What Is A Happy Childhood?
I met up with my Mum last week and we talked about my daughter, her tantrums and the best ways to deal with them. We talked about Christmas. We decided that this year we’re not going to bother spending loads of money. We talked about Mum’s eyesight which is rapidly getting worse. She has a giant blob in one eye and is almost blind. There isn’t anything I can do to make it go away. It is what it is. Anyway after all this, whilst my daughter slept peacefully (finally!) in the buggy, she turned to me with a serious expression.
‘Did you have a happy childhood?’ she asked.
I nodded vigorously.
‘Because I’ve been looking through the old photos. And you look happy.’
‘I was,’ I said, ‘There were a couple of things that happened that were awful but overall it was good.’
‘Are you sure?’ she said frowning.
And at this point I had a choice. I could either go through my ‘childhood grudge list’ in detail or leave it well alone. I’m in my early forties, I’m okay, I also realise how challenging being a parent is AND my Mum has this horrible blob in her eye. Anyway I don’t see the point in making her feel worse.
Truth be told if my childhood was a film it would be directed by Wes Anderson rather than Steven Spielberg. It would involve a lot of colourful characters in rainbow beanie hats and fur coats. The soundtrack would be The Smiths as interpreted by the Buena Vista Social Club. There would be moments where you’d get a proper belly laugh and then others where you’d cry really hard. It would include a lot of different locations – Canada, France, Nicaragua, Cuba and South Africa. The narrative would address the themes of Buddhism, feminism, mental illness, suicide, hippies, Marxism, bereavement, single parenthood, childhood obesity, bullying and more.
My parents divorced when I was five. I lived with one, then the other- then the one again. I was fat for a while because food was my main comfort. I was bullied at primary school. My Mum had pink hair, a nose stud and rode about on a moped with her Spare Rib diary sticking out of her bag. I wanted someone with a perm who smelt of lavender. As a teenager I went through a challenging phase and felt the world was conspiring to do me harm. I dropped out of school, joined a band in Amsterdam and lived a hedonistic lifestyle. I was very unhappy. I looked for someone to blame. Eventually in my mid twenties I realised that no one was going to create my life for me. I went to university. I got a job. It was awful. I got another one. It was better. I bought a flat. I moved through the life stages in a fairly conventional way.
Yet my childhood made me robust. It was unpredictable and strange. It gave me a sense of what’s real and what’s ‘fluff’. I lost my sister and Step-mum when I was fifteen. They both died together. The grief was bottomless. It is part of me now. I realised on a very basic level that people you love can be taken away. The crux of life is love.
My Mum’s question got me thinking about my daughter and her childhood. I have erred on providing stability. I have fretted continuously. I have tried to make things perfect. To provide a ‘happy childhood.’ To be more Spielberg than Wes Anderson. And to a certain extent I think kids need this. A story at night. The same bloody story every night. The rabbit with the chewed ear on their pillow. The pasta on the same plate with the same pattern. Life is very unpredictable, unfathomable – there’s a lot to take in. When you grow up anything can happen and you can lose everything. So providing these reliable touch-points early on is important. Most important of all is love.
I read this quote from the film Director Tim Burton:
‘You spend your whole life trying to find a certain simplicity that you had. It’s less about staying in childhood than keeping a certain spirit of seeing things in a different way.’
My childhood was all about adventure, novelty and new cultures. It was turbulent and weird. I spent a lot of time looking at adults and thinking they were bizarre. I was right- they were bizarre. It wasn’t always ‘happy’. There was atragedy that still makes me cry today. There were moments when happiness burst out of my insides. It was Wes Anderson rather than Steven Spielberg. I never got a Mum who smelt of lavender. I had to put up with a lot of loud Cuban music. My Dad had hair down to his knees. But most importantly my parents loved me. My Mum, Step-Dad and my Dad and Step-Mum. The modern complicated, unconventional family unit.
How do I know my Step-Mum loved me? Because she told me the weekend before she died. I will always remember the softness of her hand as we walked through the countryside that Sunday afternoon. I will always remember the delicate curve of my baby sister’s ear as she sat in her car seat and I clambered out of the car.
Looking back at it now that’s all that counts.