Making eye-contact is awkward for me. Its intimacy makes my eyes water. Even my closest relationships are conducted with eyes cast down. No doubt this comes from a mixture of temperament and how I was brought up to manage that temperament. My father, especially, is not effusive.
So a family home didn’t feel like my natural environment at first. I’d found myself marooned in an alien landscape full of…people, and I knew I needed to proceed with great caution.
It didn’t occur to me, though, that relationships with my own children, bonding with them, would be so intellectually challenging. This was because, cleverly, I refused to think about it. When the future frightens me, I just shut down any predictive faculty and let it come on. Why ruin the present by pre-living the ruinous future?
You can’t just do parenting by instinct, though: bear-hugging them when they’re sad so they feel loved; bellowing at them when they are naughty so they learn how to be good. What if they’re sad because they’ve been naughty and you bellowed at them and they think the bellow was an exercise in arbitrary and tyrannical power because they can’t see why it was naughty in the first place, or need to protect their fragile egos, and now they think you are saying they are a bad person and they wonder if maybe they are, or you are, and are you abusive and/or are they worthless and evil, but they’re not properly aware that they feel this way, just that they’re sad and angry with you, so, even though they were the ones who were thoughtless and hurtful, suddenly you’re the bad guy, but they need to be comforted by you but you’re the bad guy, somehow, so how do you go about that, especially as you are sad because they are, and feel terribly guilty, and yet also angry with them for causing such a fuss, and have had no time to process it because this all blew up out of nowhere…?
You have to pick your way carefully through these things. It’s like balancing fiendishly complicated emotional equations, especially as they hit their teenage years.
Even Jo doesn’t always find it easy, but bonding is what she most relishes. Provoked into laying down the law, she’ll then spend hours lying all cuddled up in bed with the tearful child, talking it through. I tiptoe out of the room and leave them to it.
I’m used to it now, but at first, it was both mortifying and a relief to I leave it up to her. I knew I wasn’t throwing myself into parenting, exactly, but I tried to be supportive, accommodating and amiable, and let my relationship with the children go where it would, secure in the knowledge that they’d have Jo to fill in any emotional absence.
That isn’t enough, especially if you’re not the bread-winner. I regretted it; I felt neglectful, a bad parent, but I felt so overwhelmed that I didn’t feel capable of any greater engagement. And this made me feel lazy and uncaring.
When the children were small, my reliance on Jo meant that if she was in the house, somewhere, I could parent with (relative) ease. I knew I could call on her if necessary, but the minute she stepped out the door, I became a much stricter, more shouty dad. I worried about losing control, and the dreadful consequences of that.
I hoped I could compensate by being the dogsbody that families require. I could demonstrate my love by doing the necessary chores, running the necessary errands.