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Just returned from a school parents’ evening – the first one at our son’s new school.
We came away glowing with pride and residual warmth after hearing the teachers’ earnest and heartfelt endorsement of our son’s achievements. We congratulated him effusively as we walked to the car. He smiled shyly at us both and said, “I think it’s just good genetic material.”
Aw. Bless him.
If that were true, Hubby would be better at Science, and I’d be a lot better at Maths.
But it has made me think. How much of successful parenting is luck? How much is genetic? And how much is external influence? Or is it none of the above, dependent instead on an unplottable, mysterious equation, and a million delicate inter-related factors?
Probably the latter. After all, we have two children and we are not the same parents to both children. Our first had our concentrated and completely neurotic attention for 3 years. Our second was brought up, not just by us, but by her brother too. Even now, they relate to each other in a way that we can’t relate to either of them – they speak a special sibling language that we will never be able to learn.
Our approach to parenting wasn’t really an approach at all. We read the “right” books and magazines during my pregnancy, we tried to be prepared and have principles… but we were completely in the dark to be honest. Neither Hubby nor I had any cousins or friends with babies. We didn’t even particularly like children. We had no idea what being a parent was going to feel like, and I for one didn’t WANT to know. I just wanted to take each day as it came. We didn’t even find out the sex of either baby.
I look back now, and realise that I couldn’t have chanced upon a better attitude – I think our lack of expectation was the only thing that kept us sane. The thing no one tells you about parenthood is the intense rollercoaster lurch from ecstatic highs to utter lying-on-the-floor, bottomless despair – sometimes within seconds. And like a roller coaster, it’s hard to tell whether that expression on your face is laughter or horror. No single day is predictable. Children defy your neat boxes, stereotyping and generalising – which is exactly as it should be.
As a new mum, I made it my mission to DO something every day. When your baby wakes up, all jolly and full of beans and raring to go at 5.45am, it’s a loooong day. I used to strap him into the babybjorn, walk around the neighbourhood for miles, and then come back for a slap up breakfast, and it would STILL only be 7.30am!! Giving the day structure by planning an outing was essential – I felt as if there was a snarling pack of ‘PND’ wolves barely held at bay behind a flimsy door. Going out, seeing people, showing him the sights, helped to keep those wolves away for a few hours.
We were lucky to live in the most fabulous city, where museums were plentiful and free, where the docks and bridges were stunning, where quirky city farms and their amazingly eccentric cafes were perfect for gardenless people like us to ramble about in. Walking to the library was an outing (and also free – we were on one very small income at the time) - we could stay as long as we wanted and read to our heart’s content.
I made good ‘mum’ friends, and we met religiously at least once a week for lunch, taking turns to host. We’d each bring something – a homemade loaf of bread, homous, cheese, salad, and the host would often make soup or pasta – and we’d set it all up on the dining table. Then, we spread blankets on the floor, arrange the babies on the floor, and let them goggle and dribble at each other while we ate, laughed and talked about our tendency to burst into tears for no reason, or our sudden inability to jump on a trampoline without weeing ourselves a little.
This kind of interaction ensured that BOTH baby and I were sufficiently stimulated and happy.
One memorable day, there were no scheduled meetings. Everyone seemed to be away visiting family or on holiday, and the museums were all closed on Mondays, as were the city farms. It had been another early morning with a 5 as the first digit and, although we’d done as much as we could in the house, it was still only 8.30am, and we were both fretful.
I decided, rather rashly, to take Baby Son to a huge shopping centre 40 minutes away. I had visions of strolling through the mall, window shopping, exclaiming over the centrepiece fountain in the food court, and having tea and cake as he dimpled charmingly at passing old ladies. What could go wrong?
A few hours later, I was standing in the rain, actually screaming at the baby buggy which had suddenly lost its ability to collapse - looking like the world’s craziest, scariest mum-zombie. How had things come to this??
It had only taken a few minutes of pushing Baby Son around the mall to realise that my plan was a pile of crap. I’d somehow overlooked the unfortunate fact that he didn’t like ceilings. If we were outside and he was gazing at the sky, well, we could walk forever. However, the second we went under cover, inside any building, he would screw up his face, squirm and whimper. This forgotten nugget scuppered my plans.
I persevered for a while, but he began to escalate; I began to walk comically fast, hoping the resultant breeze on his face would somehow distract him. Eventually I gave up altogether, and pushed him out into the car park, whereupon it started to rain.
Proper, p*ssing down, West Country rain.
He began to wail. I fumbled at his seat belt which was slick with rain, swearing right in his face as I struggled to get him out of the push chair and transfer him to his car seat. By now, he was screaming at the top of his voice, and arching his back, making it almost impossible to fasten his car seat belt. But I managed it. All I needed now – apart from a poke in the eye and a lobotomy – was to start the car engine and DRIVE. This would soothe him instantly.
But when I ran to the boot of the car, and tried to collapse the buggy, it wouldn’t budge. I raged and shrieked and swore at the bloody thing, pushing the button and twisting the mechanism until I had blisters, but it was stuck fast. It wouldn’t fit in the boot unless collapsed.
I was out there in the drumming rain for fully 10 minutes, hearing my poor baby’s wails decrescendo to a dreary, bereft sobbing, while I wrestled with the buggy till my hands bled.
Dripping wet, shivering with cold and frustration, crying with fury, I had one of those black moments of clarity – I saw myself from the outside, and it was pathetic and pitiful. How had I gone from being an enthusiastic professional and talented musician, to THIS?? This bedraggled, weeping, hopeless wretch, whose idea of parenthood was driving her kid to a shopping mall, pushing him around for 20 panicked minutes and then putting him through the whole car seat trauma in the pouring rain?? It was as if the buggy was delivering some sort of karmic retribution for my poor decision making.
I half laughed/sobbed. At that moment, the buggy’s mechanism clicked smoothly into place, and it collapsed innocently to the ground. Still laughing with an edge of hysteria, I hefted the buggy into the boot, opened the driver’s door and squelched into my seat. When I looked around at my poor long-suffering baby, he was fast asleep. I continued to laugh, stuffing my sleeve in my mouth so I didn’t wake him up.
He slept all the way home. He obligingly stayed asleep while I changed my drenched clothes and put the kettle on. When he finally woke up, his long-lashed eyes fixed on my face, he gave me the sunniest cherubic smile, and was the most cheerful, patient little man for the rest of the day.
These sorts of memories have to be filed where they belong – under ‘random’ perhaps, or ‘awful but couldn’t be helped’.
Sometimes we are fabulous parents, and sometimes we are not. Sometimes we happen to give our children exactly what they need at exactly the right time; sometimes every single phrase that comes out from our mouths is WRONG. Learning to accept that this is the way of parenthood, learning to accept the bad memories with retrospective humour and wisdom is the only way to stay sane – to keep trying.
Yes, parenting is a non-stop rollercoaster ride. There are times you’re sure you’d be able to think if you could just GET OFF FOR A MINUTE.
But then there’s the other, shiny side of the coin. Like today. Like the rather gorgeous fact that our son was praised to high heaven by his teachers… and he tried to give us the credit.
Afterword: Ha. I was looking for an image of the Buggery Pushchair on Google, and found the exact make and model - on a news article informing the public about their safety recall due to faulty mechanisms!