I’m still not absolutely certain whether I want children or not. I’ll be 30 in May so many people would tell me that I need to get a move on and decide (although plenty of others these days would tell me not to worry about it for another ten years). Like most people, probably, I’m very worried about having a child and bringing her/him up badly. What if I pass on my anxiety, insecurity and general tendency towards melodrama? What if they don’t like me? What if I don’t like them?
I went to see the film Lady Bird at the cinema yesterday, which is about a teenage girl trying to negotiate all the usual difficulties of being at that age. School, friendships, relationships, and family: it’s all there and the plot is absolutely packed with twists and turns, events going right and going wrong. I loved it all, but her relationship with her mother is especially good. I expect every girl and mother who goes to see it will be smiling, grimacing, or weeping with recognition.
They are alternately best friends and worst enemies. They fight and shout and say horrendous things to each other, and both say the wrong thing at almost every opportunity: and yet, share moments of understanding and love more easily than they will with anybody else. You can see perfectly how much they are hurting each other, but you can also understand their motivations and empathise completely with each point of view. I was never half as confrontational with my mum as Lady Bird is with hers, but I can still recognise the pattern of their relationship. And I can see how easy it is to have such a relationship with your child, or with your parent, despite best intentions on both sides.
I am lucky to have a close relationship with both my parents. I went to a concert with them this past week, to see Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra play a tribute to Benny Goodman’s legendary 1938 concert at Carnegie Hall. My Dad and I have long bonded over swing music. I have bought him many CDs for Christmas and his birthday over the years, sometimes chosen entirely at random by walking into the old huge HMV on Oxford Street (before it closed down) and picking based on the cover or reviews. I can’t remember exactly why I chose it, but I bought him a recording of Benny Goodman’s 1938 concert many years ago. We would often put it on when it was the two of us making dinner on a Saturday night, when Mum traditionally had a respite from cooking. The routine in my parents’ house is to walk the dog to the pub and back before dinner, so we would be tipsy and very hungry, trying to cook while bobbing our heads along to Benny Goodman playing swing and blues. Our favourite track, unsurprisingly, is Sing, Sing, Sing. About ten minutes of glorious big band sound, interspersed with brilliant solos. Apparently, when the concert was played in 1938, the audience were bewildered not just by the mix of white and black musicians on the stage, but also by these extended solos that stretched on and on. If you listen to the recording, there are a few solos followed by swells of music, abrupt stops, and then a lot of applause – which slowly, confusedly, fades away as the audience realises yet another soloist has begun.
The concert at the Barbican we went to see this week wasn’t quite up to that standard, in my very humble opinion, perhaps because the atmosphere is rather different in a very chic and rather expensive concert hall, with little gaps in between each song while we had the next choice explained to us – not to mention applauding the musicians who’d just played and welcoming on the next guest. But it was still a wonderful evening. My Dad and I nudged each other and shared conspiratorial grins at our favourite pieces – which for me, for the most part, made up for the fact I’d rather offended my Mum on the way in by asking if I could swap seats so I was sat next to Dad.
Our relationships with our parents are so very complicated. I felt it during that evening of music and I felt it very strongly while watching Lady Bird – so strongly, in fact, that I kept bursting into tears for an hour or so afterwards, remembering the many desperately poignant moments: the parents making sacrifices for the children, and the children breaking free and breaking their parents’ hearts as they went. And yet it wasn’t a sad film, overall. There was a lot of joy in it too, a lot of laughs and so much love. So very, very much love.
At the same time as I’m entering the age when I have to start thinking about whether I want to start a family, I’m also entering an age when a few more of my friends have lost their parents. These are still very young deaths – early 60s or so. But they are already more common, no longer the extra rare and dreadful bad luck that robs people of their parents when the children are in their teens or earlier. I am conscious of wanting to spend more time with my parents, not just because I enjoy their company and my Mum makes me feel guilty when I don’t, but also because even if I see them every month or two, that’s still only 6-12 times a year. Is it enough that I won’t regret being around more, if something were to happen? I suppose we will always regret not being around more in those circumstances, and I know many people who see their parents much less – it’s all a case of what you’re used to. But since my car accident last year, I’ve been even worse at worrying about terrible things happening to people, and fretting over whether I could have done something to help (…to avoid an entirely fictitious accident – honestly, being inside my head is completely exhausting). I worry particularly about my parents. They aren’t in the best of health, but a long way from the worst of health as well. My Mum always says she doesn’t want to get to an age where she’s a burden – in fact in many ways she seems to have been looking forward to death since I was little (which is great for the child, as you can imagine! Oh hello, several years of therapy). My Dad, meanwhile, is very much of the attitude that he’s going to do what he enjoys, for as long as he can, and doesn’t bother with any of these ridiculous government guidelines on food and drink which could potentially give him a few more years. To him, it isn’t worth it the extra years as they would all be much less pleasurable without the wine and the cheese (a much healthier attitude for the child, although does lead to some nervousness about how quickly the wine and cheese could catch up with him).
I’m sure one of the most difficult things to learn as a parent, once children are past a certain age, is that you can no longer control their decisions or actions – and nor should you try. In fact, at this rate, I’ll have just about got the hang of not trying to influence my parents’ decisions or blame myself for them not being completely happy, and then I’ll have a child to not try to influence and not blame myself for as well. But then, I’m lucky, because there will always be those moments to remember of love, and feeling at home with my parents which nothing else will ever beat. Unless I do have children, I suppose, and manage to have as good a relationship with them as my parents do with me. Which may be enough to make me think it would be worth the heartache. Maybe.