Do you know that poem by Philip Larkin?
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.”]
He finishes it by:
“ And don’t have any kids yourself.”
Well, I was thinking about it the other day.
I had a rather unusual parenting. My parents undoubtedly loved me, but also quite obviously did not have a clue how to raise a child.
My mother, a Holocaust survivor came back from a concentration camp at 17, and had me less than 10 years later. She was a child when she was arrested by the Nazis, and somehow never grew up.
Don’t take me wrong, she is a smart, competent, tough woman, who caught up with her missed education admirably and became a doctor. But emotional intelligence is a bit different.
Ever since I remember, my mother was treating me as a friend, or maybe a sister. Somehow, there was a role reversal. I was an only child, and I soon found out that if I wanted my mum to play games with me, I must let her win. When she was losing, she stopped playing.
So at the Czech equivalent of Snakes and Ladders, I told her” Roll the dice again, mum, I must have kicked the table “when she rolled a wrong number. In most families, that is what the parent says.
I was left alone in the park or at home from a very early age and somehow expected to be responsible. I tried to meet my parents’ expectations. “Lucie is so sensible, she is never scared when we leave her alone” my parents proudly told their friends. I was only four years old, and I WAS scared, but pretended not to be.
My mother asked my advice about clothes, holidays, other things. It was as if I was the older one.
My father, a charming but rather selfish man liked talking to me, took me to museums, galleries, recommended books. But again, he treated me as if I was much older. I still remember him disapproving of me reading “Winnie the Pooh” age five. “Isn’t that a bit childish, Lucie?” It hurt. It still hurts a bit.
So I tried to grow up fast. I read adult books I did not understand completely, I let my mother win at games and advised her what to wear.
I was always proud of the fact that my parents trusted me and gave me a lot of freedom. They never worried about my activities, never asked “Who are you going out with?” or “When will you be home?”
I only realised much later, when I was depressed and had psychotherapy, that what I thought was good for me made me try not to bother people. Somehow, other people’s feelings and needs were more important than mine.
I always thought that was a good thing. But a close friend once commented that “it is hard work to try to please other people all the time”
He was right. I don’t do it anymore. Now I have a mantra:
“What I feel is as important as what other people feel” My partner has another mantra:
“I don’t do things I don’t want to do.” I am not there yet.
I did not listen to Philip Larkin. I had children.
Did I “fuck them up”?
Possibly. I did not make my parents’ mistakes, but I am sure I made other, my own.
I am lucky, my children, now adults, think I am a good mother. We get on. I treat them as adults, but I only started doing so when they stopped being children. I do not give them unsolicited advice. I try to be independent and if I ask, they are ready to help. It is nice.
My father died. My mother lives in Prague. She still asks me for advice. I never ask her. In my mind, I am the older one. Always have been.
I see my friends and my patients alienating their adult children by treating them as children. My mother alienated me by treating me as an adult when I was a child.
Both of these things are wrong. But finding a good compromise is much harder than you think.
But no, I do not regret having children. Being a parent is hard, but wonderful.
So we have children, try to do our best, and hope we will not “fuck them up” too much….