In Summary
  • The Little Comment is the product of the female socialization that insists that we be the ones to handle the emotional busywork of life, but prevents us from tackling any of it directly.
  • Both loving and barbed, it uses a kind of weaponised casualness to criticise, but with complete plausible deniability.

“Another theme park? My goodness!” reads the text from my mother. Although, perhaps, rather than a text, I should be calling it a “subtext.”

She is referring to the desperate outing that I am about to embark on with my three boys, ages 8, 5 and 10 months, in order to avoid spending one more minute listening to them arguing in the house. A close reading of my mother’s message reveals rich and multi-layered depth of meaning. The “my goodness!” (complete with jaunty exclamation mark) keeps the tone light, while the use of “another” neatly undercuts that levity, conveying disapproval. The overall take-home message: I spoil the kids.

‘LITTLE COMMENT GENRE’

This text is a classic of the genre I think of as the “Little Comment,” the signature mode of communication of a certain type of close relationship between a mother and her adult daughter, especially when that daughter has children of her own.

The Little Comment is the product of the female socialization that insists that we be the ones to handle the emotional busywork of life, but prevents us from tackling any of it directly.

Both loving and barbed, it uses a kind of weaponised casualness to criticise, but with complete plausible deniability.

You know that you are dealing with a “Little Comment,” as opposed to just a comment, when on hearing it you feel a stab of either irritation or self-loathing (or more often, an uneasy blend of the two). But at the same time, a perfectly reasonable response to any objection or hurt feelings would be an innocent, “What do you mean?? I’m just saying ... " and then repeating the same statement in an entirely different, newly defanged tone.

Examples of the Little Comment might include, “Oh! The full fat kind?” “Isn’t it interesting how he isn’t wearing a coat?” and “Do children watch their iPads at the table now?” In the right context and tone, even an “oh dear” can qualify.

AMAZING RESTRAINT

Although I bristle, my mother is actually showing amazing restraint. The Little Comment is really the recourse of the powerless.

People always say that being a grandparent is all of the fun parts of parenting with none of the grind.

But the flip side of this deal is that grandparents also have all of the adoration with none of the agency.

My mother loves my kids just as much as I do, is every bit as invested in their happiness and success, yet she has no genuine say in their upbringing. She can’t decide how many theme parks they visit, or whether they wear a coat, or how much television they watch, or how to respond when they call their brother a “poopy diaper.”

She sees my absurd helicoptering, my bookshelf groaning with parenting books, my inexplicable inability to get my kids through a single dinnertime without a tantrum. At best she can hope only to influence from the sidelines like a low-ranking medieval courtier.

AT BOTH ITS BEST AND WORST

At both its best and its worst, the mother-daughter relationship can at times be as close as two humans can get to telepathy.

With two people who are both heavily socialised to anticipate and meet everyone else’s emotional needs, the dynamic can become a kind of high-alert empathy, each constantly attempting to decode what the other might be thinking, hypersensitive to any change in pitch or tone, like a pair of high-strung racehorses.

UNDERSTANDS ME BEST

My mother understands me better than anyone, and I crave her approval more than anyone else’s. I could recite her entire value system if I were in a coma.

Every meal needs a salad, music is good and sport is suspect, children should learn a stringed instrument, sleeping late is a moral failing. She doesn’t actually need to criticise. She did her job so effectively 30 years ago that now she need only raise an eyebrow and I fill in the blanks on autocomplete.

In our case, all this is intensified because we live 6,000 miles away from her, having moved to California from Britain when our oldest son was a baby.

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