While the battle raging around motherhood right now is about attachment parenting vs. the leave-‘em-in-the-yard-all-day method, something else has been a pet peeve of mine for a long time. I thought it would end once my “kids” were adults. It seems I was wrong.
First, let me explain what it is not. There is a disorder called Munchausen Syndrome, which describes people who so enjoy being tested, hospitalized, and otherwise treated as patients that they will fake symptoms in order to get the attention they crave.
One step removed, and more heinous, is Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. This disorder features a parent – most often a mother – who so loves taking her child in for testing, hospitalization, and emergency care that she will poison the child, falsify his medical history, or tamper with her specimens in order to create a situation that requires (or seems to) medical attention. In other words, the child isn’t sick; the mother is.
I have spent more time than I wish being poked and even cut open by medical experts, and made more than a few trips to Acute Care to have a child’s ear sewn up or asthma symptoms eased, but I certainly can’t say I did any of this for fun. I work in a hospital library; that’s about as close to medical care as I would like to be, at least until I get run over by a bus.
There is another disorder that you won’t find in the DSM – the bible of psychological diagnoses – that I think should be in its next edition. I even have a name for it: Narcissism by Proxy, or NxP for short. Narcissism, of course, is all about liking yourself too much. In Greek myth, the youth Narcissus so adored his own reflection that he couldn’t tear himself away from the pond where he admired his reflection. Eventually, he withered away and died.
Narcissism by Proxy describes that state in which you take just a little too much pride in your offspring’s vast accomplishments, from walking at nine months to coming in second in the Pinewood Derby, and so on through the years. I have a niece with three young children who has suffered needlessly under the judgmental gaze of what she calls Perfect Moms. The world is full of them, but you may not notice until you have your own kids.
I love it that my niece calls herself Awkward Mom and her kids Super Baby, Super Preschooler, and so on. But I do not expect her to become NxP Mom in the future. Take walking, which most kids do by age one or so. Her second child didn’t see any reason to walk when crawling, rolling, or looking at his big brother with beseeching eyes would bring him whatever he needed. But oh, the embarrassment she endured as Perfect Moms expressed their grave concern over his lack of ambulation. Her doctor even referred them to a physical therapist.
And then, one day, a photo appeared on Facebook. There was Super Toddler, whirling around on both feet, wielding a toy light saber. From then on, he walked just fine. I could relate, since neither of my kids toddled until 15 months (and, to my great relief, continue to do so unaided today).
Fast forward to junior high. This was when I began to notice the moms in my midst exhibiting signs of NxP. We’d be sitting at book club, happily discussing our careers, our travels, or even the book we’d all read, when someone would oh-so-casually drop the news that her child had been selected to play the second-lead in the school play, or to move up one chair in the flute section of the band, or some such awesome feat.
These announcements always left me fairly speechless. Should I go along with the group, oohing and aahing over this lucky woman and her gifted-and-talented child? Should I come up with some equal or better success of my own daughter or son? Should I counter with the line my husband jokes about using in our annual Christmas letter: “Well, none of the kids is in jail.”? These boasts always felt like conversation killers to me. Hey, great, I’m happy for you. Now can we get back to discussing the dinner, the author, life? I didn’t want to have to pretend everything was perfect.
Why do parents do that? I don’t mean sharing the ups and downs of family life, but outright bragging about their kids, sweeping any concerns under the rug and rarely mentioning their own work and interests. Do I become a cipher once I’ve reproduced? Sorry, but I’m not buying that. I find myself abjectly grateful to any mom who levels with me when parenting is not going so well. Raising children isn’t always a bowl of cherries. I loved the review of Anne Enright’s book “Making Babies” in the New York Times, especially where the reviewer refers to “our hyperventilating mode of motherhood.”
I’ll never forget the woman I overheard shouting to a departing friend, “Milwaukee? I have an attorney son there!” Or the group of professionals I met with recently who, while reporting on their institutions, began dropping in tidbits about their children, echoing perfectly a comic by Ed Koren in the New Yorker, in which a mother says proudly to her friends, “Remember little Rosalie? She has twelve people reporting to her now.”
I thought we were beyond that. The young adults I raised are lovely people whose accomplishments can’t be summed up quite that neatly. We need to stop acting like nobody counts unless their kid is on the fast track to a Nobel Prize. If she gets one, great. But it belongs on her mantel, not yours.