Essays

In Lieu of Material Goods.

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This is for my mother, because I didn’t get her a Mother’s Day present. Sorry Mum.

I recently read an article on some psychology website – I can’t remember the source, or I’d link it here – that talked about the ways today’s parents are disadvantaging their children by trying to shield them from failure and disappointment. The article says towards the end that the goal of parents should be to raise an independent adult capable of living and thriving in the world on their own.

I am not a parent, but I was of course raised by parents, and that was their method. I think they were brilliant, and almost every day I find myself thanking them subconsciously for the most wonderful gift they gave me: true independence.

I do not want to denigrate the methods of modern parents, and I do not wish to comment on the way my generation, and the ones that come after it, have been pegged as perpetual infants. Destined to live forever in the womb.

My childhood was, by 1980s standards, quite unorthodox. Today you wouldn’t blink an eye to hear about it, and I love that. I’m not going to rake over the coals of my funny family here, but the basics are that my parents split when I was a very small baby and I can’t remember them together ever. My mum moved into her childhood home with my grandmother and we spent every second weekend with my father.

It is hard to be the world’s most attentive parent when you’re working, alone and poor. You can’t devote your entire existence to your child’s every whim, and you probably learn quite early as a coping mechanism that saying no to their requests or teaching them to fight their own battles is going to make everyone’s life easier.

I was a jerk as a toddler. I remember sitting for hours in the doorway of my bedroom (banned from leaving it) screaming at the top of my lungs, packing a suitcase and demanding my mother call me a cab because I was running away.  I remember climbing out my bedroom window and hiding down the side of the house thinking “that’ll teach her, she’ll be sick with worry now”.

Of course, my mother is ever patient, and knew my desire to be noticed would outweigh my desire for revenge. My impulsive, attention-seeking self was no match for her unending Zen. I always came stomping back into the house, exclaiming about how I thought she was a terrible mother because she didn’t even notice I was missing.

She was always able to fend off my requests for things with the promise that the more times I asked for it the less likely I would get it. I knew by the age of five that this was true. My mother had nerves of steel, and I am yet to find her kryptonite.

She taught me to swim in a pretty ballsy way. After weeks of floundering around in the pool holding onto her for dear life, refusing to strike out alone, one day she swam us to the middle of our 10 x 4 metre pool and let go, swimming quickly to the side, where she stayed while I splashed and squealed for her until I realised I was staying afloat on my own and I kicked confidently over to join her. (My mother says that this was part of a learn to swim program I have no memory of ever attending, and that it was incredibly hard for her to do. It’s funny how kids remember things. I don’t remember this negatively at all, in fact mostly I just remember the elation of realising I really could do it myself.)

I learnt at a very young age the joy of being able to do something by yourself, to not have to rely on anyone else and it was a wonderful lesson.

Many years before I read that article my mother told me her philosophy on child rearing. I was in high school at the time and living mostly at my father’s. I figured out reasonably young that Mum and I were better friends when we didn’t live together all the time, and the fact that she allowed me that freedom shows just how wise she was.  We were in the car one day – and I can even remember where exactly the car was at the time, it’s funny how things stick in the memory – and I don’t remember how it came up but I was thanking her for all the life skills she’d given my brother and me.

She said: “I’ve always believed the job of a parent is to raise their child to live in the world and be independent, because I can’t be there all the time to do things for you. I have to equip you to cope with life yourself”.

I know now, thinking about it, that my mother’s philosophy was born of her intellect, yes, but also her own life and circumstances. However she arrived at her conclusion I am glad for it.

I have had some challenges in my life the last couple of years, I split from a long term relationship, there’s been some illness in my family, I got made redundant from my job. It’s been hard.

My father now lives in London, and my mother is still in Brisbane. I’ve had to deal with these things from literally 1000s of kilometres away from them. When at my lowest, when all I wanted to do was get a hug and listen to them tell me everything was going to be ok, I had to settle for a CD of my Dad’s beautiful singing and one of my Mum’s recipes on the stove.

What my parents gave me was a resillience and toughness that I value more with every passing day. I do not know what will come next, or how I will deal with it. But I know that I will deal with it. And I know that if it gets so bad that I can’t deal with it alone, I won’t have to. I feel so very lucky to be able to have that security within myself, and my family.

My mother’s voice fills my head regularly with its calm advice and measured reasoning. I often stop and think how lucky I am to have such parents. I haven’t talked much about the gifts my father gave – I will save them for September perhaps – but they are equally important in my life.

A few years ago I was at my then boyfriend’s house and we put on Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. I was immediately confused.

“What’s this?” I asked as Indy made his way through the jungle.

He looked at me, confused. “What do you mean?”

“This isn’t Raiders of the Lost Ark, this isn’t right.”

He was bewildered. So was I. As Harrison Ford dodged poison darts and fled in a sea plane I grew more and more confused. And then we got to the scene where he’s teaching a class, and I realised what had happened.

“Pause it!” I exclaimed, and picked up the phone to ring Mum.

When we were little Mum would make me sit at her feet while watching movies and TV. If there was a scene she felt was inappropriate she would cover my eyes with her hands. To this day I haven’t seen what happens to the woman who puts Willow in the river, but from the tearing and barking sounds, I’m guessing it’s not good.  Back then it was all VCR, so of course, you could cue a video to start at a certain point, and it would.

Mum had tricked me into thinking that Raiders of the Lost Ark actually started with that scene at the university.

I tell this story because I guess I think it illustrates the core of my mother’s philosophy, which as far as I can see was to protect us from what was damaging, dangerous, or unnecessary, but let us find our own way to cope with what the real world might throw at us.

When I was a young kid – five, six, seven – she always took time to explain why I was being punished. I remember I went through a phase of responding to my punishment – which was almost always banishment to my room – by writing apology letters, venturing into the hallway and lobbing them into the dining room or shoving them under her bedroom door.

She would always read them, say thank you, but not revoke the punishment.

“There are consequences for your actions, and saying sorry doesn’t absolve you from them.”

She was, and is, a wise and wonderful mother, and I am forever in her debt.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mum.  Next year I’ll get you something lavender as usual.

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