28 September 2008

Real families and imaginary futures

Watching Supernanny this weekend, it occurs to me once more why having children always struck me as so distasteful. Influenced mainly by documentary programmes, I’ve been under the impression that 99.9% of parents become, through their trade, overweight, ineloquent buffoons who do nothing but struggle to buckle their children into car seats, enforce the eating of soggy vegetables and mechanically read sticky-covered books to sweaty-haired offspring so that they can turn out the light and possibly enjoy a quiet half hour of Seinfeld together.

Worse, their houses are an environmental manifestation of this nightmarish depravity: fluorescent-lit living-rooms of unimaginative d├ęcor (the mile-long, paid-by-instalment sectional sofa piece upholstered with Cheetos and colouring books, on Ribena-patterned industrial carpeting); a back garden that sprouts broken toys, saggy washing lines and (if very lucky) a trampoline enshrouded in collapsed safety netting; a bedroom whose only possible merit is that the duvet set matches the curtains.

If this is not the way of the average, Westerly-civilized family, there certainly do seem to be a propensity of them willing to have their troubles splashed all over the airwaves for the rest of us to contemplate chillingly.

But the small part of me that always wanted to be a mum still remembers how, at eighteen, I sat paralysed with shyness in the atmospheric character house of an ex-boyfriend’s employers, accepting glass after glass of orange creamsicle because that was what we’d brought with us to drink, and dizzily watching one of two enchanting little girls do back-flips up the legs of her long-haired father who, though in his forties, was wearing a band t-shirt, torn jeans and no socks.

Holly and Ivy shared the same tangle of hair and wide-set blue eyes, qualities that rendered four-year-old Holly impish while lending her taller, ganglier older sister a kind of moody elfin charm. Both were sharp as tacks, and whereas I grew more uncomfortable (and inebriated) by the second among these well-adjusted people and knew that soon they would be avoiding me for quite the opposite reason, Holly’s own shyness translated to a socially acceptable air of self-possessed reserve that made guests want to engage her in the hopes of becoming her one ally at the barbeque. Ivy was already everyone’s best friend.

Too, there was the time I babysat for a couple who lived in a small village high in the Rocky Mountains. Their A-frame home had the quality of a tree-house, or that cabin belonging to the three little bears, with its dark, knotty-wood round dining table, pine chests filled with handmade quilts, webby, looming shelves of mismatched china and old fashioned tins and a television set hidden away inside a great oak cabinet.

Their girls, Meghan and Sarah, were close in age, and had identical bobs (one blonde, one brunette), matching woollen jumpers (one green and one red, with reindeers) over corduroy dungarees, and drank fruity teas sweetened with liquid honey stored in bear-shaped bottles. Extremely well-behaved, the girls donated many smiles and unexpected moments of unselfconscious intimacy (sitting on my lap, asking for their hair to be brushed) while they talked me through their gentle routine of now we colour, now we watch our VHS tape, now we have a lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with apple slices and whatever else happy, cold-cheeked mountain children do with their established, well-ordered days.

In retrospect, did the part of me that could imagine motherhood wish to raise a small extension of myself who could somehow adopt the mannerisms of a child with a happy upbringing, even if I wasn’t sure I had the wherewithal to provide one? Probably.

But one thing I’ve learned about life is that you can only build it with whatever materials you have at your disposal, and it’s those materials that will finally determine the outcome of your home, your children and the ensuing atmosphere. There is no way I could have done this five years ago. There is every chance I can do this now. And that’s good enough for me.

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