I haven’t seen my daughter recently. She seems to have been camped out at her boyfriends for the past few days. I don’t know if this is a girl thing but we often used to feel a bit guilty that my son’s girlfriend had pretty much moved in with us and hardly ever saw her own family. Now I know how it feels.
In a bid to reconnect I send her a text.
“Are you in for dinner tonight? Martin’s coming round to eat and watch the football.”
Her reply is swift and she cuts to the chase. “What time and what are we having?”
Grown-up children “hedge their bets” with food and try to work out where the best meal will be when there are options open to them.
“Homemade bread, some salads and BBQ pork but I can do you something else if you don’t want meat.” I text, playing a very strong hand.
She texts back;
“I’m eating at Joe’s if that’s OK.”
I am sad that I won’t see her but I’m happy in the knowledge that she is prioritising “want” over “should”, just as I taught her, if rarely by example.
In the same position, as a young man, I would have been trying to work out the “right” answer to a question from my mother, regardless of my own desire. It wasn’t her fault. I just hadn’t worked out that “want” beats “should” most of the time.
Everyone is out today. My son is celebrating seven years with his girlfriend at a swanky London restaurant even though he’s barely twenty. Recently he was booking a holiday in Croatia and I said, “Don’t worry if you need to be away during my birthday like you were last year and the year before.” So he’s leaving the day before my birthday.
Alone, apart from the dog who always makes a point of doing exactly what she wants, I open the laptop and write a reply to an online client who is having difficulty with “want” because it makes her feel as if she is being selfish, even though “should” makes her feel as if she is invisible.
“Self-love and self-abandonment aren’t binary choices. They sit on a scale far apart from one another.” I write
Since our last correspondence she has made a list and writes that there is a lot that she “wants”, and questions whether she is as ruled by “should” as we’d first feared.
“I want to write. I want to paint. I want to find someone to be with who treats me properly.” she tells me.
It sounds impressive, except that she isn’t doing any of them at the moment because she thinks she should be a better writer and artist, and that prioritising her own needs over those of her abusive partner is too self-centered, and that isn’t who she should be.
“Whose voice tells you that?” I write.
When a therapist once pointed out to me that “should” is always spoken by someone else and that “want” is my authentic voice I started to hear my mother, almost always my mother. She was my “should” whether I agreed with her or not.
To spend a life doing nothing but “want” seems indulgent and self-obsessed, except when you realise that “want” is sometimes a filter. It’s most often a way of confirming our agreement with a commitment that “should” has made on our behalf.
My daughter texts again.
“Can you collect me? Joe might still be over the limit and doesn’t want to risk driving”.
First I hear that I should, but I listen a little longer until I realise that I want to anyway.