Tuesday 22 October 2019

School's out and my darlings have already pushed me close to the edge

With three children on holidays until September rolls around again, Sarah Carey is dreading the long days ahead

DILEMMA: I love my children, I just don’t want to be around them all the time
DILEMMA: I love my children, I just don’t want to be around them all the time

Sarah Carey

Naturally, as a teenager, I knew that my parents were wrong about everything. Then I grew up and accepted that perhaps they were right after all. As middle-age crashes in on me, I worry that my teenage self might have had a point. While I raged and slammed doors, they preached stoicism.

For them, it's not merely a tool for managing life's disappointments, but a moral issue. No one owes you a living and the only valid response - the only moral response - is to keep one's head up, smile, work hard, and justice may or not be done in the end.

After I'd spent one full day in the company of my children this week, I decided that wasn't going to work for me. So I concocted an urgent meeting in Dublin on Friday, put on my make-up and fled the house.

Yes: I've turned into one of those middle-class mothers whose worst nightmare is the obligation to care for one's children. As the summer holidays commenced, the nightmare became reality. They don't listen to me. All they crave - all day - are screens and sugar. They don't go to bed. They speak like Californian teenage girls; which for boys is not a good look. They fight with each other and almost inadvertently inflict bizarre acts of vandalism on the home.

The only real moments of joy are when I shower them with attention and affection. Then we can laugh. And then they see an opportunity and ask for sweets or the Playstation. Sigh.

I used to be a proud, capable housewife. I cleaned doors. I planned educational days out. I categorised towels. I baked cakes, for heaven's sake. I was clearly insane. And I've had enough. I want to read a paragraph without interruption. I want to start and complete tasks without refereeing a fight. To be fair to them, I can't see why they'd want to spend time with a crazy woman who makes them repeat every sentence without saying "like".

The school hours provide some release but to have each other all day? To hell with stoicism. I can't do it this summer.

Others of my ilk blame teachers when faced with this reality. It's their fault for taking too-long holidays! But I think modern teachers are saints to put up with modern children and their modern parents. If I can't control three children, how do they keep 30 quiet, teach them something, and tolerate outraged lectures from parents when discipline is required?

In fairness I'm still only dealing with primary school children. I find by the time it gets to June they've stopped taking anything in and the teachers need a decent break. I write them guilty letters thanking them for putting up with my lot as gracefully as they do.

Don't try to tell me that our mothers had us all for summer holidays and they were fine. They weren't fine. They were overworked and miserable. They just had no choice and a prescription for Valium. These days things are different. They prescribe Xanax instead.

And fine! I grew up in the country where we roamed for miles each day, built dens in the hay shed and did jobs on the farm. True, we fought over the telly too, but we had only two stations. There were limits. But as my kids say - that was the olden days. They are of Generation Paranoid, where I don't so much fear that something might happen to them should they go out of sight, but that I'd be blamed for it. Accidents I can handle. Judgement I can't.

Our parents were expected to feed, clothe and educate their children. We're expected to make sure ours are "happy" and succeed in a world of neo-liberal ethics where pre-teens are primed to call each other "losers". It's not just that the obligations of parenting have intensified - but we're supposed to enjoy it too. That's what grates with me.

So what to do? As with everything else, class dictates all. I might have an overdraft but I also have a credit card. I whipped it out and panic-booked summer camps, wondering guiltily how poor people cope. The GAA and FAI run brilliant camps and in a fit of aspirational madness, I found a coding class for kids in the hope they take their place among the technological aristocrats of the future. The current indications are that this is highly unlikely, but at least they won't be able to blame me if it doesn't work out. When secondary school starts, so will the stint in the Gaeltacht. As they move on presumably I'll have to upgrade to student exchanges in Europe. You see what's happening? Summer holidays have become another opportunity for the middle class to up-skill the next generation while we get them out of our hair. It's virtuous avoidance.

The point being: why do I feel so defensive about that? Surely it's what feminists have been arguing for generations?

The psychoanalyst Colman Noctor said on my Newstalk show recently that expectation minus reality equals happiness. So let's hear it for the Consumerist Capitalist Conspiracy which defeated feminism by hysterically inflating the concept of idealised motherhood. That's the problem here.

As feminists argued that women needed to get out of the house, my generation has been relentlessly brainwashed with the idea that reproduction is not simply some evolutionary imperative and economic necessity but the emotional fulfilment of our human destiny. Having children isn't something we do because we can; because we need heirs, or an unfortunate side effect of having sex. Apparently, we do it because it will make us happy. In fact, without them, we can never be happy. That's got to be tosh, right?

Now, don't get me wrong. I loved having babies and I loved minding them. I'm glad I stayed at home when they were little. In fact, I think I was most contented at that stage. These days, I love it when they say funny, clever things and it's nice when I ignore everything else and just have a cuddle with them. I'm conscious too that they'll matter more to me as I age. Especially as I age.

I just don't want to be around them all the time and so summer crystallises the issue, making children a problem to be solved. Which is sad really; a consequence of industrialisation and the idealisation of family life. I know what the 'good' mother would do. She'd surrender to it all gracefully. If I do that, then family life will work.

But I am not a 'good' mother and the fact that such a concept still exists makes me wonder how anyone can claim we live in a post-feminist world.

It's time to rediscover my teenage self and slam a few doors on the way out. 'Tis the end of stoicism for me.

Sunday Independent

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