I was recently reminded of a seldom-heard song from years ago. Not only is the distance from the immense responsibility of parenting a melody of the past, but so too are the subtle layers of guilt: the silt that accumulates from the leaking floodgates of those early years. I’m not sure why I failed to notice it at the time, although I suppose it was a topic that was seldom broached in those days. It was too shameful to admit to oneself without reproach, certainly too dangerous to confess to anyone else.
Uncertainty and vacillation is frowned upon when it comes to our feelings about our children. ‘As developed by psychoanalysis, ambivalence refers to the fact that, in a single impulse, we can feel love and hate for the same person.’ So writes Edward Marriott, the psychotherapist author of an essay in Aeon entitled When a Bough Breaks: https://aeon.co/essays/we-need-to-admit-that-parents-sometimes-hate-their-children ‘It’s a potent, unpalatable idea; and in the grip of intense ambivalence we can feel overwhelmed and confused, as if a vicious civil war is underway inside us.’
‘[W]e live in a society in which shockingly high levels of violence are inflicted on children… And, if we acknowledge that we, too, sometimes have less than loving feelings towards our children; if we, too, sometimes have the wish to hurt, even if we are able to restrain ourselves, then does this mean that we too could be abusers?’
Part of the pressure is cultural, of course -especially on the mother who ‘is expected to have an uncomplicated and adoring relationship with her baby; who is expected never to tire of playing with Lego.’ And as desperately as a pregnancy may be pursued through years of unsuccessful attempts, or require expensive reproductive technologies, it’s difficult to adequately prepare for the changes engendered by the growing child. Each of us is different.
I am intrigued by the insight offered through an example given by Marriott: ‘The paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who spent a lifetime working with children and families, understood why the scales of ambivalence might tip more towards hate than love. The baby, he wrote, ‘is a danger to her body in pregnancy and at birth’, he ‘is an interference with her private life’ and he ‘is ruthless, treats her as scum, an unpaid servant, a slave’. He ‘shows disillusionment about her’, he ‘refuses her good food… but eats well with his aunt’; then, having ‘got what he wants he throws her away like orange peel’. He ‘tries to hurt her’, and, ‘after an awful morning with him she goes out, and he smiles at a stranger, who says: “Isn’t he sweet?”’
And then there is the possible difficulty of the new child on the couple’s relationship -or the hope that a child may heal a fractious partnership. However, perhaps the modern couple may be more aware of the risks, and indeed the Feminist movement of the 1960ies ‘overturned long-held received wisdoms that designated motherhood (in the words of the social researcher Mary Georgina Boulton) as ‘intrinsically rewarding and not problematic’ and refocused attention on women’s actual experience of motherhood.’
But Marriott wonders if we are still blinkered, and ‘we continue to enter parenthood blindly, relieved and proud that our genes will survive, and oblivious to the unrelenting demands ahead, or that we have unwittingly signed up for a job for life, with no training, pay, prospect of sabbatical leave, change of career or get-out clause. It’s a job that will require endless investment and patience and, if all doesn’t go too badly, one in which we are finally made redundant.’
And yet, ‘The problem is not that we feel ambivalent towards our children, but that we try to deny it. If we do this, then before long we cease to know what is appropriate anger towards our children, and what is dangerous hostility.’
Armed with this insight, I thought I might discuss it with the guys at our usual Wednesday morning meeting at the local Tim Horton’s coffee shop in the mall. I figured maybe we could look back on those early days in our lives with the survivor smugness which only age can authorize. We usually just complain about the weather.
But when I arrived, Fred -sorry, Frederic, as he insists on being called- was already bemoaning a family issue.
“Sometimes he’s just rude, you know,” he said, with a little nod to acknowledge my arrival, and a deft pinch with lightning fast fingers to liberate the edge of my doughnut of some icing. “I mean I went all the way down to the museum to meet him…” He glanced at me. “My son, James,” he explained to bring me up to speed.
John’s face puckered into a wry smile as his eyes peeked through the bars of his lashes. “Come on Frederic, you only live two blocks from the museum…”
“Three,” he interrupted, to clarify it for the other two at the table.
John’s smile enlarged and his eyes, freed of the curtains he sometimes pulled over them, seemed to laugh. “I’m just pointing out that you really didn’t have to go very far, Frederic…”
“That’s hardly the point, John. It’s that he didn’t show up. I waited there for almost an hour…” He glanced at the sceptical faces around the table and then amended it to a more precise estimate of time. “Okay, maybe half an hour -or whatever… But anyway, he didn’t show up.”
John shook his head rather merrily I thought, and I could tell he was trying to disguise a little sigh. “I thought you said you were bored at always having to meet him at the museum.”
Frederic shrugged and had another go at my icing. “He likes to go there -he says he’s always been curious about old things…”
“Did he ever explain what he meant?” Andrew asked, barely able to keep a straight face.
Frederic missed the subtle humour though. “I used to read books about history to him when he was a little boy. We used to pretend we were sitting in the throne room of a castle, or watching a battle from a hilltop along with the generals…” I could see his face relax with the memories. He was clearly fond of his son.
And then, as gradual as a cloud floating over the sun, his face changed. “He texted me and apologized the next day -said he forgot about our meeting… texted me, for god’s sake! Anyway, he asked me if I could meet him there today.” He shook his head in disbelief.
John smiled. “See, he’s trying to make up for his mistake, Frederic.” We all nodded in agreement.
“I told him I was busy,” Frederic said, still shaking his head.
“To teach him a lesson?” John’s face looked shocked, or maybe ‘sad’ describes it better.
Frederic shrugged in embarrassment.
“James is almost forty, Frederic,” Andrew added softly in the silence that followed. “I think you should phone him and meet him there, don’t you? Tell him, you’ve rearranged your day so you could meet after all…”
Frederic looked down at his coffee for a moment and then smiled as he picked it up. “Actually, I waited for a few days to answer… And I finally decided to text him back,” he said, glancing at his watch and then slowly standing up. “I’m already late,” he explained, sauntering unhurriedly towards the door. “See you guys next week, eh?”
As soon as he was out of the door, John began to chuckle. “What a pair, those two. How many times has this happened?”
“Think James will wait for him this time…?” Andrew asked, although mostly rhetorically, I suppose.
We all smiled and tackled our doughnuts as we leaned forward in our chairs. “Hope this rain stops soon,” Pete said between bites, finally coming out of his contemplative silence. “It’s getting rather depressing, don’t you think?”
We all nodded in unison. Some things never change.