Thursday, 17 January 2013
Pushing the Kids Out of the House
It is the most stressful time of day: the final four minutes I spend trying to get my boys out of the house so we can walk to school and be there before the bell. I make it stressful, deliberately, because otherwise we would never get anywhere. The boys have no instinct for time yet. They don't notice the seconds rushing past them, they never glance in agitation at the clock to check if they're on schedule, so I must badger and cajole, urging them to finish their breakfast, clean their teeth, put their shoes on. All the time I am trying to remember how to make a packed lunch (something I seem to forget in my sleep every night) whilst getting myself dressed and ready.
This morning these four minutes end up being nearer ten, which is tiresome - partly because it raises the chances of us being late (we are never late, and there's another five minutes of contingency after that, but I never dare admit this to myself lest I am tempted to use them), but mainly because, having laboured to create a sense of urgency with which to propel my kids from the house, I don't have many higher gears left. If something goes wrong now, I only have two or three shades of exasperation and anger at my disposal before I have to go nuclear.
And something is going wrong. My eldest, I know, is looking for something and not finding it. I can tell because instead of stuffing his lunch box in his bag and putting his coat on, he is stood there in the corner of my eye, waving his arms and going red in the face as he makes a strained growling noise. In short, he is copying what I do when my keys evaporate, or my phone somehow inexplicably isn't in my pocket. It's one of those countless instances when I see, plainly and clearly, that I have ruined him by being his father.
[Now, don't panic - this isn't something I agonise about. Luckily, I realised very early on that this was my job. Once you accept that, as Larkin put it, "They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do. / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you." then some of the stress of parenting dissipates. Since everyone is a mess of some kind or another, to be a good parent is simply to screw up your children in the most well-intentioned and loving way you can.]
"What have you lost?" I don't ask this nicely, supportively. We are Late For School and so I am Cross. Also, he is Not Looking. He is huffing and waiting for the Thing to reveal itself, unable to see what he has in his hands. The futility of this as a non-process, a waste of time we don't have, moves me closer to actual rather than manufactured anger. I push in front of him and begin rifling through paper and firing off questions to discover what the Thing is, where it is supposed to be, when he last had it. His answers, vague and often contradictory, push me over the top into wide-eyed frustration.
As I start an increasingly well-worn tirade against disorganisation, my youngest son turns up and he isn't ready either.
"Where's your coat?" I snap. Despite the lateness (we should have left already), he can't leave without it - it's the coldest day of the winter so far.
"Well," he says, "I think I must have left it at school."
And this is when I lose it.
[Because I front-load my stress into these few minutes, the rest of the day is relatively easy-going. When I go and collect my kids I am relaxed and calm. The conversation my youngest and I had yesterday went like this:
Me: Hey how're you doing? How was your day?
Me: What did you do?
Me: Have you got all your stuff?
Him: (spotting his lunch box at the last minute) Yup!
Me: How about your coat?
Him: Yep, it's in my bag.
Me: You sure?
Him: Yes, I'm sure, Dad.
And I let it go at that, because I know they have to learn to be responsible and, hey, he says he has it - I have to show I trust him, right?]
"What do you mean you left it at school! You told me you had it in your bag! I asked you 'Have you got everything? Have you got your coat?' and you said 'Yes Dad it's in my bag!'"
"Sorry," he says, but as always, the regret is only that he is being shouted at, which I find especially infuriating; if nothing else, they should have learnt to fake contrition. But now I have gone nuclear, there isn't anywhere else to go, and so I can only savagely roll my eyes and fetch his other thing-which-is-sort-of-a-coat-and-will-do-this-once and wrestle him into it and then push them both outside, reaching back at the last possible moment, like Indiana Jones, to whisk my keys off of the table before the door closes.
And so we leave for school, seven minutes later than I would like, five minutes later than we normally do, and we will eventually arrive with at least five minutes to spare. My manufactured White Rabbit impression has exploded into real anger, unnecessarily so given that a) it's not actually that cold after all and my youngest's coat will be in his classroom and b) if the missing piece of paper isn't in my oldest's bag (and it almost certainly is) then it is, after all, only a form that he can fill in afresh in two ticks.
But now I am trapped inside the crossness and so the lecture continues as we pace along the street in the winter sunshine. I feel I have to make them take responsibility, to get them to be organised and efficient. I start to say that I know what it's like to get caught out, but I can't have that conversation right now. Because really, of course, this is only partly to do with them and still quite a lot to do with me, and hypocrisy is the official language of parenting.
I was very badly organised at school. Being terribly lazy too only compounded the problem, but the worst thing was being able to get away with it so often. Although we did still get in terrible trouble occasionally, it seemed worth it overall: not having to work hard all the time was consolation for being hauled horribly over the coals every now and again. I say we, because my friends had much the same attitude. As we got older it all got harder; the stress of being caught out worsened, the deadlines slipped further, the risks got higher. At GCSE we would write our Biology homework in the class immediately before it had to be handed in. We would have meetings with the fearsome History teacher on the progress of our A-Level coursework where we looked him straight in the eye and lied about having done any work at all. For Eng. Lit. we were supposed to have translated The Miller's Tale into modern English over the Summer so that we could go around the class in turn, reading out chunks from our own versions. The game here was Chaucerian Roulette, trying to predict whether your turn would come up during the next lesson, and maybe, if you miscalculated, trying furtively to peek ahead and scribble something down on the sly. By the time I was at university, I was trying to bluff my way through nerve-wracking one-on-one tutorials on, say, Bleak House or Ulysses where I'd only read the first chapter. I'm still not sure how I got through my final year, but somehow, despite my best efforts, I just about held it together, which is another way of saying I'm grateful for the degree I got, rather than bitter about what I might have achieved if I had actually, you know, done any work.
All these years after the fact, these begin to sound like exploits in my head, and a lost piece of paper and a temporarily mislaid coat feels like small beer - both reasons why I can't reminisce at the boys whilst I am cross with them for being disorganised. But really I don't want them to end up the same way. I don't want them to be like me. I 'd much rather, in this respect, they were more like their mother, who is brilliantly efficient. (When I first reached for an adjective to put in there, all I had were 'über' and 'ruthlessly', which just goes to show my prejudice. The same bias would have me described as 'heroically slapdash', so there, that's how far from the path of reason I have wandered.) Even if I say she's brilliantly efficient, I'm actually underselling her because, to me, it is more like she has super-powers: judgement, foresight, clarity of thought and word, and many more, some of which are, to be honest, beyond my comprehension. All I know is, she can always find the thing in the fridge that I can't see for toffee.
As we dart through the school gate, hopelessly on time (on my return journey I'll pass many, many children who are going to be actually, properly tardy), my oldest takes a breath to steel himself. Words leap from his mouth, like an ejecting pilot.
"DadI'msorryyouneedtosignmyagendaIforgottoaskyoulastnight," he says, and this is more of the same. His Agenda is a diary the school gives him, a daily planner in which he is supposed to make a note of what homework he has to do and what homework he has done. His teacher asks that a parent initial this every day to check the kids are on top of things. After some previous lapses I have made it clear that I expect him to remember to ask me to sign it, not the other way around, and that he should be doing this in the evening once he has finished his homework rather than just as we are trying to get out of the door the next morning.
He breathes out, and glances at me sideways, genuinely nervous. But I surprise both of us by laughing. At some point during the walk to school, in the middle of my angry rant, he had remembered about his Agenda. How it must have sat in his stomach as he waited and wondered how much crosser I would get. And then the realisation that he had no choice but to come clean. I laugh because I can see he felt he had nothing else to do but throw himself on the grenade and hope for the best, or worst. It's no less admirable for being an act of desperation. Having been lucky in the past, I know what should happen next: sometimes, instead of an explosion there's a giddy absolution as the problem is suddenly magicked away.
That's another bit of my job. It's all very well lecturing on personal responsibility, letting them struggle so they can claw their own way out of trouble, nagging at them so they get their work done and teaching them to submit to the tyranny of the clock - it might even be necessary - but it's not any fun. Much nicer when I get to fix things, when I get presented with problems I can solve, instantly, with my magic parenting super-powers. That is how things used to work all the time. When the boys were much smaller, my powers (in their eyes at least) were greater and the problems were mainly to do with poo, or puréed vegetables, or wooden trains. In any case, back then pretty much everything could be fixed with a cuddle, or a nap, or, perhaps, in extremis, a biscuit. They're nearly teenagers now, and teaching them to fend for themselves is suddenly much more of a priority. The problems are murkier and our relationship is more complicated, constantly transitional. Very gradually, power and responsibilities are going to have to be handed over.
Ultimately, I'm hoping we will all strike a balance where they can have happy, successful lives and still know that we are here for them, just in case. But it's sobering to realise that, in trying to push them out of the house in the morning, I'm also pushing them out towards an adult world where they are in charge of themselves.
"Yes, of course I'll sign your agenda," I say happily. "Is it in your bag?"
"Yes," he says. And it was.