Children's parties are capable of having all the charm of a minor war-zone, being fought by feral kangaroos on smack. Bouncing, sugar-fuelled, deranged dictators rushing madly hither and yon until they collapse into a sobbing, screaming heap when the sugar wears off. You'd think that would be what I can't stand wouldn't you?
Actually, what I really can't handle is seeing how hard it all is for my poor LittleBear. Despite my desperate desire that LittleBear would grow up imbued with all the confidence and security that his parents lack, it turns out that I don't have the ability to make that happen. On my good days I shrug ruefully in the knowledge that a child's personality is not yours to mould - LittleBear is who he is, and if that person happens to be shy and unsure of himself, then all I can do is try to give him the tools to overcome that. On my bad days, I castigate myself for failing him so badly that he cannot handle social interaction. Where have I gone wrong? How have I managed to have a nearly-four year old who is so withdrawn and scared when confronted by other children?
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.- Phillip Larkin
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
We went to a party last weekend. The little boy in question turned four, and we have known him and played with him since he was a babe in arms. Similarly at least half the other small people there. We arrived, and immediately LittleBear retreated into a corner of the rented hall, clutching me and begging me to stay with him. The bouncy castles held no allure. The ride-on cars no appeal. I watched other small children arrive, shed their shoes and run headlong into playing without a backward glance. No need for reassurance, no need for parental support, no need for company. The mothers (and it was largely mothers) were then at liberty to settle down round the periphery, cup of coffee in hand, catching up with each other, guarding the door to prevent escapes and mediating the occasional contretemps. Meanwhile, back in our corner, I snuggled up with my LittleBear, provided a reassuring biscuit (food always makes any environment more comfortable) and eventually persuaded him that the bouncy toys might be quite fun.
LittleBear conceded that he would play. But only with me. He has a highly tuned proximity detector, set to a distance of about 6 feet, and would bounce and run, and jump and play and laugh and roll and fall.... but only as long as I was within his safe zone. And after every exciting undertaking he bounced straight back into my lap and out again, on a piece of imaginary but unbreakable elastic. Every jump and he glanced to me to make sure I was watching, every slide and he grinned at me for approval. Any other child that penetrated his safe zone, no matter how friendly, or how well-known, automatically triggered his tortoise-response. His shoulders climbed upwards and inwards towards his ears, his chin tipped down to his chest, his head tilted to one side and he peered up at me through his beautiful long eye-lashes, silently pleading with me to make these other, noisy, bouncy creatures go away. He stood rooted to the spot until no other child was near him.
I don't know how to bolster his confidence.
I am not the kind of mother who brusquely says "no, I'm not playing with you" and leaves him to it. He wouldn't play. I don't believe in "toughening him up" like that.
I'm not the kind of mother who says "let's go and play away from those nasty, noisy children". They're not nasty, they may be noisy, but they're just a group of normal, excited children who would play with him at the drop of a hat. I don't believe in reinforcing his fear of others.
I'm the kind of mother who gives a reassuring smile, a quick cuddle and says "it's OK lovely boy, they're just playing, you can join in too. I'll be right here if you need me". But it doesn't work. He doesn't join in. He doesn't play with the others. He does need me. I believe in positive encouragement, without abandonment. It's a shame that what I believe seems to be about as much use as a chocolate teapot.
I love the fact that I am his rock and comfort. I am glad he trusts me so completely. I love playing with my boy. But I desperately wish that he had whatever inner reserves he needs that would allow him to join in the riotous, tumbling, jumbling play with the others. I never did. BigBear never did. And maybe that's it. Maybe it's just nature. Maybe we can't help the way he is, any more than we can change the colour of his eyes. Or maybe we cannot escape transferring our own fears and insecurities through our manner of nurturing and every step of the way we are acting to create a small, scared boy who wants his Mummy more than he wants any other playmate. Either way, it's me. It's my nature, it's my nurture. My poor baby.
And so I spend another party sitting in a bouncy castle, being jumped on by my LittleBear, who is happy in his moment, who is filled with joy and love and excitement. But I cannot move away. I cannot talk to the other mothers. I cannot have a cup of coffee. I cannot leave my son or his joy evaporates and his world collapses.
My precious, timid boy cannot join in, so nor can I.
Or perhaps because I cannot join in I have raised a precious, timid boy who cannot join in.