Maybe I write this because of the mother I witnessed earlier today, or maybe another long-forgotten incident flashed through my mind because of her. Either way, I just need to get it down.
I’ve been teaching a series of dance workshops all around our state, from Seattle to Port Angeles to Olympia and many towns in between. This morning, I taught in a rather small village on a large island northwest of here, and there was one mother who insisted on watching her daughter take my class. I don’t allow this and promptly told her so.
“I just thought I could help her remember what she learns today,” is what this mother said on her way out the door.
If this kind of “help” is supposed to make kids apply themselves more, I can say from experience it doesn’t work.
When I owned a dance studio and wanted more than anything to teach young girls how to trust their own perfect minds and bodies, I finally had to put my foot down: “Moms are allowed to watch only on the first class of the month,” read the sign on my studio door.
I would have liked to go a step further and say a few moms could never watch, but I knew it would never fly. For one thing, they were paying me, not the other way around.
Because some of the mothers you would not believe. No self-control — absolutely none. Their own insecurities rose right up, landing like bricks on their daughter’s self-esteem. I could see how they really did struggle with it, knowing they were over-the-top, but it rarely stopped them for long. The next “help” flew right out.
As the years passed, it got so I could spot these mothers on registration day, and I began to pity them a little more. Visually, they were more and more like a warning, a manifestation, of what unrealized and/or unattempted goals and dreams can become. How people can age, then age some more, without ever accomplishing something of their own they are proud of.
Maybe these women woke up one morning and found they were no longer able to focus on their career and couldn’t adjust to the reality. Or maybe they never attempted one in the first place and feel cheated somehow. So they create a new line of work: motherhood. I think this is what’s really going on.
I also think these moms would stop interfering if they could. If they were able to get past seeing their kids as a chance they had been given. No kid wants to be their parent’s way of reaching for more, of gaining something else.
If you don’t quit it, I thought, you’ll be lucky, when the school years end, to see your daughter on a regular basis.
Though we never talked about it, I think some of the other mothers and I knew these outbursts were hungers that, on another level, weren’t directed at their daughters so much as at life at large. Pent up, they had nowhere else to pop but in my studio.
So up went my handmade sign, made with the thickest Sharpie I could find.
It seems I’ve described the worst-case dance-class mother. There were others — lots of others — who were encouraging in the most supportive, positive ways. But my signboard couldn’t be selective or the meanies would have come down on me — I was pretty sure of that.
And the girls? From my perspective, they rarely, if ever, had the courage — especially in a room full of peers — to stand up to their mothers. The bonds between a young girl and her mother can be such a bewildering mix of affection and need and guilt. Add to it a parent’s cravings, and you’ve got a lot of baggage built up in a child’s memory.
So watch out: She may remember everything — and write about it all some day.
“Your daughter may be learning a few dance steps here, but you are keeping her from taking a huge leap forward if you comment from the sidelines. What does your daughter want from this class? The opposite of everything you want — just like when you shop for clothes.”
This is the sign I should have hung. Never mind the objections. Why didn’t I?
What we’d do over if only we could.
MARY LOU SANELLI’s latest book is “Among Friends.” Visit her website: www.marylousanelli.com.