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Mr. Self comes home

Kiaras Gharabaghi

Something peculiar happens when we talk too much about the “Self” and its importance in child and youth care; we begin to visualize the “Self”, to think of it as an entity in its own right. This entity has roles, functions, and a purpose. And typically, these are not particularly endearing to us. After all, it is this Self that reminds us of our biases, our pre-conceived notions, our subjectivities, and our imperfections. It is through the Self that we confront our limitations and it is the Self that forces us to think twice about the purity of our actions. This Self can be an annoying appendage to our otherwise professional identity, one that renders our relentless march toward the high professions a clumsy, bumpy one.

Thankfully, we have found a way of mitigating all of this negative energy emanating from the Self. It is an awkward language trick, grammatically dissatisfying, but functionally super-effective: we can “other” the Self. “Othering” is the process through which we rid ourselves of our associations with those (people and things) we don’t like, that trouble us, or that make us feel uneasy. We identify difference between us and them or us and it, and we separate the organic connections between the “I” and the “other”. So if the Self becomes the other, I can walk away; but I can walk away with maintaining the importance of the Self in tact. After all, that Other, the Self, is a nuisance, and nuisances usually are indeed important.

This leaves us with a wonderfully convenient formula: everything that we thought to be true is indeed true, but if we don’t like the truth, it is true for everyone except I. Sure, there is racism everywhere and everyone is a racist, but not I (my best friend is from Pakistan). Yes, anyone can be afflicted by addiction, but not I (I drink coffee because it tastes good). Everyone could act impulsively and irrationally, but not I (I thought Blackhawk Down was boring). And all child and youth care workers misuse power and control, but not I (I went to Woodstock “Woodstock II that is, since I was not of legal pot-smoking age during Woodstock I).

This formula has always worked well for me. I was able to applaud the brilliance of Fewster’s work on Self, the subtleties of Krueger’s inferences of Self, and the gentility of Garfat’s “Self as sibling” without actually acknowledging that they were writing about and to me. When Stuart and Carty included the Self as one of the major competencies required of child and youth care workers in Children's Mental Health settings, I thought good for them; they didn’t shy away from including something often seen as rather unsubstantial in a study meant to lend substance to the field. And so I waved to my Self over there, as if to say “see buddy, we do take you seriously”!

All of this came crushing down on me just the other day, and I blame my four-year-old daughter. She is cute alright, stunningly beautiful actually. Sure, she is, along with my two boys, the very core of my existence, but she is also responsible for welcoming home an uninvited guest “my Self. With only three words, she reminded me that my language trick is nothing more that an illusion, and worse, that Fewster is right and I am wrong. How dare she; she doesn’t even know the guy! Here is what happened.

On a recent Monday morning, my wife went off to work to a new job, and my boys stumbled off to school, as usual forgetting their library books, at least one sock between the two of them, and clearly with no intention of pursuing educational goals with any measure of discipline. That left my daughter and I sitting at home, looking at each other and each of us thinking strategically about how to manipulate the day to our respective advantage. It was a tense moment, her stare penetrating mine, both our brains working feverishly trying to come up with a tactical advantage over the other. I had some work to do, so I needed her to occupy herself for at least a little while. She, on the other hand, knew well that in the world of four year olds, prestige is derived from one’s ability to prevent Daddy from getting anything done, ideally by focusing all of his attention, energy and resources on her. As it turned out, my daughter was running a low grade fever, and she used this to her advantage, shamelessly eliciting sympathy from me and reminding me that my needs are really secondary to her happiness.

Having lost the initial battle, I came up with a new strategy: fight fire with fire. I would overwhelm her with play, fun, and nurture, using Advil to keep her going until the inevitable behaviourial meltdown due to exhaustion and finally, the spoils of war would be mine, as manifested by her need for a nap. I was sure that she did not see this coming, and she played into my plan easily with virtually no resistance.

And so the day unfolded, featuring seventeen bike rides up and down the street, a three act play condemning the superficialities of Barbie’s Self, a soccer game in the living room that caused only minimal damage, and a shopping cart race in the grocery store that ended in a rather stern reprimand from the store manager. I am not sure how my daughter felt about all of this, but by (insert supreme being of your choice), I was having a blast! So much so, in fact, that I forgot all about my strategy, any work that needed to be done, or any stress related to the inevitable speech from my wife for having abdicated all responsibility for household chores. My girl was smiling from ear to ear, and thanks to the magic of Advil, she showed no signs of impending illness.

Then it happened. About half an hour before the scheduled return of the boys, and one hour before their actual return, just when I was feeling the summit of emotional euphoria, secure in my knowledge that notwithstanding my recent pre-occupation with work-related priorities,I still was a Daddy, she said those three words that shattered the separation of my self and my Self, the words that once again confirmed Fewster as Uncle Fewster in my household:

“I want Mommy”!

My initial numbness quickly gave way to the full horror of the situation. How could this happen? I had spent the entire day being there with and for my child, playing, running, sweating and dedicating myself to no other task than to put a smile on her face. And she had indeed been smiling, expressing her happiness and joy throughout the day. Daddy is the greatest, Daddy is wonderful, I love Daddy. So how does Mommy enter this picture? She abandoned you early in the morning, thoughtlessly marching off to the joy of work, clearly prioritizing the accumulation of wealth over your happiness. Your brothers too literally ran out of the house, very likely to do nothing more than to engage in the trivialities of an education. But Daddy is here. Right now. How dare you ask for Mommy!

Just as I was reaching the apex of my disillusionment, there was a knock at the door, and Siena rushed to open it. And in walked my Self, looking slightly tanned, very relaxed, and frankly much better than I.

“You look rough”, it said dryly.
“Where were you”, I asked.
“Well, I was here all along”, it answered rather cockily, “but you imagined me over there”.
“So why did you defy my imagination”, I asked, sounding somewhat defeated.
“Because in moments like this, you need me. And Siena needs you to have me”.

And so we sat down together, as one, and it patiently reminded me of what I already know. It had indeed been a wonderful day, and I had without a doubt enjoyed my time with Siena. But no matter how much I gave to her that day, I also took from her. I took enjoyment to be sure, but also the confirmation of my identity as a Dad, a justification for my many absences, and the kind of positive reinforcement that comes from putting a smile on the face of a child.

While I was othering my Self, I could maintain the delusion that it was all for her. Only when she interrupted the flow of benefits to me did I realize my loss. My Self, that part of me that provides the foundation for all of my identities, was getting hungry when the supply of positive reinforcement stopped, and it made its hunger known. It did so by awakening anger, frustration, disappointment, randomly directed at everyone. And instead of understanding my daughter, in this moment and in this space, I despaired over my Self. What do you mean you want Mommy? Was the entire day a fake?

Of course it was not a fake at all. It was a day when adult and child, father and daughter, Professor of Child and Youth Care and proud member of the developmental stage of a four year old, were together, present, in the moment, giving to each other and taking from each other. But her Self and my Self were also present, each seeking to strengthen the foundation of our respective identities. As it turns out, the space all around us may be a geographic concept; we can enter and exit as we see fit. The “space between us”, however, is geographic only to the eyes; beyond sight, it is, to borrow from Krueger, the dance floor for our Selfs. Othering the Self is like dancing to silence. It lacks rhythm and is aesthetically unattractive.

I recognize that my initial reaction to her statement was foolish. It was foolish because I discounted the needs of my Self, and therefore it was a good reminder that we emphasize the importance of Self in child and youth care for good reason. It’s just really hard to remember that in the moment. As the adult, the father, and the Professor, I want to be tops in all of my identities. As the four year old, at this particular moment and in this particular space, “I want Mommy”.

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