Sunday, January 31, 2010

Parallel Lives

I actually did some reluctant hoovering today, to remove the fluff-wads that had accumulated around my 'satellite' study in the bedroom. No-one else was going to do it, and as half-term is approaching I'm going to be using it again soon. As I was wielding the vacuum cleaner, I was musing to myself about the role that children play in the lives of their parents. In an ideal world this would simply be to love and be loved, but the more I mulled things over, brief snatches of memory and half lines of conversation conspired to wind me up to a fair degree of resentment.
Let me set the scene: Daughter #3 is at an interesting phase of life: her horizons are expanding rapidly with new friends, new interests and a blossoming intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm for creativity and la vie boheme that I remember fondly from my early teens.
I remember it fondly but in reality, alas, it existed only in my head. My parents, the upright products of rationing and a rigidly hierarchical society did not want a moody, poetry-reading, Oxfam-clad beatnik (at they imagined) for their child. These days, I would probably have briefly become a Goth or something, but in those days there weren't the same sort of neat pegs available and I was just a bit.....weird. Too weird for them. They steered me back towards social acceptability, and closely oversaw my education, music, art and friendships until it all went horribly wrong and ended with me leaving home one Friday lunchtime forever.
As it was, it turned out that I had shot myself in the foot well and truly, turning my back on a guaranteed university place as well as a chance to escape an (emotionally) abusive relationship with a boyfriend that dragged on into an ill-advised marriage for another ten years or so.
They thought they knew what was best for me, and so did I!
So I am finding myself in the same position as my parents did all those years ago and hoping that I don't fail in my parental role.

Where did the rot set in? Well, it is very difficult to be objective about these things, but if asked to identify my feelings about those years it was of complete claustrophobia. Everything was vetted to such a degree that I felt that I had no autonomy whatsoever. I had wanted to play the violin when I started 'big school' but was discouraged from that as my mother thought that 'the clarinet sounded nicer'. When I subsequently proved myself a middling musician (competent but uninspired), I failed to find a place in the regional orchestras (who only required four clarinets max.) whilst my many cheerful violin-scraping friends got into the massed strings and my unique French-horn playing buddy found himself keenly courted throughout the North owing to his rarity value!
I was quite good at art, although I never had any illusions about 'becoming an artist'. My mother was artistic too, so that was 'nice'...and I was encouraged to take Art at A-level. But you can't study art history without becoming aware of the unconventional attitudes and lives of many artists and I developed a taste for Toulouse-Lautrec and the 19th century French demi-monde. That did not go down well.
Combined with this came a desire to go out with my friends (usually those ones who did not meet the required respectibility standard!) to the youth club and local discos and meet boys. Sometimes I was allowed and sometimes not, but always with my father waiting outside for me in the family car tapping his watch disapprovingly if I was even a minute late to our agreed rendezvous.
So I became very devious, managing to fit my debauchery into my time-managed youth unobserved. Maybe I was being really obvious, but I thought I was being so clever. In fact my cleverness entailed me becoming such a different person from the image that my parents cherished that, when the whole elaborate facade came tumbling down and the worms and secrets crawled out, they never really recovered.
Nor did I - I had become two people living in the same space and didn't know which I was. Both? Neither?
They had wanted a daughter that they could show off to their friends and live vicariously through - not unnatural ambitions for parents of that era - and when they found themselves with something that didn't fit the bill, they cut me off - their only child.
Only quite recently have I acquired enough respectibility to warrant mentioning again in polite company, which I find bitterly amusing!

So I look at Daughter #3 and hope that I never, ever drive that bright, blossoming spirit underground to grow amidst the tangled roots that throttled me. I am inclined towards liberality, trusting that we have instilled in her some innate good sense. I don't go on too much about homework, or trace her every move or try to quash friendships with the more unorthodox of her friends. Indeed, I try to make them welcome and feed them. We encourage their music experiments and encourage her to think, read and listen widely.
I think that it's inevitable that we will cross swords along the way, for what is growing up other than a pulling away from the reins that lead you. But I hope that we never reach that stage of utter breakdown that happened between my parents and I.
And I will try to love her for what she is, and all of them for what they are, and not because they are fulfilling my stifled dreams or giving me bragging rights among my peers.

I am currently trying my best to do the former for myself!


Anonymous said...


Many thanks for this post, which I found resonates with my own life, even though we have such different pasts and presents.

About 10 years ago I remember dragging myself into work, doing a job I didn’t particularly like. It suddenly struck me that my parents had done this before me and although I could (and did – as I was only on a secondment) pack it in and go and do something different, my parents had plodded away at jobs they didn’t like because they had children to support. It made me realise that they were individuals in their own right, with their own wants, desires, aspirations and regrets.

I was visiting my parents during the run up to Christmas a few years ago (I never spend Xmas with my parents!) when the entertainment booked for the Christmas party in the sheltered housing complex where they live, had let them down. I offered myself as a stand in. My father thought I was joking and dismissed the idea (I think they settled for extended bingo instead... Oh the glamour!). It was only on the drive back to London, as I was mulling over this rebuff, that I suddenly realised my father had never heard me sing, hence his reluctance. As a boy soprano I had wowed audiences and judges alike with my singing and our local vicar had even thought it worthwhile trying to get me into Cheetham’s School, in Manchester. This my mother declined as she thought it too far to travel (it was a 20 minute train journey!). Where was my father, while I was attracting this attention and getting my name in the local paper as I notched up various notices for my appearances in competitions and concerts? He was traipsing around the North of England – and further afield – with his junior judo club.

Even now, when I am in my home town, if my last name crops up in conversation with strangers, I am sometimes ask if I am related to ‘so and so’ – my father. And the person asking the question then relates what a wonderful man my father was when he ran the judo club and how wonderful it must have been to have a father like him. But of course I wouldn’t have known about this because my father gave so much time and attention to other people’s children, there was little left for his own.

I am no longer bitter or angry about this. I made my own way in life and made it pretty well, all things considered. Yet what has really made me forgive (though certainly not forget) both my parents’ efforts outside the home to lead their own lives, is the fact I came to realise they are just people trying to get through this sod of a life and I was just unfortunate enough to get muddled up in their lives. After I gained my degree, my Dad’s younger brother, who, with me, is the only person in my immediate family to gain a degree, said that I should look for a job 200 miles away and not get sucked into caring for my parents as they age (my father had recently had a heart attack and I was ferrying him and my mother around a good deal). ‘They’re selfish people and have never cared about you – don’t get roped into wasting your life caring for them now...’ were his words. I followed the advice.

So I find I have mixed feelings about my parents and I think your post expresses the terrible dilemma caring parents have to face. Because of your motives, I think, despite the odd tears and tantrums (on both parts!) you’ll probably get it right. The key issue is the motive and intention and I think you have no worries on that score.

Other news – I passed my upgrade, my 23,400 word submission was praised and I am now officially a PhD candidate as a opposed to a MPhil. Now off for a week in Keswick (plus two nights with my parents... – we get on very well now).

Hope all’s well with you?

Steven (aka ‘Zeteo/London Lad’)

Hypatia said...

Hello Steven and thank you for your comments.
I think Philip Larkin had it pretty well spot-on when he wrote
'They f*ck you up, your Mum and Dad,
They don't mean to, but they do,
They gave you all the faults they had
And some extra just for you...' (I quote from memory, so pardon any inaccuracy).
I think the most important line is the second one.
No one is born a parent, and for some the role just doesn't sit right. I think my parents were from an era that embedded certain fairly strong expectations from family life (father goes to work, mother watches baby, cooks and cleans, children are obedient and make you proud)and when their real-life offspring didn't match up to the paradigm, they were rather surprised and at a loss as to how to cope. Raising a child isn't like moulding a clay pot - you can't throw it away and start again when it goes awry. So they withdrew, bewildered, from the situation. Funnily enough, I considered deleting this post too, as it felt like I'd betrayed them somewhat: we get on well enough nowadays in a polite sort of way, and I feel a great deal of annoyed affection for them. I am no longer so bitter about my past: my husband has made me realise that they are just 'a couple of strange old sticks' that did what they thought was best in a world that was changing rapidly (I was surfing on the turbulent waves caused by Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan and their ilk).
So yes, they did f*ck me up, (but only temporarily)they didn't MEAN to, but they did (but I got over it). I just mourn the wasted opportunities. My Dad was a motivated and enthusiastic school governor, but never once attended any of my childrens' school events (he was involved in a different school!)When my son, aged eight, was playing in an important league football match literally half a mile from their house, they never showed up (although I told them he'd love to see them on the sidelines!) or even asked how it went. It's their loss, ultimately, that their grandchildren don't know them.
On a lighter note, well done you on your upgrade!!! Must be a relief to get it out of the way. I've got mine in early May, so my supervisor is going to look at what we've got to do before then. My chapters are progressing pretty well at the moment, so I'm not too concerned, and he seems pretty happy.
Have fun in the Lake District.


Anonymous said...


Thanks for this – I am still in the afterglow of passing the upgrade (as my supervisor’s previous PhD student failed his upgrade, I did realise it wasn’t all in the bag!). The three nights in Keswick was okay, though as I had a chest infection and the house wasn’t particularly warm (having a bath reminded me of bathing in our family council house in the 1960s – all we wanted was the paraffin fire we used to have to put in the bathroom for an hour before having a bath to make it warm enough to undress!!) it wasn’t all that enjoyable. In addition my friends are rather top heavy on the good parenting lark; both have invested a good deal of time and effort in their children’s lives. The result is they have two lovely (and very bright) children.

We spent the next two nights staying at the guest flat of the sheltered housing scheme where my parents now live. It was okay, though I do feel sorry for my partner, who unlike my mother or me, is not able to tell my dad to shut up when he recounts one of his boring stories, which usually revolve around how he argued with/beat up someone. However when he told how he used to spend five to six days a week doing things with the judo club I did point out that at home we had no wall paper on the walls for the best part of two decades (he started decorating sometime in the early 70s and it was completed in 1992!!) and that perhaps if he had spent more time with his family I might have been doing my PhD in my mid-20s rather than my mid-40s. This caused my father some sober reflection... Tho’ not for long...

I’ve give over worrying about it all now. Though I was struck by something I read by Quentin Crisp ‘If there was no one to blame you and no one to praise you, who would you be?’ (also quoted from memory, so probably not a perfect rendering). I think that is part of the issue.

Ho hum, hope all goes well with your upgrade. Like you say, if there were problems, you’d have known by now.