What Kind of Parent are You?

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I was lucky to receive three cards on Mothers’ Day. The first to arrive was a sparkly depiction of two unicorns-large and small-portraying an idealised, rainbow-backed vision of motherhood, cosy, pretty and delightful. The second a hand-drawn picture of two figures side-by-side, one larger in trousers [me], the other small in a dress [Grand-Offspring]. The third a photo of a ravaged old hag.

Of course I’m delighted by all of these depictions of myself, as parent and grandparent, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, they’ve all remembered the day. If your Offspring have negotiated all the hurdles on the way to adulthood and continue to communicate with you it must be some kind of miracle.

Parenting is like navigating the seas, periods of calm punctuated by violent storms. Sometimes the storms are catastrophic. Sometimes the calms are flat enough to believe you are becalmed and stranded, never to reach the shore.

When the offspring are safely grown and in their own nests you may consider your duty done but that is very far from the truth. You continue to feel responsible, to offer support, to care, in a way that few creatures in the natural world do [except perhaps for elephants?].

Myself, 38 years ago and pregnant, I was an ignoramus on the subject of babies. While I was acquainted with the development and behaviour of young children, when I had the first I was exhausted and  panicky in equal measures-a rabbit caught in the headlights. My long held belief that babies ate and slept was shattered. As they grew I was unprepared for the frustration, penury and utter boredom that life with toddlers can be. But in other ways they were, at that time, the very best part of my life.

Becoming a grandparent is well documented as delightful and easier [in that you ‘can hand them back’] although there are hazards and traps to avoid. I was prey to much advice as a new mum-‘Pull yourself together; you’ve only had a baby’ was one gem [as I lay strapped to various devices in the hospital bed, post Caesarian Section]. So I try to stick to merely describing my own experiences while also attempting to adhere to parental rules and guidelines regarding treats etc

There is a huge variety of parenting styles, from controlling to liberal and most are dependent on our personalities as adults and, perhaps, our own experiences as children. There is no such thing as a perfect parent so we must rely on guesswork, friends or manuals to solve conundrums like faddy eating. The fact that I came to depend on the quaintly old-fashioned ‘Baby and Child Care’ by Dr Benjamin Spock demonstrates how long ago I became a mum. But if not trendy, his approach to child rearing seemed calm and sensible at the time.

Above all I do hope I’ve managed to maintain some vestiges of humour as they’ve grown up. Long may it continue!

 

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Missing Persons

In an idle moment, whilst Offspring 2 was visiting last week we delved into the small archive of family photos I managed to salvage from my parents belongings before Sibling 1 ditched the entire caboodle into a refuse bin.

This did not happen recently, you understand. My father shuffled from the mortal coil nearly 10 years ago; but it is only now that Offspring has indicated an interest in constructing some kind of family tree and has enlisted my help in annotation. The help is limited, since my knowledge of our ancestral roots is woefully lacking.

My mother had 3 siblings and my father 6. I am able to detail my mother’s sister and 2 brothers plus their offspring [my cousins]. On my father’s side, where he had 3 sisters and 3 brothers I can name my uncles and aunts but am flummoxed by all but the nearest in age cousins. As my father was the youngest of 7, the age difference between he and his oldest brother was so great that he and his nephew [my cousin] were almost the same age, prompting my grandfather to call my father [at around age 4] ‘Uncle’.

I never knew my paternal grandparents, who had a smallholding on a modest farm plot in a Wiltshire village on the edge of The New Forest. But I know that my grandfather, Harry was a ‘character’ who took the produce to market in Salisbury twice a week on a cart pulled by a horse called Ginger. Harry, [according to my father] was inclined to squander some of the proceeds of his market stall in the local hostelry before he returned and was regularly brought back to the farm [much the worse for wear] by Ginger, who knew the way.

But I love the photographs; small, grainy monochrome snapshots of smiling subjects who seem always to be having fun, always to be in the sunshine or always enjoying a day at the beach, a picnic, a dog-walk. Often they are smoking a cigarette and appear to be sharing a private joke and I long to know what it is. These are their ‘selfies’, the difference between them and the social media equivalents being that they were not shared instantly with all and sundry and were left for us, the curious descendants to unravel their mysteries.

I wish, now that I had plundered my father’s memories before he departed. There are a few pencil annotations in my mother’s elegant, sloping hand on the back of a few, often with question marks, indicating that she, too was mystified by the photographs.

Yes, we could pay to discover our ancestry, but it’s not a route I want to travel down. Offspring, perhaps may do so in the future. But I have employed some of the characters in a story, published on this blog in 2015, an extract of which can be read here: ‘Caught’

 

At Seventeen

A seventeen year old boy has died at the Reading Festival this year. This is a tragic event for him-his young life ended just as it was beginning-and for his parents, family and friends. It set me thinking back to my life at seventeen.

Seventeen is an ‘in-between’ age, at once awkward, daring, angst-ridden and thrilling. You’ll be on the verge of leaping from childhood into adulthood, preparing for university or employment, marriage [as my mother was] or parenthood. Janis Ian’s heartfelt ‘At Seventeen’ describes the longing and the turmoil involved in being the age:

‘And those of us with ravaged faces
Lacking in the social graces
Desperately remained at home
Inventing lovers on the phone’

As a seventeen year old and the youngest in our family I appeared to have been granted a lot of freedom for the time [the late 60s]. The hippy period was underway. I had a suitably Lennon-esque, guitar-playing boyfriend with a car. We roamed the county in search of music gigs, getting to see everyone from Fairport Convention and Family to John Heisman’s Coliseum and Chicken Shack. I wore long, trailing skirts and often went barefoot out of school hours. I went on camping trips in a group that consisted of all boys, trusted by my mother because the boyfriend and all the others were choirboys! Little did she guess…

We experimented with weed, drank more than we could cope with, spent long nights listening to entire albums [LPs as they were] by our favourite musicians. When I was left at home for many weekends while my parents went to help out with caring for my sick grandfather I either spent the days at the boyfriend’s, lolling about in his bedroom while his mother made meals for us, or holding impromptu, drunken parties in my own parent-free home. The aftermath of these drunken and weed-ridden bashes meant Sundays attempting to clean up and formulating explanations for broken items, aromas or stains.

At the watershed that was end of school and start of student life, Boyfriend and I went our separate ways, figuratively and literally-he to Sheffield and I to London. When I announced to my mother that a subsequent Boyfriend and I were to share a flat she astounded me by being outraged, spluttering ‘You needn’t think you are doing that in this house!’ Could she really have had no idea at all about my activities as a seventeen-year-old?

My own, post-Aids era offspring were of course more circumspect, more grounded and less wild. They grew up in the Margaret Thatcher, shoulder-pad years and without the benefits of student grants; with 80s music, Rubik’s Cubes and Angel Delight.

Parenting is tough. Kids can’t be sheltered forever. You have to arm them with common sense and knowledge of the facts, be there when needed and then let them go-with fingers crossed tightly behind your back. You might be horribly unlucky, as were the parents of the boy at the festival or you might be fortunate, as were my own, blissfully ignorant parents.

Fledglings, Families and Feelings

Parenthood is an expensive, glorious, heart-breaking, exhausting, rewarding, demoralising, satisfying and confusing state. There is the fever of anticipation [whether planned or not], the anxiety, the draining tiredness, the anxiety, the frustrations, the pleasures and the…yes…anxiety. And then just when you think you have safely despatched your duty, done your best, got them to fledge, downsized, bought the yacht, booked the world tour, had a lie-in,the inevitable happens-they return!

There is no model for this in nature-although I believe female elephants stay in their families [the boys must go and fend for themselves and prepare for fighting and finding mates]. Baby birds do not return to their nests when they are unable to find worms for themselves, young lions must go out and seek their own gazelle to slaughter and sheep may safely graze unaided once weaned.

The returning, grown-up offspring is a double edged sword. You can no longer gripe about never hearing from them or seeing them. On the other hand you must reclaim the room they once slept in, played and made a mess of, which may now be a beautiful guest room, study, motorbike disassembly workshop, dressing room or pottery studio [or simply a repository for all the items you have no idea what to do with]. You may no longer choose to loll around on the sofa with a bowl of cornflakes and watch ‘Eastenders’ rather than making dinner. You cannot slouch about upstairs ‘au natural’ as the unedifying sight of your [=my] ageing physique is likely to be frightening, and/or sick-making at the very least.

If you are lucky enough to possess multiple rooms with TVs you can avoid conflicts over programmes, although you still can expect scoffing over your choices and disbelief over your ignorance on the subject of films/actors/music from any time from the last twenty years [or more].

There will also be stashes of the kind of snacks you had sought to avoid since children no longer shared your house. You open the fridge and the shelves are stacked with chocolate. The cupboards house multi-packs of Cheesy What-nots or Monster Crunch.

Over time you adapt. You squidge up. You make room on the sofa, in the wardrobe and at the table. You increase your grocery shopping, attempt to avoid the chocolate and try to remember who is the current Dr Who. You begin to appreciate the benefits of having an on-site computer technician who can reclaim lost documents, eradicate malevolent, lurking viruses and show you for the hundredth time how to play your music, not to mention the opportunities to gossip about other members of the family and take girly shopping trips with intermittent coffee and cake.

One day, though it is ended. That’s it. You’ve removed the stabiliser wheels and let go of the saddle.  The room is cleared, cleaned of belongings and fluff; reverted into its original ‘guest room’ status. Bare, clean and sad.