Shortly after my family and I moved from London to Melbourne, my son started at a new Kinder. The staff at the Kinder were friendly. The atmosphere was warm. The other kids seemed friendly. But Alex wasn’t so sure. Actually, he was sure. He quickly decided that he hated going to Kinder. It was a very bad idea. Each morning he was due to go, it was a minor psychological battle to get him out of the car and through the Kinder gates.
I nearly always won this battle. Except that I never really won it. I just got him through the Kinder gates. Because Alex’s upset, at doing this strange new scary thing, was always going to be stronger than my reassurances, my ‘come on then, it’ll be fine’ cajoling. It soon became clear that Alex’s unconscious was frightened as Hell of going to Kinder. He was frightened of what felt like the scattershot demands that rained down on him the moment he arrived. He wasn’t one bit fobbed off with his father and me telling him of all the fun he was soon to have, or the nice things I’d put in his lunch box. From his point of view, once I’d dropped him at the classroom door, there was nothing to shield him from his fear. He felt naked. How was he to know that some of the kids in the sandpit, with their funny accents and brash confidence, who knew each other far better than he knew them, might one day be his friends? And so, day after agonising day, he hung back at the Kinder gates. Or he refused point blank to get out of the car. Meanwhile, safe at home, he regressed to soiling his underpants.
As I write this, Alex will be coming off a 6-hour watch on a 30-metre boat, somewhere in the ocean off Alaska, en route to Antarctica. He’ll be taking the wheel from a fellow sailor, who’ll be tired and cold and in need of a warm bunk. Perhaps Alex would clobber me for telling you this story about him regressing at Kinder, years ago now. But I tell it not to embarrass him, or anyone else. I tell it because I think it illustrates something important about parenthood, and especially motherhood. This story, and others like it, highlights something that gets lost when we generalise our experience of family life, or collapse our stories into anecdotes.
The laundry problem that I’m describing is more closely bound up with the experience of parenthood, than it is with childhood. Alex, for his part, has forgotten all about this episode. He forgot about it the minute he found his own way to grow up and separate from home and family. I, however, haven’t forgotten. The reason I haven’t forgotten is because I had to work hard emotionally to make sense of my son’s behaviour. I had to work hard to make peace with behaviour that, deep within, I found unacceptable.
By the time Alex was old enough for Kinder, I felt I knew him pretty well. This may, of course, have been part of the problem. I knew that he was frightened of change. I knew that he hated starting new things. I knew that he struggled to make new friends. And yet I also knew that he seemed happy in himself at home. And that he played the same, looked the same and acted the same as he always had. So why had he gone back to being a toddler and soiling his pants? Why now? And why me?
Perhaps, I thought, scratching my head and trying not to lose it, soiling his pants was Alex’s way of refusing to grow up. Perhaps he’d seen through the story of maturity that the grownups around him were telling him, the progress myth in which things always get better as you get bigger. Or perhaps he was expressing an unconscious instinct that got secret pleasure from flouting the rules. Was he saying, without using words, that he didn’t accept the law of cause and effect? Could soiling his underpants be his way of saying bugger off to the world? Was he flagging that he wanted to get off the bus, by pressing the button for the driver to let him off at the next stop? Was his behaviour a plea for mercy? Or a shout of protest?
One hot Sunday, we went for lunch with new friends (all our friends, at this stage, were new). He was a GP with a weekly radio program, and she was a psychologist working with children. Together this couple had three kids a few years older than Alex and Emma. They seemed like a groovy family, more groovy than I felt mine to be. During lunch, the psychologist mother told us about her son’s recent birthday party, during which the 8-year olds played a game in which they got to throw tomatoes at each other. After lunch, the five kids left the wooden table we were sitting at, to play in the sprinkler. Before long, the conversation round the table strayed into the issue that my husband and I were having with Alex starting Kinder, with a hint at his regressive behaviour. ‘Hah!’, said the GP father, waving his long hands in the air. ‘I wouldn’t worry about that. It will sort itself out in time. I wouldn’t make a fuss about it and make it into a thing. When you sit back and think about it, it’s really no more than a laundry problem’.
Sitting at the wooden table, cold barbecue mess in front of us, I laughed. So did Paul. But inside, I felt furious. What did the GP mean, that the issue with Alex that was driving me nuts, and pressing all my buttons, was nothing more than a laundry problem? Obviously, I fumed, he didn’t do the laundry himself. Because, if he did, he’d know that a kid who soils his pants isn’t easy to do laundry for. I felt powerless, wanting to answer the GP back, but not feeling that I could, even if I had the right words. Instead I sat at the table, smiling politely, feeling that what was a big problem for me had been made small by this medical man who knew better. I was, apparently, making a fuss about something that would go away by itself. At the end of the day, that hateful phrase, I was overreacting. The laundry problem was mine, more than it was my son’s.
Every parent has a story like this. You may be reading this now, and thinking about your own laundry problem. Problems like these are our war wounds, as parents, proof of combat. Eventually they do heal up. Yet a scar remains. This scar never completely fades because these problems pierce our unconscious. And this is why parenthood, and particularly motherhood, is such a powerful and lasting experience.
The emotions that are unleashed from the unconscious, by family life, are incredibly strong. Often they’re untamed. They’re only loosely attached to the words that communicate them. This is why our words rarely do them justice. Our words may stand about and snigger. But they exaggerate more than capture the experiences that drive us nuts as parents. They never really pin them down. I’ll never be able to describe the rage and powerlessness that my son’s laundry problem triggered in me. I may capture enough of it to gain your sympathy, as a fellow traveller. But it will always be the tip of the iceberg that I describe, not the ice below. And yet – and here’s the thing – it’s the ice below the surface that unites us, as parents, even as we struggle to describe our helplessness before it, from our separate boats.
The usual story, the conscious story, the happy-ever-after, things-will-get-better story, is the tip of the iceberg that we so want to believe in. When our child is six months, five years, 12 years or 20, when their dependent ties are cast off and we are free again – these are the hopes that get us up in the morning and keep us going. And they’re sort of true. They true enough to keep us going until next school holidays, next Christmas, next school year. But it’s only ever half the story that we tell. Possibly not even that. Because the rest of the story, the under the surface of the ocean story, doesn’t give a damn about progress or linear development. Or any of that stuff. And it’s this unconscious story that tests us, challenges us, and at times dements us.
When our buttons are pushed by our kids’ outrageous behaviour, by whatever they do that we find unacceptable, we know it quicker than anyone. Our reaction to our kid’s unacceptable behaviour may even frighten us. The howl of rage we feel, when our buttons are pushed, is enough to blow the roof off the three little pigs’ house. Except, of course, we’re grownups. And grownups don’t blow the roof off the house, not least because this would mean organising and paying for the repairs. Likewise, because we’re grownups, we do the laundry without a fuss.
It seems important to add that I did my best not to get cross with Alex when he soiled his underpants, however much I sometimes wanted to. Not because I was a self-effacing martyr. But because I knew that his behaviour was a phase, and that he didn’t do it to drive me crazy. Except I didn’t always feel this. At certain points I felt complete despair, no matter how reassuring my thoughts. I also felt lonely. And it was at these points that I reached out for support. To buoy me up when things felt grim. I reached out to close friends, during the day. Late at night, when I should have been asleep but wasn’t, books and websites about parenting reassured me that I wasn’t going mad. They told me that my despair at my laundry problem was real, but that it would pass. They whispered that I wasn’t on my own. That other people had been there too. And that one day, maybe not yet, but one day, I would look back, smile, and see Alex’s button-pressing behaviour as nothing more than a laundry problem.
One night, a year later, I had a dream. On waking from it, I had a vivid memory in which I soiled my pyjamas as a girl. In my memory I took my pyjamas down to the laundry, around dawn, and tried to wash them clean in the sink. So that my mother, who I felt sure would be angry with me, would never know. Perhaps I was five years old at the time, possibly older. Old enough to know that soiling my pyjamas wasn’t a good thing to do, was a shameful and embarrassing thing. And it was the morning when I awoke and remembered soiling my pyjamas, that I understood why Alex’s laundry problem had upset me so much. The GP, damn it, had been right. Alex’s problem was a problem because once it had been mine too.
Parenting, and especially mothering, is difficult, because it means holding two contrary things in mind. Our immediate response to our kids’ behaviour. And our more considered, heartfelt response. Keeping both these responses alive, not giving in to knee-jerk reactions when our buttons are pushed, requires nerves of steel. We don’t always win. Sometimes we slip up and say more than we should. Sometimes our kids’ unconscious receives the punishment that it has been compelled to seek. But mostly we hang on in there, waiting for the phase to pass, doing our best to be interested in a problem that tests us, challenges us, and brings out our best and our worst. Until one day, and I can say this with conviction, our kids will find a way to thank us for surviving their outrageous behaviour. For not taking it personally, however personal it felt at the time. They’ll thank us for taking the longer view, and for staying on for the ride.