Many of the conversations I have at the school gates, on football touchlines or in cricket pavilions are really conversations about identity.
We think we’re talking about the 11+ or goalies or whether it’s better to learn classical piano or bass guitar – but what we’re actually talking about is who with think we are.
One of the great challenges of parenting is the invitation it offers to continually reassess your identity.
Maybe you’re someone who has always considered herself to be a nice person. Taking care of people’s feelings and helping them feel good is what you do and who you are and what you always have been…
…and then you have a daughter whose brain is wired in a way that means empathy does not come naturally to her. She tends to blurt out exactly what she thinks and isn’t able to understand that it’s hurtful, not to say shocking, to be on the receiving end of her comments.
One reason why this situation is difficult for the mum is that it challenges her identity. Can she continue to think of herself as an empathetic person when she has a daughter who isn’t? How can she have faith and confidence in her daughter, as a mother surely needs to do, when her own sense of self is built on her belief that she doesn’t hurt other people – and that matters?
A father who is passionate about rugby might have a similar difficulty if he has a son who hates sport and who feels – and looks – clumsy in his body. If the dad has developed his own sense of masculinity through being a flanker on the rugby pitch, his son challenges him to recognise there are other ways of being a man.
Time and time again, I find being a parent causes me to question the ideas I have about myself. Did I really take such pride in getting full marks in spelling tests? Is my identity rooted in something as flimsy as that? It would seem that is. Why else do I feel uneasy if my child doesn’t do the same?
We all emerge into adulthood with stories that we tell ourselves about who we are – clever, middle-class, well-liked, sporty, funny, musical, whatever…. And these stories are important. They give us confidence and a way of navigating the world of work into which we thrust our adult selves.
But if we have kids who aren’t well-liked or sporty or whatever our particular thing is, it raises a question. How would we have survived without that story from which our identity was formed? It’s a deep question. And it’s what we’re all exploring as we chatter away about whether what school our child is going to, whether our daughter is gifted and talented, whether our son has special needs..