Something happened with my son today.
It was nothing earth-shattering, but also nothing that I’m going to share here. It’s his business and hopefully soon forgotten. But after it happened, I was close to tears. If I hadn’t been in a public place, I probably would have cried.
I’m sure all this cv-19 anxiety didn’t help, but I was upset. I was furious at him for making me feel so vulnerable, for bringing up all sorts of intense emotions and, in the middle of that jumble, bringing me right back to a random moment in my own childhood that is still sitting there under the skin, alive and throbbing with shame.
I was sixteen years old and on two weeks holidays to practise my French. I was staying with a french family. The boy my age took me to meet his friends at the public outdoor pool. It was a disaster. The pool was too deep and I wasn’t a great swimmer. On getting out, I stubbed my toe and it wouldn’t stop bleeding. I was embarrassing lying around all pale and white next to all his tanned, beautiful friends and not just a little self-conscious around the girls. I felt stupid and awkward and ashamed. We left early and didn’t go back again.
Goddamn it, my son should have known not to remind me of that? How could he be so inconsiderate? I know it happened about 30 years ago and I’ve never told him about it and haven’t thought about it for years and it’s really only a minor thing, but…
Yeah. I know. It’s parenting 101. To state the blindingly obvious, it’s not our children’s behaviour that is the problem, it’s our emotional response that screws everything up.
Every time we get angry at them, what we really want to shout is, ‘Why are you making me feel like this? I hate feeling like this!’
We reward them with positive attention and compliments when their behaviour makes us feel good and warm inside. And when they stir up the fear and shame that lurks beneath our shiny, outward facing surfaces, we get angry and resentful and take it out on them as if our feelings are somehow their fault. In the process, we teach them to be ashamed too.
The first stanza of Philip Larkin’s ‘This be the verse’ says it about right:
They xxxx 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.
Obviously, I’m not going to break this cycle. The best I can do is sometimes catch myself or at least sometimes apologise to my children after the fact. I can admit my own failings and vulnerability even if it embarrasses them or me.
And whether old Phil was being serious or not and whether or not my attempts make any difference, I’ll never agree with that poem’s last line.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
Because, no matter how I sometimes respond to them, I goddamn love my kids.