Do we need to be stoic for our children?


For weeks this year, before that night, I dreamed about snakes. On and off I've had these dreams since childhood and they always look like Pierre Roy's Danger on the Stairs (1927). Recently people tried to tell me that the dreams were a sign of healing but Google that old surrealist painting and tell me if you see any good omens there.

Before I tell you what happened that night I want to tell you what happened a little further back, which is that I suddenly became a single parent. My partner and I, after more than a decade and a half together, decided to end our relationship. Doesn't matter how a relationship ends — whether you leave, are left or it happens mutually — there's still a moment where you take a breath and jump. It's a moment of acceptance that this is your new reality.

I had many new experiences last year. For the first time, I hauled ladders out and changed batteries in smoke alarms, I crawled around in the dark to find blocked drains, I fixed broken things in my car (with glue), and I finally learnt to garden so the vegetable patch could be resurrected. Undoubtedly, my ex-partner acquired a bunch of new skills, too. Though we'd wanted to be very modern and equal about our relationship we'd nonetheless had separate roles in the running of a household, and in the end they'd been rather traditional.

The year of splitting was a time of upheaval and loss and endless new arrangements being made. By the end of it I was tired of being brave — brave about change, brave about solitude, brave about responsibility. It's not that I didn't think things were getting better than they had been, it's just that I'm not one of nature's versatile adaptor. Perhaps no one is comfortable with uncertainty, certainly, I'm very uncomfortable with it.


So, earlier this year, on an evening when it was nearly midnight and the two children were asleep and I was reading in bed, I suddenly heard one of the children's guinea pigs screaming from its cage on the front porch. "Cat or snake?" I thought, as I leapt out of bed and also, "Please let it be a cat because I'm terrified of snakes."

But of course, inside the cage was a snake, about the size of the one in Danger on the Stairs, and it was wrapped tightly around a guinea pig. My eight-year-old daughter had also been woken by her pet screaming and she skidded in behind me. "You don't want to see this, go back to the bedroom," I begged her. She howled in anguish and there was this awful cacophony of sounds around me, the high-pitched squealing of the animal and the heartsick wailing of my child. I knew then I was going to have to do this and I was shaking with fear.

Snakes are beautiful, but for me it's a monstrous beauty. Those geometric patterns rearranging themselves. Their formlessness. And that you do not see them until they are right in front of you. The original shapeshifters. I knelt down in front of the cage, I opened the door and I put my hand in next to the carpet python to snatch the other two guinea pigs and take them to my daughter. By a process of elimination she now knew which guinea pig the snake had and it was her favourite. "Not Ponyo," she cried.

That particular guinea pig had gone eerily quiet now. Maybe if my kids had been at their father's that night or maybe if Ponyo hadn't still somehow been alive I would have pretended this wasn't happening and I'd have just written one off to the snake. But there it was. I knelt back down in front of the cage, like some kind of altar with its serpent, and I picked up a toy, reached inside and started smacking the snake with it. The snake reared up at me, you can't blame it for being annoyed, the toy broke. I retreated for a moment and then I started again. Whacking with the toy, retreating, whacking with the toy, retreating. It went for a solid five minutes.

After a time the snake gradually uncoiled and slid begrudgingly back out between the cage bars. Not until the last of it was slithering away did it finally drop the guinea pig it had been gripping. My daughter came to my side sobbing. We both agreed she should hold her pet while it died. If you can provide no relief, I believe you at least offer your presence to suffering. We sat together then, my child and I, while she held Ponyo against her chest. And we talked, trying to dilute the adrenaline in our bodies. We replayed the night and how it had uncurled around us. We worried about Ponyo, who kept breathing. Until all of a sudden my daughter's little self shattered and tiny, sharp shards of her composure scattered across me.

She was worried about death, not just of her beloved pet but also my death. It was the culmination of a year's grief and uncertainty in her. I had dealt with her first existential crisis when she was only a few years old. I'd always relied upon the comfort of time. We won't die until we're very, very old, I had said. And that's a very, very long time away; we don't need to think about it. But a combination of her new maturity and the unexpectedness of this evening's events meant my previous approach wouldn't work now. Like me with the snake, she was facing things she couldn't face. She looked desperate, told me she didn't want me to die and that she couldn't go on. I willed her away from the vision but she couldn't let it go.

So, I did it. I took a breath and I looked her in the eye and I said it was true. I could die, and it might be before I am very, very old. She cried harder; she wouldn't be able to go on, she told me. Listen to me, I said then. I have spent your whole life surrounding you with people to love. I listed them all — her father, her brother, her extended family and all of our friends. If I die before I am very, very old, and I don't think I will, I said, all these people I collected will come and be with you. They won't let you be alone. And you could get through it, I assured her. It would be awful, you would be very sad, but you would go on.

She stopped crying, finally. Ponyo had started moving and so we put her to bed with the other guinea pigs, the cage now safely inside, and my daughter and I curled up in my bed together. The fear of facing these things, death and loss and snakes and aloneness, had been worse than actually facing them. Uncertainty - it's a tough reality to accept. But running from uncertainty is its own anxiety. When I retold the story of that night to friends, the miraculously thriving Ponyo in my arms, I kept emphasising that I can't cope with snakes. "But you did," they reminded me, "You did cope with the snake."