It is a touch unsettling to see little obsessions emerging in your child, especially if fear and sadness seem to be dominant elements in those obsessions. I guess anything that smacks of anxiety and neurosis in a young child is going to make a first time parent (or perhaps any parent) fret, and lead to a quick mental stocktake of your parenting mistakes, to pinpoint the seeds of this emerging mental instability (because, of course, it must be your parenting which is responsible).
Our Tilly has two mini fixations that are noteworthy both for their intensity and longevity: crying and thunder (both a touch on the dark side).
I’m not entirely sure where the thunder obsession began. Tilly has experienced quite a few intense thunder storms in her short life, and I couldn’t tell you which of these (if any) first laid down the ‘thunder’ neural pathway in her brain. All I know is that from quite soon after she started to speak, she would start to talk about thunder, and from quite early on the word started to be applied, by her, not only to the thing itself, but to pretty much any ‘scary’ noise.
Recently, as she has developed the ability to pretend, thunder has become a regular feature of her imaginative play as well. A few weeks ago, for example, she invented the ‘thunder cuddle’. This involves her shouting ‘There’s thunder!’, and then running across the room to throw herself into the arms of one or both parents (though not only parents: our friend, Auntie Jo Jo, was a participant in a good number of group thunder cuddles the other week).
An even more interesting development in the thunder obsession is that it has now somehow morphed in Tilly’s mind into something that one can possess. Just tonight she informed me that I had thunder. I have no idea what this means, but I took it as a compliment.
The genealogy of tears and crying in Tilly’s life is a bit easier to trace because it has involved, from the very beginning, specific identifiable representations of crying people and animals (in fact, a lot more animals than people). The first was Crying Sheep.
In close up, Crying Sheep is a very striking figure, which might lead one to think it not at all unusual that Tilly would become a touch fixated with her. In the context of the book, however, she is merely one sheep amongst very many, and doesn’t necessarily stand out.
I’ve included a photo of the whole page below to give you a sense of it.
When I first saw this page my eye was drawn much more to Carmen Miranda Sheep and Ned Kelly Sheep than to Crying Sheep. Yet for months, whenever we looked at this book, Tilly would immediately leaf through it to find this page, point to Crying Sheep, and inform me that she was sad.
This pattern has continued with other books. In fact, in any book that involves someone or something crying, the page that involves the tears has always called for comment from Tilly.
As an interesting aside, the girl next to Hector is also called Tilly, and yet Tilly doesn’t seem at all excited by the fact that they have the same name. Even more intriguing is that we know another girl called Tilly, and she is one of the only people in our lives whose name Tilly can never remember. Paging Doctor Freud!
Here is a bear on a plane watching a sad in-flight movie. To be fair, Tilly is equally compelled by the pictures of the same bear bouncing around the cabin during a bout of turbulence, but nevertheless, always makes comment on his tears.
I myself have always admired bears who are not afraid to cry.
Last but not least, here is a girl called Milly demanding that her parents take the new baby back to the hospital. Tilly is particularly intrigued by Milly’s single tear (whereas I am more intrigued by why she is pointing with her right arm rotated 180º. Perhaps the illustrator isn’t that confident with rendering fingers in detail, so decided to cheat this one a bit.)
Anyway, all of these pictures are analysed over and over by my daughter. Every time we read each of these books, Tilly will, without fail, point out that the characters are sad, and hypothesize on what could be done to make them all feel happy again.
Recently, however, the focus of her obsession with tears has shifted from characters in books to a picture that she has dubbed ‘the crying girl’. The crying girl is part of a mural on the wall of a building right next to St. George’s Road, the main road that runs from our house towards the city. Below is a photo I took of the crying girl during a visit we made as a family.
Every single time we get in the car, Tilly will, without fail, ask to drive past the crying girl. And if, God forbid, we pass it without her realising, she will demand that we go back.
Heartbreakingly, I think her overwhelming desire to see the crying girl whenever we leave the house is because of genuine concern about the persistence of her distress. When we are on our way to see (let’s call her) TCG, Tilly often expresses a hope that she ‘is feeling better now’. She also has theories about the cause of TCG’s tears (‘she has sore eyes’) and how she might be comforted (‘she needs a cuddle with her papa’).
In my less neurotic moments, I tell myself that these particular obsessions are a indication of general sensitivity and emotionality, rather than of phobic and depressive tendencies. She certainly seems to be a reasonably happy and healthily attached child, in the main. In my more neurotic moments though, it is hard not to worry that these fixations are an early indication of a future for Tilly characterised by crippling fears and an oversensitivity to other’s pain. But then I ‘comfort’ myself with the thought that this is probably just projection on my part, since these are both features of my life.
When I think back to my own childhood, there are only two obsessions that I can think of – though they were after my toddler years. The first was an obsession with dates. I mean, of course, the dried fruit, not the act of ‘stepping out’ with a lady, though it was exactly this ambiguity that was responsible for one of my most humiliating moments in school.
It was year 3, and our teacher, Mr.Cole, had asked us all to think of something that we liked. Innocent that I was, I decided to mentioned my love of dates. It was only when I heard a mocking ‘Oooooooh’ issuing from the row of roughnuts at the back of the classroom, that I realised the noose I had put around my own skinny neck. To make matters worse, I was a child who both blushed and cried very easily; one usually following directly on the heels of the other, and such was the case in this instance.
This was a ‘watershed’ event for me. I often think back to this experience as the moment when I decided that one of my life goals was going to be the avoidance of humiliation. Over the next few years I cultivated a lack of affect and a flatness of tone, so that whenever I said anything, people would never be entirely sure whether I was being serious or not. This allowed me a handy escape route should I accidentally say something naive, ridiculous or just plain wrong. I could always pretend that I was being ironic; that I had been speaking inside inverted commas the whole time.
Anyway, my point is that I was a bit obsessed with dates. My other obsession (and this is humiliating) was with Mole, the character from The Wind in the Willows. When I was six, my family travelled to England, and while there we saw a stage production of the book. I must have identified strongly with Mole (my introversion, I guess) because he became my alter-ego for the next few years. My family must have enjoyed my Mole, because I remember being regularly asked to ‘do him’ (though this was before we got a video player, so they were pretty starved for entertainment). Obviously, after the ‘I like dates’ incident in third class, he never would have got an outing at school, but I think he remained a feature of family life until late in my primary school years. This remains, to this day, the highpoint of my career as a character actor.
Now you’re probably wondering where I’m going with this. How the history of my own childhood obsessions might inform my understanding of Tilly’s. And how all this might help you respond to your own child’s compulsive desire to lick shoehorns or sing the Internationale. And I sympathise, I really do. I honestly thought, as I wrote, that I was building to some special, and that all the strands would come together in some kind of grand epiphany. It turns out that our faith in me was misplaced. Life can be like that.
As a consolation prize, below is another picture of The Crying Girl – this time with Tilly.