“Nothing prepares you for parenthood”, despite being true, is an expression so well-worn that it’s entered the realms of cliché. I first watched Ron Howard’s 1989 film on the same theme as a 17 year old and found it amusing then. A few years ago, and by then a parent myself, I rewatched it and laughed even harder, albeit a little more hollowly. My progeny as small children were of the toddler tearaway ilk, uncannily similar to Steve Martin’s character’s youngest child in the film, particularly on the using of a bucket-as-headwear front.
A real low was the time my one year old daughter managed to jam her head between the base of our toilet and the bathroom wall. My older child was three at the time and always particularly fractious by bath time. I didn’t feel confident enough to maintain control of two bathing, slippery eels simultaneously, so would deal with them separately. While there was logic in me attending to my three year old as the baby crawled free-range around our apartment, the upshot was unthinkable. A baby’s curioisty knows no bounds and on this particular occasion she was in hot pursuit of the loo brush. For one very long, hysterical minute she became completely wedged between wall and loo: she, crying, me only capable of uttering a panicky expletive on repeat which my three year old parroted every desperate time I uttered it. The situation became so alarming that I imagined having to call the emergency services or a plumber, or both, to remove either baby or toilet.
Miraculously, and I’m not entirely sure how, my daughter managed to manoeuvre herself out of her own accord. It was a lesson learnt. From then on and until I felt able to bath them together, the little one remained strapped into her high chair in the bathroom doorway while I bathed her brother. As with much of parenting, the best of intentions to avert disaster can result in alternative, undesirable circumstances. All things being equal, perhaps even this nightmare scenario compares favourably to that of a friend-of-a-friend who dislocated her child’s shoulder when removing an arm-band at the swimming pool.
Apparently, the genetic cocktail gifted to our children by me and their father doesn’t engender children that, for example, sit quietly and read. Why would you do that when you can run your parents ragged instead? Much more fun! Ask any parent of young children how they are feeling and their default response will probably be a variation on the scale from “a bit tired” to exhausted to the point of being borderline psychotic. Add illness into the mix and any semblance of order that you mistakenly believe exists in your world is thrown completely out of kilter.
A month shy of her first birthday, my daughter contracted a dose of Chickenpox so severe that she was hospitalised. This episode was possibly one of my lowest ebbs emotionally. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that anxiety plus sleeplessness are never a winning combination. To top it all off, one doctor reprimanded me for “allowing” my daughter to catch the virus; another seemed more intent on capturing the great extent of her spottiness photographically on his smartphone, for posterity or research purposes I was never sure. My daughter succumbing to rampant pox and my inability to control it – the too-high temperature, the spots that wouldn’t stop appearing – was the first time that external factors had really impinged on my tight grip on all motherly matters. Super-organised control freakery was not going to fix this one.
Happily, Monkey Number Two made a complete recovery and normal service was resumed not long after. Maybe my brush with the Portuguese public services should have prepared me better for the education system. As far as I can ascertain, the state school system caters to little girls with plaits who sit silently with their hands clasped while memorising vast amounts of information which is then regurgitated verbatim in frequent tests. In my opinion, the principal flaws in this method are that creativity is stifled and eventually, surely, one set of facts evaporates from memory in order make space for the next deluge of information. I refer you back to my children not being the sitting quietly types and our “problem” is probably clear.
My mummy friends and are all too aware of my frustrations on this front; I rarely pull any punches. Suffice it to say, I’m not the parent that boasts about Tarquin’s recent mastery of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major. No, I’m the parent that has been known to refer to her 11 and a half year old as “Beavis and Butt-head” and laments his recent enquiry as to whether a profitable living could be made “just from having muscles”. I make it my business to be realistic. Parenting is hard enough without being in competition with your support network.
Only last week I had to call upon the help of a long-standing Portuguese friend in order to communicate in writing with my son’s school in a heartfelt bid to request that they stop insisting on trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. In the process she became privy to the messy, complicated and less Facebook and Instagram-worthy aspects of our family life. Leaning into our friendship and being completely transparent felt like a huge relief; the not-always palatable truth isn’t necessarily a dirty secret.
Parenthood the film is fairly realistic about the highs and lows of parenting and ultimately optimistic. Despite it all, I also remain largely positive. I cannot pinpoint if it’s experience, maturity or simply reaching a state of grace about some circumstances that cannot be changed that makes things easier. Just as my recently-acquired reading glasses have enabled me to see newly-formed – we’ll call them laughter lines – that I wasn’t previously aware existed, I’ve had to learn to take the rough with the smooth. As I can now see most things exactly as they are – even my wrinkles – it is obvious that rolling with the punches that life can throw you (interspersed with the occasional, well-aimed punch back) is often the only viable option. Total control over the universe is futile. While trying to improve your child’s lot in life is a moral obligation, attempting to puppeteer all aspects of their life is nigh on impossible as they grow older.
Old-school Dad is currently enjoying a Rolling Stones retrospective and in light of my accumulated experiences to date, I’m soothed by a bit of rock ‘n’ roll philosophy, courtesy of Mick Jagger:
“You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes, well you just might find
You get what you need”