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 6 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.
My two children are, by British lights, fairly well-behaved, heard more than seen upon occasion, but not thugs. But in the house of my much-loved Dutch brother and 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 appeared in the doorway, like a demented Punch puppet. My final gambit involved putting him in the car outside for 5 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 inconsequential. 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.
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 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 12 (I'm not kidding) ginger-haired, freckle-faced, broad-beamed and potato-headed children ran amok. It was like watching a cartoon of fat feral meerkats. They even managed to stop the entertainer doing his show, at which my daughter burst into tears. Their mother appeared, several hours later, with her identical sister. They had both dyed their red hair... red, and one wore a demin miniskirt that covered her upper thigh, revealing the contents of 6 childbirths hanging over the waistband. Their husbands had propped up the bar throughout the voyage. I can hardly bear to add that the families were Irish. They left the ferry in a windowless white van, pulling the biggest caravan in the world. Boundaries are perhaps desirable after all.
And later still, back on English soil, I was in M& S with son, who threw a wobbly about being stood in the corner for 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 until he had 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 my poor little boy crying in a supermarket.
I think I know who was right.