This week I faced an unexpected and unwelcome test when my eldest son Bobby seemed to completely lose his bearings providing me with a very difficult 48 hours. Was it petulance, a pre-teen wakeup call or just the sad effects of a boy who suddenly remembered he had lost his mum?
I've weighed up a catalogue of events, which as a parent, you'll identify with throughout this piece. The best way for me to recount this, in order to find the therapy writing often provides, is to aim this at the centre of the storm itself. Maybe one day he will read this and fully understand how hard it was at times to raise him and how challenging it is to simply be a parent....
How difficult it can be at times to spot your grief for mummy. While we quite rightly do not use it as an excuse for every minor indiscretion, it is at times so glaringly obvious that the very worst you can ever throw at me is undeniably a direct consequence of the turmoil you occasionally feel inside. Yet although I know and accept its origins, why do I always allow it to hit me so personally and so deeply? There are so many things that can scare, upset or inflict pain in life, how cruel that the worst pain I ever have to feel is caused by one of two people of whom I love the most.
Part of my role as your sole carer was to understand that from the day you lost mummy, I would have to be your all-and-everything, I would no longer be the cool dad that took you to lots of fun places every weekend. I would no longer be the one that rarely had to tell you off. I fundamentally just needed to cope, anything beyond that was ambitious. Me being the positive type demanded that we went beyond just being ok and live a fulfilling and enjoyable existence but as life would have it, this cannot be consistently the truth.
Reality has taught us that on occasion we are a victim of the past and the horrendous loss you have endured so early in your life leaves me with additional parental responsibilities and it's of those challenges that I write to you today.
Whilst this all played out five days ago I can still remember the incident like it was a minute ago. You sometimes come home from school a little unsociable, big deal, your 10 and this isn't unusual. The three of us had gone to the shopping centre to get a few things that we specifically required; Freddy got his trainers with his birthday money and I got some t-shirts. Although we looked for some boots for you to buy, we couldn't find any we liked and it really disappointed me that you were so put out that you didn't get anything and we did.
I am very conscious not to spoil you, yet you do very well and never go without. Saying that, once again, your behaviour wasn't great but not a-typical so I told you how I felt and we got on with it. We arrived at your Nan's at 6pm and stated I wanted your homework done while you were with her. You are in year six and there is a lot of pressure on parents not to let their kids skip homework, annoyingly I can't always be by your side to help you but with senior school fast approaching it's becoming more important that you are confident enough to do this on your own anyway.
You very cleverly sense an ally in Nanny Budden and turn on the tears when I correct you in front of her for talking to me rudely. You walk off down the road in a fit of rebellion, extreme for you but I presume this is because you are in front of Nanny. I decide it's best for me to go to my meeting and agree with Nan that the minute I pull away you will return, which I watch you do from a distance.
I might have known when I returned two hours later that you wouldn't have done your home-work. Nanny excused you because you had a head ache and had fallen asleep. I wonder, have you got Nanny round your little finger or did you truly have one of those headaches you seem to get when you get really mad? I say very little, the disappointment written across my face, but hey, I figure I had dropped you round there on a school night which isn't so common and maybe I was silly to expect you to do your homework there anyway.
Whilst I'm used to being the bad guy in your eyes, what you did next was unexpected and pulled me to pieces. Before your Nan and I, for the first time in your life, you beg her to let you stay with her, not just for the night but forever! You proclaim me to be mean and strict, protesting that I will shout at you in the car. At this point I'm lost for words, I haven't shouted at either of my children for some time, I just take things away. It's fast becoming apparent that this is no ordinary bout of poor behaviour, Jacquie has been quite good and pacified you enough to get you in the car and has even managed to offer me some reassurance. I get in the car embarrassed and heartbroken, I've taken this to heart and I don't know what to do but drive.
Your brother Freddy feels sorry for me so he proceeds to talk you down which you don't take kindly to, you snap back at him with cutting remarks and real anger. I need to diffuse this and fast, I know you're tired, I know you are completely out of sorts and I also know that you have the ability to lose yourself in the fight, you feel it more important to win at all costs than to be fair, for this there are only ever losers. You never back down and from previous experience it always seems that although irrational you are almost pushing me to snap at you angrily, to shout, to 'put you in your place'.
I've seen the effect when I have given in to the onslaught and effectively defended myself by shouting louder than you and I have seen it directly bring you out of the angry fit you are engulfed by. Unfortunately although it completely works, it's not right so I just refuse to deal with you in this way. I completely understand that whilst I'm no psychologist, I'm aware there is a link to your early years because whilst she was an incredible woman, on the subject of discipline this was very much the way of your mother and I fear its learnt behaviour that you look for in me?
Maybe it reminds you of her, I wonder if you get some satisfaction from remembering her in this way. When I don't shout I guess I don't give you any definite show of emotion, I'm trying to keep calm, to be the adult, for you is any emotion better than no emotion? Even if it makes you cry temporarily and makes me feel guilty afterwards?! I always opt for what feels like the correct option and that's to be consistent in the handling of these situations. I can show you how much I love you in more conventional ways, you don't need to hear me raise my voice to know you're loved.
So back in the car you are in the middle of your offensive, highlighted by your response to me putting Classic FM on in an attempt to make for a more calming environment in the car, you made your disapproval at my musical preferences known for a good ten minutes, you are acting like you hold nothing but resentment towards me, fortunately for me, within a few minutes you fall asleep. Tired yourself out with all that moaning and no response from the driver. Had I won or lost at this point? Actually I think it was just half time.
I hoped to carry you from the car up to your bed but when I opened your door you woke, I'm trying to still show love and forgiveness but you pause momentarily to get your bearings and then remember our feud. You then insist on walking inside on your own, I didn't want to keep you from getting your sleep on what was a late enough night as it was so no speeches. Even though I feel resentful of how I've been treated, I tuck you in and say good night.
The second half got underway the next morning and to my surprise... I was greeted at breakfast by the 'normal' you, bright eyed, polite and almost unaware of the previous evenings events. Is this denial, a silent apology or just amnesia I wondered. I was no longer in your bad books but you were still in mine!
I dropped you to school and we spoke about lots of things like there was never a problem, again I didn't want to tackle 'the issue' because I was just grateful for the cease fire, these conversations to my mind are always best left until you are feeling settled at bed time. I dropped you off and we both exchanged 'I love you' which felt particularly good to hear.
Freddy and I came to watch you play for the school football team, you played well although you were disappointed to have lost one-nil. I congratulated you on some great runs and a few good shots but as we walked to the car you were tired and had your sights set firmly on your little brother. The arguing began before you'd even got in the car and continued for the 20 minutes until we were home.
As you know I hate you two arguing, I accept its part of being so close to a sibling but after yesterday's dilemma's I was starting to get worn out by it all. I figured it would be good for you and I to have a kick around while Freddy was at football training that night, you were up for it which was reassuring for me because you wanted to spend time with me despite putting me on the receiving end of late.
We were all getting our training gear on and I couldn't find the inserts that go into my boots that stop me from getting injured (authotics to those in the know). Well Freddy has previous form for hiding and destroying these things before so I instantly accused him of taking them again and demanded he told me where they were. He strongly contested to the point that he got quite upset at the allegations.
I hunted high and low but no joy. I went to Freddy again and asked him quite assertively to tell me where my authotics were, he still denied it and then the brother that had argued and near on physically fought with him for the last few hours decides to stick up for him; "if he said he doesn't know where they are then he doesn't know where they are" you said without the slightest hint of fear in your voice.
Unwittingly, I had presented you with the golden opportunity to take me on again, I stood listening to my boys and I thought 'Blimey, hark at Ronnie and Reggie over here!' Strangely Instead of feeling upset, I felt an enormous sense of pride. All I, and certainly your mother could ever wish for is that you look after each other In life. I know you'll always argue on the surface of things but when you see the other upset it's then that your love, and loyalty for each other is measured. I was no longer angry, just slightly amused.
Subsequently we played football which seemed to make us friends again, I came home and found my authotics in the bottom of a recently used sports bag and apologised instantly to Freddy who, like the wonderfully forgiving soul that he is, accepted without hesitation.
After I had put you to bed, I sat and tried to summarise the past two days. I'd been here before, the initial exchanges of bad behaviour rarely gave the game away but when you get spiteful and you cleverly manipulate words to use as weapons designed to hurt, that's when I know I have to step back and not be the victim, that's when it resonates that you are simply venting your frustration, a frustration that creeps up on you, another infrequent wave of realisation that something is missing in your life, something irreplaceable, something that just makes you feel bitter and horrible, angry and confused.
Of course you take the pain out on me! Who else would you feel safe enough to innocently project all of these emotions on to that you simply don't understand? How grateful I am that you aim it all at me and not your teachers or school friends. I'm your Dad. I accept your pain and grief, give it to me, I'll take it from you and throw it away and I promise not to take it to heart or reply with the same sentiments. This was always to be part of my job in raising you on my own, part of my learning in how to manage your helplessness. Now I understand it, it doesn't hurt me anymore. I'll be there for you always and keep you strong when the memories of loss creep up and steal your balance. I'm so proud of your strength, you're all the inspiration I need to succeed.
Lots of love,
I'd like to dedicate this to the family of Jayne Hall who lost her brave fight to cancer recently leaving her husband Martin to raise their beautiful children Maddison and Tyler alone. I write this for Martin and any other Dads in the same situation in the hope that you gain strength from the knowledge you aren't on your own and that advice and support is there, you just need to ask.
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