Anyway, back to work: I had given up my job as an English teacher at an FE college. The work-load and the commute were unsustainable. I’d been leaving the house before 6am, and coming home as late as 11.30. I’d spend all weekend preparing lessons and lectures, and marking. Jo’s job was terribly demanding, but she was virtually a single parent. She was getting both our small children up every morning, getting them ready for nursery, dropping them off, picking them up, feeding them, entertaining them. Then, in any snatched moments, she was dashing off reports. She even had to help me at the weekends. (My natural inefficiency and lack of resourcefulness were made worse by exhaustion.)
A week in a busy secondary had shown me that I was never going to make it as a school teacher, either. I stayed as an LSA on around £10K a year. I justified this by agreeing with Jo that I would take on more of the parenting and house work so that she could concentrate on doing her job well. I’d forced, or at least manoeuvred, Jo into a career by my failure to have one. Somebody’s got to take responsibility for keeping the family’s heads above water, financially. That role fell to Jo.
So I hope I haven’t given the impression that Jo is a careerist witch thirsting for advancement. Actually, she’s very laid-back, being happiest lying in a hammock, in a garden, in a sunhat, reading a book, while various children (hers, other people’s) race around. She’s much better at chilling than I am. She’s just cursed with being more capable than many of her peers, and better able to focus on her goals and carry through projects with determination, drive and industry. But she does it because she wants things to be done right, to help others. She’s a nurturer.
Meanwhile I was left with the parenting, a job Jo does brilliantly, because it’s her real vocation, but which I felt I had no aptitude for, no natural inclination towards, no idea of how to go about. I was terrified I’d fuck it up.
I told myself I’d just have to work really hard at it, but this was daunting. While it would be immensely rewarding, I’m a lazy little shite who works so he can reap the rewards of stopping, and there seemed to be no end to these new tasks: there were no holidays, and the shifts were literally endless, apart from a few snatched moments of sleep. It felt like being asked to hold your breath for the rest of your life.
When the children were at their youngest and most vulnerable, I was completely bewildered by them. I had no idea, from moment to moment, what I was supposed to do. I spent a lot of time simply being in attendance while they engaged furiously with this new business of existing.
It turns out this is kind of the right thing to do, but I didn’t know this. I was too terrified to read all the parenting manuals Jo absorbed. Why, I thought, subject yourself to the terrors of parenting in advance? And I can’t understand anything unless it’s written as a unified, coherent story. Bullet points, lists of instructions or advice: anything broken up into many brief, separate parts, is instantly forgotten. I can’t comprehend its flickering confusion. Jo says it’s my dyslexia.
I found that if Jo was in the house, I could be a (relatively) relaxed and flexible parent, even if she was upstairs asleep. I knew I could call on her to tell me what to do, or for back-up or to take over. But the minute she left the house, I lost my nerve. Not only their psychological well-being, but their very survival was now solely my responsibility, yet I couldn’t see why I had any authority over them. What the hell did I know? What gave me the right to decide when we had for lunch or what we ate, or when we went home from the park? Sure, even I would make the more sensible decisions, given their total ignorance of the world, but why should, or would, they do what I say? And how could I enforce my diktats? once again, I felt fraudulent.
I feared that I would lose control and I feared the consequences of losing control, that Jo would come home to find one of the children had died or been abducted by murderous paedophiles. This made me overly fierce and inflexible and domineering. Only a little, but enough to slightly damage our relationship.
All these feelings were terrible secrets that must be kept hidden, or they would seriously mess the children up. It’s probably impossible not to screw your children up, a little. All psyches are damaged. I’m sure some of my more unhelpful attitudes and experiences were inherited from my parents.
The duty of parents, therefore, is to try and minimise their negative impacts and maximise their positive. I hope my love for Meggie and Dan comes through in these posts. I have never doubted that, nor that I love them more than anything else, but It would not be helpful for their sense of self-worth if they were aware of the confusion and ambivalence with which I greeted their birth and infanthood (I wasn’t aware of it myself), or my fear that I might not have the capacity to love, or the ability to look after, them as much as they deserved or as much as other people could. We could dismiss this as another example of my foolish self-doubt, but it would rattle their foundations all the same.
And Jo would be FURIOUS.