Things Fall Apart: I'm teaching my child 'different is normal'

In the last year, Liadan Hynes' marriage fell apart. She is now working on adjusting to the new reality. In her weekly column, Things Fall Apartshe is exploring the myriad ways a person can find their way back to themselves

We have a children’s book at home about Coco Chanel. It’s one of that Little People, Big Dreams series, where they whittle down the lives of impressive women into child-appropriate sized bites.

The story of Coco Chanel-y, as my four-year-old fondly refers to her, is currently one of Herself’s favourite books.

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Coco’s story is that of an orphan, raised by nuns who misunderstood her, and punished her because she was different. As an adult, she moves to Paris, sews by day and sings by night, before eventually changing the world, purely by dint of being different.


“The nuns thought Gabrielle was very strange. She was different and they didn’t like it,” goes the book, in a scene where a young Coco, wearing a striped top (obviously) she has made herself, is forced to repeatedly write her favourite saying on the chalkboard: “To be irreplaceable one must always be different.”

Difference isn't a bad thing

When life goes off the tracks, being different can feel like a burden, and sometimes it is tempting to try to fashion some sort of version of what went before. Or worse, to compare oneself, and come up short, when finding oneself, well, different.

About our children, we are most vulnerable, furthest from logic, most unable to rationalise our way out of our fears. “Don’t worry,” a friend who is a primary school teacher told me comfortingly, “when she gets to school half the class will have parents who are separated.” And we burst out laughing, at the realisation that she was comforting me with the misfortune of others.

And then you think, 'feck this'. We are not building our lives on the premise that different is bad.

Difference is normal

Since she was a baby I have said to my daughter, “let’s get cosy,” because I wanted it to be a reflex for her, a state she would unthinkingly go to; the instinct to get cosy when she needed to relax, to be comforted and get comfortable. And now as a four-year-old, she will say of her own accord “mommy let’s get cosy,” and we will hunker down on the couch under blankets to watch a movie, or curl up in bed and read books.


Now, I do the same with different. Make the belief that 'everyone is different' a reflex attitude. I tell her "yes, everyone is different", when she comments on another’s life; be it a sibling situation, a pet, where a family member lives, what kind of dolls' house a playmate has. And it is becoming her natural baseline attitude to life.

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When someone tells her something about a family that is different from ours, she plays her trump card, casually announcing; “Well yes, but I have a Song Yue,” in reference to her beloved aunt-to-be from China. Everyone has different things, different people. Everyone is different things.

A sense of togetherness

This week's The Spill podcast hosted a live broadcast with Emilie Pine and Louise MacSharry; two women who have been massively impressive in speaking about things that have been difficult for them, that might have them perceived as different.

When Louise, (who is such a natural, compelling communicator that I realised afterwards I would watch her read Aldi catalogues aloud and be riveted), spoke to a room full of mostly women (three men) about her feelings about her body, her struggles at times for self-love, you could have heard a pin drop. When Emilie Pine said the word 'anorexia', it was like a current shot through the room. Of sympathy, recognition, empathy.

To open up about feelings that involve a sense of otherness is both an act of bravery, and of solidarity towards other women. “Everything they said I thought yes, I have my version of that moment too,” said one of the women at my table afterwards, almost checking off on her fingers her own experiences of self-hatred towards her body, physical molestation by a man in public, of discomfort with the functions of a female body.


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These two incredibly impressive, bright, interesting, funny, women being so vulnerable was an act of strength, and a gift to all the women in the room.

Because of course, being different is, in its own way, being the same.

Because who doesn’t have stuff that makes them feel different, feel other?

When I tell my daughter we’re different, really it’s a way of saying we’re the same. Because everyone has a thing they struggle with. Mine might be acclimatising to a new family situation; yours might be anxiety, depression, illness, IVF, grief, or something seemingly much smaller. Whatever.

At the end of our child’s book on the life of Coco Chanel, we are told that everyone remembers Chanel because by being different; she made other people think differently too. She made different into a superpower.

“You do you babes,” Louise said this week, summing up her motto to life. Words to live by.


Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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