Man hands on misery to man
It deepens like a coastal shelf
– This Be The Verse
Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes is a graphic novel about fathers and daughters. One pair is James Joyce and Lucia Joyce, the other is the writer of the novel – Mary Talbot – and her father, a Joycean scholar, James Atherton. In neither pair do the fathers come out looking very good, and – unfortunately – when I read some pages I saw glimpses of myself.
I wonder if all parents worry about this: that in the process of getting on with your own life you have to sacrifice some contact with your children. “Some” can of course be a slippery slope to “a lot”. Work is important they say. Self-fulfillment too. Heck, having some space to just blob on the couch with a book is pretty important. Saying that spending time with your children trumps all of these things is both true and useless. Entirely being at the service of your children or yourself is bad, and finding a balance is an act that you’re never finished with: each step on the tightrope is as important as the last. As usual the extremes are easier than the middle, but the middle is best.
Unfortunately there is a lot of falling off the damn tightrope to put up with in life.
Two things coincided for me in my life: being a new teacher and being a new Dad. These two things simultaneously taught me that I could get a lot angrier than I had ever thought possible. It turned out that 30 thirteen year old students in a low decile school, and a baby shared one common characteristic: they both refused to participate in my vision of what was supposed to happen. Frustration is the starter fuel for rage.
Babies, for example, don’t sleep when they’re supposed to. You may have noticed this. Not to put too fine a point on it, this is annoying/infuriating/stick-hot-needles-in-your-eyes-inducing. I was 34 at the time I became a Dad and I had very fixed views about what was supposed to happen at night. When it gets dark, and you feel tired, you go to sleep, and then you keep doing that until you wake up when it’s light again. Babies aren’t into this. Luckily Eleanor was a very good sleeper and it didn’t take long for her to figure out what to do, but even in the short time she was unsure I was overpowered by the sense of how unreasonable she was being. But then reasoning with a baby is a bit like, well, reasoning with a baby.
The process of being a teacher with a group of naughty 13-year-olds was very similar. Again, I had pretty conventional views on what was supposed to happen: they come in, I come in, I explain something, they try it out, we leave. Except that on really bad days we got stuck on the first part and never really moved on.
From the tone of my writing you might assume that I handled this with equanimity and wry smiles. Not so much. I found myself, for the first time in my life, enraged about things.
I say “the first time in my life” but I had, of course, been enraged in the past. My favourite moment of rage happened in Paris. After the crappy airport, and the crappy train ride, and the crappy being lost looking for your hotel in 38 degrees, and the crappy being followed by some stupid person trying to get me to give them money block after block, I finally turned around to said stupid person and said my first words to a French person: “F%&k OFF!”
(As an aside, related to things French, I am marking exams and this is my all time favourite student annotation in an exam paper:
Pretty hard to argue with, actually.)
I also experienced the rage of being a teenager. That dreadful time when adults don’t understand that they should be (a) handing you life on a platter, (b) not getting in your face with questions all the time (“so, what’s with the not going to school and the binge drinking?”), and (c) keeping the fridge full and the utilities on. It is also the time of the white heat of teen and post-teen romance. From memory this involved letters, mix-tapes and kiss-less late nights. Plenty of time for frustration and anger.
But all of these were moments of private anger without the responsibility of an audience. They were nothing compared to the double-whammy of parenthood and starting teaching.
I found myself shouting. I felt the shouting wobbling out of control. I felt the urge to pick objects up and hurl them. Darker thoughts pulsed through me. I can still remember one very stressful morning when Eleanor was going through a phase of not wanting to get dressed or have her hair brushed (all, naturally, within the context of needing to get out of the house by a certain time in order to get to creche and then on to work). After exchanging some, no doubt, choice words at increasing volume, amid the debris of frilly pink T-shirts and rabbit socks, I slammed out of the house and went into the back garden. Even though I was already very late, even though there was a class to teach first thing, I lay down on the grass and watched the clouds edge across the slate sky. Clouds edging across slate skies, and waves sluicing across pebbled beaches are great curatives for moments of stampy, snorting ego. I slowly took myself in hand. I calmed down. Eleanor, I have no doubt, ended up at creche that day, and I ended up at work, where my 30 Year 9 students probably ignored me, and my shouting, and blithely carried on gossiping with one another.
So I read a book about anger management. There were many things that were useful in the book, but the main thing that stuck with me was the idea that children can learn a lot about how to deal with problems from their parents. Or their teachers. The book didn’t mention teachers, but I am sure that this is true too. Especially if the parents of those kids are often absent. Suddenly my anger looked like a failure of my beliefs about how the world could be. Shouting and door slamming started to look like a tiny version of militaristic posturing and coercion to problem solve. Things, needless to say, I didn’t want to model to my children or the children of others.
Since then I have tried to change, but I have only done an imperfect job. Changing was made a bit easier by my training at the time in the much-derided, and often badly done Restorative Practices. Not that you can use Restorative Practices to get a two-year old to let you brush her hair on a Monday morning, but it is a practice based on responsibility, compassion and empathy which is a good starting point. A very good starting point to attempt to arrest the deepening coastal shelf.
Which avoids another point entirely: that much worse damage can be done to a child without even raising your voice. But that feels like a whole other post (written by someone else).