314 – The Parents

It’s approaching nine on a Saturday night and instead of playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim as is every other decent human being I’m sitting here, typing this.

By ‘here’ I mean I’m sitting in my mother-in-law’s family room, by ‘this’ I mean the very post you’re reading right now, and by ‘mother-in-law’s family room’ I’m talking about the room where the TV is located as opposed to some torrid euphemism for my wife’s mother’s lady garden.

The very fact that I could be playing Skyrim right now is a story unto itself, albeit a narrative on a smaller scale than a dragon-slaying fantasy epic. Having moved abroad without job prospects–led only by my heart, as the romantic side of me who hasn’t yet acknowledged the possibility we might end up living on the streets might put it–myself and my wife aren’t exactly rolling in dough. New games and other similar luxuries shouldn’t be few and far between, they should be non-existent. I’m fully prepared for life on a tight budget: for months I’ve been preparing myself for a return to the budget lunches of my youth, where Primula cheese and shrimp spread was a welcome respite from the customary Shipham’s beef in my sandwiches. We can live like kings on our current meager income, albeit kings who really, really like tuna casserole, and would much prefer to sit on a slowly softening pumpkin discarded from Halloween festivities than on a throne.

Where I’m more interested in our long term Ironman survival, my wife is almost hedonistic in her desire to live for the day. I keep reminding her of Aesop’s fable about the ant and the grasshopper; she, on the other hand, keeps reminding me of how delicate and easily kickable my testicles are.

As part of her plan to have me be happy while it’s still option–before the inevitable tuna-stank settles in–she bought me Skyrim as a belated birthday present. It was lovely for her to do so, and when she mentioned she was buying it and there was nothing I could do I complained a little less emphatically than I usually do, which is normally enough for her to cancel whatever purchase she’s just made. I do want the game and even poverty–or indeed, a lack of a console on which to play it (I’m borrowing my sister-in-law’s kids’ one for the meantime. Dragonborn!)–isn’t enough to put me off. Now that I own the game and would prefer to catch up on my One A Day posts I’m feeling a little guilty at not preventing her extravagance.

As for her, right now my wife is gently snoring in my lap, exhausted after a day beset by tiny nightmares even the denizens of Tamriel would pale before.

She’s been babysitting. Not just tonight but last night as well, and the day before, and the day before that. As she put it “I haven’t had a day off since we got back from Virginia.”

Nights like last night aren’t so bad. Though she came home late and shattered (and met by a wild-eyed man who insisted on yelling ‘Dragonborn!’ every few seconds as if inflicted with a particularly nerdy strain of Tourette’s) as far as I can tell the actuall babysitting engagement was simple and paid well. She sits for her old boss, whose kids seem to like her well enough. One or twice a month he texts her to ask if she’d be willing to sit for them; considering she gets cash and free pizza, it’s a good deal.

It’s the other nights that are the problem. Our nieces and nephew are currently going through a very difficult phase, and nobody’s sure how to deal with them.

Actually, while that is strictly true both Lindsay and I and the children’s maternal grandmother have plenty of ideas on how to deal with them, but not being their parents we don’t have a say in the matter. Which mightn’t be so bad if we weren’t forced to act like parents to them in all other matters.

It’s an awkward situation. Their mother, whom they live with, works and attends college in an attempt to kickstart her career after birthing and raising three children. Their father only seems to add to their unruliness through some lethal cocktail of e-numbers, sugar and a brand of strictness I’ve only heard the odd shouted fragment of when he comes to drop them off.

My wife talked to her aunt about this on our last morning in Virginia. She complained–quite rightfully–and her aunt pointed out that we’ll feel quite differently about how to deal with kids when we have our own. But as far as I’m concerned, these kids might as well be Lindsay’s. She looks after them as much as anyone else if not moreso, they go to her in the middle of the night when they have bad dreams, visit her first thing in the morning, spend far more time pestering her for activities than they do of their real mother, rely on her to dress them, wipe their backsides when they use the lavatory and all manner of other maternal activities.

It’s not that I think my sister-in-law’s a bad person and I can accept that she’s had a bad deal in life, that she has a lot on her plate. But who doesn’t? Each time I’ve been here in the past I’ve been roped in as a sort of father figure for the kids, in playing with them, feeding them, helping them with whatever they’re doing and–when their behaviour calls for it–scolding them.

I shouldn’t have to, and I feel put out that I ever need to. From making my nephew share their Xbox with his sisters (after all, it is their present collectively, not his alone) to running to comfort my niece when she hurts herself falling off a rocking chair for the second morning in a row.

They’re a handful, there’s no doubt about it, but they’re still children, not savage animals come in off the street, not a force of nature that cannot be controlled. They need to be controlled, but none of the people interested in doing it the right way–which may not be the right way when it comes down to it, but at least we’re willing to try–have a say in the matter.

We’ve reached what I’ve come to think of as ‘The Jo Frost horizon’–the point at which struggling parents call in Supernanny. Frankly, I’ve had it with the constant lying, the tale-telling and blame-throwing, the disobedience., the bargaining, the air of superiority the kids have as if they were in charge. I’m through with seeing their attention wander as they’re being told off, or smiling, implacable as they’re being yelled at. The only tool I have in my repository is the threat that if they misbehave I want nothing to do with them. It’s a terrible thing to have to do–it’s neglect as punishment–but it work. They’ve come to expect a constant supply of treats no matter their behaviour so for someone to deny them the attention they crave and have it explained to them–if you’re bad, you don’t get to play–even their brief attention spands understand that,

My wife’s a firm believer that everyone’s parents screw them up. Whenever the kids act up my first recourse in an argument is to say “When we were kids my parents would never have let my sister and I get away with something like that.” We do argue about it as well; I know I’m often unfair in my assessments, that I can be needlessly cruel and less than understandable, and also that I suffer more than my fair share of tics and neuroses. The thing is, I don’t believe my parents are responsible for any of that. I think I had an idyllic upbringing, and compared to the number of nightmarish stories I’ve heard from my peers that believe only grows stronger the older I become. Looking through her yearbooks and seeing her as a sweet, lively-looking child, it’s horrible thinking of the things her family went through and knowing there’s nothing I can do to rectify that other than be there for her today.

So many families break apart. I consider myself very lucky to have been brought up in an environment that was never less than loving. I would love for these three children to have the upbringing I had, and secretly I think if they had they’d be a lot happier now–as well as being a lot more controllable.

Alas, such are the variables that I can’t even perform this as a thought experiment. I do know one thing, however: we need to get out of this place. As well as wanting to get on with our own lives, maybe without family to fall back upon even the most lax of parents might tighten up and knuckle down. Because these kids need parents, and right now that’s not something I’m willing to be.

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