I’ve just survived my first school holidays as a first-time parent. What I’ve learned is that parents are noble creatures. Noble, but very stupid, and very tired. So very tired.
“I did not die, and yet I lost life’s breath” ―
Today, mercifully, represents the conclusion of the school holidays. A time when our beloved little cherubs are out of our hair, swept from under our feet back into the warm embrace of scholastic whatever. But today also means something to me personally, as the school holidays just departed represented the first time that two-week stretch meant something. You see, previously, the school holidays meant the same as what they did when I was a child – an opportunity to see my friends who were also on holidays, and with it, the opportunity for the good times to roll on.
However, in the Venn-diagram of fate and choice, I have found myself for the first time, if not a parent, then a parental figure at the dawn of the school holidays. While the children are biologically not mine, the responsibility to stop them wandering into a body of water and/or the cactus maze of dickhead behaviour certainly is.
In the years previous, I quietly derided my friends who chose parenthood. I mocked their choice. They chose to forgo their freedom, their youth and the bountiful plains of entertaining dinner conversation for the desert of real: the new youth, internal fatigue and laborious small talk enabled by the labour they endured. Those poor randy fools, I thought.
Since joining their ranks, I no longer feel that well-meaning defensive loathing. I feel a collective pity. I’m experiencing Virgil’s trip through hell, but a hell built in the 8-bit limitations of Minecraft. The us-versus-them pivot, the one that powers Mum-based news publications, is certainly all too real. You can see it in the eyes and cloaked underneath the uber-colourful Gorman camouflage they wear, in making that genetic choice automatically makes it the right one by those who have done it. Those who have not, know not, and thus have no station or say in the conversation. But still having a foot in each existence, I’m unsure if doing it possesses the ultimate merit those at school drop off have made themselves believe.
The slog of dishes, of dispute management, of the drop-off, is Sisyphean. The rock returns to its original position when your alarm tolls. While they get over screaming at you, you carry the pain, the trauma, the hurt. Large words not meant but thrown possess the same velocity. I recognise that I’m entitled, in that I’m stepping in midstream, and the children are comparatively well-behaved. Nevertheless, I recognise the landscape that many walk, but I still don’t understand it. Hell is truly the impossibility of reason. We’re safeguarding our future, raising someone to bury us when the time comes, with the irony being that they’re killing us in the interim. I’ve learned to love what prisoners do, savouring the freedom found behind a closed door, or the tranquillity between the two buzzes that force you out into your daily routine. As a parent, I risk the sharpened toothbrush of questions, of what you’re doing, and if I can do x now, and if not now, when. When that time comes, too soon, the process repeats. Time has no meaning. The minutes is ten seconds, and eight hours of sleep is zero. You wake up fearing the morning, you go to sleep fearing the evening. I found my own Xanadu in the cleaning of kitchens, in the arbitrary tidying of shelves. I once mocked those who willingly gave up professions, or conversation topics, or shades of interest, but know I know. They’re operating on the barest of minimums, as survival is the only focus. Turns are taken on the firing line. Midafternoon guard shifts are drawn up, one remains asleep, the other nearly so, eyes barely focusing, looking for danger that isn’t there, but unable to relax, as the battlefield can come alive in seconds with the shouldering of arms, as the war is again renewed over disputed territory, possession, or pure boredom.
All of the above is the effect of the cause. We offer the trade-off to ourselves, pushing toward the concept that our sacrifice meant something. Something like raising someone decent, or alive. But parenthood is often betrayal, as those allies you form eventually turn against you because they can, they don’t understand why you fought so hard, because they weren’t young enough to remember the context. But they can certainly judge your motivations for doing what you did through the powers of hindsight. Parenting, for lack of a better term, is something like a war. You sign up for something thinking it is something, it turns out to be another, but it is too late to get out of it. So, you attempt to weave through the minefield of your own lived experience, attempting to cut a new path on the presumption that you know where the mines lay. School holidays are two weeks spent trudging through the jungle, fearing an ambush, surrounded by crisis, horror, and the enemy. When you emerge, you barely recognise yourself in the mirror.
This morning, with the house again to myself, I’m left wondering what was won, and indeed if I can return to my previous life, and explain it adequately to those who stayed home and didn’t do what I’ve done. I don’t think I can. I did it to pursue some sort of duty, and love of another. Why willfully give up my freedom if I’m not clearly parent material? I don’t know. The house is a disaster, it is already twelve, and I’m not sure what to do with dinner, or how to keep my leaking greying relationship afloat.
Perhaps I can borrow from the writer Kurt Vonnegut, who survived the allied bombing of Dresden, but was unable to define it. He wrote, “…everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like “‘Poo-tee-weet?’”
I’m going for a nap.