When I was at school some of my peers were able to cause much hilarity by reciting Monty Python sketches seemingly in full. I envied their eloquence. And their powers of memory.
Feelings or themes or parts of scenes would stick with me. Moments in time. Ideas. But rarely the words.
I’ve read pretty widely in my life. If I could retain just a quarter of the material that’s passed through my brain I’d be a fascinating dinner party guest.
One thumping exception to this experience has always been the opening line of Philip Larkin’s poem This Be The Verse.
‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad.’
Direct and unforgettable, like a dart to the eye. The iambic tetrameter rushes you to the top of a cliff and drops you off just as quick.
I first read this when I was an angst-ridden teenager. What a great quote to have up your sleeve! None of this is my fault! Blame the folks!
Plus it was someone who I studied on the school curriculum using a word that would probably have gotten me suspended if I’d said it aloud in the classroom. What’s not to like about that?
Except. The thimble is firmly on the other thumb now.
I’m the daddy now.
And I’m not saying that with a threatening curl of the lip, a la Ray Winstone in Scum.
Now the Larkin line haunts my thoughts and taunts my dreams.
Maybe I’ve just got too much time on my hands. Maybe I overthink things (you think?). But there is an awe-inspiring responsibility in shaping another human being like clay. Of knowing that my failures, imperfections and weaknesses could be reflected in him.
It’s my heaviest coat.
It just doesn’t seem quite right. This society.
I never filled out a form. Or did an interview.
I got asked more questions when I tried to buy a fucking goldfish then I ever did about my parenting abilities.
Recently I’ve been contemplating taking on a part-time job. Something not too stressful. Just to dip my elbow back into the murky, stagnant bath of employment.
But the truth is I’ve been intimidated by the form filling. The gush of information. The weariness of the length of the process.
But I have been invited to a couple of interviews.
When they ask me why I’m suitable, I always have to fight against the urge to deliver the Groucho Marx line ‘I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.’
Laughably I even got offered one job after a minor moped prang of an interview. Politely I declined. I just wasn’t ready to go back into an office yet.
But I could have another child tomorrow (well not literally tomorrow, but you get the point).
In fact I could keep having children until I get the hang of being a daddy. Write the first half dozen or so off as experimental until I stumble upon the Pet Sounds child.
Yesterday I had a day out with my son and some friends. We went to an open farm. He was fine. Shy as always, but in good form.
The weather was good and we all had a lovely day. But I spent most of it doing what I always do. Watching him. Always watching him. Looking for some signs that all is not as it should be. Some signal that my curse has been passed onto him.
All the usual questions were teasing me. Why doesn’t he make friends as quickly as the others? Why does he always want to cling onto me? Why does he fear every new thing?
I tried to force myself to relax. Nothing is more likely to bring what I dread into reality faster than me lurking over his shoulder fretting about it.
As I drove home he dropped off to sleep. The sure sign on an active day. When I stopped at the supermarket to buy food for dinner he was still dozing. I had to carry him in one arm while I was laden down with a shopping basket in the other.
As ever I ended up buying much more than I had intended and the weight of the basket became oppressive. A couple of times I had to stop in an aisle and set my boy down as my back began to ache (yes I know I should have got a trolley).
He was just half awake and whined to be carried again. I lifted him and struggled on. This repeated a couple more times.
I was hot, very sore and way behind my schedule in starting dinner. I set him down again. He looked at me pleadingly, tears in his eyes, and held his arms out.
I was exasperated.
I’ve never shouted at my child and I hope I never will. But on this occasion I spoke sharply, out of contained frustration.
‘Goodness sake son, why can’t you walk? All the other boys and girls walk! Only babies need carried!’
I regretted it at once and felt a deep self loathing. I could see the hurt and shame in his beautiful blue eyes, smeared with tears.
‘I don’t like you saying that daddy.’
I lifted him and he buried his sad little face against me.
‘I’m sorry son. Daddy shouldn’t have said that. Daddy’s really sorry.’
But what good is it to say sorry now? Perhaps the damage is already done?
In the dizzying network of routes that make up the brain what channel has already been blocked by my infantile, impatient, pathetic barb at him?
Perhaps a career as a chiropodist, or a jazz saxophonist, has now been closed?
Does every little failure of mine chip away something from him? And how do I begin to control this sculpture with my clumsy, unsure, shaking hands?
That’s a load of questions. Not too many answers.
Maybe I’m just pretending to be worried about him. Maybe my true concern is about myself and my inability to do this well enough.
The confession is that it doesn’t come naturally to me. Being a parent. I have to force it.
I try every day to understand him. To think why. To comprehend what he’s really trying to tell me. To have the patience to play the games. To stand there and let him pummel me. To do the same thing again and again and not to tire of it. It’s really hard.
To think of him first and not myself. To put his needs ahead of mine.
Because isn’t that what being a parent means? Putting his needs ahead of mine? Maybe. Maybe not.
Yes, Larkin was right. We do fuck them up, just like we were fucked up, as were our parents and all the way back until some caveman stubbed his toe on a sharp corner and clipped little Bam-Bam around the ear for laughing.
There’s really no other way. There’s no flat road in this journey.
We all love our children. We want them to be surrounded by comfort and happiness all the time. Not to be plagued by self doubt and fear.
They watch us. They learn from us. They try to be us.
And that’s why it’s even more important that we to learn to love ourselves. Because it’s us that they’re going to turn into soon enough.