Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Needy Dad?

I am in Nepal teaching maths for two weeks. I caught the train to Heathrow at lunchtime on the Saturday and by the time I arrived I was already missing my boys...

A few days later, I had an interesting conversation with one of my students. We were walking home together from one of the classes that I had given, and we got to chatting about our respective lives. It turns out that he also has two children, and they are exactly the same age. We laughed when we found that out -- it was striking for both of us to meet someone from so far away, and with whom we shared something so much at the centre of our lives.

As we continued talking though, I realised that our parenting experiences are fantastically different -- Suresh is studying in Kathmandu, while his children stay at home with his wife in the village where he comes from. He used to go home every second week-end, but the journey is too taxing and he is currently going home only one week-end every month.

My first reaction to this was to reflect on how tough that would be -- to see one's children so infrequently, and to be constantly dealing with the sense of isolation that that brings. I have found these few days away from my children very trying and would hate to have to do this routinely...

As I mused more through that evening, though, another response arose inside me. I remembered a couple of incidents that had happened back in Wales in the month or so before I left: in the first I'd become furiously, insanely, completely irrationally angry when Anton had decided to go off with Katie one Saturday, after I'd been planning an activity for me and him and had organised my week-end around it... My anger scared and shocked him, and he said sorry later for going off with his Mum -- of course, he had nothing to say sorry for, while I had a LOT!

And then there's Joseph, who is struggling at the moment when asked what activity he wants to do of a week-end, or in the evening. This is particularly acute when he feels that by expressing a preference, he's giving priority to one person over another -- especially when those people are his parents. He's only seven, and he worries about hurting our feelings! I've told him numerous times that I don't mind at all if he'd rather do something with his Mum one evening, but I think he sees deeper than the words and knows that, in some sense, I do mind, of course I do...

What has brought us to this? I've always taken as a given that it's a good thing for a Dad to be hands on, to be involved and close to his children. I still believe this, but my discussion with Suresh and these reflections have given me pause: am I creating a situation where I seek affirmation from my children, where I am imposing a kind of guilt on them if they seek space from me?

This, clearly, must be avoided: all children need to find independence from their parents and this need will only grow greater for them as they grow older. I must not, even accidentally, derail their pursuit of independence; I must not saddle them with guilt for seeking what is essential.

Katie and I have talked many times about the need for us to be independent within our relationship: we cannot be all things to each other no matter how we try, and we need to be deliberate in seeking meaning apart from each other. That word "affirmation" crops up again -- if all of our self-affirmation comes from one place, we're heading for trouble: we can usually tell when we've got the balance wrong, because there's a rise in the narky conversations, the lingering pissed-off-ness, the resentment...

Well, now I realise (8 years in) that a similar principle needs to be honoured in my parenting. I cannot rely on my children for my entire meaning-making structure in life, and I need to be deliberate in finding separateness from my children, and letting them find separateness from me.

I'm going to end this reflection with a line from Khalil Gibran that Katie and I have reflected on many times in the context of our relationship. It seems that the wisdom therein is something that I need to attend to as a parent also -- I'm in a priviled first-world position where I get to spend more than a week-end every month with my children. Now I have to make sure that this time contains enough space for all of us to grow -- together, but also apart, and in love.

"Let there be spaces in your togetherness, And let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow." From The Prophet by Khalil Gibran