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Pressure Washing Shadows

My opposite neighbours, an orderly couple in their sixties, have for the past week been engaged from dawn til dusk in the task of Pressure Washing.  It started, innocently enough, with their garden path and front step.  Not an activity I would personally have the time or the inclination for, but I was prepared to let it go.  Then they started on the driveway.  Slowly, painstakingly, they spent hours with their newly purchased Karcher, he on a kitchen bar stool pointing the hose, she casting a watchful eye over his progress and popping in and out of their bungalow with cups of tea.  As the electric motor hummed, and a river of water ran down our road, I began to feel irritated.

But it didn't stop here.  Once he had totally removed any dirt, moss or character from his driveway, he had to pressure wash his car, which had been splashed with dirt by the hose.  I sniggered slightly as I wondered where this process might end, and whether he might get caught in a car / driveway loop and eventually break down on the tarmac.  However, he was unfazed, and just when I thought the hum had finally stopped for good, he began, with the help of his wife and a ladder, to pressure wash the exterior walls of his house.  Yes, you heard correctly, they pressure washed their house.  They started with the front, and then, heard but not seen, I knew they were doing the sides and the back.  This took days.  I seethed.  I muttered to myself about wasted water, wasted electricity, wasted time, wasted LIFE!  But there was nothing I could do, except mutter, mock, pity, and badmouth; the usual suspects.

Of course, I know they would have a few things to say about their opposite neighbours - us.  Our noisy and chaotic family and totally out of control dog have raised their eyebrows on several occasions as we have intentionally or accidentally spilled out into the road, yelling and screeching and barking. They must despair of our crusty old car with its missing hubcaps, our driveway with its massive collection of weeds, and quite frankly, the front of our house, unkempt, unwashed and rambling out of control, must keep them awake at night.  I am sure they cannot understand how or why we live like this.  In fact, on one of the pressure washing days, I set off for a dog walk, with the three year old looking feral in her muddy buggy, the one year old strapped to my back and intermittently beating me on the head with a hairbrush she had somehow smuggled into her rucksack, and the dog dragging us all down the middle of the road on a piece of frayed bailer twine.  My neighbour looked up from anxiously inspecting the no mans land where her drive meets the road, and do you know what she said? "Sooner you than me."

This is a perfect example of what Carl Jung, founder of Analytical Psychology and all round out-of-the-box thinker, would call 'an encounter with the Shadow'.  The Shadow is a part of our unconscious mind in which we place aspects of ourselves and personal qualities that we feel are unacceptable, intolerable, or shameful. We can tell when we meet the Shadow in someone else as we usually feel irritated or annoyed by them.  In fact, although we see the other as inferior, it is actually us who has the shortcoming, or, as the Native Americans put it, when we point the finger at someone there are three fingers pointing back at ourselves. My neighbours find me annoying because I represent the chaos and disordered approach to life that they cannot tolerate but perhaps secretly long for.  I can't bear to watch them washing the walls of their house because this is a metaphor for the kind of lid on things I feel I would be able to achieve if only I was a better person.   To realise that these feelings of irritation are connected to meeting the Shadow, rather than being a personal vendetta against the people around us, can help us to make the unconscious conscious, and take another small step on the long road to what Jung called Individuation - self knowledge.

As parents it can be useful and interesting to think a little bit about the Shadow and the role it plays in our day to day interactions with our children.  For it is when we are very young that much of our Shadow is created, as we are taught by our family which qualities or actions are valued and will elicit praise, and which are not accepted and are to be buried or hidden.  Obviously the majority of us teach our children to be kind, gentle, helpful, and so on.  But what about the subtler interplay?  Maybe we really value artistic expression, perhaps more highly than games and play involving systems and numbers.  Unwittingly, we constantly move our child away from these activities and give them the most praise when they sing, dance, or paint.  This is not bad parenting, of course, but if our child is at heart a scientist, it may take them years to find the confidence to explore this career path, and they may feel, even as an adult, that they are not completely valued, by us or by the world.  And what about gender?  How do we respond to our son who dislikes rough and tumble play or our daughter who is not interested in her appearance?  And sexuality?  How often have you heard the grown up tell a little girl off for fiddling with her private parts, but when boys do it, what do we do? Laugh!

It's not just individuals that have Shadows, they are possessed by groups, movements, political parties and even nations.  Attachment Parenting, an approach to which my family loosely subscribes, is not immune of course. Exposed to the light are its wonderful and well meaning qualities: unlimited love and affection, demand feeding, twenty four hour responsiveness, carrying your baby close.  But I sometimes wonder, where is the space here for frustration, for anger, for resentment, for exhaustion.  If we are not careful, we create for ourselves a reality that is impossible to sustain, and in which we feel we are constantly failing. In fairy tales, the 'too perfect mother' often cannot survive, and is replaced after her death by the shadowy and wicked stepmother.  We cannot always be patient, loving, and giving.  Life is not all knitting patterns and sour dough starters, cloth nappies on the line and children contentedly playing outside. Sometimes we have to stick CBeebies on, cook them some crap from the depths of the freezer, and let ourselves off the hook.

This week as I fried onions for a giant lasagne, behind me the three year old went crazy with poster paints at the kitchen table, squeezing out vast quantities with gay abandon.  When I turned round and took in the colourful scene, my reaction was so extreme that she began screaming, and woke the one year old who was napping in the bedroom directly above.  I then lost my temper, shouted at the three year old, made her cry, which in turn made me cry, and sob my apologies. It was messy.  For a moment, I just couldn't take the chaos that most of the time I tolerate or even promote in my life. The Shadow erupted in my own kitchen. Afterwards I felt terrible that I had discouraged her and made her feel ashamed when in fact she was having such a joyful time. It wasn't the end of the world.  We hugged, we made up, I cleaned up.  But I know that if I repeat this message often enough, she might start to feel that really letting go creatively (or even 'really letting go') is likely to gain my disapproval, and stop doing it, for good.  And in a worst case scenario, one day she might even find herself pressure washing her house.



  1. What a fascinating post. The chaos, the chaos indeed.

  2. thanks so much L x
    someone once told me to stay with the chaos and allow the meaning to emerge. i'm still waiting!

  3. That's so interesting what you say about Attachment Parenting and the unsustainable ideal. I too have subscribed to similar ideals but without realising that they had a name! But yes, I have tried and tried to be the perfect mother with my son in that respect, but in recent months, with a new baby in the house, have not been able to keep it up! I have felt terrible that I have not been able to sustain the love and attention he needs, have blown up on many occasions, and have wondered whether I have undone all the good work I devoted nearly 3 years of my life to. But perhaps it is good for him to see the Shadow, to see that mummy is bad too and isn't always capable of giving him the love he deserves? I hope so!


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