We are experiencing a very bleak winter, despite it actually being spring. Paired with the fact that my children are at home for the Easter holidays – day upon day climbing upon me, the furniture and each other – these times are reminiscent of the darkest days of any winter, ever.
Will they end, I ask myself? I keep thinking, “We are beyond the middle. We are nearing the end of the middle, getting closer to the beginning of the end. The finish line will be summer, when we can all raise our arms like Mo Farah and say ‘Hurrah. We have made it, people. We have missed spring, but summer is promising to be the best of times. We’ll open up the doors, and the children will be free, and all of the dark feelings will rise up into the sweet hot air and disappear… until next winter.”
On Sunday the clocks changed, and something in the rhythm that had seemed so intransigent, so heavy, so stubborn, shifted too. Yes, the cold wind still whistled through the hefty gap in our front door, but the extra hour of light seemed to bring with it a certain hope that things were indeed going to brighten.
I sometimes think that the summer of my life existed in the few years that made up my early twenties – the period that coincided with early parenthood. My mother lived a short drive away, while I lived with my daughter, sister and best friend.
The set-up was so perfect that it felt like my very own version of ‘Friends’ had been commissioned. All I had dreamed about in my teens, and talked about with my best friend (“I hope we end up in a house together, and get stoned every night and eat dinner side by side on the sofa”) had in fact become a reality. So perfect, in fact, that it couldn’t last forever. To me, it felt like it might, and I didn’t want to tempt fate by thinking that one day it might not. But, unfortunately – yet not unsurprisingly – it did not.
We grew up, and quickly. My friend changed jobs and moved, my sister bought her own place with her boyfriend, and my new husband and I found our own house when our first baby together came along. My parents moved to a different country.
Flash forward a few years from this initial big shift, and my sister and her family now live in the US, my friend is working all over the world, and my mother is plotting her escape (having done her 10-year trial period) from my father’s idea of a rural paradise in Ireland. Everything has changed.
With the realisation that it is me that must move on, I have to change the way my life is working. Not least because I realise that my family, together, often doesn’t seem to work at present. It is sometimes a fait accompli that we have to do things together. But when there are options, I try to remind myself that it is better to try to do some things apart.
I was the middle child of five, with large age gaps in between my siblings on either side. While my older brothers sniffed glue and listened to The Dead Kennedys in their defunct 1960s bus that was parked outside our house, and my two younger siblings pedalled their plastic tractors up and down the garden path, I devised ways to seek attention.
Everybody seemed to have somebody: my mum had my dad; my older brothers had each other; and so did my younger brother and sister. I simply wanted to be part of somebody’s gang.
At first, I did things like hang upside down on the climbing frame for 10 minutes at a time, just to see how purple my head would turn. There’s a family video of me swinging like a monkey from the bars, screaming “Look at me! Look at me!” The camera focuses on my gangly limbs and beetroot head for a couple of seconds, but frankly, I am boring. My younger brother is riding a two-wheeler for the first time. The crowd (my mum, dad, aunt and uncle) cheer.
Soon my physical acrobatics turned to verbal ones. At ten, I had stored up a healthy vocabulary of controversial rude words. Who cared if I knew how to use them? The derogatory put-downs that would normally be directed at men seemed just as effective when used on my mother. Incidentally, my dad never asked how I was, so he was saved from being called a bitch.
My mother, the guilt-ridden parent, always seemed too caring, too concerned, too quick to ask how I was and what I was doing. Her questions were delivered with a real desire to connect. They could have been as innocuous as “How was French lesson today?” but unfairly, I always hated her simply for asking. I stared ahead, barely able to utter the words ‘fine’ through gritted teeth.
She may have asked how I was, but she couldn’t stick around to find out what was really going on in my world. Understandably she was always so busy with my other siblings. But I had no understanding of her life. I held her responsible for every bit of my frustration.
Anyone with a large, chaotic family who has grown up in a ‘normal’ environment ie not one governed by Rudolph Steiner or The Brady Bunch, will probably recognise the feeling, as a child, of not being anywhere near the top end of the favourite scale compared to your siblings. It’s just life, and I felt it for quite a few years, not helped by the fact that I behaved like a little shit for more than a decade.
My thoughts were: “If you and dad hadn’t been so sexually incontinent after you’d had me, then I would have been the third child. None of this middle business. My older brother would have had the pleasure, and he wouldn’t have been so badly hurt because he’s so out of it he’s numb to feeling anything, and also, he has a best friend in his older brother.”
Now I have a middle child, but he’s not a little gobshite like I was. He has taken on his role with heavenly grace, only occasionally riling the family with his refusal to eat anything that isn’t sausages and white bread. He is passive, mostly kind, easy to placate and – well, thank God.
I couldn’t cope with another child version of me. He’s also extremely suburban in his tastes, so anything that can’t be found within a two-mile radius of us (a path to scoot on, a shop that stocks custard creams, and a satellite dish to transmit Doctor Who on iPlayer) is not something he desires. Sometimes he amuses himself so well that I forget he is even in the house.
Either side of him are his rambunctious siblings. One is so hyperactive it takes a faulty winch and serious muscle to wind her down. The other, the youngest, is so wild that our friend told us one day, “Do you mind if I just call him Danger from now on?”
Sometimes, I look at the middle child and I want to scoop him up and take him to a quieter place, one where we don’t have to share it with such clamourous beasts. Unfortunately, his father usually beats me to it. But the other day, I thought “We’re going to escape to Brighton for the day, just like a mother and son version of Thelma and Louise.”
At the time, I was sitting in our living room dipping my feet into the dusty, tepid water of a Clairol foot-spa. My daughter had promised a pedicure, but her friend had knocked on the door so she disappeared before I could scream “I PAID YOU FOR THIS!” I was stranded, towel-less, with wrinkly feet and a bowl full of floating dead skin.
(Incidentally, have you ever wondered how many abandoned foot spas must be left outside houses on a yearly basis? Once used, they are boxed up never to be opened again. My kind cousin passed her one on to my daughter, the family hoarder.)
Anyway, there I was looking at the youngest child, sitting on the edge of his ‘swimming pool’ drinking the cloudy foot water with a straw he’d found on the floor. I sighed and sipped my half-price Co-op champagne, and thought “I could be enjoying this moment with the quietest of my children, had I not been so sexually incontinent. He would let me read fashion magazines from cover to cover. Hell, he would even tell me to take my time in the bath.”
I looked over at him, the quiet, easy-to-please one. I mouthed the words “We’re going away.”
The next day, we were in the car, taking it in turns to play our favourite songs. I had to endure Carly Rae Jepson (do all seven-year-old boys, the ones who don’t teef their ‘cool’ parents records, have such terrible taste in music?) In return for my generosity, he let me listen to The Manic’s ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ and Jeff Buckley’s ‘Lover, You should have come over’ on a loop. I was 18 again.
We had a great time, despite the winter refusing to budge. Somewhere inside me, however, the seasons had changed in one short day. I felt light once more, ready to move on and be brave and make changes.
It is up to me, I thought. I can make things different in this family if they are not working. I can’t change this God-awful spring weather, but I can take myself out of this gloom, and occasionally, if the family gets too much, whisk the quiet one away for a night and day. Winter won’t last forever.