A friend of mine recently decided she was going to look for ways to get her kids involved in volunteering, as she was finding it really difficult to show them altruism in action. Sounded like a really good idea, and I promised to join in.
An opportunity duly arose to pick up litter after a local festival, so I got my daughter to come with me at 6pm, reassuring her it was just a few minutes of her time.
We walked around a park on a warm sunny evening, the longest day of the year, in orange hi-vis vests with pink gloves and litter-pickers (which have a surprisingly accurate and satisfying grip) for under half an hour, collecting bits of nougat, cigarette butts and plastic bags.
As we went, we discussed the philosophy of altruism.
AKA, she was furious with me. She really could not accept that doing something to help the community without a direct return to herself was reasonable, worthwhile or anything except a punishment (welcome to my world, darling). She was angry with me for inflicting it on her, and with her younger brother for somehow 'getting out of it' (he had been invited to a party, and I felt it was somewhat mean to a nine year old to say he couldn't go in order to litter pick…). She was incensed at the amount of stuff 'people' throw unthinkingly on the floor (take a look at your floor, love), and didn't see why it was her job to clear it up (it wasn't, but it has to get done – sound familiar?). She wouldn't accept that the local park was even part of her community, despite the fact that we have been to this particular festival several times, and it's a mile away from where we live (too close to home?).
To me this is actually a signal that my lovely daughter should do a lot MORE of this kind of stuff. How is she going to find out that she IS part of a community otherwise? How else is she going to understand that her own actions have consequences?
On the other hand, I myself came home from the experience tired and depressed by having to fight her selfishness, and wondering which one of us was mad. It didn't help that my husband also thought it was 'too hard' on her.
And there is a part of me that agrees – the feminist part – which looks at who was volunteering and notes that it was all women.
A man 'jokingly' commented, "That's right, get on with it!" to us. I could not prevent myself immediately retorting, "I don't see you doing anything". I said it 'jokingly' too. He was not impressed, and stalked off. What possessed me? Perhaps it was the molten fury of hearing my female child spoken to, in this faux-sexist (which is, in reality, sexist) way.
I struggle with this all the time – I want my daughter to help out at home, because we are a family, plus she helps make the mess. At the same time I don't want her to grow up a household servant. I call this my Cinderella complex: who is the Cinderella in the modern household? I seem to be playing the part both of the ugly stepmother and of Cinders.
The message has to be that everyone chips in to get the work done. I get our son to put out the recycling and lay the table, and we've tried to say that their pocket money is in return for certain chores, but it is a CONSTANT fight – which I lose easily, simply because I get ground down.
I really want to keep going with the initiative to find ways to show the children they are part of a whole community, not islands separate from it, and that giving back or paying forward is at least one route to true fulfilment.
Yet at the same time I feel so utterly exploited myself, in that the role I have taken on is pure 'giving back' and 'paying forward', but there seems to be so little direct reward for doing it, and indeed so much active criticism of it (global over-population, narcissism, pushiness), that I'm not clear whether I or my kids are in bad faith.
It is, potentially, explosive to articulate this, but I, personally, don't feel personally fulfilled by raising children. I am a manager and an administrator, accountable to the whole of society, without any benchmarks or performance measurement, and no possible career progression. Or indeed financial recompense. Raising the next generation is all voluntary.
I actively look for ways to feel happy with the role I willingly took on, yet over the years the feeling of alienation has actually grown despite my best efforts. However much I try to cut corners, do less, be in the moment, there simply isn't any time left over, after all the things that are expected of me and of them, just to love them.
I don't quite know at this stage what it would take to enjoy being a mother.
1. Mindfulness? I couldn't even get to yoga this morning I was so tired.
2. Letting go completely? Anarchy and chaos.
3. Shouting at all the people I feel criticise me? A likely violent response.
4. Not bothering to try and get our son to do the 11+? Hmmmm.
5. Leave? Of course not.
6. Spend yet more time with the children? Are you kidding me? Do you know how present I am in their lives? They're sick of the sight of me.
No, the answer is that I should do something completely different with some of my time, something that is only for myself, so that 'being a mother' can be confined to a role, and not spill over so constantly into my identity. Motherhood turns out to be separation anxiety from yourself.
The way for me to remember what altruism means, probably, is to be more selfish.