On raising children
It was in the bushes. This den of iniquity. On the edge of a reserve doubling as a dog park. There we were: me, the dog and four children, two mine, two not. Before us lay a bridge north and innocence. Behind us, damnation. A viper’s nest of vice. For now – cartwheeling in the tenuous light, leaping for balls – they were oblivious. Knowledge was coming though. It lies around every corner. Under every bush.
A misfired throw led us there. Fossicking in weeds, turning over leaves. Where was that blasted ball? Here it is, yelled my friend’s son. Six-and-a-half years old and triumphant. Look what I found. And there it was: a scene so perfectly profligate it was practically filmic. A pornographic film. Empty cans of Woodys rolled around the flattened grass, cigarette butts and a single withered condom. A lone black g-string drifted in the branches. A black belt lay half cinched in the roots. Had it merely held up jeans? Or had it encircled a neck? Flayed someone’s buttocks? Whose pleasure had been carried out here? Why the trail of evidence? Had they been disturbed in flagrante?
They were all crowding around now; four children, two mine, two not, eyes agog. And their feet were bare and my mind raced with the potential for danger. Come on, I said, time to go. But they were titillated and immovable. Even my five-year-old daughter, alert to the very adultness of what was before us.
C’mon, I said. Who wants an ice cream? And they giggled and grew hysterical and were not to be distracted by talk of treats. They were after information. What were they doing, they asked, the people who were here? Oh just some silly game, I said. Why did they take their undies off, they asked? Maybe they were playing dress-ups, I said. Maybe they needed them for a hat. As if, said my son. Yeah, said my friend’s son. Each all of nine years old. Other people’s children: may be hard to distract when titillated. What’s this for then, asked the six-year- old. Don’t, I shrieked. Don’t touch that yucky old balloon.
Mum, said my son, you know it’s not a balloon. Yeah, said my friend’s oldest, it’s a condom. What’s a condom for then, asked my friend’s youngest? Ahh, I said. Ahh... it’s special, settling on that most useless of euphemisms. Yes, I said, warming to my theme, a special balloon for protection. Oh, I get it, said the six- year-old, they were playing sex wars.
I have made a hash of my own children’s sex education. (While, thankfully, I have never participated in a “special cuddle”, cringingly that is how I first described the act of procreation to my son.) And I had no desire to be the one to instruct my friend’s children, to set them on the path to sexual disorientation.
When you become a parent you have nine long months to think and prepare. The birth plan. The layette. The name. You wonder whether your child will share your particular shade of blue eyes, your ability to belt out a flawless ‘Islands in the Stream’. You pray they won’t have your unfortunate feet, your hankering for a post-coital fag. You try, and fail miserably, to prepare for the impact a child will have on your life. But what you neglect to consider is the part other people’s children will play. For parenthood carries not only the burden of care for your own pride and joy, but others’, too.
Over the course of your offspring’s Mum, said my son, you know it’s not a balloon. Yeah, said my friend’s oldest, it’s a condom. childhood, the opportunities to screw it up with both them and other kids will be many.
There is the play date that goes wrong. At my insistence my son’s friend would eat what he had ordered in a café because rules are rules and I wasn’t having good food go to waste, he sobbed so loudly and pitifully we were forced to leave, me making appropriate soothing sounds when all I really wanted to do was tip his fluffy over his head. There is, too, the school trip on which you are entrusted with five five-year-olds. On a zoo outing, my husband earned cool dad status, while currying no favour with the teachers, when he treated his charges to lollies and toys.
And then there is the exquisite awkwardness that can arise between your own child and your friend’s. Sadly, just because you can’t get enough of each other, doesn’t mean your kids will feel the same. As a toddler, my daughter pinched my friend’s child’s arm so hard she drew blood. I apologised profusely and put her in ‘time out’, but a part of me got it. My friend’s child is the embodiment of my friend’s every wonderful and not so wonderful trait. There have been times when I have wanted to pinch my friend, too.
I volunteer one morning a week at my children’s school. The children I work with are, more often than not, comparatively disadvantaged for a decile 10 school. Recently I discovered one had no power at home and another was in Child Youth and Family care. Poverty hits hardest when it’s in your face. They tore me up, those kids. Unglued something in me. Left me both helpless and determined. They are everyone’s responsibility. All children are.