(This is a piece I wrote around eight years ago about my daughter, who was then two years old. It’s a little reflection on how motherhood had changed me.)
Her name is Mira. She’s two years old, a lively bundle of energy capable of constant motion for hours on end. She loves spaghetti, chocolate, stickers of her favorite cartoon characters, dancing along to disco music, inventing funny lyrics to nursery tunes, wake-up cuddles, before-bedtime tickles and Barney. Unfortunately for our refrigerator-turned-art gallery, it isn’t just Barney she likes. So far, she’s declared herself a fan of Lightning McQueen, Dora the Explorer, Winnie the Pooh, Mickey Mouse, and Echizen Ryoma of the Japanese anime Prince of Tennis.
She has an uncomfortably sharp memory, an ear for music and a quirky sense of humor. She can count up to five flawlessly and up to 10 with a little help. She can identify almost every object in her first-word books. She can sing the Lupang Hinirang in its entirety, although with a shaky grasp of the lyrics. She’s also one of the prettiest little girls I’ve ever seen, with eyes guaranteed to give her daddy reason to worry when she grows older.
And I, God help me, have become that which I swore I would never be: a gushing mommy.
It’s something I’m familiar with. I come from a large family, where not a year passes where one or two squirming bundles of joy arrive to further swell the ranks. I’ve been to numerous gatherings where moms of all ages gather round in the kitchen and regale everyone about how Junior started walking at seven months or won all sorts of awards at school or published a paper on advanced thermodynamics at age six. And all the other mommies are cooing and smiling and saying things like, “Wow, Junior is such a smart boy. That reminds me. Have I told you how my Jenny wrote an opera in classic Italian for a project in kindergarten? Her teachers were so surprised, as you can imagine.”
And again with the cooing and smiling until someone else speaks up about her own prodigy. And for all the exclamations of encouragement, those sessions can be as cutthroat as any political election. You could see it in the faint narrowing of their eyes and the slight edge in their smiles. It’s a blood sport, if a very delicious-smelling one.
The annoying thing was, in that crowd of moms clamoring to advertise their children, my mom had to be the only non-gushing mom there. She’d just nod agreeably then, after glancing at me, she’d go the opposite route and complain about my questionable fashion sense, my unladylike behavior, my constant procrastinating on schoolwork, etc. etc. It was her idea of an affectionate joke. My mom has the sense of humor of a shark. It was embarrassing, not least because some part of me would be wishing that she was one of those gushing mom-types.
After I noticed that gushing moms stopped gushing and started sounding more like my mom by the time their kids hit puberty and lost all vestige of cuteness, I promised myself that I would never go that route. I would never carry photographs of my child in my wallet to show complete strangers. Never announce, with a smile of patently false modesty, my child’s imminent induction into Mensa. Never go to a party expecting other people to notice how charming my child is, and going home feeling insulted when nobody does. And I would never burden my child with the job of boosting my self-esteem, then blaming him or her when said self-esteem collapses in on me. I wasn’t the only one to make similar promises given that this was back in high school, when I and my peers knew everything and our parents knew zilch. No way would we be like our parents; we’d be better.
Then Mira was born. The first time I saw her when they laid her down beside me wrapped in a blanket, my first thought was, “Oh my God, she looks like Snow White.” I told my husband that when we got home from the hospital. I told my friends that when I finally crawled out of my cave of maternity again. I told my husband again a week later, just in case he forgot. I waited for a chance to turn the conversation around toward Mira the next time I went out with my friends so I could say it again along with several hundred new facts about her. I told my mom, my dad, my husband again, my friends, my coworkers, my husband yet again, and the family cat whenever I could catch her. By the 73rd time I told my husband for about my Snow White impression I knew, with a sinking feeling, that it was only a matter of time.
Is it inevitable, then? Is it some part of the package deal of parenthood, along with an immunity to wee and poopoo, the ability to go from deep sleep to hyper-alertness in less than three seconds, and a dulling of your sense of modesty? I read this quote about parenthood: if you can stand to have your heart walking around independently of your body, then you’re ready to be parent. That quote didn’t mention anything about having your mind automatically create an extension of your ego to go with your newly mobile heart. After all my self-righteous spouting about not burdening my child with unrealistic expectations, I now find myself avidly watching her for the slightest signs of genius and fantasizing about all sorts of grandiose scenarios. She loves to dance? A prima ballerina then. She loves making up weird lyrics to songs? A world-famous lyricist. She loves puns? A Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. She loves playing with toy cars? A Formula 1 racer or a mechanical engineer. Both, why not? And so on until my head is spinning and I have to go sit down with my head between my legs.
It doesn’t help that media and advertising are feverishly stirring up parents’ ambitions so they could sell their products. Want your child to graduate with a law degree, summa cum laude? Make her drink our specially fortified milk. Want your child to win five Olympic gold medals? Make him drink our specially formulated multivitamins. Want your child to become CEO of a giant corporation? Enroll her in our specially special preschool. Those ads inevitably include these bright-eyed, smiling children surrounded by a nimbus of light that sets them apart from their dull-colored, slightly blurry peers. These are obviously the children who will go on to achieve some impressive feat that will bring honor, glory and riches to them and, indirectly, to you as a parent.
Maybe I’m cynical, but I knew there was a reason why I stopped watching TV years ago. But even in print ads, you never see a child achieving personal success by, say, going through law school and after failing to pass the Bar, becoming the best legal assistant ever. Or by surviving day after day as a single mother supporting her children on her own. Or by flitting through life for decades until finally deciding to become a priest of a poor, unknown parish. Or spending her days on the streets selling vegetables and her nights earning a degree in cosmetology so she could start her own business. Nobody who is an ordinary, average person doing the best with what she has, learning to love her family, her friends, her world and herself, is ever featured in those ads. It’s as if no child—and hence no parent—is ever a success unless there is fame, money and glory involved, preferably in copious amounts. That kind of pressure can be cruel to a parent; I hate to think what it does to a child.
It’s not that having dreams and ambitions is inherently wrong. It’s the motivation behind those ambitions that makes the difference. It’s one thing for me to dream of fame and glory for my child so I can brag about her in a gushing-mom session, so I can say to myself and to others, “I must be a good parent. Look how well my child turned out.” But it’s another thing for me to dream about my child’s happiness and fulfillment, so I can rest knowing she is the best person she can be at each and every moment, no matter where her path takes her. As a friend once told me, it’s not my daughter’s responsibility to make my dreams come true; it’s my responsibility to help her find her own dreams. Making my dreams come true is my job.
In any case, the next time I join a gushing-mom session, I’ll know what to say: “Mira is a wonderful little girl. You’ll know that just by spending time with her. And pass the ketchup, please. I’ve got some big, fat words to eat.”