My daughter and I have agreed to give something up for Lent.
I'm giving up extra sugar, she's giving up excessive time online, and limiting it to half an hour (not including schoolwork time (for terms and conditions read the small print)).
It's as impossible to give up sugar completely as it is to stay off the internet now. Some form of sugar is in most everything we eat, whether it's processed or not, and since my girl was given an iPad by her school, there is literally no way she will be able to remain internet-free from now on. The techno tsunami has washed into our house.
In the run up to Lent I was eating more and more sugary nonsense, in a bid to cope with stress, and my lack of time to write. Meanwhile she was always creeping off to her room to message friends, and spend extraordinary amounts of her time on apps entitled things like, 'Tropical Fish Bundle', 'Hollywood U: Rising Stars', 'Kim Kardashian: Hollywood' etc. She has also started to spend her own pocket money on things called 'Life Point Lotus'. The thin end of the wedge is upon me!
Perhaps I'm wrong, but watching this change in her, from child-who-is-always-reading-and-drawing to child-locked-in-room-with-gizmo, which has been extraordinarily rapid, a matter of a couple of months, saturates me with dread.
When I was her age, I used to sit in a brown-painted hallway every Wednesday, waiting for my piano lesson. Each week without fail, I bought a Twix and a copy of Jackie magazine. I ate the chocolate, and stared at the teen mag, filled with photostories of girls with boyfriends, girls at discos, girls putting on makeup. I used that half hour, every week, to fill myself with loathing of myself. The whole ritual symbolised eloquently that I was fat, spotty and ugly, a nerd incapable of meeting a boy who would like me, doomed to isolation, perfectionism, eternal ugliness and work, just work. That Wednesday moment was the epicentre of my puberty, founding a malfunction that eventually nearly pulled me under altogether.
The fear that this will happen to my child is what washes through me whenever I see her door closed. I imagine her torturing herself with images of bodily 'perfection' that simply do not exist, worrying about whether she will ever attract a boy, beating herself up for not being pretty enough, slowly ebbing away from her true identity — my beautiful, beautiful girl.
I cannot help myself. I see her iPad, her iPhone, her Kindle, all of which she now possesses, for different reasons, with our ambivalent blessing, as akin to handing her a packet of fags or a free pass to Soho. I know, rationally, that she must be conversant with apps, know how to research online, needs to be able to socialise with friends as they do, may find whole new creative outlets that people of my generation don't yet know about.
But the time, the precious time wasted, the exposure to bitching and its normalisation, the alienation of staring into fragments of other people's lives — it still happens to me when I watch TV for too long, or sit on Facebook: that feeling of emptiness, uselessness, failure of passively witnessing other people's apparent success. I don't want her exposed to those pernicious conductors of post-capitalist ideology. I can't stop it happening, but I feel utterly invaded, in my own home.
Listen to the Luddite.
So, after weeks of stand-off, I went to her with a proposal. We would each give something up for Lent — Technical Specification: 40 days of self-denial and atonement, and temptation by the Devil — and we would keep a log to see what happened. To my surprise she agreed, liking the idea of sticking to a framework, having some rules.
In the first couple of days she strayed — she sneaked onto the Kindle when my back was turned. Then she lied about it on the log.
And then she went back and corrected the log.
She told me she had felt bad for not telling the truth. And said she felt better after she had.
We are on half term at the moment, and I am noticing my own tendency to want to sneak off online while the children clamour for my attention. I am having to make myself play games with them. But when I do make the effort, new worlds open up (not permanently, I'm not a saint). I have written more in the past few days than in the previous five months. My daughter says half term has been good, although we have done very little except spend hours together.
Today she has begged me to do a Spa Day with her. At first I was utterly unwilling. Now I'm quite excited. Perhaps the ghost of Jackie past can be washed out of my feet.