Wednesday 24 January 2018

Emily Hourican: Enter the Stepford Mother

Her son wants a 'yes dear' mum, but Emily Hourican is following her own mother's example and saying, 'no way'

Emily Hourican
Emily Hourican

My eldest son and I, will, I think, remember this summer with equal vividness, but for very different reasons. It has been The Summer Of Independence. The Summer of Boundary-Pushing. The Summer of 'I'm Just Going Out And I May Be Some Time'.

For him, it has probably been a kind of bildungsroman; a coming-of-age summer in which he has marked the transition from childhood to something more grown-up, complete with intense friendships and moments of heightened awareness, all bathed in a golden glow of excitement. For me, it has been a time of anxiety and vain efforts to smother my overprotective instincts, but without overdoing it and neglecting my parental responsibilities.

It started shortly after his Confirmation, with his getting a phone, which cost him €160. Almost immediately, he smashed the screen, so that cost €120 to fix. "Why don't you get one like mine?" I asked, showing my ancient Nokia, that barely receives texts, let alone email and the internet, "it does the job perfectly." He didn't deign to answer.

Soon, he began bypassing the usual route of playdate organisation - via mother to son - and making his own plans. "Can I go and meet so-and-so at the park?" That sounded innocent enough, so, "OK". Soon, though, the couple of hours on the odd afternoon became all day, every day. Setting off at 10am, with a promise of being back "by six", and only the sketchiest ability to fill me in on what he would be doing for eight hours, and with whom.

And so "OK" became "I'm not so sure about that . . ." At which point, of course, the whole, "You never let me do anything" rant started.

I know what he wants - he wants a Stepford Mother, who says, "Of course dear, have a lovely time. See you later". Who asks no awkward questions. Who doesn't quiz his friends about what they have said to their parents, then quizzes the parents to see if the stories match.

I know this, because I used to want the exact same thing. "Why can't she just say yes and not fuss about whether she knows people's parents and what exactly we're doing?" I used to think, furiously, when my mother questioned me closely about the vague plans I presented her with. "What does it matter if she knows where I am, as long as I come back when I say I will?"

I longed for a pleasant, smiling automaton, who just said yes to all the silly, frantic schemes, dreamed up on a whim, committed to in an instant: "If I can't go to the amusement arcade with Nicola, I'll die . . ." Instead, my mother was likely to give my friends the third-degree, ring their parents (in between saying, "How kind, maybe you could just hoover the stairs? And the bathroom needs a really good clean," when they were stupid enough to ask sycophantically, 'Is there anything I can do to help?"), and categorically refuse to let me hang out with kids she hadn't known since they were five.

It drove me crazy. I considered her overprotective, absurd, and myself supremely grown-up, more than able to take care of myself and judge the desirability or otherwise of my social situations. Now, of course, I am reaping the whirlwind I once sowed. Because, finally, I get it. These questions, this obsession with who/where/what, is an attempt to hang on to them, even as we know they are destined to leave. We are terrified of letting go, of seeing our children disappear over the horizon and into the adult world, where anything can happen to them.

My response to not having a Stepford Mum was shaming - I lied through my teeth. I ran a stable of imaginary friendships, girls I had barely seen in years, and used their names instead of the newer, more exciting friendships. My son is better than that, I hope and believe, and so he sulks, but obeys. So far. And maybe he, too, will finally come to accept in me what I secretly admired in my mother, even while cursing her - the very ferocity with which she refused to do as I wanted; her fight-to-the-death against Stepford Anything.

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