Friday, 18 July 2014

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...

1 comment:

Vincent said...

I meant to respond to your last one, of which this is the continuation, but had little to say other than to express empathy; that I understood because I had been there too and for the same reasons. To this day i feel uncomfortable with displays of parental - particularly paternal - affection & admiration.

This instalment as you will see has sent me almost instantly to the keyboard, to express spontaneously that which springs to mind. Again the empathy. I want to say that though you have highlighted a tiny part, you have somehow summarized the human condition in this short and passionate essay.

Had I read it even two weeks ago I might have responded differently, I don't know how. Or not responded at all, as with the previous one. But now, what comes out is this:

"Yes, this is the human condition in a nutshell, after you lift the lid off. The lid of hypocrisy, or Pharisaical behaviour, whereby one doesn't want one's worst actions made public, only those which win praise. And one persuades oneself that the public behaviour is the reality."

But what came to me after that was a lesson I am trying to absorb from Meister Eckhart. Actually I am not trying to learn it but it burrows past my conscious mind without me doing anything at all. He praises detachment as the highest virtue, beyond love. I shan't attempt to explain why. His own writings are lucid enough.

I had a practical demonstration of this the other night. My elder daughter now in her mid-forties got stuck somewhere with no mobile phone in the middle of the night. The circumstances are complex but via her husband she managed to contact me, and I picked her up from Oxford Station and brought her back to stay the night. Her husband was pissed off and she feared I would be too. I'm calm and practical in these situations. My detachment made all the difference because I could do the needed thing without judgement or censure. It was such a healing thing, because in the past she has judged me and perhaps held resentments long after certain events for which I carry a certain guilt.

The effect of detachment is to enable you to perform acts of kindness (or simply the right actions) without corrosive emotions getting in the way.

Applying detachment in another way, we can forgive ourselves. So yes, we can be clear-eyed about what was done to us and we have done to others, and this is a necessary part of the healing process.

What I have gained from a little reading of Meister Eckhart includes a sense of his own approach to detachment, for his writings are full of warmth, humour and kindness.

I just obtained by post from America today a book of those writings and when I opened it I discovered that it was exactly the same edition that I'd once had and loved (but neglected and lost) in about 1968, in the same orange and yellow cover, though the cover displayed on Amazon was a more recent one. Cost me a penny plus postage from here.

Our journey extends across the decades.