I didn’t know what to call this post, I couldn’t think of a title that wasn’t immediately off-putting. The vaguely distracted mother, the inattentive mother, the preoccupied mother…no, they all sound like critisisms: ‘the disengaged mother’ I hope sounds neutral (although I suspect not…)
I know we’re supposed to be engaged with our children, to take an interest in their lives, to guide them, to teach them, to be there for them, but so often it’s when I give up trying to do all of that that things get better. It’s almost as if problems sort themselves out without my input, children calm down if I just stop being so interested, energy dissipates if I started acting a bit vague.
I do remember the time I took my daughter into town for a huge treat of one-to-one time with mummy and she spoiled it completely with her screaming and crying because I wouldn’t buy her what she wanted, and I remember remaining very engaged with everything that was going on for her – you know, I was making an effort to remain patient and nice because we are having one-to-one time and this has got to be good. And then I lost the energy and kind of went ‘oh well, we can always have a miserable time together, that’s OK too’ and I stopped really noticing that she was screaming and crying, I gazed into the mid-distance vaguely instead. Which is of course when she calmed down and we ended up having scones in a cafe, and had a lovely time together.
I think it’s also the case that some people are just naturally a bit disengaged or undemonstrative or introverted (still trying to think of a word that doesn’t sound like a critisism…) and I see mothers like that sometimes and I admire their cool. They just don’t get caught up in all the drama, they’re not re-active, they gaze off into the mid-distance and remain unfazed by the dramas playing out around them. I think a lack of engagement sometimes gives children space; they don’t have anything to kick against if we don’t provide it. It can also take them out of themselves; when we’re always looking at our children and focusing on them it sometimes feels to me like we’re pinning them down, and when we look away they can breathe again.
The mother who influenced my own parenting the most (she must have done, I still sometimes think of her..) was someone I observed once when my kids were very little. She was climbing around rock pools on a beach in North Wales, with three young children in tow. Every time they started doing normal kid things like pestering and moaning she didn’t pay much attention and they would calm down, completely shift out of the mood, and start being polite and friendly to her. It was like she’d just managed to flick a switch in them. I tried to work out how she did it but there was no technique, she just wasn’t very interested in her children’s annoying behaviour, so they had to try and get her attention in other ways, like being nice.
It’s also true that when we’re looking off elsewhere and thinking about other things, that’s when children can really look at us and see us as people whose attention is worth having, rather than as that annoying meddler who won’t leave us alone.
And then of course, if we’re not always engaged and interested in everything our children do, they’re so much more appreciative when we are.