REMEMBERING MUM

My Mum, aged sixteen
My Mum, aged sixteen

Yesterday was Mother’s Day in the UK.

My mother died in 1996. She was born in 1900, survived the Influenza pandemic in 1918, married at 23 – an Italian who became a jazz musician in the 30’s and 40’s, lived through two world wars, gave birth to five children, lost two toddlers – one to whooping-cough and one in an accident, lost her husband when she was just 52 and in her 80’s, lost her eldest daughter to illness.

I think of my mother often and her life. She lived through so much unhappiness yet she always seemed buoyant, full of life, with immeasurable energy.  It’s the little things I remember. She never went anywhere without a packet of Handy Andy tissues in her bag. That bag also held a sachet of fruit drops, her favourite sweets, several pencils and pens, writing pads for me to doodle on when we visited relatives who wanted her absolute attention, a powder compact with hardly any compressed powder in it – she’d used the same one for years and two or three bunches of keys; what did they open?

My mother had a thing about washing your hands. Whenever we’d been out, the first thing we did when we got home was wash hands. Not just a perfunctory wash, but a serious, get between the fingers with the soap wash. She also panicked about toilet seats. As a child, I was NEVER allowed to sit on a public toilet seat. I had to hold on to her hands and hover my bottom over the bowl, do the deed and get out of the cubicle asap. Hand washing in public toilets had to be super thorough.

My mother never talked to me about periods or sex, even when I discovered a used sanitary towel on the floor of the loo,  either she or my sister, fifteen years my senior, had forgotten to dispose of. The offending article was described as a wound dressing.

My mother was kind and affectionate, patient, nervous, easily hurt,  often sad after my father died and I never doubted her love for me. She wouldn’t say much about her own childhood, but I knew her parents were immigrants, leaving Italy, their home country in the late eighteen hundreds, looking for a better life in London. The diaspora saw thousands of Italians leave a country ravaged by war and poverty, settling in the USA, the UK and Australia.

My Grandmother in 1898
My Grandmother in 1898

I knew my grandmother, her mother, had come from a good family and was born in a tiny village near Parma in the north of Italy. My grandfather lived in Paris, during the Belle Epoch, hobnobbing with the likes of the painter Toulouse Lautrec and generally living the high life. They met in London, married in 1899 and had five children, my mother being the eldest.

I don’t think Mum had a particularly good relationship with her mother, who must have been pretty busy with five babies coming one after another. Miraculously for the time, they all survived, but my mother was sent back to Italy at the age of two, to be raised by her maternal grandparents for a couple of years. Perhaps that’s why she said she didn’t know what the word ‘mother’ meant?

There is so much I don’t know about my mother. I was the youngest of her five children with an age gap of nineteen years between me and my elder brother, her firstborn. I know she suffered prejudice and ridicule after the second war. The Italians were persona non grata then, many incarcerated in camps in the UK during the war, others keeping a low profile, laughed at for their accents, their food, their customs. Before I was born, my father moved the family to the suburbs of London, hoping life would be more tolerable there, and it was. He became naturalised in 1935 and as he was what today would be described as a minor celebrity, leading his own jazz band in London venues such as The Cafe Royal and Quaglino’s Restaurant, our neighbours tolerated us, and even, at times were willing to come to dinner and taste that strange food called spaghetti.

My mother refused to teach me to speak Italian properly. The language was spoken in private by her and my father, but English was the language we spoke in public. She wanted us to be English in thought, word and deed. I didn’t visit Italy until I was 14. Now, I don’t feel resentful about this, but there were times in my life when I did. I wanted to find my roots and tell people that I may have been born in England but my blood was Italian. Today, I love this country and wouldn’t want to be anything else but British through and through. But I still feel a deep affinity for Italy and when I am there it feels like home.

My mother turned her back on Italy. The memories of her experiences too painful to acknowledge. She loved England and everything English. She was, at times critical of Italy, especially Mussolini. She hated the Fascists and it was the only time I heard her use speech that was vitriolic, when she talked about Il Duce. She loved Radio 4 and introduced me to the Afternoon Play as soon as I could listen quietly. She loved books, in particular poetry books leading her to scrape the money together to enable to me have elocution lessons for years, at least till I was sixteen. Those lessons gave me a love of literature and poetry and I’m eternally grateful to her for that.

My mother was an intelligent woman. The sort of woman who would have gone to university and obtained a first in Literature if she’d lived today. She used to tell me how her father would chastise her and one of her sisters for reading under the bedclothes by candle light, telling her books were rubbish and she would burn the house down and murder them all. She told me how important the written word was, how words were mightier than the sword. I have never forgotten that.

Mum, with me and Dad.
Mum, with me and Dad.

She had tough times and good times, like we all do as we travel through life. Towards the end, when she was in her nineties, living in her own small flat near London with her eldest son and his family keeping an eye on her, I would visit when I could. I was raising my own children and we lived almost three hundred miles away. As I reached the start of my own middle-age, I realised how much she meant to me, and that I hadn’t always been the best of daughters. I hadn’t seen her life, past and present, as real. I hadn’t listened enough, understood just what her life had been like, hadn’t appreciated her history, the experiences she’d had, the horrors and glories she’d lived through. I’d been too wrapped up in my own stuff, as all children are.

If I could turn the clock back, I’d have taken a forensic interest in my mother’s life, examining it as a historian, for it merited that sort of attention.

FREE FOOD?

Million of pounds worth of food is dumped every year in the UK, yet a recent article in The Guardian reported that three men are to stand trial soon for taking some tomatoes, mushrooms and cheese from dustbins at the back of the Iceland supermarket chain. The solicitors for the men have attempted to get the Crown Prosecution Service to drop the case, but have had no success. The CPS say the case should go ahead, ‘in the public interest’.

One of the men to be prosecuted will put forward the argument that he took the food because he needed to eat. He doesn’t feel he has done anything wrong taking edible food that would go to a landfill site.

Taking food from skips outside supermarkets is not new. It now has a name: ‘skipping’.  The amount of food that these stores throw out is a disgrace. Why are these stores, that make huge profits, allowed to get away with such irresponsible behaviour?

 The fact that people are becoming so poor that they have to resort to stealing food from skips is something I thought I would never see in my lifetime. We should all be concerned about how much of our own uneaten food we discard. I grew up at the end of food rationing. I remember very clearly the way my mother never threw anything away and we didn’t have a fridge! Now, I am guilty myself of throwing away food. It’s hard to be frugal when there is such an abundance of food available. But how long will this be the case?

The recent violent storms that have hit the UK means that future food production could be affected if the weather continues to cause the devastating floods we have seen across the farm land across the Somerset Levels. I don’t want to be accused of scare-mongering, but we are becoming depleted in so many of our natural resources that surely it’s time to stop and take stock of the way we manage our own consumption of food?

Now Fracking is on the agenda. No one really knows the outcome of this invasive procedure to extract gas from the earth.  There have been a few protests but against the multi-national companies who will carry out the work, they are a drop in a very large ocean.  And our young people seem so unpoliticised – very few of them ever bother to vote. Will future generations be silent, passive and acquiesce to everything? It’s a worrying thought.

We must become more concerned about food waste. Our lives depend upon it.

DEFINING LOVE

Love ? I love love love you.
Love ? I love love love you. (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

Love is a funny old game. It has lots of rules and signposts that you can miss or avoid, depending on where you are in your life. Loving someone is fraught. It’s fraught, no matter how wonderful it feels.

Fraught – definition: fraught / frôt/• adj. 1. (fraught with) (of a situation or course of action) filled with or destined to result in (something undesirable): marketing any new product is fraught with danger.2. causing or affected by great anxiety or stress: there was a fraught silence – she sounded a bit fraught. 

Doesn’t that say it all? The new product you are marketing is yourself and love causes great anxiety or stress. Any kind of love puts you through it, once you are smitten. If you are a parent, you will be in emotional agony for years and years and years… Once that pink bundle of joy is put in your arms, the fun begins. You fall in love with such passion, such fervour, such bloody insanity, that the core of your being gets the sort of shake-up that Herculaneum got in 79AD when Vesuvius erupted. You will never be the same again.

Then the grandchildren come along and it happens all over again! These little clones of your own kids work away at any calm, self-possession you might have built up since entering your golden years. You are back on the fraught merry-go-round with a vengeance.

Adult children think they have escaped your love; they haven’t. You still wake up in the middle of the night, worrying. They are adults, for heaven’s sake! It doesn’t matter how old they are. They will always, in some corner of your sub-conscious, be that tiny person a jolly midwife thrust at you all those years ago.  They will – no matter what they do to you, even if they turn out criminals and murderers – always be your ‘child’ and because of that, everything they do is a reflection of how you did the deed; the parenting deed, I mean.

If they grow up to be hugely successful, will you be satisfied? No. Why? because you will be congratulating them but thinking they are becoming too materialistic, they are missing the important things in life, they must have time to smell the roses, working so hard will kill them! If they turn out failures, it’s your fault (probably more their father’s fault than yours). You can never win and by that I mean, you can never reach that perfect calm you thought would be yours when they became adults. Dream on.

Nevertheless, it’s the perfect storm, this parenting lark. If you have a brain left by the time you reach my age, you will think about your role as a parent. And the older they and you get, the more you will think about it. If you chose to be an older mum, you will know that there is no joy like the joy of talking to your adult child and knowing they are enjoying this time with you. It’s bliss. You can see yourself mirrored in their looks, their mannerisms and, if you are lucky, their value system.  You listen, awe-struck to their brilliance. How much they know! You must have imparted something to them over all those years. Or was it just the work of those teachers? From primary to secondary school to uni. those frumpy, over-zealous, hippy, moaned-about influences on their developing selves were not totally responsible for this amazing person, were they? No, they weren’t.  Give yourself a medal. You survived and your kid reached adulthood in one piece – that’s success on legs!

It’s tough for kids who were born to older parents, however. My own Mum was 44 when I was born and my Dad was 50. When I reached my teens, it was a huge embarrassment for me to know that they were still having sex. Now, I think it’s a blast. They loved each other enough to create me, even though I know I was a total shock, or the menopause, as my Mum named my conception. It was hard to notice that all my mates had mothers who were not grey-haired.  My mum needed a siesta in the afternoon and my Dad wasn’t too keen on taking part in the egg and spoon race on sport’s day. But they had a mature wisdom that younger parents lacked and although I didn’t appreciate this fact for some time, it gave me a wider view of the world.

Women are having children later these days. Thirty-five seems like the right time for most women who have careers and I applaud them for their courage and optimism. I love the way women can stay looking young and childbirth is usually safe in this country even if you are not in your twenties. I like the way that older mums have no qualms about breast-feeding in public and are happy to put a high-powered career on hold for a few years, if that is their choice. I like the fact that women have so many choices these days. It’s about time. There is still much to fight for; equality of pay and conditions, finding ways to stamp out domestic violence against women and making sure we have more woman politicians fighting for our rights.

The way we love each other, whether it be the love we have for a parent, a spouse, a partner, a child, a grandchild or a friend, is important. Unconditional love is the best. With all the pitfalls, the agony, the blind optimism, the dreaming, the wishing, the intensity, the hope, the joy…  love is a lot more productive than hate and much more rewarding. But love is, as I said at the beginning, fraught.

SHUTTING PARENTS OUT

Drawing of horses in the Chauvet cave.
Drawing of horses in the Chauvet cave. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been reading everywhere that the number of parents who are estranged from their adult children grows bigger every day. Some people explain this as a culture shift, that adult children raised over the past 30 years experienced a different world, where a ‘me’ culture exploded and the focus was on getting things for yourself rather than tradition and duty. So be it. But the heartache that any estrangement from a child causes for parents is something that has repercussions down the years and for future generations.

I’m not talking here about legitimate estrangement, where a parent has been sexually abusive or cruel, but the typical family where something has happened to cause a child to remove his or her parents from their life, almost as if they had died. For the parents, it often feels like this.

Having a child is an event that changes your emotional landscape for the rest of your life. The moment that tiny person is placed in your arms, until the day you take your last breath, they are on your mind. You are never truly free again and it’s an imprisonment that few parents would want release from. The joy, the love, the enormous and wonderful changes that children bring to your life cannot ever be bettered by anything, except perhaps your grandchildren. Even then, your own children, no matter how old they are, are etched on your heart and mind like those cave paintings in ChauvetFrance. They will endure forever – if they are protected…

And that’s the thing. How long is forever? How long can the pain of estrangement be borne by loving parents? Time heals they say, but it also makes the reason for any split between parents and an adult child, shrink further into the distance, fading like an old photo. Like a bereavement, there are stages to go through. Eventually, memory diminishes and you reach a point where it is hard to remember even what your child looked like, let alone what cause the rift.

If relationships are not protected, not nurtured, not fed by the possibility of seeing those you love on a regular basis, what can parents do? Simply give up and die? That happens. Or do you, bit by bit, loosen the ties that bind you, until you have become ‘free’? Sorry to tell you this, but you will never be free. Those etchings will remain on your heart, but you may become resigned to the estrangement, as all hope for a reconciliation dies. And when hope dies, the future is bleak. This is what is happening in so many families today and the future is indeed, bleak. Across the UK, loneliness is rife. Old people go for days without seeing a soul. They may have been married and had several children, but they end up unloved and unwanted, a burden on society, a bed-blocker, people who are using up the resources of our beleaguered NHS, according to the media.

I have read articles by a variety of therapists who caution against contacting adult children after they have chosen to remove their parents from their lives. Their take on the situation is to let sleeping dogs lie; to allow the child space to see things differently. There are others who give different advice. They say keep writing and admit that the estrangement is the parent’s fault; to apologise constantly, even if they do not feel they are in the wrong, until the child softens and a reconciliation is achieved.

For me, I cannot make a judgement of what approach would be best. What I do know is that adult children today appear to be a lot more judgemental. And there seems to be little room for compassion, humour or understanding when it comes to dealing with parents who are ageing. Perhaps it is fear of responsibility? With so many divorced parents, maybe adult children opt out of keeping relationships intact because they do not want to provide care when their parents need it? After all, these are the parents who were able to buy their own houses, who went to university on grants not loans and who stayed, more often than not, employed. They can look after themselves, can’t they?

It’s a sorry tale, but whether you have one child or ten, to lose contact is becoming more acceptable these days than it was in the past. For myself, I would never take it for granted that my kids would be there for me in my dotage. I have always been independent and intend to stay that way. I hope that as I grow older, I will have the privilege of seeing them now and again and I hope that I will not become one of the thousands of old people living alone and lonely because their children have abandoned them. But, living in a country where the numbers of elderly people needing care continues to rise, the solution might be for adult children to include elderly parents in their lives when those parents are still able and independent, getting to know them as older people. That’s always difficult. We want to see our parents stay the same, and watching them age, or lose their faculties is distressing. It also reminds adult kids of their own demise.

There are two sides to every family conflict. I think that maybe, the secret is listening. Listening to each other in an non-judgemental way, giving each other time and above all, understanding that there is, under all the unhappiness and conflict, a great deal of love.

DO WE HATE OLD PEOPLE?

The Happy Family
The Happy Family (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What do you really think about old people? Do you see them as a pain in the neck? As senile, shuffling parasites? As people who must be discounted in favour of the young?

It’s a sad truth that we have little real respect for the elderly unless they are rich and famous. Since Dr. Harold Shipman was found guilty in 2000 of murdering 215 elderly patients (possible 260), there has been little increase in the compassion shown to our ever-growing elderly population. I, for one, am quite scared of becoming seriously old. Not because of illness or a fear of death but because I may become one of the vilified, the patronised, the battered, the ignored.

The media love to report on horrendous stories of abused old people in nursing homes. We are used to hearing reports from the relatives of elderly sick patients badly treated by nursing home staff or reading about old ladies left to die alone in their homes. Do we feel anything? Have we become desensitised? Does all the negative media around make us hate or indifferent to everyone over 70?

It has to be said that we are very disinterested, as a nation, in looking after our elderly relatives within the family. We panic at the cost of social care; at the thought that mum and dad will have to sell their home, our inheritance, to provide cares as they become more feeble and unable to look after themselves. We see care for the elderly as an increasing burden on the state. Yet, everyone of us will get to that stage, unless we die young. People are living longer but there seems to be a national denial of any family responsibility.

Now that so many families are split, the responsibility for care moves further and further away from family members and on to the state. Who will take responsibility for mum, widowed and in her late eighties, frail and maybe incontinent when sons and daughter’s are divorced, with new partners and new kids? Who wants to look after step-granny/granddad?

It just doesn’t come up on the radar for most young people, either. It isn’t something discussed in schools, is it? There is no ‘culture of inclusion’ taught, when it comes to our own old relatives. Someone else will do it. The government wants everyone to start paying for their pensions once they can jump out of the cradle, yet there is an insidious denial of the real issue – a lack of will to promote a resurgence of compassionate care for older relatives within the family and that they should be valued and seen as an integral part of the family with a huge contribution to make. Perhaps if this was the case, there would be far fewer incontinent, senile old people that have to rely on often cold, inadequate and indifferent state care provision?

To make ageing parents/ grandparents feel they are really important and are valued members of a family, no matter how that family is configured, can have enormous benefits for everyone. Older people who feel valued live healthier and happier lives. Contact with children and grandchildren, even if Skype is the only method of communication, can give older relatives a real sense of inclusion and of being wanted. Everyone benefits.

Of course there are families that willingly love and care for their relatives and would not consider leaving it to strangers. And there are times, when someone is too ill to be cared for at home, but in general, the young never consider if and how they will care for mum and dad when they become old.  Often, they see them as the lucky generation, having been able to buy their own homes and stay in the same job for years. If our young people are without jobs, without hope for a bright future, they will not want to think about ageing parents.

However, a society that is happy to foist the care of the elderly on strangers alone as the norm, is a society that lacks compassion and that means trouble.

LOSING CONTACT WITH YOUR GRANDCHILDREN

Grandparents Virji visit Laila
Grandparents Virji visit Laila (Photo credit: Salim Virji)

Are you one of the million or so grandparents being denied access to your grandchildren by their parents? There is no pain like it, is there? Every day, you wake up and feel as if your heart is being torn apart. And there is nothing you can do about it. In the UK, grandparents have few rights in law, so if your adult child and his/her partner take against you and refuse to let you see your grandchildren, you have to accept it or use the services of a solicitor and go to court to get access. Who can afford to do this and who would want to?

The damage that breaking off contact with loving grandparents can do to children is often not given enough recognition. It can add insult to injury to the feelings of an already confused child, when parents split up. Parents can be overwhelmed by the divorce and new relationships and don’t see how their children might be suffering by the loss of contact with Nana and Granddad. Children can seem resilient and not concerned, but they may very upset.

Children have rights to see their family members, and if they are older, they can contact their grandparents independently. But it is the younger children and the babies who miss out most. They are totally reliant on the decisions made for them by their parents and if mum and dad say they can’t see nana and granddad again, then there is nothing they can do.

Breakdown and divorce is very upsetting for everyone involved. But for grandparents it can be devastating if contact with beloved grandchildren is denied. If children have had constant contact with their grandparents, this has been an important and precious part of their life experience. The nurturing and love they will have received provided benefits that might not be derived from any other relationships. Grandparents provide so many levels of support to a child. Removal of grandparents from a child’s life when they are going through so many other upheavals may be devastating for that child.

Where there is anger and bitterness towards the grandparents, it is particularly sad. Children may have looked forward to spending time with their grandparents and may miss them a great deal, yet be afraid to voice this because the parents have shown that they do not like them, often for reasons that the grandparents do not understand. Fall out from a marriage breakup often lands on the grandparents, through no fault of their own. The people who tend to suffer most of all, are the grandparents and the children, and they are the most powerless in law.

They say that time heals everything, but grandparents do not get younger and precious time may be lost when parents cut their children off from the love their grandparents can give. No one can heal anything after people die.

A SOCK IN THE EYE

World Kindness Movement
World Kindness Movement (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Is it naïve of me to want to trust my fellow woman or man? Of late, it’s been a turbulent time.  My faith in our politicians and others who are in positions of power, has taken a hit. This makes me question my own personal world and how much I can trust those around me.

A couple of days ago, people who are not my family have shown incredible kindness to me and mine. How did I react this, when my expectations have become so low? I say, in a loud voice, to anyone who will listen, THERE ARE GOOD PEOPLE OUT THERE!  It sounds like a cliché, but if you don’t tell yourself this when the nasty stuff is hitting the fan, you lose faith in everything and everyone and then you start to make bad decisions.

None of us function alone. We are all parts of a whole; a whole world, a whole universe.  I think that is why, when I listened to the news this morning, peppered with such terrible things, including the report of a man who, apparently randomly drove his van into a crowd of people, killing one and injuring many, including children, I found it hard to hang on to the notion that this is just one part of the whole.

There are good things happening out there. I cannot judge the world by only focusing on the tragedies. I must think about them and all the pain such events cause and my heart goes out to the families involved. Their hurt can never be diminished. Suffering is something we must respect and understand. But, for the sake of my sanity, I need to put this and all the other terrible things happening in the world, into perspective.

As one gets older, cynicism can take hold. You start to have the ‘Oh, yeah?’ syndrome. Whatever is told to you as fact, whatever you are expected to believe as truth, even when others are ardent believers, there is a conversation going on in your head, born of life experience and hard knocks. The conversation goes something like this:

‘Are they nuts to think I believe this rubbish? Do they really want me to subscribe to such utter nonsense?  Don’t they realise, that at my age, I can smell lies at fifty paces?’

Sad, isn’t it, that loss of optimistic relish? Gone are the days when you took everything at face value and saw sweetness and light everywhere. Youth is full of clichés. Yet, I know that to stay young at heart, I must not lose that wonder; that feeling of optimism that everything will be okay. It’s a tough call, in our world, today.

The kindness I have just experienced has come from people I don’t really know that well. Circumstances and a common cause has bought us together. We have instilled in each other a sense of positivity that means we can work together and move forward. We all have a moral compass and the dials are all pointing the same way! My faith in the integrity of my fellow woman/man is, for the time being, restored.

Of course, the bad stuff is still out there and to let your guard down would be foolish. Running your life these days is like a game of hide and seek. You have to be more informed than ever before, but lots of information is hidden from you. You have to be prepared to seek for the truth and, most importantly, you have to recognise the truth when you find it.

There are few boundaries any more. Everything is under attack. Our protectors, the police have let us down, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some good police out there. Our politicians make huge mistakes and it takes us a long time to understand what they are up to; sometimes too late. But, there are some good people in parliament. Often, people we thought we could trust in our own communities, become tainted. Still, there are good people there, too. You just have to search for them and when you find them, hang on to them.

It wasn’t ever thus, was it? Perhaps I am being naive again to think that the past was any better? It is something that seems to happen as you age – ‘I can remember when this was all fields…’  There is this desire to imagine a rose-tinted past and not to see the reality.

 I am not living in the past and I want to believe that people are intrinsically good. I wish they wouldn’t work so hard to prove it otherwise!

Inventory

Four be the things I am wiser to know:
Idleness, sorrow, a friend, and a foe.
Four be the things I’d been better without:
Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt.
Three be the things I shall never attain:
Envy, content, and sufficient champagne.
Three be the things I shall have till I die:
Laughter and hope and a sock in the eye.
― Dorothy ParkerThe Complete Poems of Dorothy Parker

THOUGHTS ON KIDS AND DIVORCE

 

Single Parents
Single Parents (Photo credit: PlayTV)

Research for a new novel led me to talk to parents going through divorce and separation. Here are some of the things they told me. Thank you to everyone who contributed and gave permission for these quotes to be published on my blog.

‘I am thinking about what it means to be a parent going through a separation or a divorce. I’ve raised three children, sometimes alone, sometimes with a partner, and bringing them up was, at times, a struggle. Now, as I look back at those child-rearing years, I think the secret to survival was enjoying them; seeing the funny side on a daily basis and recognising that as a parent, I needed space for myself,  sometimes.’

‘Someone said that it takes a whole community to raise kids. That’s so true. To go it alone, means you may have no-one to fall back on; you may begin to feel isolated and trapped and then, even the best parent can take those feelings out on the children. You may be far from being an abusive parent, but abuse can be subtle and unintentional. Being so preoccupied with your self that you don’t really ‘hear’ your kids, is to my mind, a kind of subtle abuse. To be wrapped up in your own life so totally, that you begin to treat your kids like annoying little robots is another form of subtle emotional abuse. Single parents need a lot of support in what is, after all, a very tough and unpaid job that goes on for years.’

‘Single fathers are still in the minority but they face huge issues. If they have had a good relationship with their own mother, particularly at that critical age, around fourteen, I think they are likely to cope. Many boys at fourteen start to have problems with their mothers. Boys know, deep inside themselves, that they must break free of her. This means that they can start to act badly. They are rude and sometimes downright nasty to their mothers. That’s not right.’

‘A father must challenge bad behaviour and make sure his son does not to disrespect his mother. He can show his son that to argue  is okay sometimes, but there must be boundaries. Boys need to learn from their fathers how to respect women.  Dad’s have to teach this to their sons, even when it is a mother who has left the family home. That’s a tough call for a hurt father going through a separation, but it is essential.’ 

‘A single father raising a son alone must realise that he will need help from other men. A grandfather or brother can be there to help them deal with the many feelings that divorce and separation throw up, when it is the mother who has left. A sensitive father can also show his son that he respects women and will always respect the boy’s mother.’

Male role models for sons are vitally important. Single mums can do so much for their boys if they enlist the help if their community. Good male teachers can be invaluable. Grandparents can do more that just act as babysitters. They can be listening posts for children going through family conflict by giving them a safe place to discuss their thoughts and fears.’

‘Daughters need some very special things from their fathers. They need affirmation, for a start. This is so important for girls. Affirmation means that a father shows his daughters by the way he talks and interacts with them, that they are special and unique to him. He must give them the chance to practice conversation and mutual respect and admiration with a man who cares deeply for them and know that they are safe with him. Through talking to their fathers girls gain confidence and reassurance and feel worthwhile. They know that they do not need to give themselves to the first man who comes along and flatters them. Fathers can give their daughters a really precious gift; a realistic understanding of what it means to be a man, warts and all.’

‘The quality of the relationship between her mother and father is really important for a girl. Even when parents separate, if the relationship between them has the children’s needs at heart and there is mutual respect, girls can survive separation and divorce relatively unharmed emotionally. Knowing that her mother and father can be civil to each other no matter what, means that she will recognise boundaries. She will learn how to say ‘no’ and take ‘no’ for an answer. If her parents get on well even if they are divorced, she will have a bench mark for her own relationships in the future.’

‘Men need to understand that they must show their children that they can protect them. To a boy, his Dad has to represent strength and protection.  This is crucial to their well-being when the parents are going through a divorce or separation. Men themselves need to feel protected and this is where family and friends can offer support. If a man is going through a difficult and acrimonious divorce, having a someone to talk to is really important; an uncle or a brother or a best friend. Contrary to popular opinion, men do need to talk and be listened to.’

‘Children need  to see their parents behave well.  A father must not be an arrogant, unapproachable ruler. He mustn’t be judge and jury, nor must he be a passive blot on the landscape. And he must be there. A mother must show respect for men. She must show that she has self-respect. She must show confidence in dealing with men and not be a push-over. Both parents must be careful what they say to their children. They must also check grand parents and other family members who have spiteful attitudes and tongues. Not easy.’

‘You can only ever be a ‘good enough’ parent, but if you are, then your kids will thrive. They will know that you have put thought and wisdom into one of the most challenging roles you can ever engage in – that of raising the next generation. With so many kids going through the separation and divorce of their parents, we need to think carefully how these young minds will be affected and do our very best to help lessen the pain that will undoubtedly occur.’

Thanks again to everyone I talked to.

 

HEDGE FUNDS OR CHILDREN?

Dickens at the Blacking Warehouse. Charles Dic...
Dickens at the Blacking Warehouse. Charles Dickens is here shown as a boy of twelve years of age, working in a factory. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the mother of four adult children, I’ve been pondering on their childhoods and my parenting skills. I have always worked. Why did I work? My reasons were were purely economic. How did I cope? Like working women today, I enlisted on the help of grandparents, neighbours and then nurseries and child-minders. It was predominantly my domain, this juggling. My husband did his best but he left for work each morning without, I suspect understanding how it made me feel. I didn’t mind. Our joint goal was to do the best for our kids and that meant meeting their financial as well as emotional needs. It was never easy for me because guilt was the predominant feeling whenever I left them, sometimes screaming and kicking, sometimes all smiles. But despite my guilt-ridden, sleepless nights, all four of them survived.

Now they are grown I ask myself did I do enough? Was I good enough? No, I don’t think I was. Trying to juggle so many parts of my life at once, probably made me Jack of all trades and master of none. Caring for small children is like tight rope walking over Niagara Falls. One slip and there is a disaster. You have to be on the ball 24/7 and it’s exhausting. Raising kids with the added stress of both parents needing to earn a living, it really is not surprising that the incidence of mental illness has been slowly escalating over the past 50 years.

I have always maintained that kids are kids until they turn 25. We  tried to reel out the financial and emotional lifeline that connected them to us, slowly. When they first left home, desperate for independence, if we didn’t hear from them for weeks, we didn’t chase them. We waited for them to come to us, but we had strategies for checking up on them, so that we were reassured that they were okay and managing their lives effectively. Was this the right thing to do? Not so sure now. Looking back, I think we should have kept them close for much longer. Today, parents moan about kids living at home far longer than they would like. They complain about the cost, the inconvenience, the lack of privacy. But having your kids around is what makes life worth living as you age.  There is no pain more acute (apart from childbirth) than a lonely old age when you have had kids and they want nothing to do with you. And this is happening so often these days.

Our kids and our grandkids are the MOST important people in our lives.  Even when there are times when we can see they didn’t give a toss about us, we are hooked – we love them, no matter what they do or say. From that first cry to the present day, when our eldest son is almost middle-aged, we want to know what they are doing, how they are coping, what they like or don’t like, when can we next see them? They make our life. When they act as if we don’t exist, we feel it. It hurts.

We  put a huge amount of energy into working out the best way to keep the lines of communication open. We want to remain engaged with them and you can only to that if you are connecting. But what if a family row means they refuse to contact you? It takes time, commitment and emotional intelligence to heal such rifts in families. You have to take the rejection, because they will reject you. They will go away and come back and go away again and it will hurt.

Now that two of our children have become parents, we worry much more about them more than we used to. Life had changed so radically in the past twenty years. There is so much out there to taint the lives of children. In the past, particularly our Victorian past, children were sent up chimneys.  Dickens illustrated very clearly how children were used and abused in the UK just a hundred or so years ago. Although we may not live in Victorian England, the social problems kids face in some homes have a Dickensian ring to them.

Apart from our own parenting failings, what makes children anxious and troubled today? The Good Childhood Inquiry was commissioned by the Children’s Society.  The report said that the lives of British children have become “more difficult than in the past.”  It also says “more young people are anxious and troubled”. A panel made up of 11 experts including eight university professors, says its conclusions in the report are evidence based. They point to ‘excessive individualism’ as the cause of many of the problems children face. This must be replaced by a value system where satisfaction comes from helping others rather than from chasing personal success. They say that attitudes must change and new policies must be put in place to expedite the damage already done. They recommend the following:

• Abolishing SATs tests and league tables in English schools

• A ban on all advertising aimed at the under 12s and no TV commercials for alcohol or unhealthy food before the 9pm watershed

• Stopping building on any open space where children play

• A high-quality youth centre for every 5,000 young people

It puts forward the notion that ‘Children with separate, single or step parents are 50% more likely to fail at school, have low esteem, be unpopular with other children and have behavioural difficulties, anxiety or depression.’ There is also the implication that working mothers have contributed to the damage done to children. ‘Most women now work and their new economic independence contributes to levels of family break-up which are higher in the UK than in any other Western European country.’

What do they mean? Today, as it was when I was raising my four kids, families need two incomes just to survive. The implication that we all work simply to get the luxuries is ludicrous. The cost of electricity, gas, mortgages, insurance, clothes, food goes up, almost daily. Raising kids is hugely expensive. To imply that women are working simply to achieve economic independence from men and that this contributes to family breakdown is unacceptable to me. However, this apart, I do believe that some of the recommendations put forward by the panel are valid. Here are a few more:

• A civil birth ceremony conducted by a registrar in which parents publicly accept the responsibilities of parenthood

• Free parenting classes available around the time of birth

• Free psychological and family support if relationships struggle

• Rules making it easier for parents to stay at home to rear their children

I think that this report wants to expose and confront the ‘me’ culture, however  the government has done little about it. The proposals are too radical and we are in the middle of a recession.

Downing Street states: ‘The report mirrors the ambitious plan for improving children’s lives and outcomes we set out in our Children’s Plan, which aims to give every child the best chance in life, and we are pleased that the review acknowledges the positive impact that the Children’s Plan is already having on children’s lives.’

Rowan WilliamsArchbishop of Canterbury commented that society has become ‘tone-deaf to the real needs of children… In a climate where the mixture of sentimentalism and panic makes discussion of children’s issues so difficult’.  I don’t want to sound cynical, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. There has to be more and better affordable child care in this country. The contribution that grandparents make must be valued and working conditions for mothers must be flexible. Sadly, many employers make few concessions for working mums and sometimes they can be quite hostile, all adding to the stress parents and particularly working mothers feel. It’s a question of priorities. Investing in our kids, both financially and emotionally is insurance for the future, because our kids are the future.

Family in tall grass
Family in tall grass (Photo credit: Jackal of all trades)

All we can do as parents is try to understand what loving our children really means. Doesn’t it  mean listening to them, being there when they need you, giving them space when they don’t, respecting them, hugging them, kissing them, laughing with them, taking your responsibility for creating happy memories VERY seriously, eating home cooked meals with them, putting magic and wonder into their early childhood years, engaging with them in art, music and all sorts of culture, keeping them in touch with their extended families and most of all, loving and enjoying them? Isn’t raising kids a national responsibility? We are all culpable if children suffer.

All this takes TIME. Most parents struggle to find five spare minutes in the rush to earn enough just to survive.  Today, ordinary families are struggling. In the past few years we have seen bankers suck up obscene profits, while many children in this country live in deprivation and poverty. That is disgraceful. We seem to have got our priorities all wrong.

ONLY CONNECT

Family portrait with parents and four daughters.
Family portrait with parents and four daughters. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Families who can’t talk to each other, create problems that grow in magnitude and are passed down the generations. Communication, a willingness to empathise and hold out a hand, is the glue that keeps relationships healthy. To achieve this, needs the wisdom of Job and the patience of a saint. It also need assertiveness. Running away from problems in a family set up, refusing to discuss them, or yelling and shouting to assuage feeling of frustration, just drives a bigger and more dangerous wedge between family members. Loyalty and the strength to support each other when the chips are down, is hard to maintain. It’s so much easier to disappear into a silent chasm of your own making.

When family members stop communicating, people get lost. If the communication is shallow and uncaring, people feel negated. If there is no loving compassion in the way people communicate, then there will be a flatness to life and a sense of emptiness, for what else is life about, but connecting. The saddest stories are the ones reported in the newspapers that tell of elderly people found dead in their homes, alone and uncared for. These people often have children scattered across the world, who have lost touch with them. Of course, the reason for these estrangements is never fully explained, but I know from my own experience, that often it was nothing more than a difference of opinion that caused a family rift that was never resolved.

There is also the issue of courage. It takes courage to overcome rows when bad things are said and people are hateful to each other in a family setting. I am not talking about abuse here; that’s a far more serious issue and should always be addressed with the help of professionals. No, I am talking about having the courage to challenge bad behaviour within a family, in a calm, assertive way that enables you to maintain dignity and self respect. A lot of family misunderstandings are down to a lack of good manners. People who are close, often take each other for granted and forget courtesy and kindness. A culture of ‘anything goes’ can develop in a family, where there is an unspoken permission to ‘let it all hang out’ – to be able to say anything or behave however you wish, even if the words and behaviour is hurtful and damaging. Standing up for your self-respect in a family setting where emotions are running high takes courage, but it so much better than enforced silence or unbridled rage.

Families nearly always have bullies. Bullying is covered up with excuses from them, or from other family members. There is never an excuse for bullying, whatever the circumstances. When people bully, it is because they cannot express themselves with the right sort of assertiveness. Bullying is borne of frustration. It’s hard work to deal with a family bully, because if you love that person, you tend to tread on eggshells around them, in the hope that they will see that bullying is not the way to communicate well. But bullies need to be challenged and that takes self-esteem and courage, too. When you love someone and they bully you, it is your self-esteem that takes the hit.

There is also another type of family member. The martyr. This is the person who constantly says sorry. Who makes him or herself the fall guy. Who lives in a state of apologetic silence. Who can never resolve anything, because to resolve something would mean responsibility. Being a martyr lets you off the hook. You wish to be seen as the person who will lay down your life for others, rather than do anything pragmatic to resolve the problem.  What that means is that you do not have the confidence or insight to  employ intelligence, wisdom, and reason. Martyrs are very emotional people. Deep inside, they feel that the whole world is against them. Being a martyr means you want people to notice you and to acknowledge that you exist, above everything else. You are screaming for attention, you are hurt and you want others to know it. How can you resolve anything, feeling like that? So beware the martyr in your family. They need help!

Then we have the isolationist. The family member who removes him or herself and says, ‘Let them get on with it, I’m out of here…’ This person is usually very sensitive too, but presents a tough exterior. They come across as the know-all. When they are not given enough listening time or they feel that others are ignoring them, or can’t understand them, they are off! They have an innate stubbornness and an overblown sense of self-protection, that prevents them from reaching out to others and loosening up.

So we are back to communication; a vital component in family relations. Parents need to talk to children and listen to them; really listen. Children have to listen to parents… Is that possible? Parents do not have a good press. They are presented as ‘hard-working and poverty struck’ by politicians, as ‘rich and unfeeling’ by the press, as ‘possessive’ by many, as ‘irresponsible’ if they are single parents, as ‘pushy’ if they are ambitious for their kids… the list  of the failings that society seeks to heap upon parents, is endless.  And it doesn’t stop when the kids are grown. Then, we are on to the behaviour of grandparents and their interaction with their children and grandchildren.

As we age, the things that help us to stay healthy and happy are good relationships, within our social groups and with our families. This has been proved scientifically. It is also recognised that people entering nursing homes today are far more frail and need more care than they did years ago. Is this because we have lost that sense of family? Families are split; live far way from each other, do not communicate and by doing this, create a situation where older members feel unloved and uncared for? This affects their sense of well being and self esteem. If you think you are useless, of no value to your family or are simply a seen as a burden, you are not going to feel much like living, let alone live a productive and happy life.

That nagging sense that often overcomes older people, that they are surplice to requirements, that in our throw-away society, it’s time they were thrown away, does not make for contentment. This often happens when there is a divorce. The married couple separate and make new relationships with new families. The old grandparents are sidelined for the new crop. Kid’s loyalties become confused. They love their original grandparents but are expected to suddenly love the new lot! They love their parents, but now they are expected to show love and respect for the new ‘daddy’ or ‘mummy’… It’s very tough on everyone.

Now we come to the most difficult of family members; the fantasist. This person is not grounded in reality. He or she will see their children as saints, when they have committed bloody murder! This person will swear that black is white and white is black. This person will avoid a brush with reality at all costs. They will turn reality into a fantasy and swear that their fantasy is a true representation of what is happening. They will never accept that there are none so blind and those who will not see…  Fantasists lie and they believe their own lies. They cannot understand why people don’t believe them. If confronted, they will say they are just’ exaggerating a little’ or they will withdraw into silence until, they can find an audience to listen and believe their next fantasy. In a family, it is very difficult to explain the behaviour of the fantasist. They are very good at avoiding, at making promises they never keep, at saying outrageous things, while expecting to be forgiven because they are were ‘only joking’. The story of Walter Mitty illustrates the mind of the fantasist beautifully. Mitty is a simple man who lives a vivid fantasy life within his mind. He imagines himself in a variety of exciting roles, yet his own life is bland and unexciting. Walter Mitty is a hapless dreamer. If you have one of these in your family, beware! There is nothing wrong with dreaming, in the right context. Artists have to be dreamers, otherwise they would produce nothing. This, to my mind, is a very valid use of fantasy and dreaming! But the bleak world of a Walter Mitty character deserves our compassion and a gentle nudge into reality now and then!

Staying grounded when dealing with your relatives, keeps you sane. Good communication is the only way through this minefield, I’m afraid. It takes sustained effort and committment and it’s not easy.