In my experience, there are two main behaviour modifications that parenting brings to your life: on the one hand, it provides numerous opportunities to be grumpy, irritable and undeniably ‘grown’up’ as you chastise your children for their misdemeanours and hear echos of your own parents in your words, but conversely it also gives you the freedom to behave like a child as you join in the games, adventures and imaginary worlds of your off-spring.
Two opposing states it seems, but they exist alongside each other, inextricably intertwined in the fabric of family life. Over the course of our recent family holiday, I saw them emerge in my own behaviour one after the other, tumbling over each other in an effort to keep up with the ever changing challenges that parenting brings.
Now as it happens, I find that both of these states suit me quite well. I am naturally bossy and controlling so, whilst I may complain about the irritation and embarrassment caused by my children behaving bady, I secretly enjoy the moments when I hear myself saying ‘If you can’t be nice to each other, then just don’t speak!’ and feel like I am still a child playing at being a grown-up.
I guess it makes me realise that that is all we are ever doing as parents really – playing at being grown-ups; scanning our memories for suitably grown-up phrases to use when our children’s behaviour leaves us lost and grabbing blindly for a safety rope to pull us out from situations where we feel inept and distinctly under-qualified.
It’s all just acting, isn’t it? Playing the role of parent that we have learnt from watching others; trying out different characters in a vain attempt to land the perfect part and get this role nailed.
And we know we are all muddling along in much the same way because we hear each other do it too. So often, in a public place, I come to the end of a conversation with one of my children where I have been explaining in my best ‘calm and reasonable voice’ that ‘No, we are not getting sweets and the fact that you are crying and shouting at me that it isn’t fair, is not going to make me change my mind.’ and look up to find a fellow parent smiling in sympathetic recognition: they have been there too, the look says and I am guessing the script was probably near identical.
So we are good at playing the big bad parent when we need to (with varying degrees of success it must be admitted), but what about the other side? The reliving our childhood side? Well this bit I really like. Because, in the same way, we all feel like we are playing at being a grown-up, none of us have really stopped enjoying the fun bits about being a child. Adult life makes us feel like we should behave in a more restrained way, but given the chance to be like Tom Hanks in Big and who is not going to have fun?
So what better way to be justifiably childish than to hang out with our children and join in their games? My best mother-daughter bonding moment recently was when I went to her class fun day and joined in the water fight. She loved the fact that I was racing round trying to shoot her and it was honestly the best fun I’d had in ages: I needed no encouragement to enjoy a spot of sharp-shooting (Calamity Jane was always one of my favourite musicals!).
So back to our recent holiday. There was lots of material there and I plan to mine it for future posts, but as far as this topic is concerned it is fair to say that in Day 1 alone, I found myself oscillating between the aforementioned two states. At lunchtime I snapped irritably at Ana to say she would either eat the sausage roll she had been offered for lunch or have nothing (upon which she stormed off saying she would have nothing, only to re-emerge 2 minutes later as I reached the till to say maybe she would have a sausage roll after all). Then a mere 30 minutes later the girls and I had a spontaneous race up a big hill (just because it was there), followed by an extended game of hide and seek. The grumpy grown-up and the eternal child all there in one mixed up package.
I wonder if these seemingly opposing states are not so different after all. Increasingly it seems to me that maybe childhood is where we all stagnate internally and the rest of it is just an elaborate game of pretend. So may be Tom Hanks in Big is not so far from the truth after all….