If (and I think we all do), you have a taste for power, here’s a tip. Have a child.
I invite you to go on a journey with me, to Queen’s Park, the heart of yummy mummy well-heeled West London. This is where the stylish mothers of Xanthe and Horatio meet over cappuccinos, while the little darlings play on the well-maintained equipment or frolic in the giant sandpit. Last week Ted and I went there, parking our cheap Argos pushchair among the £700 Bugaboos and iCandi Apple perambulators. We chose a bench to have our snacks, beside two mummies, one of whom was breastfeeding a small baby.
These women weren’t as polished as many of the Queen’s Park brigade, but they had that determinedly organic look about them. Anyway, Doris and Hilda, as we will call them were setting the world to rights with a good old-fashioned bitching session. “She should be forced to have an implant,” Doris opined. I shamelessly eavesdropped for a bit longer, and worked out that they weren’t talking about silicone, they meant a contraceptive implant. Someone whose parenting they disapproved of, should in their opinion, be compulsorily prevented from breeding again. Nothing like a little whiff of eugenics on a sunny Wednesday afternoon to put you right off your sandwiches, let me tell you.
Then Hilda’s two daughters, blonde girls of about four and six, came running over from the sandpit.
“Mum,” said the younger of the two, “A lady just shouted at us.”
“Why?” said Hilda sharply.
Between them, the two girls spilled out a garbled story, the essence of which was that they had “by mistake” thrown sand at someone’s baby and the mother had told them off. Now I’m no psychologist, and they weren’t my children, but I would bet money that the “by mistake” bit was probably not true. It sounded to me like they’d been caught out being a bit naughty by an adult. They weren’t unduly upset, just telling the story of what had happened.
“Well,” said Hilda huffily. “You tell me if you see her again. Remember girls, nobody but your mummy is allowed to get cross with you.” And with that, she and Doris gathered up their organic bags and baggage and children and tottered off, leaving me gasping. The little girls, I am sure, felt smug as hell.
I was devastated that they were gone. I mean, I know it would have been frightfully rude to interrupt their conversation, but I had SO many questions. “What, nobody? NOBODY but mummy can get cross with them? Not a policeman, stopping them running out into the road? Not a childminder, teacher or classroom assistant? Not Granny? Not, god forbid, Daddy?”
Also, she’d said “No one is allowed to GET cross,” not “act cross”, or “shout”. How did she plan to enforce that? I can see that you might ask people to speak to your children with respect, but how do you tell people what they can feel? I also wanted to ask, as she had let the two girls play in the sandpit area, out of her sight, how she knew for sure the woman was in the wrong, and her two precious angels were not at fault.
A friend who is a teacher, says that whenever she has to call parents in to discuss a disciplinary issue, they invariably say, “Well, he never does that at home,” the implication being that either (a) she is lying about their child’s behaviour, or (b) any poor behaviour must in some way be the fault of the school. It seems to me that there’s something terribly dangerous about believing that your children can do no wrong, and that you are the only authority in their lives.
Now, I know that the party line is that parenthood, and especially motherhood, is all about selfless unconditional love and nurturing a precious small person, etcetera ad nauseam. But the real truth, if we’re honest enough to admit it, is that when we have a tiny creature that needs us absolutely, whose very survival depends on our benevolence, vigilance and care, it’s a massive ego boost. Suddenly, to someone, albeit a very small, goggle-eyed someone, we are God. Like all power, it feels fantastic.
But, as some blokes in the Middle East with a taste for braided epaulettes will tell you, absolute power seldom lasts forever. With every day, with every tiny skill they gain, our children need us less. From learning to focus their eyes and control their hands, to learning to speak, read, and drive a car, they claim their freedom and we become less important. Mums everywhere know the pain of smiling through a first day at school, of waving cheerily as they leave on a first holiday without you, of seeing them fall in love for the first time with someone that isn’t you. It is the natural order of things, and our job is to raise whole, competent human beings who can go into the world without us, but it hurts like anything.
We like to think that mothers are perfect, saintly and selfless. But maybe we don’t want to admit that the reason it’s so hard to let go is that we don’t want to give up being right all the time. For a very short time, our own small children are the only people in the world who will accept “because I said so,” as a valid reason.
If we hang onto our absolute power in their lives, I believe our children can grow up lacking skills. Some of those, like never teaching them to hoover, iron or make a meal, because you like doing all the housework and cooking to perfection, might not be too serious, and they will learn eventually, or starve. But neglecting to teach them courtesy, or how to take responsibility for their actions, or how to respect other authority figures, could make them unhappy, unsuccessful, and downright unpleasant to be around.
When I was seventeen, I was hideous. My skin was awful, my hair was a frizzy nightmare. No boy would or could ever find me attractive because I was so vile. Every other girl in my class was beautiful, cool and self-assured and used to laugh at me for my repugnant awkwardness, lack of social graces and inability to sing all the words of “Her name is Rio” correctly. And was I fat? Was I? I was vast. Like a whale-shaped continent. Enormous.
Here’s a picture of me on the beach, aged 17.
Yes, I was an idiot. That picture, in all its fuzzy glory, captures me at my brief physical peak. I will never look like that again. I will never weigh that again, unless I have a limb amputated. And did I enjoy it while I had it? Did I bollocks. I spent my time being loud and theatrical to hide my fear and loneliness, agonising over imaginary slights and arguments, wearing enormous baggy jumpers and writing some of the world’s most tortured, self-indulgent, middle-class-girl-with-no-real-problems-to-speak-of poetry. It’s enough to make you yawn.
You probably don’t need me to tell you about this stuff, because unless you were exceptionally lucky, or freakishly egotistical, you probably also experienced that acidic self-doubt at some point in your teenage years. It takes years to wear off, if at all. I remember my thirtieth birthday as a day when, with a sigh of enormous relief, I realised I had made it through the horrors of my teens and twenties, and I could relax and stop taking myself so damned seriously. If I may misquote the cliché, youth and beauty are entirely wasted on the young. They’re generally far too angst-ridden to notice they have them.
Which brings me to the story in the news of the 42-year-old divorced mum who, against all odds, has become an NFL cheerleader. Hollywood is slavering at her door to turn her story into a movie, and everyone, from Oprah down, wants a piece of her. So why is it that her story makes me profoundly uncomfortable and a little bit sad?
The story in brief, is that her husband left her for a younger woman, and she was out with friends at a football game when someone asked her what she wanted to do to make herself happy again. She looked at the cheerleaders on the field and found her goal, as it were.
Don’t get me wrong, what she’s achieved is amazing. In a highly competitive field, she’s won out over girls half her age and worked her body into peak physical condition and, as a woman exactly her age, who has also had two children, I know how hard that must have been to do. She clearly has vision, determination and extraordinary will-power. She could achieve anything she set her mind to, it seems to me. What makes me sad about the story is that of all the goals she could have set herself, this is what she chose.
What felt so wrong for me was the fact that she had teenage daughters (who it seems are also cheerleaders). Of all the things in the world this woman could have chosen as a goal, Laura Vikmanis has chosen to compete against her own daughters. She is also saying to them that after living three more decades than they have, she has found nothing more desirable than fulfilling a young girl’s dream of becoming magically beautiful and popular through cheerleading.
Now I’ve never been to school in America, but I’ve seen the movies. We all have. We all watch Glee. We know that cheerleaders are incandescently, mythically beautiful, powerful creatures. That donning that tiny white skirt is the route out of hideous obscurity and into being the Prom Queen and dating the quarterback.
But that’s the movies. I have no doubt real cheerleaders are as plagued with self-doubt and body image issues as all young people, if not more, because they’re so in the public eye. It’s also a very fleeting dream, even for the twenty-somethings. I’ve got news for Laura, she may be a cheerleader at 42, but she’s unlikely to be one at 45. She’s definitely not going to be one at 50.
Let’s face it people, you can change a lot of things about yourself. You can lose weight, gain weight, get an education, learn manners or gain self-awareness. But you can’t change your age. You can hide it, fight it, lie about it and have surgery, but time doesn’t stop, and the days and years add up relentlessly. What are you going to do about it? Yearn for a golden moment of youth that you once had… or never had? Or consign those moments to the world of fuzzy photographs where I believe they belong, and live with passion, happiness and intent in the absolute present, relishing the lasting and more concrete joys that growing up can bring?
One monkey, one typewriter, seldom Hamlet.