Kelly Corrigan is one of my favorite people – at least one paper. I don’t know her personally, but as a writer she is honest and self-revealing, she zeros in on the essentials with humor and grace. We grew up in generally the same era, and she writes eloquently about family and motherhood, which is what I write mostly about, so her references resonate.
In her memoirs, she recounts one of her mother’s truisms: When Mary Corrigan witnessed her adolescent daughter obsessing over what everyone thought of her, she would question, who’s really looking at you? This idea imprinted itself on my mother brain, both to receive and to share.
Who’s looking at you?
Everyone, right? Mrs. Corrigan’s answer to her own question was actually no one, her point being that everyone else is always so worried about themselves, we’re never really under the microscope the way we think we are. Yet from early on, it’s such a normal human trait to feel like everyone around you is studying and judging. As a kid, this trap is wide open and waiting everywhere you go. Everyone is better and smarter and prettier and richer, more athletic and more talented, and they’re all looking at you smugly, knowing it.
If we’re lucky, we have parents, teachers, coaches, and mentors reminding us to value our unique selves. If we’re even luckier, we actually hear and digest their advice, although sometimes it takes decades to believe it. But we still need it, even then, as adults. Especially when we become parents.
I felt the glare of the judgy spotlight when I became a mother almost more strongly than when I was a teenager. Of course, I expected to feel out of my depth when I brought my first baby home. It’s overwhelming, and rightly so, the profound shift to becoming someone’s parent.
But even when you’ve been a mom for a while (seventeen years and counting for me) it doesn’t stop, that feeling of measuring yourself against every other parent and only seeing where you’re falling short. Even when we know each kid is different, requiring different parenting approaches and skills. Even when we know each set of circumstances is specific. The topics range from am I doing the right things to get my preschooler to stop sucking his thumb to did we do the right thing to not go for the second phase of braces to is it okay to let my daughter quit swim team to am I monitoring my kids’ social media enough to are we starting the college process early enough? The questioning and self- evaluating as a parent goes on and on. And that’s just on a usual day.
What about when your kids are in crisis, as teenagers sometimes are, or have friends who are suffering, because that comes too? Are you doing enough to ensure their emotional and mental health without focusing so much on it that all the usual stuff falls away, and it becomes impossible to claw yourself back up to some sort of normal?
Who’s looking at you?
Whenever I feel unsure (every day), and am questioning my parenting savvy, I ask myself Mrs. Corrigan’s question for two reasons. First, to remove any spec of motive being driven by my concern over how another parent may judge my actions, my decisions. Second, to hear, if only in my head, the advice and responses of the people whose opinions and advice I do value – my own parents, my close family and friends who are also in the throes of teenager parenting, certain teachers who are drilled into what my kids are going through at the given time.
Anyone else who’s looking? They’re mostly all trying to figure out how to do it right, at least right in the given moment. I’ve yet to have an in-depth conversation with another mom that reveals how much she thinks she’s totally on top of it all. We trade ideas and advice, we learn from each other, but no one has truly got it locked down, because the sand is always shifting. For the few times someone is looking and judging and feeling self-congratulatory? I say, let them look.
For the sage advice that inspired this piece and more great reading, delve into Kelly Corrigan’s The Middle Place (Hachette Books, January 1, 2009), Lift (Hachette Books, March 2, 2010), Glitter and Glue (Ballentine Books, February 4, 2014), or her latest book, Tell Me More: Stories about the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say (Random House, January 9, 2018)
About our Blogger:
Elizabeth Dougherty is a freelance writer in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Her blog, Plan Q, chronicles real, everyday experiences and viewpoints — funny, stressful, tearful, mundane — and how they all tie together to define our lives. She aims to make her readers laugh, cry, feel, think, and wonder. That’s what writing and reading do for her, and if she can pass on any of that, then all the twists and turns that whip her right past Plans A through P and land her at Plan Q are more than worth it! Visit Plan Q at www.elizabethdoughertyfreelanc ewriting.wordpress.com or connect with her on Facebook.