Friday, 18 July 2014

This Time it's Personal ~ part 12

The point I have made over and again in these postings is that all this has to come from somewhere. All that abuse and loathing - the contempt and derision, the fury, the tears, come from somewhere.
Now, as I said some way back now, we can talk about nature and nurture here, and souls and free will. I don't want to rehash all that. To summarise, we're actually saying here that either I am genetically predisposed to do that to myself (and to O), or I learned to do it (not as in lessons, but by example - the way small children learn to do most things), or I am just somehow intrinsically like that, or I chose to be this way, or some chaotic combination of the above. Vincent you are right in saying I have not proved anything, and perhaps it is not possible to prove anything beyond all doubt here, but some things are more likely than others, given what we know. As I said, even at its best psychology is not like physics. You can't do repeatable experiments on children keeping all other factors constant. It's all about trends and probabilities and it is all but impossible to make predictions except in the most generalised way. People tend to look at this and say that it's not worth even trying then but I don't agree. You can come up with plausible stories. As Einstein would say - you can do thought experiments. As Greg House would say, you can see if the symptoms fit. In House they often test their hypothesis by treating. If the treatment works, they were probably right about the diagnosis.

I've been trying to think about genetics and I wish I knew more. As a plant ecologist, with all the recent advances in DNA analysis, I had to know more than the average person about how genetics works but frankly I am still far from expert. There is so much new stuff coming along all the time. Trying to visualise how DNA might influence psychology in any definitive way is way beyond me. What I do know is that genes don't determine behaviour in a simple one to one way. They don't even determine anatomy that way. They interact with the environment all the time and in the case of us humans that means other people and what they say and do.
Coming at it from the other end, from what I do know, genes directly affect hormones and neurology. This means it is not hard to imagine how genes might affect the production of adrenaline for example, so some people might be more aggressive, more quick to take fright or less risk averse for example. Other hormones like oxytocin and serotonin affect how we respond to other people for example, or to stress, while testosterone and oestrogen influence how competitive we are and how much we want sex/children. More straight forward physiological effects of our DNA affect how well our ears work (which affects communication), how much energy we have (which affects fulfilment), how tall we get (which affects status), and what medical conditions we are prone to (which affect everything), all of which could influence how we get on in life. From this sort of thing it is easy to imagine, even for the non specialist, that DNA might affect how bright and attentive we are, how well we bond with other people, and how preoccupied we are with our status. So far so basic - note the use of the words 'might affect' and 'could influence', as opposed to 'determines' or 'causes'. As I mentioned before, the average ratio is about 50:50 nature/nurture and it is not a simple matter of genes laying the foundations and the environment building on that. The two influence each other all through life, adjusting and reinforcing or counteracting in feedback loops and synergies. At its most complex it is pure chaos theory - one tiny flutter over here causing a tsunami over there, but that's not the same as saying it's random or intrinsically unknowable. It's just very complex.

A couple of things spring to mind to illustrate this. One is a pair of kittens one of my ex girlfriends got. They were tiny when they arrived and could not have learned anything by example from their mother but within weeks they were in the garden stalking and pouncing on things like any other cat. How does DNA do that?
I was also struck by some examples of identical twins, separated at birth, sharing some bizarre quirks and peccadilloes, such as a predilection for farting in elevators and running away. How can that be in the genes? These questions, in case they be interpreted as doubts about the entire fabric of psychology and genetics and science in general, are exactly the kinds of questions scientists ask when they are thinking about research projects, so don't get too excited, you people of faith. Simply saying 'well it's got to be the soul hasn't it' is not good enough. Just because we don't know the answer doesn't make it legitimate to insert some unknowable entity into the conversation. What is this 'soul' of which you speak? What is it made of? How does it work? How does it have its effect on us as physical beings? Now who's doing the arm waving?

Anyway, enough about that. I look at my family and I think about where I got the way I am from. I look for general trends.
On my dad's side there's a lot of anger, that's for sure. My dad suppressed his because he didn't want to be like his father, my grandpa Fred, but he still had it and we were all well aware of it. Maybe it would have been better if he'd just exploded once in a while. I'm more like Fred in that I have a lot of anger at the way the world is set up, and a lot of frustrations. He came over as this embittered and paranoid old man, ranting on about the council and the government and whoever else had pissed him off lately. He genuinely thought the world was out to get him. I like to think I have a more political/philosophical, less personal take on the problem, but the feeling is the same - one of impotent rage. Dad on the other hand believed in order, in democracy and trades unions and not just complaining but doing something constructive about it. He was mostly frustrated with people because they didn't do what was right. He was afraid of chaos and had no time for people who did not do their bit. My brother Ian also it turns out has a lot of anger in him. It's mostly expressed itself in a rather punk sort of way - a kind of cocky exuberance, which can be quite entertaining but I think there is more to it than that. He keeps it down as our dad did. He doesn't freak out like I do.
What else? Grandpa I know would have liked nothing better than to be marooned on a desert island. Perhaps it was the demands of a loveless marriage and two unplanned children, but I know he would rather have just been able to take himself off somewhere to do what he wanted and not to have to always be keeping up appearances to someone else. He thought back to the war with nostalgia - not because he wanted to kill people or be macho but because it gave him the chance to travel and to have a clear and justifiable purpose in life. But failing that he was a shed man when it came down to it, as I and my dad and my bro are/were. Dad again tried not to be like his father and I suspect pretty much made himself join clubs and sports teams and to not be an outcast and a misfit. I don't know if it came naturally, but my bro has always been very gregarious. He's become more self-sufficient with age. In fact we've become much more alike with age, though I think he is more like dad than I am. He is more laddish, better with people, more into games, but also less emotionally open.
I'm more like my mum in a lot of ways. She's quite insular although she has made friends of her own since dad died. We talk a lot more about people and how they behave, though my mum is incredibly private about her self - very reserved and unaffectionate. She also went into explosive rages and deep sulks when we were kids. The rest of her family - her brothers and her father were much more business-like people than my dad's - more pragmatic - more interested in getting on in the world as it is, rather than wishing it was different. We were all working class but mum's family were more conservative and had much more of a problem with foreigners and other minorities and granddad Joe was a well-known contrarian bigot, though he mellowed with age and I genuinely liked him more than any of the others by the end.
I've not mentioned the two grandmas. That's because I honestly don't have much to say about them. Mum's mum, Dora, died when I was little, dad's only a couple of years ago. Both were old-fashioned chubby mumsy types, completely unlike my own mother. Dad's mum, Kay, 'suffered with her nerves' which may have been a result of her abusive husband or or she might have been like that before, and of course worrying was part of a woman's duties back then, as was being looked down on by the men, but my dad was huge worrier too (it might be what finished him off) and Ian and I both suffer from anxiety. I just about remember grandma's parents, Pop and Nanny Peters, and they were salt of the earth. Everybody liked them.

I'm going to stop there. I don't think it's very helpful because the more I think about it the harder it is to come up with any useful generalisations. It would take a great deal more analysis and a far bigger data set (I know almost nothing about the wider family) to even attempt to identify a strong signal. There's just too much noise.
In any case 'heredity' does not just mean genetics. I could have got my anger due to the over-production of some hormone which is linked to a specific gene, or simply by living with my dad and seeing how he was, or a bit of both. The aim of the exercise here has been more to demonstrate the difficulties (if that needed demonstrating) than to come up with some conclusions.
What I'm left with then is this state of affairs - the Naturalist part of the investigation that simply says 'look at all this stuff' without getting too ahead of itself and jumping to a conclusion. To wit - I have all this anger and panic and shame. This is how it plays out day to day. This is what my childhood was like. This is what the people I grew up with were like. This is the period in history and the place in the world I grew up in. As I have said over and over - and I really want to drive this point home - this stuff comes from somewhere. To simply say it comes from some unknowable place as the people of faith do, or that I simply chose to be this way out of my own free will as the existentialists say is not good enough. Even if we can't identify the precise chain of events we can posit a story and see if the symptoms fit. If possible we then treat it and see if the treatment works.

To recap - I have this way of talking to myself when things go badly and I used it on O when he didn't do things the way I thought they should be done. I use it on the imaginary tekkies who design my PC and my car and even on inanimate objects like the hose at the nursery when they fail to cooperate, and on the slugs and other natural events.The feeling and the reaction is the same. The same contempt, the same impotent rage, the same shame.
Probably there are some straight forward physiological/genetic factors. My energy levels seem to fluctuate wildly. I get tired easily. I sweat profusely, but even these could be effects rather than causes. The sweat gets in my eyes, attracts flies and makes my skin itch (maybe connected to the allergic rashes I used to get?) I experience hunger as anger and force myself on when I should stop and eat. I experience tiredness as a nagging to get things over with. I tend to get a migraine the next day if I force myself on.

Given that some of this is probably innate (by which I mean genetic) is it possible to imagine having the same physiological symptoms but reacting in another way? Of course it is. I could have been easier on myself. Even if the tiredness and the allergies and the sweating are purely physiological, as opposed to reactions to stress I could have rested more, taken my time, let myself off more. What stops me?
What stops me is the driving myself on - the anxiety and the nagging, the sneering and the derision, the loathing and the contempt. Now is that a genetic thing or is it something I've learned? It could be a hormone thing, or a neurological thing that tends to wind me up when I'm under pressure rather than take things steadily. It might be that I have some innate difficulty with socialising that means that when things don't go according to plan that I expect contempt, derision etc.
I'm trying to give the genetics the benefit of the doubt here, but I can't help feeling that whatever the genetic bedrock of the problem, the reactions to it could be more constructive at every level. In short, I can't really bring myself to believe that all the levels of my reactions to trouble are simply expressions of genes. Perhaps I don't know enough about what genes can make us do. Perhaps the twins' farting in elevators does have some explicable atavistic root? Perhaps they're marking their territory somehow. Perhaps evolution worked in such a way that making a smell in a crowded but enclosed space somehow increased the breeding success of some individuals. There are stranger behaviours in the world of nature.

But no, I think for now anyway, I'm just going to have to go for the hypothesis that the story is about something that I experienced and learned to emulate. It strikes me as the most parsimonious explanation apart from anything. Someone treated people that way (with contempt and derision when they made mistakes) and I absorbed it and carried it on.
So, knowing what I know, how might that story go?
And more importantly, how can I treat it?

to be continued...

This Time it's Personal ~ part 11

Cut to the chase - I don't think anyone really thinks much about how much damage is done by parents who don't like their children. Of course nobody will admit it except perhaps in a jokey sort of way, and who would? You'd have to be a monster. Of course we know about the obvious monsters who actually attack and mutilate their children, but they're just freaks. Nothing to do with us. We all love our children, whatever that means.
Love is one of those odd words that seems meaningful but which ultimately could mean anything. You can be having a miserable time with the people you love - your wife, husband, parents, children - always arguing, picking up on the slightest thing, giving them the silent treatment, but you love them - of course you do. S&M couples love each other. Abusive partners love each other. Of course they do. It's the easiest thing in the world to say and who can prove otherwise?

As I said before, I never wanted children of my own. I remember arguing this with relatives when I could only have been 10 or 12. They insisted they knew better with that patronising look grown-ups give children when they use that unfalsifiable old gambit 'Wait 'til you're grown up. You'll see...' and what can the child say? But I knew even then - there were so many other things I wanted to do. I just couldn't imagine devoting that amount of time and energy to a person, so dependent, so needy, so irritating. And in particular I couldn't imagine wasting all those hours at a job I hated, to be able to afford all those little things... No matter what they said, I just couldn't do that. It sounded like a prison sentence, like a trap. And time has proved I was right. I have no children (unless you count the sperm donations) and I've never missed them. Those grown-ups would presumably just smirk and say something about my not having grown up. As far as they're concerned there's no way it could have been a rational decision. My mother-in-law last Christmas was 'subtly' suggesting I might want to have kids of my own now. (She just can't get enough grand children.) She said of course I'd love them once I had them. I told her I didn't want to take the risk. My mum was there. I'm not sure what she thought.

But now I have step-children, and they're ok aren't they? Doesn't that prove something?
No it doesn't. I like them a lot now they're teenagers but the feeling is not so different to living in a shared house with other students, which is how I lived up until I was in my early 40s. I always lived with mature students and post-grads, but most were nevertheless only in their twenties and I can honestly say I loved it. I had almost no bad experiences.
And in any case I was a bloody awful dad. I've sort of glossed over the extent to which they used to wind me up - almost to breaking point. Sometimes (quite often) I was so completely furious with them, O especially, I could have... As I said, I rang the Samaritans once because I just didn't know what to do. I was not completely out of control. There was a line I wouldn't cross - physical violence of course, but I also managed to stop myself calling them all the idiotic miserable morons and useless little shits I could think of. I never insulted them, but I did more than my fair share of shouting - furious, nasty shouting. Frightening shouting. But more than that it was my silence - the cold, contemptuous, dismissive silences. When I restrained myself from yelling I still made sure they knew how I felt.
To be fair they never demanded much of me. Their mother told me at the beginning 'They have a perfectly good father (two actually). They don't need another one.' But that wasn't the issue. It wasn't that they came and demanded much of me. It was the endless passive yet unignorable demands - the 'attention seeking behaviour' - the endless pointless bickering, the sibling rivalry, Z losing it with O, and O bursting into tears at the injustice of it all. The fact that O seemed incapable of letting go of the day and contrived to somehow stay up until everyone was furious with him and he couldn't understand why. Z used to fly into a rage whenever things didn't go according to plan. Mostly I kept to myself - reverting to my shared house student days - retiring to the bedroom, which became my room. If I was at all tired or stressed they drove me nuts - leaving stuff out, not finishing jobs (or forgetting them altogether), wasting stuff, making a fuss when things weren't quite as they expected. To me they seemed to have no resilience, no adaptability, no ability to learn, to think through things, or to have any sense of how they might affect anyone else. It was all about getting attention and getting away with things. There was no 'love' on their part. They didn't care how they upset their mum.
Now you might well say 'That's kids. It's normal.' but that would be my point. Exactly. That's why I don't want kids. Why would anyone? They had their moments sure, but when you look at it, it nowhere near balances. There were just nowhere near enough 'moments' to balance the day to day slog. So I was nastily, quietly, sneering and sarcastic, dismissive and contemptuous. Not all the time, but too often. It made them uncomfortable in their own home and O especially afraid of getting things wrong, and it damaged the relationship between me and Emma.

It wasn't all bad. On the plus side, when I wasn't tired or stressed I could deal with them in a constructive and rational way that their actual parents usually could not, being too caught up in the hubbub and too afraid of saying something 'nasty'. I could arbitrate in disputes not only between the kids but also between them and their mother. Often I could see what was going on more from an outside point of view and to her credit, Emma accepted this. In many ways the situation worked because I was a counterbalance to their (Emma's and her ex's) being a bit too 'nice', but I am well aware that had I been their actual father or if their mother had been more like me it could have been horrible. O and Z have, I believe, turned out as well as they have because overwhelmingly they have a supportive generous family who do genuinely know what it means to love a child and for whom that balance of good and bad times I mentioned above has no real meaning. Chores are still often not properly finished (but they are almost always done nowadays) and things still do not get put back where they came from but I'm coming to the conclusion that that's one of the last stages of development. In any case, simply who they are now outweighs the shortcomings by a long way and so I can say at last that I do love them, although it is not a word we use in our family, and which I still have trouble saying now even when it's true. Emma's and her ex's families say it all the time.

The point I'm coming to here you might have guessed is that my responses to the children (and O in particular) are identical to my responses to myself when I get anything wrong, except without the restraint. I do call myself all the idiotic miserable morons and useless shits in the world. I am sneering and contemptuous and dismissive of myself. I call myself a waste of space, and, like O, I am tearful and anxious and resentful. I hate me. I loathe me. I have nothing but contempt for me - making excuses, failing to learn from the past, not thinking, doing the same stupid thing all over again, whinging, and I am furious because I am not being listened to. Even when there are good reasons for what I did I won't accept them because it is all excuses. I should have thought about it more, allowed more time. I am both me and O in these scenarios - swapping back and forth. I am the sneering parent glaring down at the tearful indignant child and also the child, almost in tears, trying to explain, trying to put things right, blaming something else, anything else, because I can't possibly take all that blame on myself. As I said way back in part 2 or 3, there is a parent and a child here in my one person (blessed trinity). I am me and O. I am me and... who?

to be continued...

Friday, 11 July 2014

This Time it's Personal ~ part 10

I've never had children of my own but I've had step-kids twice - B when I was in my late twenties for four years or so, and Z and O now and for the last 10 years. In both cases I've found the experience difficult to say the least. I even rang the Samaritans up once because I was just so beside myself. (I wasn't suicidal. I just needed to vent.) In both cases things improved enormously once they hit adolescence and I'd say I have a very good relationship with Z and O now and by the time we broke up I got on better with B than I did with her mum. I can relate to teenagers. Make of that what you will. Partly I think it's just too late to change anything much by that age but also I think they just have a way of thinking that small children just don't. Plus they are more aware of how ridiculous they look. I can communicate with teenagers. Children just leave me baffled and infuriated.

The causes of this infuriation are many and varied but are mostly about waste and thoughtlessness. I find an apple with just one bite out of it in the bin (not even in the compost bucket, which is right next to it!) We buy fruit. They ask us to buy fruit but presumably the apple did not taste quite the way they expected or wanted so in the bin it went and it drives me nuts. I was too young to be brought up in post-war austerity but I seem to have inherited a loathing of waste from my parents who did live through that time. O leaves the telly on pause for hours while he goes and does something else, as if he can't bear to turn it off, as if he is scared it might never turn on again. Electrical goods pack up and they just accept that you just chuck them out and get a new one (though not with their money of course). Dinners get wasted. They claim not to like them but I strongly suspect they don't really know what 'don't like' means. I had a couple of things I really couldn't eat when I was a child, swede for example, but basically I ate almost everything. What they mean is they don't happen to fancy it at that precise moment, or it wasn't quite what they expected. I enjoy cooking and am pretty good at it by all accounts, and making a meal from scratch is one of the few ways I have of showing I care so this rejection was a regular source of unhappiness.
This, I really must say, has changed enormously since I've known them. Nowadays they'll eat a very wide range of things with my veggie curry well up among their favourites but it still happens occasionally and it still upsets me. I'm not trying to justify any of this. I'm just saying this is how it is.

When they were younger (I've known them since they were 6 and 7 respectively) there were regular tantrums and freak outs. O used relate to people mainly by winding them up (especially his sister) and then burst into tears when they got fed up with him. Z used to take any opportunity to throw a wobbler, shouting and screaming whenever things didn't go the way she wanted. They bickered constantly, O trying to wind Z up, and was always hugely offended when she lost her temper with him. Happy days. They never got really violent but they had absolutely no sense of how much they were affecting other people and just kept on and on until somebody lost it or they wore themselves out.
I don't know how much impact I've had on how O and Z have grown up. Probably they'd have turned out fine without me, but I like to think I've had some effect. I remember a conversation with Emma back at the start about her children (luckily she's never taken the position some single mums do, that the new man can have no part in how her children are brought up. Add to this the fact that her ex and his partner are thoroughly decent blokes and we all generally get on remarkably well, and, suffice it to say, things could have been much much worse.) The gist of this conversation was that basically there was 'nasty' and there was 'nice'. Being helpful and encouraging and calm with your children was 'nice' and being angry and disapproving was 'nasty' and of course she didn't want to be nasty to them. I pointed out that there is a third option which is 'firm'. She just wouldn't say it like she meant it in case it came over as 'nasty'. No doubt her and her ex would have worked this out for themselves sooner or later but at the time they were almost powerless in the maelstrom. If you've got one person in a dispute who is trying to be calm and reasonable and generous and another who is prepared to scream and shout and doesn't care what anybody thinks or says it's obvious who will win, every time. Until somebody is prepared to say "That's it. I'm not listening until you talk to me properly" and sound like they mean it the child will always escalate because basically, it occasionally works and what has it got to lose? Certainly not its dignity. I'm not against smacking because violence is wrong (I got smacked occasionally and I don't think it did me any harm especially) but because it's not necessary. A firm (not shrill, and especially not pleading) voice is enough. If worst comes to worst I threaten them with a lecture, and nobody wants that.

I'm lucky I guess - I'm fairly articulate and I'm good at reasoning. Not everyone is, I understand, but the main thing it seems to me is for the parent to talk like they should be heard and the children should listen. I think that's the thing. I think that's what's missing with so many difficult child/parent relationships. The parents don't really believe deep down that they should be listened to. 'What right have I to tell anyone what to do?' they say. We post-sixties generation have grown up with the feeling, deep down, that parents are old fashioned, stuffy, out of touch, and that the children are somehow naturally better, more in tune with how things should be, if we'd just leave them to it. They should be teaching us, not vice-versa. But they're not. At best they're just like anyone else - sometimes they're good and sometimes they're not, and at worst they are amoral, selfish, unreasonable (in the strictest sense of the word) and ignorant.

They don't know much. It's not their fault, they just haven't been around that long. They haven't had that many experiences, they haven't thought about things that much, they haven't had that many conversations. It's not authoritarianism and pedantry that makes us authoritative and pedagogical, it's necessity and responsibility. It's become fashionable to say that the kids are so far ahead of us these days - look at all the technology - they run rings around us, but not that much has changed. Fruit is still better for you than sweets. The French still speak French. Bees still buzz and bombs still go boom. Some things are still ugly and brutal and other things are beautiful and pleasant. Talking to other people still involves broadly the same techniques. Fairness and honesty and generosity haven't changed their meanings and none of this is hard-wired into the developing child. It has to be learned.

And actually we're not as different from them as our parents were from us. For those of us who grew up in the sixties and seventies, our attitude to careers and education, technology, health and sex, race and religion, arts and science are much more like theirs than our parents were to ours. We're used to things changing all the time too, though not at quite such a rate. I don't think I have a problem with technology because of the generation I grew up in. It's just not my thing. Many of the people I grew up with love technology, and a lot of kids use it but are no more interested in it than I am. After all, I'm a bit of a luddite but I use Blogger, Flickr, excel, itunes, Lulu, Paypal, Google, Yahoo, Panda... I met my wife on line and have made more friends on line than I have in real life - real friends that I correspond with, visit and swap things with (seeds mostly). I don't do Skype, Twitter or Facebook but many people my age do - can't get them off the bloody thing. I don't do gaming either, but then I never did like games even when I was a kid, but most of the music I listen to is less than 10 years old and damn fine it is too.
So we parents (because I am one, whether I like it or not) should have the courage to stand up and say 'You have a lot to learn' and be proud of that. They know some stuff we don't (something my parents wouldn't admit) and we don't know everything but overall we know a lot more than they do and we should be able to share it. Take responsibility!

What does all this have to do with the rest of these essays?
Watch this space

to be continued...