Monthly Archives: August 2014

Boyhood

boyhood-posterTwo weeks after my mother’s death, I went to see Richard Linklater’s film ‘Boyhood’ with two close friends. The kind of friends who don’t mind me not talking but slumping down in a cinema with tears periodically streaming down my face, the inevitability of the passage of time playing out in front of us, as the boy in the title grows from a six year old to an eighteen year old.

As the mother of two sons, the film initially made me think about my boys and identify strongly with the protagonist and his mother, as she also ages. Yes, my boy(s) would do or feel that I thought countless times as Mason Junior was by turns shy, charming or reckless. And my heart bled for the character of the mother, especially at the end of the film as her son drove off to college and she was left exhausted in the kitchen, after years of having to cope with managing the day to day, crying ‘I thought there would be more’.

However, when I thought about the film later, I wondered why I hadn’t really considered my daughter during the film. Was it just because the film was mainly about Mason – the others, including his sister, being bit players in his story? Yes, that was probably part of it. But I also wonder if I have also bought into the received wisdom that sons grow up and leave you, but daughters stay with you – as the saying goes, ‘a son is yours until he marries, a daughter’s yours for life’. Was I more affected by the scene of Mason driving happily away in the sunshine to his new life, because I anticipate my sons doing just that, without a backward glance, in a way that my daughter will not? Perhaps it is because I have a teenage son, who I can see engineering his own separation from me already, a developmental stage which my daughter has not yet reached?

Just this week, there was another headline in the newspapers, asserting that you need to have daughters if you expect anybody to look after you in old age. Sons just aren’t going to cut it. I have been asked many times by elderly people in the course of my work whether I have any daughters and when I say yes, one daughter and two sons, they pat my hand and say ‘you needn’t worry then, love, your girl will see you right’.

I sincerely hope that all my children will want to be in close contact with me as they grow up and when they are adults and not merely consider me as a duty to be contacted. I also hope that my daughter in particular seizes every opportunity that comes her way and does not fall prey to any stereotypes about being the ‘caring’ one. Yet, as the mother now to one teenager, with one pre-teen waiting hotly in the wings, I can acknowledge that hoping for enthusiastic continued contact with all my children during the next couple of decades may be unrealistic.

I talked to my teenage son about the film, trying to use it as a device to keep the lines of communication open with him. I explained how the boy in the film grows up and away from his family and how it makes clear that at times he found them embarrassing. Trying to enforce a meaningful conversation on my reluctant son as he sat texting and avoiding eye contact, I stressed that I wanted him to know that I hoped he would always talk to me in private, even if I understood he may start to find it embarrassing to do so in front of others (we have had recent conversations about him only grunting to me when I ask him a question in front of one of his friends). ‘In the future?’ he said, somewhat incredulous – ‘mum, you’ve been overwhelmingly embarrassing for ages already’. Taken aback, I asked for more details. How long had I been embarrassing? ‘As long as I have been aware of the concept of embarrassment’, he answered adding, rather unnecessarily ‘and I think I learned that quite young’. He found me the most embarrassing person in the world, he said. And then, with a flash of the future heart breaker, he stopped texting just long enough to put his hand on mine and say ‘but I love you the best of everyone in the world too’.

After this conversation, I asked my ten year old daughter whether she found me embarrassing. ‘Not really’ she said. ‘Maybe sometimes when you sing, but I don’t really mind’. Undaunted, I asked the same of my eight year old son. ‘Never’ he stated loyally, jumping onto my knee, adding that he loves me so much that he wants to live with me forever. A sliding scale of embarrassment, neatly correlating with the age of the potential embarrassee, it would seem.

I feel confident that my eight year old will not be sitting on my knee asking to live with me forever in five years’ time, but he will still be the same person in five years’ time, just him in his thirteen year old form. One thing I found very moving about ‘Boyhood’ was that it was impossible at the end of the film not to see the face of the six year old boy in the face of the eighteen year old young man – the making manifest in front of our eyes that our experiences and emotions stay with us, even if we choose to put them on the back burner for a while. My older son may tell me that I am overwhelmingly embarrassing now, but when I look at his face, I shall choose to see the toddler who would not leave my side and the nine year old who clutched my hand on the way to school and kissed me goodbye in the playground (in front of his friends). The fact that he would not allow this to happen now as he grows towards independence must not be allowed to negate the fact that it happened and it is part of the fabric of his makeup. It is a part, too, of my experience of mothering him, a bank of goodwill which I sometimes need to draw on to compensate for teenage apathy and antagonism. When my younger son chooses to hurl himself at me and demand kisses and cuddles, I will accept them gladly, because I see that they may not last much longer.

I recall feeling when my children were very small that they were part of me, quite literally part of my flesh. With that visceral sense of belonging, came a sense of ownership. As they grow up, it is a painful realisation that they are not mine at all. Quite obviously, they are their own people and I would be failing as a mother if I could not accept and celebrate that. Whilst I feel so close to them at times that I feel I do know what they are thinking and how they are feeling, I cannot know that for sure and this is increasingly the case. Secrets are starting, doors are shutting, friends are being made without my control or knowledge, texts are being exchanged about my unreasonableness. All as it should be, no doubt. So do I even have the right to write about them? Is it in any way appropriate to appropriate our exchanges for my writing? It is a fine line and one which I am keen not to overstep. I hope I can reflect upon my relationship with them only in so far as I can see the relevance to me as a parent, to inform and validate my own experiences as a mother. Whilst I would have had few qualms about writing about my baby’s first steps, or infant dancing lesson, for example, it is quite another to dare to plunder their lives as they grow up for my own purposes and I am struggling to tread the line sensitively and meaningfully.

There is a scene in Boyhood where Mason’s High School teacher tells him that he is special, that he’s ‘got something’. Then he points out that he has a classroom of students who may also be special and who are definitely more focussed on success. When my mother died recently, it made me feel special, for all the wrong reasons. I feel illuminated by grief, special in my sadness and trauma and alone in the world, as though nobody could be feeling as I did. But then I look around and see many people I know who have also lost a parent and who must therefore also have been through that emotional maelstrom. Each time I gave birth, I felt singled out by the amazing thing that had happened to me – I had done something extraordinary, and survived! Then I looked around at all the other people who have done exactly the same or, heroically, taken the amazing step of adopting a child. The fact that my experiences are not unique should not negate my feelings of uniqueness, in being a mother or in being bereaved, but I hope will allow me to show compassion and understanding to others who are going through the business of living, growing up and dying.

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by | August 25, 2014 · 7:27 pm

Summer tournaments

summer tournament

The school summer holidays are almost completely free of organised junior football (1).  The tradition that keeps the holidays only almost completely free is the summer tournament.

No.2 son took part in one such event on the first Saturday of the holidays. We drove 30 minutes to another town in the county, where a primary school was hosting eight under eight teams.

The logistics of exiting the cars of eight under seven teams’ families, whose tournament had just ended, and welcoming no.2 son’s age group was exercising a team of hi-vis toting stewards. I confused the parking situation by dropping no.2 son there and leaving before his matches were underway. I had the 1&onlyD with me and had decided an afternoon at her younger brother’s football tournament was a cruel and unnatural way of spending her first day of holiday.

It’s not the first time I have given short-measure to one of these events. And the experience of that occasion has coloured my view of all of these tournaments.

It was six years ago and no.1 son was the competitor. I had spent the previous night at a friend’s stag party and so was forgiven the 8am start (registration by 9am) to get to a park overlooked by a professional football stadium in the Pennines. Mother in the Middle took that shift, accompanied by two pre-schoolers. I was to join later.

As I lay in bed that morning, drifting in and out of a hung-over doze, I was faintly aware of the rain being blown against the bedroom windows. If I had thought about it, I would have remembered that my party shoes were by the front door, soaked from my staggering home in the wet early hours.

Waking around midday, I listened to a voicemail from Mother in the Middle: ‘When was I coming? It was impossible to be there much longer with the kids.’

I set off. Wet and blowy in our suburb became gales and downpours as I headed up into the Pennines. I found the car park by the stadium and headed towards the field. Kids being returned to cars were crying – sore losers, I thought. The walk from the car park’s edge to the playing area took in three terraces separated by steep grassed slopes. On each slope, heading downward, were people falling and sliding to the bottom. The same was happening to those people trying to scale the slopes. Families with pushchairs found them bogged in mud or were dragging them like sledges up hill.

The teams that take these events seriously, pitch gazebos – optimistically, as shelter from the sun. On this summer’s day, adults were clinging to gazebos to stop them from being blown somersaulting across the field. The crying I had heard in the car park wasn’t the response of kids to an unfavourable result, but the entirely reasonable reaction to being drenched and blown around. Few were dressed for the weather and those that came better prepared had already changed in, then out, of a succession of tops that were quickly soaked.

And still the football went on. The PA system had been abandoned and so the organisers sent runners around the field to announce fixtures. One of the curious aspects of this day was that there was hardly a single pushy Dad urging his progeny to the Final. Most parents were working out, given a few tactical defeats, how quickly they could leave.

I remember helping Mother in the Middle back up the treacherous terraces to the car park with the 1&onlyD and no.2 son. Back at the field, I hunkered down to watch the last action of no.1 son’s tournament. This consisted mostly of one team kicking the ball into the wind and finding it blown back past them and the other team hoisting the ball for wind-assisted goal kicks.

This year’s tournament was different in many ways but, again, I arrived back in time for the final matches of the tournament. No.2 son’s team were boasting an unbeaten record which they secured across all seven matches. He was expecting a trophy to mark this achievement. There was a trophy, but it was awarded imaginatively to the ‘most helpful’ team. Bags of sweets were handed out to all the players and no.2 son was content with that as his reward. I was just relieved that no.2 son had remained protected, not from hail and gale, but from the conventional climactic threats of the summer tournament: sunburn and dehydration.

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Footnote 1: I’ve argued elsewhere why summer without football is a good thing for other junior sports to thrive and would be even better if extended a month or two before the holidays start.

 

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Scared stiff

American-Staffordshire-Terrier-2We were about to race from the edge of the woods back to the grandparents’ house when no.2 son paused to tie his shoe laces. A characteristic time wasting trick of a footballer, but unlike him to want to either delay a race or address his untied trainers without being instructed. He stayed crouched down until he could see a man with two dogs move out of sight to the left of some houses at the foot of the field we were going to run down. Unnerved by the dogs’ presence, even in the distance, no.2 son asked not to race.

We walked down the field, with his hand holding mine, until we reached the track that ran around the cluster of houses, with our destination at the end. We headed to the right and no.2 son sped ahead. Suddenly, from a gap between two properties the dogs reappeared and bounded, barking towards the boy. He squealed and froze, trapped for an instant by two large dogs against a hawthorn hedge. The owner called the dogs away leaving no.2 son unharmed, but shaken.

“I’m scared stiff,” he offered in unnecessary explanation.

No.2 son is the boldest, most physically forward of my children. In football, he’ll tackle adults many times his size. He relishes thrills at funfairs that his older brother shrinks from. He rough-houses with more vigour than his siblings. On our adventure holiday, he was the one stepping forward to try the new challenge.

But dogs are different. So total is his aversion to them that they influence his attitude to any trip from the house. Despite his size, strength and the number of balls that disappear over the fence, he only wants to play football in the garden. On the occasions that I have lured him to the park, he’s on edge. When he spots a dog, he veers away from it, stops playing and nags to go home. The initial source of this phobia is not clear; nor is the cure.

When we pass dogs in the park, or the street and he turns rigid with anxiety, I make a point of demonstrating that the dog’s not interested in him. Any chase or toothy attention is focused on a squirrel, its owner’s tennis ball, or another dog’s bottom. Over time, I have hoped that the sheer number of dogs that come close but ultimately ignore, and certainly don’t harm him, would erode the fear. But he’s not listening to me. He turns his head to keep an eye on the dog, making sure it doesn’t approach him from behind.  And my tactic was dealt a blow this summer.

His older brother was making his senior cricket debut and the two younger children and I turned up to catch some of this occasion. No.2 son and I were kicking a ball about on the boundary when there was the sound of a doggy altercation on the road behind the pavilion. A few minutes later, a bull terrier ran though the gate and onto the ground. It ran in a wide arc across the playing area and back towards the players and spectators in front of the pavilion. I helped catch it and bundle it out of the gate.

No.2 son had retreated to join the small crowd and was still there when the dog reappeared, pushing itself under the gate. Again it bothered the players before zooming in on the knot of people by the pavilion. No.2 son backed away from the speeding dog but somehow collided with it. For a second time I grabbed it by the collar and dragged it out of the gate. The dog wanted to stay, but wasn’t aggressive as I pulled it off the ground. An owner, had one been in sight, would probably have apologised: “He just wants to play.”

In front of the pavilion, no.2 son was being consoled. I explained to those concerned that I thought he was just shaken because of his fear of dogs. Inside the pavilion, the lad complained his knee hurt. There was no bite mark, not even a scratch or a bruise.

He limped about for the rest of the day and again the next. When a second full day went by without him even asking to play football, Mother in the Middle took him to the GP. The injury – a tendon strain – was relatively minor, but the incident has firmly cemented in his brain the conviction that dogs are out to harm him.

Postscript: when telling this story at a family gathering, I was told that a professional goalkeeper’s career had been ended when a stray dog ran onto the pitch, clattered into him and shattered his knee. Click here for the video of the incident.

I had viewed no.2 son’s experience as a freak – such extreme bad fortune that a dog running around the wide expanse of a cricket field should collide with the leg of the child with the most engrained fear of the animal. Perhaps, though, what is worthy of note is no.2 son’s good fortune not to have been more seriously injured.

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