The first time it was cute. The fourth, fifth, and maybe even 18th time: still cute. But when your child yells out “Look at me, Mama!” for the 847th time- that morning alone- it becomes remarkably easy to overlook the cute factor and lose your temper. Or your mind. Or both.
It happens a lot when I’m cooking dinner. “Look at me, Mama!” he calls out excitedly. So I leave the pot on the stove, pop my head into the playroom and oblige him with the requested look. Usually he wants to show off a big accomplishment in Almost 4-year-old Land, like how high he can jump, or a particularly impressive bit of chalkboard art, or (unfortunately) something that came out of his nose. Or some other exit hole.
It happens when we’re outside. “Look at me, Mama!” he yells with every slide down the slide and each bubble blown.
And it happens when we’re driving in the car. “Look at me, Mama!” I hear from the backseat, despite numerous explanations of how Mama really needs to keep her eyes on the road. (Forget texting- I say parenting while driving is the ultimate distraction.)
Sometimes the verbiage differs; there’s “Watch this, Mama!” and “Mom!!! COME SEEEEEE!!!!” Even his not quite 2-year-old sister gets in on the action, with her own version of the call to action. “Yook-ah-meee, Mama!” she yells, usually when she’s just standing there sucking her thumb in her particularly adorable way. The words may differ slightly, but the underlying message is always the same: do you see me? Aren’t you proud of me?
And yes, I absolutely am. I am so proud of the beautiful little spirits they possess, the amazing people they continue to grow into every day. I am humbled and amazed to think that I had any part in any of it. But honestly, there are times when I just can not muster up the excitement at the sight of a little boy who has just figured out how to stick three fingers into one ear.
“AND?????” I sometimes want to yell out of frustration over the fact that we did not buy a house with an open floor plan and so the journey from kitchen to playroom now means we will be eating The Black Substance Formerly Known As Marinara on our pasta.
Usually I bite my tongue and try to be pleasant and encouraging as I catch sight of his eager, expectant little face. “Nice job!” I tell him. “Now see if you can get your elbow in there while Mama finishes making dinner.”
It’s just part of being a good parent, I tell myself through clenched teeth. But sometimes I worry, am I creating little monsters? Applause junkies? Kids who desperately need approval to validate their very existence? Kids who are never told the cold, hard, truth about their performance until one day they show up on the audition episode of American Idol singing “Shebang, Shebang!” completely unable to grasp why the judges won’t put them through to the next round?
I remember a time shortly after our first child was born when my husband and I spent most of our time shouting “Look at him!” to each other. As a new parent, everything, and I do mean everything your first child does, tends to amaze.
“Look at him! He sneezed!!!” (Translation- “He’s a genius!”)
“Look at him! He put a crayon in his mouth!” (“What a brilliant artist!”)
“Look at him! He’s sticking his fingers in his…!” (OK, that’s just gross. But we still felt the need to ooh and ahh over it.)
And just “Look at me” now. Most days by the umpteenth shout-out I find myself wondering when the “Look at me, Mama!” phase will end.
Then one day I realized, it really never does.
I like to think of myself as pretty independent. My parents could not have been further from the “helicopter” model that hovers over many schools today. They had demanding careers and trusted that life would go on if they were not in attendance at every orchestra concert, school play and science fair. And they were right. Add to that a different cultural model of parenting that does not include heaping praise upon a child and “Look at me!” was not even an option.
But deep down, I know I’ve always yearned for, and not often known if I had, my parents’ approval. Before getting married I lived on my own for many, many years, in many, many different parts of the country and the world. I’d like to think they watched with a mixture of fear and slight amusement as I continent and career-hopped across the globe. But most of the time I felt like the black sheep of the family. No focus, no direction. I was proud of myself for being willing to take risks, to push myself far beyond any physical or mental comfort zone, but always worried I was letting them down. It wasn’t anything we ever talked about (see above re: cultural differences) but I always felt my lifestyle didn’t scream “Look at me!” as much as “Don’t look now!” If only I could have been a doctor or a nurse or a teacher or an engineer, or anything on the Parental Preferred List of Careers. Maybe then I could have shouted “Look at me!” and known for certain they were beaming with pride.
I convinced myself over the years that I didn’t need anyone to look at me. I was confident in myself and told myself that was all that mattered. Put on a thick skin that has served me well in my chosen career (which doesn’t even come close to the Preferred List, or even the Understood List). Look at me if you want, I told myself, but if not, I’m OK.
Eventually, I did settle down (with an engineer, no less) and had two…perhaps by the time you read this…three kids. And I’ve found that there’s nothing quite like becoming a parent that makes you want to shout “Look at me!” to your own parents.
There are the lessons you learned from your parents that you consciously or unconsciously pass along to your own children. There are the things you choose to do differently. And then there are the things you swore you’d never do when you became a parent that you now realize just have to be done. It’s hard not to want to show off this newfound wealth of information and understanding in the form of your little ones.
My own parents still lead busy lives and we don’t see them nearly as often as we, or our children, would like. But when we do, and when I see my dad with his grandchildren, I see a look in his eyes that tells me all I need to know. Maybe I’ve finally become confident enough in myself to not need to hear it, or maybe I just know He sees what I see, and through those kids, I finally have no doubt, he sees me.
So the next time I hear my son yell out “Look at me, Mama!” I will do my best to respond appropriately. No, I can’t drop everything and run to him every time he puts crayon to paper. And no, my little girl doesn’t need a round of applause to know she’s done well sticking the wooden cat in the designated puzzle slot. No one wants a child with skin that thin.
But there’s got to be a balance, because I’ve been looking at myself a lot more lately and realizing that at some point, a thick skin becomes a barrier to keep others away. And that wanting to be seen doesn’t necessarily make you weak.
As it turns out, sometimes it really does feel good to know that big brother, or Mama, or someone you love is watching.
Sometimes it just feels good to be seen.
Mona Shand is a radio and TV news reporter. You can read more on her blog.