LoveChild 24: Mom Was Trying to Be a Good Mother
“There was a little girl who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. And when she was good, she was very, very good. But when she was bad, she was horrid.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
By the time I was two and a half, my mother was worried
As I mentioned in my earlier post "Growing Pains," my mother loved having a baby she could care for and enjoy, but she hadn't anticipated having a toddler who ignored instructions to keep her clothes clean and was constantly getting into things she wasn't supposed to. By the time I was two and a half, and could run away, our difficulties were compounded.
I don't blame Mom. She'd left home at sixteen, and even though she'd had six younger siblings, hadn't been old enough to help with her next three brothers because they weren't all that much younger than her. And the next sibling had been born when Mom was eighteen and had been away from home for two years.
In Winnipeg, she'd lived with older adults and worked at Eaton's, and I assume she didn't have a lot of close friends who had children. Even after marrying Dad, she'd only have had contact with a few people who had young children. Even his younger sister Jean and brother-in-law Howard had kids who were eight and ten by the time I came into their lives.
In Indian Head, most of their friends had children who were well past the toddler age.
And Mom was likely reluctant to ask for help. She was very sensitive about what people thought (or what she thought they thought) and she'd have wanted people to think all was well.
I wasn’t all that fond of playing nicely with my dolls, which were almost the only toys I had. I’m not sure what Mom thought I should do with them, but as you can see by the pictures in this and previous posts, I tended to take their clothes off, carry them around by their hair, and generally not treat them the way she thought was proper.
Which brings me to another point.
According to Mom I “had a mind of my own” and rarely obeyed her the first time. Which, naturally, frustrated her no end. Plus, instead of doing what I was told, I was constantly asking, “Why?”
One of the nursery rhymes in a book I had, which my mother said was written for me, was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, which I put at the top here. I knew Mom thought I was exactly like the little girl in that poem.
What strikes me today is the idea that I shouldn't have had a "mind of my own." Of course, I did. All children do. And that's what gets many of us/them into trouble.
On the one hand, Mom was thrilled that I was to all intent and purposes a healthy, intelligent child. But at the same time, she found me exasperating. I could be totally happy and charming one minute and driving her crazy the next.
Plus, I'm sure that anyone who saw me would have assumed I was a lovely child. I mean, look at me! A little Shirley Temple, right?
Okay, looks can be deceiving. Yes, I had mastered the angelic look. But inside, I was a very stubborn little girl.
So my poor mom struggled along, afraid that she wasn't a very good mother because I wasn't a very obedient child.
Curiosity Killed the Cat
My mother had a lot of sayings she'd picked up over the years as well as some superstitions she really thought would be harmful. For example, putting a hat on a bed with a no-no, as was picking up your own glove if you dropped it.
If I heard the adage about curiosity killing the cat once when I was young, I heard it a thousand times. (The hat and glove superstitions, too.)
But I was born curious.
Looking back, I can see how disconcerting it was for her to have to deal with a small child who was constantly asking questions and had very strong opinions about pretty well everything and everyone, even at the age of two.
But the biggest problem was that our opinions frequently clashed. Things and people she liked, I didn’t, and vice versa. The truth is, I was nothing like the daughter Mom had pictured in her mind. Understandably, she'd wanted/hoped for a daughter who would be interested in the same things as her, and even as a very little girl, I just wasn't.
We Have Historical Evidence
I assume Dad was with us that day as well, because someone other than Mom took the last picture.
Anyway, in the pictures below, I was two and a half, and my parents and I were enjoying an afternoon at Fairly Park in Wolseley. I have my doll, and maybe a flower I've picked...? I look so sweet. (Hmm. I think I know where several of my grandkids got this look.)
A few minutes after the above pictures were taken, Mom told me not to take my doll’s clothes off.
As you can see in the picture to the right, I immediately became very angry, which is why I was shaking my doll and threatening to throw her into the water.
According to Mom, right after she took this picture, I did throw my doll into the water.
This picture is Mom explaining to me why I shouldn't have thrown my doll in the water and expressing her displeasure with me.
(I expect my dad took the picture because he had a tendency to cut off parts of people in most of the pictures he took.)
Anyone, you can see from Mom's body language that she's not very happy at all, and you can see from mine that I'm not all that concerned. I was probably trying to figure out how to get my doll out of the water without getting wet.
Back then, spanking was something parents did when children misbehaved. Dad often referred to his dad’s having taken him out behind the barn. Everyone knew what that meant.
Mom did her best to make me behave, but now and then she would spank me or tell me to “Just wait until your dad gets home!” And Dad did spank me a few times, but I knew he really didn’t want to and was only doing it because Mom expected him to.
I didn’t mind so much when I knew I’d disobeyed. The problem with Mom was that I was never 100% sure what would make her angry. Things that seemed minor to me were sometimes major to her.
I knew Mom was often unhappy with me, and that I was frequently a bad girl, but I really didn’t know how to be the obedient, well-behaved daughter she wanted. I was too curious to go long without trying to understand new things and learn as much as I could. I wanted to understand why and not simply accept what I was told.
But far too often, when I spoke, we ended up yelling at each other.
The last time I remember Mom’s spanking me was probably the fall when I was three and a half. I don’t remember what I’d done that day to make her angry, but she really lost her temper.
I do know that my dad's mom, Jennie Shaw, (Mom and I called her Granny Shaw) was visiting us at the time, and she was up in our apartment. Mom and I were outside, and Mom grabbed a small branch from what was likely a caragana bush—what was called a switch—and used it to strike me. She was likely aiming at my seat, but she hit me on my bare legs.
It stung terribly and I ran toward the door where the stairs led up to our apartment. I was screaming, “I’m sorry! I won’t do it again!”
Mom was screaming for me to stop running, and calling, “Just wait until I catch you!”
I ran upstairs and hid in my room, sobbing and hiccuping, terrified that she was going to really hurt me this time.
Out in the hallway, I heard Granny Shaw say to Mom in a calm, but determined voice, “Margaret, I don’t like to interfere. But you must never allow yourself to become so angry with a child.” After that, their voices grew quieter. I could hear them talking, but not make out what they were saying.
Mom didn’t come into my room for a long time, and when she did, it was to say she was sorry for using the switch. She looked at the red welts on the backs of my legs, and she cried, and so did I.
That’s the last time she ever struck me with anything other than her hand, although I know she was sorely tried.
Years later, Mom talked to me about that day and how exasperating I was, and what Granny Shaw had said to her about letting her anger overrule her good sense, and that one must never strike a child in anger. Mom was, of course, terribly embarrassed that Granny Shaw had seen her lose control, but she was also glad that she'd been visiting at the time and could help her see that she couldn’t let my disobeying her cause her to do something she’d later regret.
She wasn’t nearly as glad as I was.
Thinking It Over
Long before I reached the age of four, I’d realized that I needed to keep many of my questions and thoughts to myself. I expect that’s probably normal. A child separates from the parent when you start thinking different thoughts. When you want to have one more story, and your dad or mom says, “No, you need to go to sleep.” When you decide you don’t want to eat your dinner and you’re told you have to eat it or else. When you go to touch that shiny ornament and a hand stops you in your tracks and says, “No. Don’t touch that—you could break it.” At some point, you have to decide whether to voice your opinion at every opportunity or keep silent now and then.
The popular old adage “Children should be seen and not heard” implies that over the years, most children have been encouraged to keep their thoughts to themselves.
For me, it was simply realizing that when I stated a contrary opinion or asked a leading question, it usually led to Mom’s getting mad at me. Whereas if I didn’t voice my thoughts, the worst thing that happened was that Mom complained that I was too quiet.
In the end, I think our scary confrontation made me realize that Mom could be pushed too far, and I was smart enough to realize that even when I was convinced I was right and she was wrong, not saying anything was better than arguing. And most of the time it was wiser to go along with what Mom wanted me to do rather than to ignore or defy her.
So, while I continued to pester Mom with questions and wasn't always the perfect child in private, I did learn not to argue with her or be nosey, but rather to sit quietly with my dolls or books when we had company or were visiting other people so Mom didn’t get stressed.
Of course, there were some things I didn't have control over, like my unruly hair.
Can You Relate?
Can you remember when you were very young and just learning that you had a mind of your own?" How did your parents or other family members respond?
. . .
LoveChild: Life Lessons from an Ugly Duckling is the story of my struggle to adjust to the life I was given, and my eventual discovery that, not only had I become a swan but, contrary to my perceptions, I had always been one. Though I didn't realize it until many years later, my life was part of a much bigger plan that all made perfect sense.
I'll be blogging my story once a week.
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