The visit didn’t go as I’d hoped. She was painfully shy; far more shy than I’ve ever seen her. She didn’t speak at all. She spent the first five minutes or so clutching me tightly and bursting into tears when I tried to set her down. When she finally ventured to climb down out of my lap, she remained firmly planted in between my legs, eyeing everyone around the room with suspicion. I put out some of her toys and then some puffs for her to eat, but she only ventured away from me in short steps. After fifteen minutes, she finally took a risk and ran across the room to her granddad. She didn’t engage any of my coworkers who tried to play with her. All of the usual cute things she does all the time at home were completely missing: she wouldn’t find her bellybutton, she wouldn’t demonstrate a touchdown, she wouldn’t dance to music granddad played on his Droid, and she wouldn’t say a word. She smiled some, but only at me or her granddad.
Of course, as soon as she was out of the conference room and in my office, the playful girl I know came right out. She marched around my office, pointing and talking, recognizing a small plastic ball on a shelf, which she delightedly pointed out by exclaiming, “Ball!” and then carrying it proudly throughout the rest of our offices while everyone was still in the staff meeting. Where was this little girl five minutes ago?
All of my coworkers remarked to me about how cute she was, and answered my apologies for her awkward shyness with assurances that this behavior was perfectly developmentally appropriate (they are a bunch of counselors and therapists, after all). But nonetheless, I was sorely disappointed and a little embarrassed.
I’ve been reflecting on these feelings, which have felt unsightly and not a little inappropriate. I worried that I had taken up twenty minutes of a staff meeting to show off my daughter, holding my coworkers captive for a show that seemed rather unremarkable to me. My fear was that they resented me for subjecting them to an otherwise boring show: The Pay Attention To My Child Show. A show that, quite frankly, I’ve always hated when put on by other parents. Now, I fear, I’ve cast myself as that parent who needs everyone else in the world to acknowledge how perfect his child is. It feels so dissonant to have become something I despise, signifying the utter embodiment of narcissistic extension of one’s self into another person.
I know that my coworkers didn’t see it that way. (Well, I don’t know that; it’s possible they could all be lying to me about how cute she was and how much they enjoyed meeting her and hope she comes back.) But what makes me see it that way is that I’m afraid I wouldn’t feel this way if she had been the rambunctious, outgoing little imp she is at home. If she had been her usual self – the self she is when not surrounded by six strangers intently watching her every move – then I would have been proud instead of embarrassed, pleased instead of disappointed. In short, I would have been happy that she had put on a good show.
I’m being overly critical of myself, I know. But I do want to ferret out this internal need to identify myself through my child. Perhaps that’s impossible to do completely; I don’t know, maybe it would even be harmful. I suppose all good parents identify themselves in and through and with their children as this is a part of what love does to us. But this part of me that needs other people’s approval based on my child’s behavior is what frightens me. I know bringing her to meet my officemates is a far cry from enrolling her in a Little Miss America pageant. But I want to be mindful of my own over-identification with her for fear of impinging upon her healthy development. I mean, here’s the dynamic: my feelings of adequacy and acceptance were dependent on how she behaved. Perhaps the situation was pretty harmless, but this dynamic is most certainly not. As she gets older, what am I liable to do or say to her out of my need for other people’s approval?
It’s a difficult line to draw. There are some obvious behaviors that I think it’s good for parents to discourage or encourage in their children. For instance, I don’t want her making fun of other children. But why do I want her to be a kind and caring person? Because it’s the right thing? Or because I want people to look at me and think that I’m a good parent? I mean, what will I do when the right thing might make some people think I’m a bad parent?
Of course, on top of all this, I feel guilty. Guilty that I would be disappointed in how my child behaved, particularly since that behavior was not at all disruptive or inappropriate. In fact, as my counselor coworkers point out, it was very appropriate. I’m not taking this out on my little girl; I haven’t grounded her or scolded her, which I suppose is good. All in all, I think I can still claim the title of good-enough parent. But still, it concerns me to see this display of what could become an unhealthy extension of myself in my child. I’m thankful that I can see it early on in a rather innocuous setting, and I intend to continue struggling with how I seek approval from others as a parent. But what I want to stay focused on is loving my child for being who she is, whatever that is at any given moment. That’s partly why I was disappointed in her shyness, because that’s not who I know her to be, and I want others to see those beautiful, adorable, hilarious parts of her that I see every day. But she’s still a little young to be developing false, adaptive selves, so I have to trust that the person who showed up in a room full of strangers staring at her is a real part of who she is, too. And I want to love and nurture that part of her, too.
And if people see me as a nurturing father, then that’s ultimately what I want. That’s the approval I need, the validation I truly seek. And the catch is that I can best nurture her once I’ve let go of needing anyone’s approval, save maybe for my own. Besides, when my little girl was so shy, she clung to me. And if that’s not enough approval for me, what the hell is?