I have two daughters, born two years apart and amongst all the amazing discoveries that parenting brings, the one that has surprised me the most has been the realisation that genetic coding is a strange and wonderful thing. You and your partner throw all your genes into a pot, they tumble around a bit and are thrown back out again in random combinations in your off-spring (quick Biology lesson there – you’re welcome!).
In our case, the genetic spin dryer threw out one child as an almost exact replica of me (in character and in appearance) and the other….well – who knows where she came from!
As a result, I am frequently called upon to confirm to complete strangers (often, inexplicably, at the Sainsbury’s checkout) that yes, they are both mine; yes, they do look surprisingly different for sisters; and yes, they do have the same father (all – I kid you not -questions put to me by people I don’t actually know).
Now this miracle of creation is all well and good, but I have discovered that having a mini-clone has its drawbacks. Being brought face to face with yourself is actually quite disconcerting, particularly when it involves being on the other side of some of my less appealing characteristics. My most frustrating moments in parenting have all involved exasperating stand-offs with my eldest child when I have despaired of the genetic trick that has gifted me a child as stroppy, stubborn, over-emotional and iron-willed as I am. Seriously, one of us in the family is enough!
But alongside the frustration there is also something else – a kind of searing empathy. I see my daughter’s painful anxiety when facing new situations. I see her paralysed by fear when she is required to do something out of her comfort zone. I see the internal struggle as her desire to be brave clashes with her worry and apprehension. I see all these things. And in them, I see myself. I see the child that I was and I wish I had the power to change things for her. I wish I could take away that anxiety and fill her with the confidence to charge fearlessly into the unknown and be sure of her ability to deal with the uncertainties of life.
Of course my empathy does not prevent me from being exasperated by Ana’s unwillingness to do things that – to the adult me – seem perfectly simple.
One such frustrating event occurred this week when, after a mad scramble on my behalf to acquire a flute in time for Ana’s very first lesson, I picked her up from school eager to find out how it has been, only to discover that she had missed the lesson. And the reason? The lesson times printed on the list on the music room door were in the 24 hour clock and Ana did not know (and was afraid to ask) what time 14.50 was.
The immediate swell of irritation was impossible to quell and I spent the entire journey home berating my daughter for wasting an expensive lesson and making my flute-finding efforts meaningless and all because she could not bring herself to ask her teacher what the time was!
But once the initial anger had faded and I recovered from the thought of all those hard-earned pounds being poured down the drain, I realised that my 8 year old self would probably have acted in much the same way. I imagined myself in that classroom; I felt the pressing anxiety of knowing I should do something, but not quite knowing how to go about it. And I knew that Ana had felt exactly that too: that she had worried and worried about wanting to get things right – to go to her lesson, but not to disturb her teacher with an unprompted question; that she had felt the weight of knowing she had not done what she was supposed to do.
And I ached with sympathy. And I sighed with frustration. And I wondered once more how I could guide my daughter on a surer path. How I could provide the protective padding she needed to risk the bumps in the road.
And I realised the only weapon I had was that I knew exactly how she felt, so we sat down and I explained to her: ‘I was once like you are now and I know that it’s not easy….’
And that, I think, is the best I can hope to do. The rest, she must do on her own and in her own time.
Until then, our house will be the venue for some intensive lessons in reading the 24 hour clock!