I spotted my mother on Heroes the other night. Here in Britain, we are on episode 21 of season 1, “The Hard Part”, and when it came to the moment when Sylar was talking to his mother — she was insisting he was extraordinary and special, and he was almost begging her to just let him be ordinary — the rest of the room faded away and all I could see was this scene being played out in front of me. It was perfect. It was un-nerving. It was exactly like my mother and me.
Here was a woman who was so certain that her son was extraordinary and so confident in his potential that she was no longer truly interacting with him. And here was a son so burdened by the weight of his mother’s expectations that he’d actually turned into a serial killer in order to fulfill his need to live up to them. It was an attempt to portray a devastating dysfunction — and I found myself relating to it perfectly. The way she kept telling him how special he was, and never saw how he ached for her to acknowledge his ordinariness; the way she pushed him to ring up a near-stranger in order to get a fancy job he wasn’t remotely qualified for and had no interest in; the way she was so focused on her grand ideas for him that she didn’t listen to a word he said; and the way she over-reacted when he finally spoke with enough force to cut through her blind optimism.
My mother has always held the most incredible expectations for me. From my earliest memories, I can hear her telling me that I was incredible, smart, gifted, talented, beautiful — I was going to be someone extraordinary. She wanted me to believe that anything was possible — which a wonderful gift for a mother to give a child — but it went a bit too far. It began to change instead into a feeling that everything was required. Her belief in me was so all pervasive, so driven, that it became a burden: I grew up believing that I had to excel in every field — in school, in athletics, in beauty, in fitness, in popularity, in arts — and when I didn’t, I felt that failure profoundly. Even delivered with a great deal of love, a mother’s hopes can become a powerful burden.
She had her hopes set on me being something professional, prestigious, and highly qualified: an engineer, a lawyer, a scientist. When I went off to university, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but none of those options appealed to 18-year-old me. My parents were keen for me to declare a major and phoned doggedly to ask if I’d chosen one. I finally began lying to them in order to gain some breathing room: my father had suggested I should become a school teacher — he said I could be all “la-la-la” with the kids, while waving his hands above his head — so I grabbed at that. I knew it would satisfy him enough (being his suggestion) and dismay her enough to stop them both from asking me about my choice of major any further. But the pressure had already paralysed me and I took so long to come to a decision that the university eventually threatened to throw me out. So I chose a major (Textiles) that fit the classes I’d already taken better than it actually fitted me.
I remember the day my mother realised I wasn’t going to be the shining star that she had always hoped. We were at lunch — I was about 21, probably in my junior year — and we were talking about life beyond university, my first steps in a career, and the possibility of marriage to my then-boyfriend, maybe children. She was stirring her coffee when she suddenly sat forward and said, with incredulity in her voice, “You know, you might just might have a normal life!” She said it as if were the most startling thought that had ever crossed her mind and one she didn’t quite know what to do with. “You might just be… ordinary! Have a career and.. become a mother!” She sat back in her chair, looked at her coffee, and then looked up at me, still trying to work out what to do with this bombshell of a thought. I remember it as clear as a bell. I remember the relief that she’d said it — that she’d finally recognised my ordinariness — but also I remember… a weariness that it had come as such a shock to her. I said, “…Yes.”
The BBC reruns Heroes two more times each week so, the next time it was on, I dragged my husband over to the to the telly. “Watch this scene,” I said. As it unfolded, he blurted out, “Crickey! It’s just like you and your mother!” He’d recognised it too, without any prompting from me.
There is a certain kind of relief in getting confirmation that something that you’ve always known was not quite right is actually askew. But there is also something slightly worrying in the fact that the scene they were portraying — the one I related to so very closely — was meant to illustrate a relationship dynamic that created a serial-killer. A mother’s hopes count for an awful lot to a child, and should be revealed with care. Perhaps I’m lucky that my reaction to such incredibly high expectations didn’t take me down that same path.
…Or, perhaps, my husband shouldn’t sleep so soundly in his bed at night.
I have hunted high and low on the internet for clip of that scene to put in this blog entry, but with no joy. If anyone finds one, would you please let me know? Cheers.