I recently went to the Continent, to the Netherlands, to be precise. My Dutch nephew was getting married. I ended up having to go sans husband, whose passport is currently with the Home Office awaiting a stamp of indefinite leave to remain in the UK (he's Australian). Charmingly, they have had it since the end of January, and have just informed him airily that it might take 'up to six months' to lift a wrist and put a stamp in the document. Meanwhile, husband carries on working day in, day out for a British organization, and paying UK tax.
This is less of a digression than it seems. What I encountered while acting the single mother in the land of Spinoza, Grotius, tolerance and liberalism reminded me that parenting is a cultural, not a natural, phenomenon all over again. As if I needed reminding.
My two children are, by British lights, fairly well-behaved, heard more than seen upon occasion, but not thugs. Not to my knowledge, anyway. But in the house of my decent and civilised Dutch brother and his wife, they seemed to transmogrify into weevils. Each meal saw me bobbing up and down to chase runaway son, or wag finger at table-mannerless daughter. There was the serious-talking-to-in-suppressed-hisses in the bedroom, the frank yelling, the failed time out on the thinking step (son simply runs upstairs to play), and then son's pièce de résistance: the nightly bed sorties. This saw yours truly reduced to near tears (I am a 42-year-old adult, ladies and gentlemen), as son popped repeatedly and relentlessly out of bed and reappeared in the doorway, like a demented Punch puppet. My final gambit involved putting him in the car outside for ten minutes, while I sat in the darkened hallway, my head rattling with insane, murderous thoughts, and I winced in shame.
So much for the poor behaviour. The stage I hadn't bargained for was the parenting coaching session I then received from my brother and sister-in-law. The latter is all behaviourist – a former nurse who brought her two sons up with boundaries so clean they squeaked. The former suffered at the hands of the same father I did, and has a much murkier view of character development. For my brother, it was a mystery (with shady Oedipal overtones) as to what motivated my son to torment me with his naughtiness. For my sister-in-law, it was clear as a bell: I was niet consequent. I apparently do not follow through on my instructions. My children are living a life without boundaries, the long-term outcome of which will be that they will turn into football hooligans, coming across to Holland on ferries, throwing cobble stones, and overturning bicycles. Although now that we've voted to Brexit, none of that matters, we can all just turn our cobble stones on each other. Frankly, it's all we'll have to eat.
On our last morning, I sat breakfasting with son, who demanded to get down mid-repast. I said no, and then, apparently, I relented, entering into what is known in the UK as a conversation with my child, in which he promises to do something if I let him do something else. I've found this to work with my truculent son, albeit slowing life down a little. But in Naaldwijk, this was a sign of my maternal lenience. I found my sister-in-law sitting next to me, pointing out where I'm soft on crime and the causes of crime, bewildered by which set of parenting rules I was supposed to be following.
I exited the arena to fume under the shower about interference.
But later, on the Hoek of Holland ferry, I watched as a brood of twelve (I'm not kidding) freckle-faced, broad-beamed children ran amok. It was like watching a cartoon of feral meerkats on speed. They actually bullied the shipboard entertainer into stopping his show, at which my daughter burst into tears (she was nearly seven when this happened – today a fifteen-year-old taller than I am, she can still remember the moment with crystalline clarity).
Their mothers appeared, several hours later, formidable identical Irish twin sisters. They had both dyed their red hair... red. One wore a denim miniskirt that covered some of her upper thigh, revealing the contents of many childbirths hanging over the waistband. Neither of them did anything to rein in the exuberance of their sweet little kiddies. Their husbands had propped up the bar throughout the voyage. They left the ferry in a windowless white van, pulling the biggest caravan in the world.
I realise as I read this description back that I sound like a bigoted prig. I'm not, as it happens, but incidents like that make me reconsider… One woman's freedom is another woman's ruined ferry crossing. I think John Locke might have something to say on the matter. Boundaries of some kind are perhaps desirable after all.
Later still, back on English soil, I was in M&S with son, who was throwing a wobbly about some naughtiness. He stood in the middle of the aisle, wailing piteously, scooter thrown to the floor. I calmly paid for my purchases, and then waited, calmly, exactly where I was, until he pulled himself together and came to me for a cuddle.
In the meantime, I had to endure the censure of multitudes of old ladies, young ladies, men, and children, staring at me as though I was the devil's work for leaving a poor little boy sobbing in a supermarket.
I am unrepentant. The Dutch are on to something.