I was asked recently whether, as a writer, I feared my children might seek therapy about my parenting one day. Because thanks to the internet, there will be all my articles for their therapist to refer to and analyse, you see.
At first I was taken aback. One does not like to dwell on permanent damage inflicted by self on children while one is tending to the work and family juggle. But guilt, like a fear of the dark, is something I have discovered you can’t really afford as a single parent. Anything that must be dealt with alone in the middle of the night should really be rationalised away as a priority. I have stopped fearing parenting mistakes the way I once did.
Possibly that means I make them at double the speed, though I doubt it. My parenting has generally been considered and kind-hearted and it has probably finally acquired something resembling competence. Though notably, I am also not seeking perfectionism in my relationships these days, least of all with my children.
I have begun to see the pursuit of perfectionism as stifling, distancing, a removing of oneself from the messiness of connection. So, it’s not that I don’t make mistakes. I am certain I make many while attempting to avoid others, but it is that I have faith in myself and my children to deal with those mistakes as they become clear. Well, I very nearly have that kind of faith, anyway.
When your children reach adulthood and they inevitably seek therapy for their childhood hurts, the trick for you as a parent won’t be in the refining and resolving, it will be in the hearing and accepting of their account. I’m sure when the time comes I’ll be incredibly defensive and I’ll want to explain my position and intentions, and how I didn’t mean for them to feel so dismissed or misunderstood. Although, right now I find the narrating exhausting and frankly, I long for someone else to tell the tale.
This is something I’ve noticed about significant changes that happens in your life. Everyone wants to know the story, but telling the story is difficult. Not because it is necessarily distressing, although there is a time when that is the case, but because there are a million possible versions to tell and which do you choose? All these stories are true, but their versions depend upon the details you include, emphasize (even inadvertently) and omit from the rendition.
And then, the listener becomes part of the story. They interact with its record, they go on to construct their own version of your story, which you sense any time you’re talking to them about your life and how, exactly, you got here.
It should all be quite liberating, this disintegration of ultimate truth. Except that unlike everyone else around me, the children are going through my story with me. That awareness sits heavily at times. You can’t help but feel that to decide to end a relationship, even when done mutually as parents, in combination with deciding to take on a writing job, might be a deviation too far for kids.
It feels as though the children and I have jumped the tracks and are careering wildly away from the other families. I’m here deliberately but the children are helpless passengers. We’re liberated from the petty negotiations and depleted energies of what was there at the end, but we’re also lacking the foretold conclusions and logistical solutions of nuclear family structure.
Almost everything is an adventure now - simply navigating writing work, other work, school and weekends on the days we are together has become a kind of riddle; like, the fox, the goose and the corn. There are new problems with strange new solutions.
Much of this feels thrilling, but also terrifying. The really worrying thing about parenthood isn’t that you’re making thoughtful parenting decisions that later turn out to be wrong. It’s that you don’t know what you’re doing in your own life, and regardless, you’re taking children along for the ride. But what other choice is there? A documentary called Lost in Living by film-maker, Mary Trunk explores some of this theme.
The film follows four women artists over seven years as they combine motherhood with their art careers. In many ways it’s a very affirming film. You pursue your passions and ambitions, this direction you’re pulled towards, because it challenges you and yet also sets you free. These mothers all have good reasons for why they’re creating art in spite of the obstacles.
But in one way or another, all the women in the film are having to consider whether their children will understand the decisions they’ve made to pursue these artistic ambitions. They’re each jumping the tracks in some way, and taking their children for the ride.
Two of the artists have babies but the other two are old enough to have adult children. So, the film can answer some of its own questions. And it is not particularly reassuring. These daughters, clearly resentful, say their mothers were impatient with them, frequently distracted or used too much of their stories to inspire their artistic work. It’s definitely worthy of a therapist’s time.
There’s a bundle of complicated family dynamics here but the underlying tension, in so many ways, is about time. There exists a myth that motherhood isn’t a creative phase. Yet, in reality, you may feel alive with ideas, desire and ambition. It is just that you won’t be able to get anything done. Every pursuit -- art, writing, studying, running, setting up a business – will have to be done in tiny, little pieces of time. It feels impossible, so the persistence in all of us to carve out this time is proof of just how strong the drive for fulfilment is.
There’s an inescapable trade-off faced in being both mother and living person. One that improves as mothers’ time becomes more valued and their pursuits thus more justifiable. Those artist mothers with the adult children made mistakes and undoubtedly carry certain regrets. But they and their generation also helped elevate the value of our time, and when my turn comes to reconcile these trade-offs with any bitterness in my own children as adults, I hope I will have contributed similarly.