In what is possibly his most famous poem, Philip Larkin wrote...
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.
I've thought about these words often since becoming a father. I think my job is to not let this happen but then real life intervenes and my best intentions are steamrollered by the heat of the moment.
Before you read on, please be assured that this is not some startling revelation that will have you dialling Childline. Just a somewhat banal snapshot of family life that I'm sure most of you will recognise.
Last night was Halloween. As we do every year, one of us takes the girls out guising whilst the other waits in for the doorbell to ring so as to be regaled with awful songs and even worse jokes. (Just an aside for any non-Scots. We don't do trick-or-treat. We have a much older tradition where the kids all dress up and go round the neighbourhood knocking on doors and doing "turns" in exchange for sweets or nuts or fruit or, sometimes, cash! If you don't want to be visited, you don't put a jack o' lantern out.) The girls came back with bulging sacks of loot. Most of it made of sugar. There were cakes, hundreds of sweets and a couple of huge, nasty-looking iced biscuits. One of our friends had given them each a home made toffee apple.
These toffee apples were the cause of a family-wide disagreement this evening in which an idle comment made by Helen had been taken and lovingly nurtured by Lulu. She had cared for the comment, watered it, fed it and kept it warm until it had finally grown into a magnificent sweeping
The Promise was along the lines of agreeing that she could eat her toffee apple after school. Of course when it had been uttered the utterer was not remembering that Lulu was going to friend's house for tea and would only be coming home just before bed time.
Whilst I drove her home, I had the Promise explained to me. Frankly I can't be arsed with toffee apples so I am unaware that they take about ten hours to eat. And anyway Helen had promised so of course I agreed that she could have it.
When we get home Sorrel is dancing to music. She dances with all the grace of a table falling down a concrete stairwell. Lulu, however, decided that this looked like an excellent game and joined in. Although she embellished the game by insisting that she don her leotard and dancing shoes. Whereupon Sorrel burst into tears and insisted that she too should be thus accoutred.
I, meanwhile, am running a bath and declaring that, once it's full they must come and get into it.
The toffee apple is forgotten. Dancing is go!
The problem, however is that dancing takes time to do. Eating a toffee apple also takes time to do. There really isn't that much time. The supplementary problem is that, having had one nice thing (tea at a friend's house) Lulu has managed to wangle two more treats. A tertiary problem is also floating around: namely that Helen is working overnight and has to leave at 8.30. Deadline.
We have to get them into the bath and then to bed.
What happens next in terms of the order of events and the precise way in which things unravel is unclear. There is some business that features me the key thrust of which is the sudden and irritable withdrawal of the toffee apple and the end of the dancing. Both of the children take my lead, skip any sort of incremental build up and become hysterical. We respond in kind with raised voices. I am issuing stentorian threats that sound like an angry, panicky foghorn that is about to flush bags of sweets down the toilet. Words like "last chance" and "unacceptable behaviour" and "disgraceful display" pepper the air.
The girls are beyond upset. They are keening like a pair of wet-faced banshees. Helen, to her credit, reins herself in first. I retreat downstairs where I quickly feel the hot flush of guilt at how badly I have handled things.
Here's the thing. I have a temper and my temper is profoundly bound up with the depression that I have suffered with for most of my life. I would like - as far as I am able - to spare my daughters from being the sort of person I am, in this respect at least. But Larkin is right. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we show the worst of ourselves and demonstrate behaviour to our children that is not the behaviour we would wish to see from them. That we do it because we have failed to teach them, in this instance, that plans change and that we as adults are sometimes fallible is so ironic as to be almost funny...were it not so bloody sad.
Ultimately we are not just rearing our kids. We are also struggling to rear ourselves. And I know what I'd like to be when I grow up: calmer.
(Things were not left like this. We all calmed down and big cuddles were had before stories were read and we tucked them up in bed. I've just looked in on them and their smooth, untroubled faces as they sleep leave me hopeful that I may not have entirely ruined their childhoods. Yet.)