While walking the dog round the forest yesterday, I met a French lady who peered at the 16-odd pounds of baby strapped to my chest and asked me how old she was.
‘Just coming up to five months,’ I replied.
‘They grow up so fast,’ she said, and then added, ‘Make sure she grows up strong. There aren’t enough strong women in this world.’
Since I had no idea how to respond to that, I said, ‘I will. She’ll be a strong woman. She’ll be a Nobel Prize winner.’
‘Good,’ she said. ‘We need more strong women. Promise me you’ll make her strong.’
‘I will,’ I repeated, as though solemnly undertaking a blood oath.
And then she was gone.
It was all a bit surreal, actually, particularly as her dog seemed to be a cross between a black lab and a hell hound, all teeth and drool and mad staring eyes. But for the rest of the walk, her imperative was bouncing around my head – make her strong, make her strong – and my agreement to do it.
But how exactly do you make a girl into a strong woman? Bathe her in ice water and dry her with sandpaper? Teach her to toy with men’s hearts and crush them underfoot like Miss Havisham’s pet Estella? Sure, I plan on taking her to karate lessons as soon as she’s old enough so she can defend herself, but other than that, I’m kind of at a loss as to how I’m meant to achieve this. And how much power over Izzie’s personality am I meant to have?
Back in the early part of the twentieth century, Dr John Watson, a behavioural psychologist and not Sherlock Holmes’ fictional biographer, said something along the lines of: ‘give me a dozen babies and I’ll make them into lawyers, doctors, artists, thieves or beggars depending on how I raise them and in spite of any natural proclivities they might have.’ Now, we know, and have known for a long time, that this is a pile of hooey – genetics and individual differences count equally as much as environmental factors in how we turn out – but people still seem to think that as parents we can control the development of our children.
My mother, for example – at the age of 27, while working for the police, I had a breakdown. Ten years later, my brother has just had a form of burn out after his wife left him and took the kids. So my mum is all, ‘Two kids, two breakdowns, how bad a mother am I? I should have made you stronger.’
So I asked her the same question: how, exactly, should she have made us stronger? Besides which, she tried – my parents used to send me to boys camp over the summer to build my character, toughen me up and force me to become more sociable. I found every summer a form of cruel and unusual punishment; my brother, on the other hand, was in his element. While I wandered down to the village every afternoon to lock myself in a toilet cubicle and cry, he thrived. While I was bookish and introverted, he was sociable and outgoing; while I was moody and introspective, he was laid back and confident. We were raised in the same house by the same parents and given the same guidance, moral framework and experiences, but were completely different people from the start. And the fact we both had breakdowns is plain bad luck, not a fault in our upbringing.
Because kids are not balls of clay that can be moulded into whatever we want – they’re people with their own thoughts, ideas, desires and abilities. Izzie already has a personality – two parts wilfulness, one part stubbornness, mixed with an insatiable curiosity and a happy disposition – and that’s without any input from me.
This is the lesson all parents need to learn – just because we made our children, it does not mean that we own them. They belong to the Universe. We brought them into being but they are themselves. They are not us in miniature, or a mirror of our beliefs and ideals. They are rivers that will find their own way to the sea, irrespective of the routes we took. We can guide them on their journey, steer them from our experience and insight, and love them for who they are – we cannot make them into something they’re not. They will disagree with us, and they’re not wrong to – for however much we teach our children, they teach us the same.
Will Izzie grow into a strong woman? I think so, because she’s fearless and determined already. All we have to do is nurture that independent spirit, and prevent it getting her into trouble. The same goes with any parent – we have to work with what is already there, and accept things as they are, instead of trying to turn our kids into something they’re not. So long as we remember that, we’ll be doing our job.