Opinion

The existential agony of being a parent

Journalist and author Sam Delaney reflects on parenting and the vital lessons learned from his own childhood

Black and white illustration of a jigsaw adult giving a piece of his jigsaw to a child

Image: Shutterstock

Both my kids started new chapters in their education last month. I was, as always, more nervous than they were when they set off on the first day. But it all went well, they came back with plenty of tales to tell and big smiles on their faces. ‘What the hell was I worrying about?’ I asked myself. 

Six weeks have passed since then. The early novelty has resided and the adrenaline has started to run dry. Where once there was optimism and excitement, now there is anxiety, stress and tears. Starting a new school can be brutal. Especially for the parents.

They say you’re only ever as happy as your unhappiest child. It’s true that no matter how well things are going, it’s hard to take pleasure from life when you know one of your offspring is experiencing some sort of pain. 

The annoying thing is, it’s rarely possible to fix the emotional issues of your kids. You can love them, support them and try to understand but you can’t ever do what you’d really like to, which is climb inside their mind and start managing their thoughts and feelings. Admittedly, it’s an unhealthy desire – but, deep down, it’s what all parents crave. We can’t handle something that has such a huge impact on our own mood being so far beyond our control.

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When things are going bad in my own life, I at least have the option of taking a nap or eating a Snickers, two fail-safe mood improvers. But if you witness your kid going to school stressed, coming home upset, wondering if things will ever get better – you feel you’re watching from inside a glass box that prevents you from reaching out and touching them. 

I talk, of course. I talk and talk and talk. The truth is, my talk often seems to make things worse. Stories about my own struggles at school, how I overcame them, what techniques served me well: even as this bollocks spills from my mouth I can hear how boring and archaic it sounds. Like Grampa Simpson trying to explain the olden times to Bart and Lisa.

Here’s the quote that sums it all up: “Making the decision to have a child, it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” Elizabeth Stone wrote that. It’s painful to even look at it. At the same time, it’s reassuring to know you’re not alone and not a complete neurotic. You’re just a parent and your feelings about your kids cannot be controlled. When it comes to worrying about them, reason and rationale often take a hike. It’s horrible.

I lean on my mum a great deal at times like this. She raised four boys on her own. Each of us were troubled and our living circumstances weren’t easy. My mum worked full time and was always exhausted. Nevertheless, she always made us feel loved and safe. And however tough things got, she never showed us anything but total, unswerving confidence.

She often lost her shit over her own stuff: finances, work, her love life etc. But when we brought our own problems home she was like Winston Churchill in 1942, delivering the most exhilarating and uplifting speeches that would have me walking out the door feeling 10ft tall.

It didn’t matter if I was crap at football, had fallen out with my mates, had no money in my pocket and couldn’t get a girlfriend: my mum could make me feel like a genius, a saint and a rock star all rolled into one.

Yes, she was my mum so I suppose I would expect her to say nice things about me. But she was also a mate to me and my brothers. Maybe it was because we all lived squished together in a raucous and ramshackle house. She was just one of the lads. Funny, noisy, sweary and keen on a Friday night fag with her large Martini Bianco, she wasn’t like other mums. We had an extra-special respect for her, I guess.

I’m trying to be the same sort of pal to my kids. When they doubt themselves, I’ll keep my worries to myself and show them the sort of belief my mum always showed in me. Mind you, I should tread lightly: it ended up turning me into a right cocky bastard.

Read more from Sam Delaney here.

Sort your head out book cover

Sort Your Head Out: Mental Health Without All the Bollocks by Sam Delaney is out now (Constable £18.99)You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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