“I freaking loved that alarm clock. I loved what it gave me – which was power and agency over my own little life.” In her new book The Light We Carry, Michelle Obama shares an incomparably valuable gift she received from her mother: the gift of early independence. She explains how empowering her mother’s parenting approach had been for her and her brother Craig when they were growing up. As she puts it, her mother had been working towards making herself “obsolete” as a parent. For Michelle, one of the symbols of her independence had been the alarm clock which her mother had bought her at the age of five, so she could wake herself up for school. That alarm clock had carried power and self-belief. It had given her control. As for her mother: there had been no drama, policing or cajoling (I do feel envious as I write this). Michelle and her brother Craig had been responsible for as large a part of their little lives as they could handle. What they did get plenty of from their mother, however, had been love, approval and leeway to get things wrong.
As I was devouring the extract from Michelle Obama’s book in the Guardian on a quiet Saturday morning, I started feeling increasingly uneasy. How enabling was my parenting? Was I working towards making myself obsolete or making myself indispensable to my children? Was I bringing my boys up to believe in themselves or in me? The argument I was presented with was challenging the very premise of what I had learned to think of as a good mother.
As a South-East European woman, I was brought up to believe that doing things for your children is the ultimate expression of love. Moreover, sacrificing your needs for theirs is a praiseworthy act, a measure of how good a mother you are. As a child, I myself had felt the joy of being enveloped by motherly care and love. My mostly stay-at-home mother woke me up in the mornings, cooked for us, and was always there to see me through my ups and downs. She had told me many times that she had made a sacrifice: she had traded her career as an opera singer for her children. As a mother now myself, I have grown to love waking my children up in the mornings, making breakfast for them and even occasionally driving them to school when it is particularly cold and miserable outside. This has been my expression of love. Surely making my children’s lives easier in a turbulent world and alleviating their discomfort is a good way of loving, right?
Or… am I doing things for my children to feel good about myself as a mother? To make the grade among the caring and devoted mums? I honestly do not know the answer to these questions. I don’t think it’s remotely possible to disentangle acts of kindness born out of a true expression of love from acts of self-service born from the unconscious need to soothe one’s ago. Either way… Richard and I sat the boys down and I read the extract from Michelle Obama’s book to them. They were quiet and I could sense their curiosity. Together we pondered the right balance for children between being attended to and doing things for themselves. We didn’t come to a definitive conclusion that day. But the boys decided to get alarm clocks…