I have used manipulation to gain love. It’s not a very attractive admission, but there you have it. I am guilty. It was a few years ago when my middle daughter Sophia was being particularly difficult. By difficult I mean she wasn’t heeding my directions or submitting to my omnipotent authority. She’d always been a pretty compliant kid, an easygoing teenager who rarely slammed doors or pushed back but overnight she’d become disengaged and withdrawn and I was suddenly aware I was no longer able to control her.
Nothing prepares you for that moment when you realise that as a parent you have nothing left in your tool bag – that it’s not you, but your adolescent who is calling the shots. It’s humiliating. And they know it. All those parental mistakes come to bite you on the arse. Like smoking weed when I was pregnant and me telling them the truth about what I was like when I was their age. Sophia would have been 16; I don’t even recall what the argument was about. I know I’d had a glass of wine. Maybe three. Okay, in retrospect I was a bit drunk. We’d had a disagreement about something I no longer recall and this time I don’t win. I ALWAYS win. I’m known for it. I keep going until I do. I’ll fight to the death for a win. I’m very confrontational and I’m highly invested in being RIGHT. Even when I’m wrong.
There’s nothing like a triumphant win followed by one of those long parental victory speeches. It’s like winning office in an election. But I hadn’t won. My daughter had. So I decided to do the adult thing and take the victim role. In an argument where you have lost ground, it’s all you have left. It’s textbook passive aggression.
I say to her, ‘Why are you being so mean to me?. I could have cancer.’ I don’t even know where that came from. It just came out. I certainly didn’t have cancer. But that wasn’t the point. What was the point to me at the time was that Sophia didn’t seem to care that I ‘could’ have cancer. I was sulking. She said, ‘You don’t have cancer, Mum’. I was so hurt. I think I even started to cry. ‘How do you know? You’re not a doctor!’ Then she dared to take the moral high ground. ‘You can’t tell your kids that you have cancer to try to emotionally manipulate them, Mum. That’s terrible!’ I was furious. ‘How dare you say that!’
Then Zoe comes in. I’m sobbing now. Not because I have cancer. Because I’m not winning this argument and my sober daughter has the upper hand on her drunk cancer-faking mum. Zoe says, ‘What’s wrong?’ I’m looking for allies. ‘Chookie doesn’t care if I have cancer.’ I’ve really escalated this hypothetical cancer situation. Zoe tries to be the diplomat. ‘Mum, you don’t have cancer. Of course Chookie would care if you did. But you don’t.’ I was cut. Now both my daughters don’t care that I have cancer.
This whole ‘Be nice to me because I could have cancer’ routine kept going until I gave up, feeling completely defeated and unloved and headed upstairs with a parting retort ‘well I guess we’ll talk about this conversation again, when I’m in CHEMO!’ I was kind of joking at the time, but it had got out of hand. I woke up the next day horrified that I’d thrown a ‘I could be dying and you don’t love me’ tantrum.
A few weeks later I found out I had a skin cancer on my eyelid that had to be removed. I was that excited. I couldn’t wait to get home. ‘Hey, girls, guess what! As it turns out Mummy does have cancer! So it looks like I was RIGHT!’ It took another six months before my surgery, so clearly I wasn’t at any risk. But boy, did I milk that sucker. ‘Can you unpack the dishwasher? Mummy has cancer.’ (My apologies any mums out there who have proper serious cancer, not the insignificant skin tumour I had.)
I managed to dilute my cancer tantrum with this ongoing joke, which was actually more about maternal manipulation than having a terminal illness. My girls still give me stick about it. As they should. The other day I saw a headline in a local newspaper. ‘Mum Fakes Cancer for Attention’. I freaked. Fuck! It’s not just me. The woman in the story got two years. I wonder how long I’ll get?