Terror and Guilt

It is obvious where the source of my next set of anxieties would lie. Watching your child wobble along a pavement, next to the massive wheels of roaring juggernauts, reminds you that the experience of parenthood is one of terror and guilt. They are so vulnerable and trusting; there are so many ordinary things in the world that could do them severe physical harm, cause brain-damage, even kill them: cars, crossing the road, choking, chicken-pox, falling off the swings, high temperatures. And each of these would be your fault.

I always used to dislike flying. Every time the plane built up speed on the runway, and I was pressed back into my seat, I tried to reconcile myself with the possibility of my own immanent death. I tried to say to myself “I could die, here, now, but it’ll be very quick and I’ve had a good life” I don’t know if it worked. I probably just lacked the imagination to panic and Jo truly hates flying so I had to be the designated calm one.

I only flew once with Meggie. She was a toddler and I was terrified. I felt I was suffocating. I wanted to run up and down the aircraft wailing and battering at the windows and walls. I thought, if what I feared actually came to pass, there would be nothing I could do to protect or reassure the little blonde-headed one, as we spun downwards, through the dreadful roaring air. We never flew again.

Then there’s the psychological or moral damage you could do by getting it wrong, by being inconsistent; by threatening to punish but then going back on it; by absent-mindedly dismissing their ideas, being petulant, letting them see what a twat you really are: small, inconsequential acts with deep impacts. And these, also, would be your fault.

Behind all this there is the Big Guilt: that you have somehow engendered a breathing, vivid, emotional consciousness out of nothing, and, by doing so, committed it to suffering and death. Inevitably. It can be no coincidence that Meggie was a toddler when I first became obsessed with the drought that our part of Britain was experiencing. I bequeathed her a mortally wounded planet: “Darling, welcome to your birth-right: the whole dying Earth. I’m really sorry…”

And, allied to this, you feel powerless, or at least lacking in control: powerless to protect them; unable to control them or the effect you are having on them. This probably starts, for the parent who isn’t giving birth, with standing uselessly side-lined in the delivery room, wringing your hands, irrelevant to the most profoundly important drama in the lives of all three of you, although this seemed appropriate to my self-conception, at the time. It always perplexed me that the children used to do what I told them. Why would they listen to me? What the hell did I know about anything? I hadn’t even read the parenting manuals.

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