Clueless in Paris, London or New York

20150729_114809

I am eighteen years old and living alone in Paris. It is my first time away from home. The cash I brought with me covered one month’s rent but only a fortnight of living expenses. Pay day is two weeks away and my first credit card is eight years in the future.

For now, the Irish pub that promised to hire me full time is only able to give me three shifts per week – working from 5pm to 2am. My French is not good enough to look for another job. No, that’s just an excuse. I could work as a chambermaid but I am not brave enough to go knocking on hotel doors. Next year I will have the courage, but I don’t know that yet.

There is an older man who comes to the bar every night and has taken a rather unsettling interest in me. He wears a loose-fitting white linen shirt and his beard is patchy. One afternoon, walking through Les Halles on my way to work, he appears from nowhere, hands me a poem written on white card, and scurries away. The handwritten poem mentions swans and breasts. I am mortified but I sense that he is harmless. In this instance my judgment is right.

The bar manager gives me money for a taxi at the end of each shift. Grubby and tired, I walk out of the side street and turn right towards the rue de Rivoli. Later I will adopt the habit of stopping for a blackcurrant sorbet in one of the late-night cafes, but for now I need the money for proper food. So I walk home through the streets of Paris in the small hours, still amazed at the fact that it can be warm at night.

This flash memoir is inspired by Áine Greaney, a transatlantic Irish author living on Boston’s North Shore. Last week I came across an extract from Greaney’s compelling memoir, where she describes her experience as a young emigrant leaving Ireland for the United States in the 1980s. That’s what got me thinking about my first shaky steps towards (short-lived) independence in a foreign land. Greaney’s account, published in the online journal Numéro Cinq and taken from her book What Brought You Here?, takes us to Dublin in 1986 on the day when the young Mayo woman is on her way to the American embassy for her visa interview. After thirty years in the United States, the homepage image on the author’s website is an airport departure lounge.

Pass the lawnmower

I have read numerous articles about helicopter parenting, but I was surprised to discover that there is a new mutation of this syndrome – lawnmower parenting. These are the parents who clear all obstacles from their children’s path, the ones who drive university admissions teams to drink.

It’s easy to laugh but the more I think about it, the more I understand how difficult it must be let young people stand on their own two feet. When you could save them so much trouble! I was singularly unprepared for my stay in Paris and I can’t imagine ever letting a daughter of mine take off like that into the unknown.

When I was young it was normal for our generation to conceal our private lives from our parents, fill out our own forms and make our own plans. We neither expected nor wanted them to be involved in everything we did, let alone make decisions for us. The time for being close could come later. This independence meant facing risks and problems, and it was how we learned resourcefulness.

But in the new family, bound together by open communication and the sharing of feelings, we now have parents who cultivate a close and equal relationship with their kids. This has to be a good thing, until it becomes too much of a good thing. Like good servants, parents anticipate their children’s needs, helping them to negotiate their way through puberty (now celebrated, when it used to be dreaded), providing practical support and advice when the youngsters become sexually active (as opposed to never EVER mentioning the word sex), and taking on the project of finding the best studies and career path. There is no divide between your world and their world; everyone is on the same team. But where in this osmosis-type relationship is there an opportunity to cut the apron strings?

I’ve interviewed people who were sent away from their family home, or children’s institution, at the age of twelve to work. This was not uncommon in Switzerland and Ireland in the bad old days, when fostering, especially in rural communities, was based on paying your way with hard work.

Young Swiss people between 16 and 18 years of age are now likely to be sent away on all-expenses-paid language-learning trips, staying with host families. From the moment they set foot on foreign soil they are in the care of parents just like their own.

I was talking to a cousin of mine about this recently. After completing a one-year secretarial course in Dublin (we’re back in the 1980s), she moved to London with a friend to start her working life at the age of 18. She told her parents she had somewhere to stay but the two girls had no fixed plans and just enough money to pay for a few weeks of cheap accommodation. Proper preparation would have meant more time saving and making arrangements but they were young and impatient for a new life to begin. Luckily they found jobs quickly, overcame the challenges of the new city, and their parents were never the wiser about what a precarious start they’d had. The whole adventure would never have happened if the parents hadn’t trusted in the girls’ abilities in the first place.

I’m off to see Brooklyn tomorrow. I enjoyed the book, although I found it a little quiet. Academy Street, another story of Irish female emigration in the 1950s, had a much more powerful current to it. So many novels, for both children and adults, deal with the arrival of a young person in a new place. I don’t think that story ever gets old. When was the first time you had to manage alone away from home? Was it ultimately a positive experience? I hope so.

There but for the grace of God

image

As the year draws to a close, all the talk in Ireland is of storms and fatal traffic accidents. Every time tragedy strikes, as it has this week and every other week of the year, a family’s story is rewritten. They stop being the family with the trampoline in their garden, or whose mother who jogs every morning, and become the family that have experienced a terrible loss. And all the awful irreversible steps that led to the moment of the accident remain engraved in memory to torment them.

You get a glimpse of this in the feelings of shock and wonder that come after a near miss. Tragedy has been averted but it has shown its colours, its capacity to devastate. These are potentially life-changing moments, when the ground opens up beneath your feet and suddenly you are teetering on the edge of a deep ravine of grief and regret from which there is no escape. Most of the time, the gap closes as quickly as it has opened and you take your next step on firm blessed ground.

I had one such day this year, where a tortured alternative future revealed itself to me so sharply and clearly that I almost lived it.

Going anywhere with young children means having your accident radar switched on at all times. You have to anticipate, warn, and take precautions – constantly. But unfamiliar places, travel stress and too many distractions can interfere with this vigilance.

This particular morning we were in the middle of France, on our way back to Switzerland after taking the ferry from Ireland. To break the journey we had stayed the night in a depressed-looking village off the motorway near Orléans. To get to the hotel car park, we needed to wait on the narrow path in front of the hotel and cross a busy road where the cars were completely ignoring the speed limit.

I nearly lost my five-year-old daughter on that road. And I know for certain that I would have blamed myself for the accident forever. Why? Because of the dog. Because of the canal at the end of the lane. Because I was carrying too many things. Because of the choice of hotel. Because for just this once I did not anticipate, did not warn and did not take the right precautions.

Around the corner from the hotel, as I had discovered earlier that morning while walking the dog, was a lane that ran alongside the ruins of an old castle. I walked along that lane, not realising that I was setting in motion a chain of events that might leave my own life in ruins.

At the end of the lane I came across an old canal dock and overgrown waterway. Curious, I thought. The village, with its grand old indoor market hall, many derelict buildings and shuttered businesses, must have seen better days. Maybe the canal once brought life and trade to this place.

An hour later when we were crowded into the small lobby with our too many bags, dog on a lead and three children, the canal was on my mind. When I should have been warning the children about the road and seeking out the hand of my youngest child, I was foolishly asking the owner about the canal she seemed to know nothing about.

End the pointless conversation, say goodbye, transfer the dog’s lead to the other hand, gather up the last stray plastic bags, walk out the door, and see my little girl step straight out onto the road. I shout. She turns, looks at me and says oops, and I believe that is the last time I will hear her voice, that I have already lost her and she is now not six feet away from me on a provincial French street but on the other side where I can never reach her again.

But there was no car, and I got her back, and we are still just the family with the Irish mother and the dog. It is frightening to think how destiny can turn on the slightest sliver of detail. The best book I read in 2015 takes the concept of alternative destinies and uses it to build a fascinating story of the many possible lives of one person.  Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, highly recommended. This is my first ever blog post written and posted on my phone. Excuse any formatting errors. I wanted to write a round-up of the books I read this year but that’s not really possible away from base. I’ve had a lovely Christmas here in stormy, rainy Ireland, counting my blessings.

Wishing everyone a peaceful, pleasant and safe New Year.

Good fathers are not a new invention

Father and Child by Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Bauerle (c) Cuming Museum
Father and Child by Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Bauerle © Cuming Museum

Every new generation knows better than the one that came before.  This is a natural law. According to this law, modern dads are doing a much better job than their own fathers who lived in the bad old days and did everything wrong.  I’m all for praising today’s dads but isn’t it time to stop dismissing the merits of the older generation?

When I hear how fathers of 40+ years ago are characterised, I do not recognise my father or the fathers of my friends and extended family growing up. Distant, authoritarian, unwilling to push the pram or lift a finger at home – well they weren’t all like that.

There have always been dads who sang lullabies, gave bottles and played with their young children. Dads who cleared the table and did the washing up. Dads who did the grocery shopping and took the children to swimming classes. Dads who appreciated their children and understood them, were openly proud of them and affectionate. Dads like mine.

And even if they weren’t hands-on with the children and the household, think of all the fathers who gladly let the kids shadow them around the farm, teaching them important skills, or the ones who did all the driving and photographing on family holidays, or worked in jobs they didn’t enjoy or spent lonely months away as migrant workers to provide for their families.

Sure, we can judge the fathers of the past and find them wanting. Some were selfish and unkind, human traits that have not disappeared with black and white television. But mostly they were good men who made sacrifices and loved their children above all. There is more to fatherhood than proudly parading your cute baby in the park. It’s a job for life and the dads who’ve been around the longest have done the most, taught us through the good times and the bad times to be better people.

I hope you agree with me that good fathers are nothing new.

On the subject of fatherly love, here’s a William Wordsworth poem you probably all know but is well worth reading again. The sonnet was written two hundred years ago in the aftermath of the death of his three-year-old daughter and “heart’s best treasure”, Catherine.

Surprised by joy – impatient as the wind

Surprised by joy – impatient as the wind

I turned to share the transport – Oh! With whom

But thee, long buried in the silent tomb,

That spot which no vicissitude can find?

Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind –

But how could I forget thee? – Through what power,

Even for the least division of an hour,

Have I been so beguiled as to be blind

To my most grievous loss? – That thought’s return

Was the worse pang that sorrow ever bore,

Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,

Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;

That neither present time nor years unborn

Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

The Laws of Love by Clare O’Dea

Some children start out unwanted but are soon loved and cherished. It was not so with me. Once unwanted, always unwanted. When I reached an age where I could question this, I could only conclude that I was missing the loveable ingredient possessed by other children, and no amount of eagerness to please would make up for this.

If my eldest brother is to be believed, my parents were happy in the early days. There was laughter and fun, there were callers and outings. Ten years later, when my newborn cries were keeping everyone awake, there was bitterness and want.

I developed a system of good and bad luck omens. Walking home from school I would fall back from my brothers and sisters and bet my wellbeing on chance variations in detail along the route. If the Currys have sheets on the line I will get a smile from mother, if it’s clothes I’ll get a clout, if it’s nothing, I’ll get nothing. I had the odds well worked out.

Mealtimes were quiet. There was none of the grabbing and rushing people associate with big families. We had our portion and we wanted to savour it. Not to forget my mother’s temper, which had a civilising effect on us all. I did not go to bed hungry although if I woke in the night hunger was lurking. We had clothes to wear, we washed. No laws were broken but the laws of love.

Escape was a room in a boarding house in Dublin 7, a house of straw as it turned out. I got shop work and independence, blighted at first by unwelcome attention from men in the neighbourhood. I faithfully sent money home and scraped by. A new room in a new house and life turned a corner. I met your father.

Shall I recite for you the list of his virtues? You could not know them all, for what child does? In the order in which I discovered these sides to him: he was good company, true to his word, thoughtful, tender and compassionate. He was in love with life and with me by association, and so together we built a house of sticks. What you saw between us was less than we started out with, to be sure, but it was still something good.

When I discovered that I was expecting – pregnant was considered a coarse word in those days, much too blunt – I felt the deepest and fullest satisfaction of my life. Those were my glory days.

Nothing could match my zeal. I was going to be the perfect mother. I was determined to shield you two from any harm at any cost. You placed your fervent baby love in me; I mixed it with my anxious adoration and gave it back to you in dangerous measures. It is not an exaggeration to say that I worshipped you. The light that shone from your eyes was my sun, moon and stars. I feasted on your purity and beauty. Your father could only watch and pray.

No doubt many mothers delight in every gesture and utterance of their children. But if they do, there is a counterbalance – feelings of criticism and irritation. This was missing in me. I bathed you in love and subjugated myself to you and your needs. There were no tensions between you children because I fulfilled your every desire. My purpose in life was to see that you wanted for nothing. I am truly sorry.

Wherever I was in the house I ran at the first cry. I smoothed over every conflict, made equal room on my lap for victim and culprit. When you stumbled I caught you before you hit the ground. I cooked only your favourite foods, bought your favourite toys and shoes, protected you from challenges and disappointments. I was ever vigilant. No laws were broken but the laws of love.

School was torture for me – hours of the day when anything could be happening to you, and all out of my control. I redoubled my efforts at home. There your spirits were replenished before you went out to face another day of adversity without me. Your father, Lord rest him, could not compete with my fanaticism. He retreated into his own life outside the home, which suited us, didn’t it?

This has been the way of our family until now. And look where it has taken us. For all the love I heaped upon you growing up, your cupboards are bare. Your every action motivated by self-interest, you can only muster mean-spirited possessiveness and call it love. Christopher is the worst offender, the newspapers are sure of that. What he did to that poor girl is one thing, but who can fathom his lack of remorse? No-one, apart from the woman who nurtured that weakness over many years.

What about you Paula? The results may not make headlines but I have failed you just as badly. When I think of all your father’s virtues, you match each one with the opposite vice. You navigate your way through life with wilfulness and spite. People are drawn to your narcissistic ways and then hurt by them. Your children suffer, their father too. I have my reasons alright.

Now that your father is gone, the house reverts to me. When you get out of prison Christopher there will not be a home here for you anymore. I am selling and plan to buy a small house of bricks for myself. I will not be passing the address on to either of you. Paula, get a nanny. If it’s any consolation I blame myself.

I hope you enjoyed this piece of flash fiction. I haven’t posted any short stories for a while because I discovered that publishing on a blog breaks the ‘previously unpublished’ rule for most journals and competitions. All the same, sometimes it’s nice to send a story out for its own sake.

Screen time, live to fight another day

stephenbyrne86 Irish Independent
stephenbyrne86 Irish Independent

Yesterday I spent about ten hours in front of a screen – eight in the office, one on my laptop at home and one watching television. More if you count the hypnotic hour of windscreen time I spent on the motorway. If this is the world we live in, why am I engaged in such an exhausting and long-running battle to keep my kids away from screens?

It’s almost as if (weird music) I’m trying to replicate the conditions my own childhood. The difference is that back then there was no such thing as games consoles, mobile phones, DVDs, internet, ipads, children’s channels and the rest. How easy it must have been for parents to limit screen time when the only thing on offer was a two-channel television.

In this house another Christmas has come and gone with Santa ignoring all the requests for screen devices that dominated my children’s lists. There is no television allowed during the school week and the children sometimes complain bitterly about the screen desert they are forced to live in. I’m starting to wonder if this puritanical approach will backfire one day. What if they spend the rest of their childhood seeking out contraband screen time? What if they become air traffic controllers?

I’ve tut tutted with other likeminded parents about kids staring at ipads in restaurants or watching films on car journeys. The prospect of a generation of people growing up unable to entertain themselves or practice the art of conversation is not very appealing. But I wonder if my resistance to the norm is becoming a little self-righteous? Not to mention a little hypocritical, considering that blogging and writing involve a fair amount of screen time.

So, while I will continue to worry about how much fruit and veg they are eating, whether they are dressed warmly enough and looking properly before they cross the road, I think the time has come to ease up a little on the screen restrictions.

By the way, if you can’t read what’s in the speech bubble in the cartoon above, the mother is saying: ‘Isn’t it great to have some quality time with the family’. I came across this back in the Irish Independent last September and it now lives on our fridge.

What do you think? Am I throwing in the towel too easily? Anyone else managing to keep the screens at bay?

All aboard for a spontaneous evening

2013-07-13 10.41.33

One of the many things that disappear when small children take over your heart and your home is the ability to do spontaneous things out of interest. Much stronger reasons are needed to justify abandoning the chicks in the nest without warning, leaving your mate to find last minute worms and put up with all that chirping. Those reasons include traffic jams, emergency health issues and paid work. There may be one or two more but it’s a short list and it certainly doesn’t include lectures by interesting authors in other cities.

It is the unexpected dose of spontaneity that makes my trip to meet author and philosopher Alain de Botton for an interview in Basel last May so remarkable (to me). Picture the scene. I’m sitting at my desk on the outskirts of Bern cobbling information together on some distinctly non-literary topic. Probably something about an international tax agreement, climate change research or Swiss politics – I can’t quite remember. It’s a rainy Tuesday, or possibly Wednesday – definitely midweek.

On my Twitter feed which just happens to be open I notice Alain de Botton tweet the news that he is speaking in Basel that evening. I decide to pass on that snippet to other people who might be free to do things at the drop of a hat. On to the next thing. And then a few minutes later I get a tweet from de Botton himself along the lines of: ‘It’ll be fun. Why don’t you come along?’

Well of course you know the reason why. This is an unplanned midweek evening activity after a working day. Having left the house at 7 a.m., and expecting to do the same the following day, I am already fending off the niggling thought that I might be short-changing the children on essential mothering hours. I’m hardly going to make things worse by not coming home, am I?

Actually, a few phone calls and tweets later that is exactly what I decided to do. I got the all-important green light from father bird, sorted out tickets to the sold-out event by arranging to go in a professional capacity and found myself sitting on a train to Basel a few hours later avidly reading my newly-bought copy of Religion for Atheists, de Botton’s latest bestseller.

That evening, sitting in the back of the hall in the Literaturhaus, I enjoyed the pure pleasure again of doing something cultural out of interest – something more than just going for a meal, hitting the playground or going on a work assignment. I got some time to listen to new ideas, to reflect on them and be moved by some of the human truths that bind us all together.

Below is the link to the story I wrote for swissinfo.ch following the talk in Basel. Turns out it’s been 20 years since Alain de Botton’s first book was published. He’s been a busy bee.

http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/swiss_news/Alain_de_Botton,_20_years_a-writing_.html?cid=36044606

Have you done anything spontaneous recently to shake up the routine? Do tell.

Twin babies, the mobile drop-in centre

© baby-trend-expedition-jogging-twin-stroller
© baby-trend-expedition-jogging-twin-stroller

The day you push your twins outside for the first test drive in their new buggy, you embark on a new role in society – mobile drop-in centre. You may think you are the same person as before, just going about your business in town but your double bundles of joy have changed the stakes completely. Barriers come down, people open up. Whether you are ready for it or not you are wheeling around the conversation starter of the century.

Memory lane: Other twin parents have an inbuilt twin radar that never goes away. Seven years on I still stop in my tracks every time I see twin babies. Where once I was on the receiving end, now I’m the one who has to grin foolishly and stare, carried back in an instant to those golden days of babyhood, times two.

If there’s an opportunity I strike up conversation. ‘Congratulations, how old are they? I have twins myself.’ Some of these conversations are short. Others get long and involved. The oldest twin mother I ever chatted to had sons in their fifties. Another time I remember talking to a security guard in an art gallery about his twin girls, as if we’d known each other for years. The best stories older twin parents will tell is the surprise they had at the birth when a second head appeared.

Hands full: A standard comment you will hear as a twin parent is some version of “you’ve got your hands full there”. There’s some truth in that but it’s tempting to point out that, more importantly, your heart is full. If your babies are premature, you might want to lie about their age to keep the reactions down. If you happen to have different sized twins, this will also be a talking point.

There will be shop assistants who confess they always wanted twins and you are bound to come across the occasional person curious about the conception details. This conversation begins with the question – “are they natural?”

Sad stories: Twin pregnancy is by definition high risk and was more often seen as a burden than a blessing in the past. One thing I didn’t expect was the number of sad stories people told me about twins. A woman we once rented a holiday home from told the story of her twins’ birth 40 years before. They were too small to live and were left in a room in the hospital to die.

Another woman who stopped me in the street one day in Fribourg started out by saying she too was a twin but then revealed she didn’t grow up with her siblings. She was given away to a children’s home because her mother couldn’t manage. She never understood why they chose her, and the rejection hurt her still. Another lady at a garage told me her mother had given birth to three sets of twins but only one child had survived.

Kindness of strangers: One of the lovelier sides of having twins is the kindness it brings out in people – from the people who reach out to take a baby onto their laps in the bus, to the other Mums at the playground who will run to pick up your fallen toddler, when you are struck trying to get the other one down from the climbing frame.

One incident stands out for me. There was an old lady I used to see around town, always dressed in the same shabby coat and old shoes. One day, waiting at the lights to cross the road, she pressed a ten-franc note into my hand and urged me to buy something for the twins. Before I could protest she was gone.

If your twins are brand new and you’re getting up the courage to take them out into the world for the first time, don’t be afraid. There is a big welcome waiting for you.

The wrong response to a distressing week

It’s been a distressing week for Irish parents, shocked by television footage of neglect and mistreatment of small children at three crèches, exposed in an undercover RTE investigation. The private childcare sector has mushroomed in Ireland over the past two decades and the inspection system is inadequate to say the least. So not only are Irish parents paying the highest fees for day care in Europe, they are now faced with the horrible fear that their children may not be safe.

The truth is that the vast majority of children cared for outside the home are well-treated and thriving in a familiar environment, just as most children cared for one-to-one in a home setting are loved and cherished. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that good childcare is good for the child, regardless of the category, but unfortunately bad situations exist across the board.

The model of the mother at home all day to care for her children should not for a moment be idealised. Mothers lose their temper and their patience, many still hit their children. Some are isolated, depressed, or bored at home. There is no footage of their interaction with their children behind closed doors.

Parents automatically question the important decisions they make for their children and need no encouragement to feel guilty. We want desperately to get it right. There is nothing more important than the well-being of our children, which is why the last thing working parents need is a blanket condemnation of day care.

This morning we heard from an übermother on Irish radio sneering at “shiny corporate crèches” and telling us that children under the age of three should not be cared for in a group setting – full stop. If this is where the debate is heading then let’s call off the hounds. Such a simplistic and unfair pronouncement does nothing to help parents trying to make choices from realistic options, the thousands of families who put their trust in good people and come back to happy children at the end of the day.

No one way of looking after children trumps all others. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, neighbours, crèche workers and childminders are all fallible and can give children the very best and worst of themselves. It’s a cheap shot to question the whole validity of day care on the basis of some bad cases. That is a test no category of childcare will pass.

Spare the rod?

I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine about disciplining children. I was telling her what a troublesome weekend we had with bad behaviour and imposing punishments and she informed me that she and her husband didn’t punish their children. Well I nearly fell off my chair.

My friend is a psychologist who works with children and I have to admit her kids seem less rowdy than mine. Have I been going wrong all this time?

Obviously the norms of childrearing change over time and one thing I am sure about is that I don’t want to have to use force to get through to my children. So what weapons are at our disposal today? The most common one for small children is probably time out. Will future child development experts say this was a horrible form of child cruelty? I hope not. If so the producers of the Supernanny programmes will have to stand trial first.

The whole issue brings to mind a recent article I wrote about the relatively soft sentencing practices in Switzerland.

http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/swiss_news/Weighing_up_the_unusual_Swiss_justice_system_.html?cid=33999476

One criminology professor I spoke to pointed out that harsher sentences did not reduce crime rate – on the contrary. In other words there is no deterrent effect. During my research I also came across the work of the Australian criminologist John Braithwaite and his method of restorative justice. He believes that shaming is part of administering justice but that there is good shaming and bad shaming. According to Braithwaite shaming which stigmatises and alienates the person, like prison (or time out?), is much less effective than shaming which involves recognising what you did wrong and trying to atone for it. Here’s the link.

http://www.restorativejustice.org/leading/braithwaitej