Point a camera or phone at me and my natural reaction isn’t to pout and do ‘that’ two finger thing that is the usual go-to pose of today. No, I pull a cheesy grin and stick up both thumbs. Not cool, I know, but in the photos of my youth two fingers were strictly reserved for group shots and putting behind someone’s head as ‘rabbit ears’.
My formative years occurred mainly in the ’90s. We were firmly rooted in Europe and there was no ‘in-out referendum’ because the only choice deemed important was Oasis or Blur. Sounds great compared to these days where turmoil and uncertainty is the new black; but don’t get me wrong, I found my teens at that time very difficult.
I had wild, curly, ginger hair and was a small, uncertain, bespectacled, braces-wearing, obsessive, nerd girl long before geek was chic and a few years before Monica Geller made OCD an amusing idiosyncrasy. I struggled with who I was in relation to the rest of the universe where everyone, in my opinion, had their shit together. Self-doubt and self-belief has been a recurring struggle throughout my 42 years.
As I moved into adulthood and became a mother who was responsible for another human life, I imagined I would care less about what people thought because I would have earned my grown-up stripes. I prayed for more confidence and the ability to shrug off the supposed opinions of others, hoping it would no longer affect my decisions but, boy, was I wrong.
As a new mum (now nearly 17 years ago), my self-doubt and obsession with how I appeared to others peaked. I was gripped by the fear that everyone was judging me and how I was bringing up my son. I would constantly find myself explaining to strangers on the bus that I was sure that the reason my son was delayed with his crawling and walking was because he was happy to have things brought to him and so didn’t feel the need to get mobile himself. Why would he? A willing slave (me) would do his tiny bidding with a single point of his chubby finger. His first words were ‘more’ and ‘that’ and he would send me off to fetch toys or food. I was never quite reassured by the friendly platitudes of health visitors that this was perfectly normal in his development. Instead, I would spend hours after their visits obsessively wondering what judgements they were making of me and my (lack of) parenting skills.
I became a single parent when Boy turned two and a half and I tried to develop a little more resilience to the internal dialogue of self-doubt. However, my newly single status made me feel even more judged at every turn. I entered a whole new phase of feeling like I was on the outside looking in but now it was to a club of yummy mummies who looked effortlessly cool at the nursery gates compared to my ‘windswept and interesting’ trademark look. Nowhere on these parental goddesses could I see a single snot slug trail. I, on the other hand, would regularly get to work, sit down, cross my legs and see a glistening crusty trail on my trousers (applied earlier by Boy under the guise of a hug) as it sparkled in the fluorescent glare of the office lights. I would worry that my co-workers thought I had either no clean trousers, no washing machine or worse, that I just didn’t care. How messed up is that? I cared that they cared that I didn’t care…totally ridiculous.
I once even had a conversation with Boy about him wearing his beloved Harry Potter costume for a fourth consecutive Halloween. I tried to choose my words carefully as I hinted that maybe he could go to his party as something different that year? My worry was that people would think that I couldn’t afford a new costume for him and the thought of their pity was too much for me to bear.
“What will people think?” I asked. His reply was a huge turning point for me: “But Mummy, I don’t care what people think. I am Harry Potter.”
It was a revelation. It was as striking as the Killing Curse that gave Harry his scar. Not care what people think? How would that even work? And how had my then seven year old discovered this for himself? It certainly hadn’t come from me (I owe J.K. Rowling a big hug as I think it was she alone who taught Boy about overcoming self-doubt).
He went as Harry for a further two years and I never questioned his decision to do so again. But I was left with a feeling that perhaps his generation could teach me a thing or two. Perhaps people were judging me, perhaps they weren’t but if they were…so what? Hmmm…interesting.
My Boy is now nearly 17. The Harry Potter cloak and Gryffindor scarf have been replaced with a cool parka and skinny jeans. He and his friends are of the internet and social media age; an era where they are supposedly self-obsessed and where access to others’ opinions are constant and hard to get away from. Yet they have the ability to see everything as an opportunity because they are in constant contact with the rest of the world who are doing the exact same thing.
So, I would like to acknowledge his generation’s bright young things. Putting themselves out there for all to see. They have opinions and aren’t afraid to share them and that includes the doubts and worries that they have. And while the general feeling is that they are leaving themselves open to a constant stream of criticism from anybody who has an internet connection and that can’t be a good thing, I find myself disagreeing.
Yes, people can be cruel and hurtful but they had that in my day long before the world wide web. To me, the internet generation seems fearless. They speak out, they share pictures of themselves enjoying life, they are out there to be seen and yes, judged. I applaud and admire them for it. They are growing up and embracing the differences that I hated about myself when I was a teen. They recognise that personal uniqueness doesn’t mean flawed. Different is celebrated and if there are those that anonymously whisper cruel insults then there is an army ready-formed to jump to it; to defend and shame. They are totally happy to stand up and be counted.
So, I actually worry less about my son and what people may think of him (and my parenting of him) than I ever have before. He is one of the ‘this is me” age and it is amazing. Take me or leave me. I have a voice and my opinion matters. This is me. I’m not only a fan of this simple concept, I’m actually becoming a convert.
Therefore, in the spirit of that, I remove the shackles that have gripped me my whole life. The self-doubt straight jacket that I have worn since childhood. From bespectacled ginger nerd, through fearful and doubting single parent, to the 42 year old proud mum of a well-adjusted young man. Instead of worrying about my pic ‘n’ mix career, I see myself as a queen of reinvention with experience in various backgrounds that give me a wealth of skills. My successes are actually numerous and, while I still struggle to accept the ginger hair (it’s currently dyed a warm auburn), I recently put my straighteners away and embraced my natural, slightly dishevelled look. I’m utilising my many skills and embarking on a new career path and who knows where it will lead? In fact, who cares? Bizarrely enough, I don’t and that is all that is important. Not only do I highly recommend this new outlook on life, I fully embrace it. Everyone else’s opinion doesn’t really matter because, well…This is ME.
*cheesy smile to camera and both thumbs up*
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