earshot. Our voices were lowered to angry hisses.
“You need to be nicer to your brother. I expect more from you.”
“You expect too much from me. You expect me to be like you think I am.”
“I expect a lot from you, sweetie, but I only expect you to be like you. And I know that you can do better.”
“No, Mommy, you expect me to be how you want me to be. I know because I hear you. I heard you telling Jenna that story about me and you were telling it like I was you. You were telling it like it was your story, Mommy. You were showing off with my story and it wasn’t even a story about me at all.”
Ouch. I’m ashamed to admit that my first impulse was to look up to see if someone had overheard. Showing off? I’m even more ashamed to admit that my second impulse was to doubt her.
“What? No. Sweetie, I don’t know what you heard but I wouldn’t do that.”
“You did.” And then she repeated the story back to me, complete with my narrative flourishes – but even then I simply couldn’t see it. Hadn’t I described her as she was? And hadn’t it been flattering? Maybe I’d paraphrased her words one or two times, and maybe I’d exaggerated here or there, but wasn’t it all basically correct and true and…
As she explained it, it didn’t matter that it was mostly true. It didn’t matter that it was only very slightly exaggerated. And it certainly didn’t matter that it was flattering. What mattered was, she didn’t entirely recognize herself in my story about her. She recognized a character, based on her, but not exactly her – and in staring down the uncanny valley between the character based on her and the real her, she got uncomfortable. And worried. Who did I see her as: the real her, or the character?
Who did I love: the real her, or the character?
In that moment, I didn’t experience a clarity of acceptance about who my daughter really is – I came to accept that I don’t get to decide the story of who she really is. I was forced – uncomfortably – to accept that her story is not mine to tell. She is the only author of her story, and it doesn’t matter whether or not that story accords with my own. My own story runs parallel to hers, and intersects with hers, and has influenced and will always influence the direction of hers – and hers mine. And while this doesn’t mean that I won’t tell stories about her – I am telling a story about her right now – it does mean that I will be mindful about the distances and the differences and the tensions between the girl that I describe and the girl who really is. And that I will always value and cherish and love the girl who is, most.