THE POWER OF POSITIVE NAGGING
I don’t normally give parenting advice on this page, or anywhere else. I was a very young mum when I started out and mostly a sole parent – and by sole I mean more or less completely abandoned. There are many things I would do differently if I had my time over again; many poor decisions I would avoid making.
But the great weight I think just about all mums share is that of guilt. No matter if we’re perfect Tip Top mums or struggling mums, we all feel we’re somehow not good enough, that others are judging us, and that we’re screwing up our kids. Of course, it’s the way the job of mothering is marketed to us, too – if we constantly feel we’re under par, then we’ll be more likely to buy antiseptic handwash, multivitamins, breakfast cereals that lack basic nutrition, and all sorts of other rubbish we don’t need.
One thing I know I have always been very good at is being neurotic. Yes, I dressed my children in skivvies – and I tucked them in. Because, hey, when everything else is going to hell in a handbasket, at least you can’t be accused of complete slackness if your kid looks like a tiny Wiggle.
This approach was memorably sabotaged by one of my sons when, at the age of ten, he rebelled against the skivvy regime, demanding that he wear shorts and a t-shirt to school – in mid-winter. Indeed, in the snow. We argued and, balancing up the odds of him catching pneumonia against both my natural incompetence and the possibility of me harming him more by denying his otherwise benign expression of self, I agreed to lose the argument, on the proviso that adequate clothes were packed in the schoolbag. This didn’t stop his teacher from pulling me aside one afternoon, however, to ask me if I needed any assistance covering my child’s bare, blue legs. ‘Is everything all right at home?’ she gently enquired. If only she knew the half of it.
One thing I was never told by anyone – and this is horribly sad – was that I was in any way doing a good job. Single mums rarely get a pat on the back for anything, especially if, like me, they work two jobs: the mothering one, and the one that pays the mortgage. I got plenty of pity – at least I think that’s what those looks across the playground from other mums indicated – but pity is not particularly useful when what you really want is for someone to hold your hand. I longed to be told I was doing okay, that I was good enough. I craved some acknowledgement that the cakes I baked were made with love even if they weren’t expertly iced, and as time has rolled on, I’ve heard a lot of mums, and all kinds of mums, have felt the same way.
My kids have survived, and continue to sturdily cope with all my faults, but while one of my kids has never skipped a beat along his merry way, the other has often struggled. My struggler has broken my heart more times than I will ever be able to count, and my guilt where he is concerned has often seemed insurmountable. Once, when he was about thirteen, and I was begging him to try to understand how much I love him, he replied: ‘You’re just saying that because you have to – you’re my mother.’ Just the recollection smashes me all over again right now.
What do you do when your beautiful child is determined to reject the only golden good stuff you have to give? I didn’t know. But, by pure chance, around that time, while I was driving alone, I heard the parenting guru Michael Grose on the radio talking about raising teens, and he said words to the effect of, ‘Never underestimate the power of positive nagging. Keep telling them you love them. Keep telling them the truth, the same story over and over. Eventually, they will hear it.’
Ironically, I’d been Michael’s editor for a couple of books on parenting littlies years before, and I knew him to be a superlatively decent chap. These particular radio words of his struck right into me, though, like a line of light through the dark.
Sometimes I have told my truth to my boy quietly, sometimes I’ve shouted it insanely, but I have always stuck fast to telling him. Over and over again I have nagged out my desperate plea. And now, years on, as a man, he has finally heard it. Today, I can see in the brightness of his eyes and the warmth of his hug that he knows I am speaking the truth when I tell him I love him. When I tell him how precious he is to me, he believes me.
When you know you are loved, when you are told that you are good enough, all good things are possible. He’s not my struggling boy anymore.
It’s simple, really. Well, as simple as a victory of white-knuckled persistence over untold dread and despair ever is. And my joy at his manly shininess is the only pat on the back I need. Not that I would ever tell him this is an argument I won, though. No. I would never be quite that silly…