“I’m not smart, like you and dad” was something my mother often said when I was growing up. When I was younger, I actually believed it and internalized it: My mom was stupider than my dad and me. It’s true that my dad and I caught on to jokes a lot quicker than mom, and that my dad and I could easily participate in light question-tennis-style banter. We were unbeatable as a team for games like Charades or Taboo where quick, non-linear thinking was key. Both of us love reading and logic puzzles, and we even share a birthday – the daddy-daughter bond is pretty real, and I always knew it left my mother out in some ways.
But I’m not a child anymore. Last night, my mother was studying for her CISA exam in September. I was sitting next to her, playing a mindless game of Candy Crush. I’d just explained hypothesis testing and p-values to her, something I remember from my undergrad days where I aced stats. “I think I need a course to get this stuff,” my mother said, unhappily reading through her textbook.
“So take a course,” I said, thoughtlessly. “Besides you’re getting this stuff”
“I’m not getting it that quickly… I’m just not as smart as you or Dad.”
I paused for a minute. There it was again. That strange statement.
“Why do you think you’re not as smart as me or Dad?” I asked carefully. I’d never asked her this before, and I didn’t want to risk shaming her or making her feel worse than she already did. I didn’t even think she’d seriously considered her own statements before, but that’s kind of how negative self perceptions work: They’re shitty thoughts that we think and say and act on – and through my slow recovery through depression and anxiety, I see the dangerous thought/action spirals I’ve followed in my own life.
The question hung between us, and I knew staring at her would make it worse, so I just continued to play Candy Crush.
“I mean… you both are just… better at this stuff, and anyway, you also think you’re smarter than me too. You said it a lot.”
And there it was. A few years ago, something like this would have utterly destabilised that fragile moment. I’d have reacted angrily saying “I never said that” (a lie), or “I never thought that” (also a lie), or “Well you’re the ones that taught me that!” (a truth, but an unhelpful one).
Instead I let that fragile moment sit there. Yeah, it’s true that I got math a lot quicker than she did, that I could never verbally spar with her the way I could with my dad. But there were things about my mother that I valued deeply – her ambition, which was more than my dad or mine combined. She had, after all, been the one to decide to come to Canada, and indeed, moved here before my father and I came along, some six months later. She had been the one to secure a job here, an apartment. She was the one who pushed my dad to get professionally certified in his field- something he’d balked at initially. “You two need so much pushing and prodding!” She used to say, quickly following up with “If I had your brains, I could have been anything, you know that?!” I valued too her ability to see through any lie, any emotionally untrue statement – it was something I and my father struggled with, but she always knew when I wasn’t being hundred percent honest. Moments earlier, she had asked me where I’d gotten my shirt. “Roots… a bit big on you, but nice.”
“Uh, yeah Mom,” I said.
“Where’d you get that shirt?” She asked. Gee, well mother dearest, a white boy I met through online dating came over to my house in December and uh left it behind. And uh I never saw him again. And uh I guess I have his shirt now. Overall, a complete win if you ask me.
“Oh uh… ages ago, sometime when I was at McGill” (a lie.)
“You know me, I never know where I get my clothes from. Got this one for indoor use only as it’s a bit big” (a truth. sort of.)
She let that matter drop.
But I knew she was waiting for a response now, about how I had consistently undermined her intelligence in my childhood.
“I know I thought that a lot growing up… but you know, Mom, you said it a lot too you said it often and I wonder…what kind of impact that had on…”
On me. Dammit, how could a child – how should a child – have known that this was an absurd thing to hear? Why was it my responsibility even now to lead her through this, to parent her?
What did it mean that the most important woman in my life, I considered vapid at points? How could she send that message to her daughter, that being smart was a thing for Dad and men in general, but that I was special for some reason, but that she, my mother, was stupid? Wasn’t she supposed to be the adult here?
“you,” I said. “You’re not stupid, Mom” I finished.
She paused, and I knew she was thinking very hard. I knew I’d said the right thing. Finally felt the right thing.
But I also felt immediately gross afterwards. See, I don’t think she had a lot of support, a lot of people telling her she was smart when she was growing up. I know for me, hearing people tell me I was smart and capable did fuel a particular kind of idea of myself when I was younger – it wasn’t entirely a good thing. There was some arrogance, some self defense too when I was bullied mercilessly and all I had was intelligence to fall back on, this idea that at least in this way, I was better than those who hurt me.
But as I grew older, as I experienced a deep and cutting depression, a sharp careening fall from self worth, I stopped believing I was smart. I started believing I was stupid and therefore unworthy of anything good or positive.
It’s only recently that I not only know I have to re-envision a different reality for myself, but that I feel able to build a healthier relationship with myself, my own vision of who I was – that smarts were a part of that but not the whole, and that a lot of the work was investing in a growth-perspective, where I could trust myself to learn and grow as I came across new material. I feel a bit these days like I did when I was young, much younger, before I realised I was smart, and just when I loved learning about everything around me, when I was a curious baby touching everything, asking questions about everything. But I also know why my mother invested so much time in telling me I was smart, while I was growing up: it was something she had never heard on a consistent basis, and she knew I needed to hear that at times to actually feel capable enough to learn, excel, and build a sense of purpose.
Unfortunately, some research shows that teaching girl children to strongly identify with smartness has sometimes a negative impact when they are faced with new problems that they are unable to solve – and so praising innovation, hard work, and curiosity are also things parents, caregivers, and teachers need to do. Still, my mother did her best, based on her own life experiences.
What I didn’t understand until recently is that every time she said “I’m not as smart as you or Dad” she wanted to hear something from us that challenged her own negative self perception.
She needed to hear she was smart, too.
But the thing is, both my dad and I are kind of emotional idiots about things like that. We don’t really usually pick up on social cues often; I’m not the best at recognizing when someone is obliquely asking for affirmation of some kind. It’s something I’ve had to learn with my own friends, that sometimes when they put themselves down, it’s not like they want me to actually agree with their negative impression of themselves. I see my dad has gotten better at it with time, probably due to my mom’s influence.
“Why did you always say me and Dad were smarter than you?” I asked gently.
“I don’t know…you both are, like I need to take a course to probably learn this material…your dad didn’t need to…”
“I took a course for the MCAT” I said. “Ages ago, but I still took a course. I probably will take a course again when I take the exam again.”
“How will you balance work with that?” She asked.
“I probably will only be able to work part time at that point,” I said. “There’s no shame in taking a course to try and learn what the exam’s expectations are. Many smart people take courses these days to give themselves a competitive edge. It’s ok to do that, you know.”
“I might have to do that,” Mom said, wearily. “I wish it would just sink in… I don’t even know how to make notes anymore…”
“I can help you with that,” I said. “I mean, if you want… like I kind of developed my own method of writing notes during university, and I can show you what I did to organize them…and I have a really good stats book that you could use.”
And then, in a moment of inspiration I looked up at her and told her what I’ve been telling myself these past few months, and what my mother tried to do for me in the past:”I believe in you, Mom!”