Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The democratic republic of childhood

Last night saw Showdown at our house.

The usual story… a long day culminated in a bout of dinnertime naughtiness, then the barked order to, "Go upstairs and get ready for bed right now," then extended stubborn refusal, pushing, crying, howling, screaming, and me with my fingers in my ears and my eyes shut, willing it all to go away.

It wasn't pretty. I didn't feel good for my Show Of Authority. The children were particularly outraged and irked, because their punishment was coterminous with not having apple crumble. They insisted that they had in no way been naughty, that they had, "just been laughing", and they wanted a recount. There was a tearful, fruitless, appeal to the Father, working upstairs. Eventually they gave up, and retreated to the silence and darkness of their lairs.

I held firm. To my ears. I sat, catatonic, at my desk, pretending to sort out chores.

Half an hour passed.

My husband finished the work he was doing, gave me a look, and left for a party.

I trailed downstairs to the kitchen to look mournfully at the burnt apple crumble.

A rush of four bare feet paddled down behind me, four warm hands clutched me, two fervent apologies were breathlessly issued.

Followed closely by, "Can we have crumble now?"

We ended up, double helpings of crumble and chocolate custard later, in bed, reading Octonauts and Horrible Histories, with two hot water bottles and roughly six bears. We all fell asleep there, me fully clothed.


Today we all tried to talk about what had happened. We'd had a good afternoon out. There was nothing terribly wrong, apart from my fatigue, which is pretty permanent. Repeated table manner admonishment is the norm, not the exception, in our house — you'd think I'd be used to it.

Why did I decide that then and there was the moment absolute authority had to be established, and through a punitive order which would deprive them of something they were expecting? Because I'd had it.

I know exactly what the Expert Parenting Authorities will say to me: "But you have allowed negotiation in the past, and so the children do not understand when you suddenly decide to lay down the law. It's YOUR fault."

If I were an absolutist tyrant every night, would the children be using their table manners perfectly by now, while loathing me? Yes. Yes they would. I know that for an experiential fact.

Will the approach of patient (all right, semi-patient) grumpiness, dessert-based bribery, and eye-rolling reiteration take longer, but result in good manners by the time they leave the family home? My goodness, I hope so. 

To me, the family is a democracy not a tyranny, in which the children should get a vote on certain policies. The adults retain prime ministerial veto: we manage the budgets, and won't permit filibustering; I run the Education and Healthcare departments. Actually, I run all the departments, and there have been severe cutbacks to the Civil Service of late. But the children engage in parliamentary debate where they can. And they should, otherwise what are they learning about authority?

Of course I know the difference between being authoritative and being authoritarian. Of course I rein in the children's behaviour and manner when they become too raucous, or when they are downright rude or disrespectful. And of course sometimes I've had enough, and deploy the police force. Negotiation has its place. So does the ultimatum.

One of the reasons parenting is so exhausting is precisely because every situation is emotionally subtly different, even if there is a high degree of structural overlap (the Witching Hours/table manners fisticuffs/making them get in the bath/wash their hair/brush it/do their teeth/homework etc etc). The children found my decree absolute so unfair because we'd had a good day, and they can't read my increasing impatience and annoyance, which is based on my exhaustion. They don't know that my local frustration, while caused by their behaviour, is amplified by my own relentless feelings of frustration, pulsing round my head. When I'd finally had it, and ordered them upstairs to bed, it came from nowhere as far as they were concerned.

Having said this, I'm certainly not saying any of this to imply that I'm a bad mother, or shouldn't have done what I did. On the contrary: they did need to be sent to bed. Their behaviour was grim. And after their outrage had abated, and they had had a think about events, they decided that an apology was in order. Once they had acknowledged that they had been out of line, I apologised for shouting, and we patched things up.

No one said democracy is easy. That's why it's important to defend it.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Girls don't wanna have fun

A friend made a very intriguing comment this morning. Our children are going away for a five-day outward bound trip, and we stood in the October playground, acorns and condensation dropping on our heads, watching them try to unpack their rucksacks before they'd even boarded the coach.

I was encouraging my friend to go out every night while her child is away, and take the chance to reconnect with her partner. She said, "But I find it really hard to go out if everything's not done, I'm not sure if I can actually do that any more".

We looked at each other, she, a highly intelligent, senior civil servant, and published author, working full time, me… in my yoga gear, and nodded. After a decade of clearing up, we have gradually been worn down until neither of us can face "dropping everything and going out for the fun of it", simply because of what will be waiting for us when we get back home.

Now… is this being adult, depressed or a drudge? Which is it? I never thought I would be happier in bed at 9.30pm with a book (sometimes earlier, sometimes actually falling asleep while reading to the children). In fact I did everything I could to carry on partying long after most of my peers had sorted out careers and regulated their hours. I'm not content with my cloistered nunnery, and would in theory rather be out at gallery openings, theatres, and dinner parties — but when those things actually come along, they are so difficult to organize (babysitters, clearing up, planning following day), and usually so expensive, that I have come to duck out of and avoid them as worse than being at home.

Neither of us has slacker men, so this is not a fifty-fifty whine. This has to do with acceptance. The reality of my life, with its tight time parameters, endless amounts of piffling detail, daily Hedda Gabler performances from both children, and dwindling resources on every level, is difficult to avoid. It is composed of little else but obstacles, challenges and puzzles to solve. They aren't interesting, I'm bored stupid by the repetition, and frequently want to scream. And do. I have to invent mind games to prevent complete mental shutdown. Reminding myself that I chose this doesn't particularly help.

Yet fighting that reality is even less worthwhile than going with it, trying to swim. And "leaving the washing up and going out" is actually a fight rather than a pleasure 99% of the time, with a nasty payback in increased workload.

My house is not spotless. My kitchen is not clean. I do not sweep behind the fridge. This is not about being a Dutch housewife, as my father used to say when mum fussed. I get my kicks in other ways, stealing time in the day, running off to yoga when I should be writing, savouring coffee in my kitchen, baking, deliberately ignoring pointless instructions from school, subverting the homework on creationism by telling my son about the Big Bang, and pointing out that Jews and Christians share the same creation myth, subverting the AQA French A level syllabus by introducing a sixteen-year-old to Candide rather than l'environnement, watching his face light up when he realizes Voltaire has just made a joke about fat women…

When I was working eighty hours a week as an academic, I would never have dreamt of writing a blog post about whether or not to go out. I'm reading this back now, thinking, "this is the most boring post in the world, I have turned into a middle-aged frump, and I call this acceptance and happiness? What is wrong with me? Fight the power, woman!"

Perhaps what I'm trying to say is that happiness has turned out — for me — to be an inwardly-directed energy, which is actually disrupted by too much external stimulation. How odd that this discovery has coincided with staying in with the European washing mountain.