Friday, 1 July 2011

The Life Your Parents Forgot

Back in 1992, when I was a mere 24, I attended a wedding back in my home town.  Two of my friends who had been dating since they were at school had decided to get married.  I am a big fan of weddings and went to at least one per year 1991-2002.  Anyway, it was also a good opportunity for meet up with other old friends; I was living in Oxford at the time and saw those who had remained in the town where I grew up, only occasionally.  I agreed to walk to the church which was only 3.2 Km from my parents' house with another friend of mine.  It was a bright sunny day and we intended to drink, as it was neither of us had a car anyway.  He and his brother lived with their parents, this being Surrey where rental accommodation is rare and house and rent prices are well beyond the means of young men doing ordinary jobs (he was a computer programmer; his brother worked in metallurgy).  My friend's brother, who was two years younger than us, decided that walking would take too long and he would cycle.  Whilst it is against the law to be drunk while cycling, you tend to get away with it much more and can stick to back routes where you are unlikely to encounter the police.  In addition, I am not aware of any drunken cyclists killing anyone, unlike even sober car drivers tend to do pretty regularly.  If you are that drunk you tend to fall off the bicycle and end up doing more harm to yourself than others. 

What struck me was the how alarmed my friend's mother was about us going to the wedding on foot and by bicycle.  It was in the middle of the sunny day, in suburban Surrey, not really a scenario that you feel has a high level of risk.  We were going to a wedding rather than a bare-knuckle boxing match and yet she seemed to believe that we would necessarily come to harm and tried to persuade her two sons to not attend.  They had known the groom since early childhood, yet she seemed to weigh her concern about their welfare above any thought of manners.  Both the men decided to go against their mother's wishes.  Of course, we all got there safely and had a very nice day all round.  We drank at the reception but no-one was incapacitated and we came home by taxi and bicycle.

That incident was a minor if peculiar one.  What I did not really take on at the time was what it signalled about how parents handle their adult children.  At 24, I have been a writer with a growing reputation; I could have been the ticket man at Fulham Broadway Station; I could have been in the Army, being shot at in Iraq; I could have been in prison; I could have had a wife and children of my own; I could have been running a business; I could have owned a house.  Okay, so I had not done any of these things.  I was, however, training to be a teacher, which suggested that the state, a school and numerous parents saw me as sufficiently adult to teach a class of pupils, up to 18 years of age.  I was fortunate that after I started the course, I only had to spend another few weeks when looking for a flat in London, living with my parents, so, perhaps I escaped being treated like my friend and his brother, somehow as if we were frozen at the age of 15 forever more. 

Part of the problem in the UK is that accommodation is so expensive.  When you have businesspeople looking for rooms to rent as lodgers in houses, how can a young person working in a shop or a call centre able to get even space in a shared house.  The only answer is parents.  This is why the average age for people leaving home in the UK is now 36, an age when back in the 1960s you would have been expected not only to have your own place (rented or otherwise) but also a wife and children, and be on the verge of middle age.

I think the attitude of parents to their adult children is not only shaped by the economic necessities of trying to live in the UK.  We live in a far more juvenilised society than even the 1990s, let alone the 1960s.  People seem unwilling to take responsibility for any of their actions and baulk against anyone limiting what they do; the speeding issue is a case in point, huge credit card bills is another.  Thus, parents who grew up in an earlier era (and remember someone born in 1981 is now 30), when people had to take more responsibility for their actions see their children ill-equipped.  However, ironically, that is because we have all been hammered by media pressure to protect our children for the apparently ominpresent threats out there.  By fearing all that might happen to our children we actually make them unable to cope when anything out of the ordinary, let alone genuinely dangerous occurs to them.  In addition, by padding them from the hazards of the world, we give them a false illusion that they face no risks and that driving dangerously or spending without thought will never have any serious consequences, or certainly not ones that the parents cannot resolve.

Naturally, I am sure, many children like the extension of the adult safety net.  This approach can be condemned as being a middle class attitude, but you only have to meet with families in poor parts of London or any other city to see, in fact, even among those on the minimum wage and on benefits this attitude of trying to insulate adult children from the world persists.  I have seen parents divide up their own bedrooms so their grown up children can continue to live in the house.  I have seen women go round to the houses of their daughters' boyfriends and shout at them from the street to stay away, often as a result of cross-racial relationships.  You might argue that the motive here is that the poorer population know how really hard life can be; the middle classes just want to protect their children against the potential of having a hard life.  The motives may vary, but the outcome is pretty much the same: treating adult children as if they were frozen in their teenaged years.

I suppose it is natural to perceive family members at a certain fixed position.  You do not see your parents as they age.  You see them everyday when they are growing up and these days when middle age seems to start when you are sixty, and people in their forties wear teenage fashions, your parents look much the same from 30 to 50 and sometimes beyond; my parents in their 70s look better than they did 20 years ago, the pressures of work having been shed from them.  It is the same with your grandparents you tend to fix them at a certain age and forever remember them as that and it can be a shock to realise as an adult that they are 25 years older than when you first knew them.  The trouble comes when we associate certain modes of behaviour with the age we have fixed our family member at.  It can be hard as your parents' faculties begin to fade as they age because you probably still default to thinking of them how they were at 45 rather than 75.  You are usually quickly brought back to reality when you see them again; it can be sad, but you generally adapt and begin quite easily to treat your parents the way you used to treat your grandparents.

The problem is that they too have frozen you in time.  In my experience they tend to think you are somewhere between 15-17.  You look like an adult to them, but they know that in fact you are very inexperienced of the world and are likely to make mistakes.  You have to be warned about these things.  Whilst you may resemble an adult, in their eyes, in fact you lack the ability to make adult judgements and you will make lots of mistakes.  You can be talked to as if you have no knowledge or expertise or experience of the world, no matter how high-flying a post you might hold (especially if it is an industry your parents disapprove of or never felt was right for you) or how many lovers you might have.  I must say, that in fact, this perception is not limited to parents.  Back in 2002, my brother and I got into an argument in a Belgian street.  He started bellowing at me about incidents that had occurred when I was 15 and he was 13, i.e. back in 1982.  Since then the Cold War has ended, AIDS has been a global problem, apartheid has ended in South Africa, home computers had grown from 48k to many Mb capacity, we had been through years of Thatcher and Blair, and yet, he still saw the tensions between us as they had been as teenagers.

Maybe I am unlucky, I do seem to meet people who whilst not having shining careers themselves are surprised that everyone else is not more successful and again blame laziness.  I had one friend who could not understand why I was not studying Korean (he would allow me to learn Japanese at a pinch) and was not making thousands of pounds writing history articles for magazines.  He had no understanding that these things do not happen.  The number of Britons who can understand Korean must be very limited and even those who are successful at article writing (and they are a select band who get lucky breaks) never earn the sums he assumed.  He took his assumptions to be the truth, so any argument against him just showed up how cunningly lazy you were, trying to get out of easy ways to make money.  It is people like this who must have been the witchfinders of previous centuries.

As you can guess, at 43, I am still facing the 'frozen in time' kind of attitude from both my brother and my parents.  It has been exacerbated by me being unemployed for 12 months.  Despite decades of mass unemployment, the default attitude for British people is that being unemployed is the fault of the jobless person; the economy and the attitudes of employers have nothing to do with it.  If only the jobless person applies him/herself, then they will not be without work. 

Being unemployed seems to give everyone a licence to tell you how to live your life, not least your parents.  However, the advice is not restricted to job hunting.  I have a girlfriend, she is the same race as me and the same religion.  She is aged 5 years younger than me.  She has a child that is not mine.  She is not an alcoholic, she is not a drug addict, she is not involved in any criminal activity, she is not violent, she runs her own retail business.  However, the attitudes of my father and brother towards her are as if she was stealing from me on a daily basis or plunging me in crime.  I cannot stand people who stop members of their family linking up with people of a different race or religion, though I can understand the basis of their disapproval.  Yet, in my case, there is not even this excuse.  I could understand even if she was 20 years younger than me or 20 years older, but we seem to be very well matched, and vitally, makes me happy. 

What gives parents and other family members the right to police the relationships that other adults in their family have?  I would be frustrated if I had been 16 or 18 and was told I should not be seeing someone I was attracted to, let alone one I loved and who loves me back, and treats me incredibly well.  How come, in our 30s and 40s, we cannot be left alone to form the relationships we want and maintain them, especially when they are as positive as the one I am in at present?  I am now old enough to have potentially had grandchildren myself and yet I am treated by my family as if I am still not mature enough to run my life.  I think it is somewhat an issue of discrimination against particular members of the family.  As it took me many years before I had sex and did not keep my family informed about every short-term relationship I had; because my girlfriend had a child by a man who fled the country once it was conceived, both of us have been branded by our families as feckless and incapable of making our own decisions.  This seems ironic considering that I have managed offices controlling thousands of pounds and my girlfriend runs her own business.  Yet, clearly this is not enough to warrant us being treated like adults. 

If these people were not family members I would have told them to back off very harshly and in fact, as it is, the persistence of my father and brother in trying to keep running my life has led me to break ties with them both.  The picking on one member of a family seems common.  My girlfriend has two sisters, one of whom is also a single parent.  I have my brother who does not get treated the way I do, despite the fact for many years he settled to no career and spent months travelling, getting drunk and stoned, but now somehow is allowed to be an adult when I am not. 

One friend of mine when living at home in his 20s was compelled to do the ironing and other domestic chores that his brother, only two years younger, was not compelled to do.  His brother, having attended university was deemed to be above those things, yet has flitted from job to job, entered a marriage in which the woman two-timed him even moving her lover into their house and drained him of money before emigrating with yet another lover.  It appears that some of us are marked out as 'black sheep' for our entire lives, on criteria which, objectively, would not suggest such labelling.  It means that no matter how old we become we are never free of being treated as if we are incapable of running our lives without active family intervention.  If I was an alcoholic, a drug addict, regularly in prison, then I could understand it.  My own crimes have been being unemployed and falling in love with a single mother.

I had a friend who married in the late 1990s to a stunningly intelligent and beautiful woman.  He was well-educated and had movie star looks.  They shared a love of travelling to remote places and living adventurously.  However, both had very good university jobs, were healthy, of the same age and were not involved in crime or addicted to drugs or alcohol.  They seemed very well suited.  Yet, from the start her parents disapproved of him and hounded the couple so much that they fled the UK for Belgium.  Ultimately the pressure was such that they divorced.  To me, given how rare happiness is in this world, to drive a couple that way seemed evil.  Alright, there may have been a personality clash, but once your child is an adult you have to accept their choices.  Destroying something that brings them happiness without harm, is perverse.  However, I guess that these parents are not only frozen in time but also cannot see beyond their own petty concerns.

I have no idea who sets the rules.  I have had one male friend who has been physically abused by one girlfriend and robbed from by another; I have one female friend who is always publicly disparaged by her husband, and yet no-one ever seems to speak out or criticise what is going on with them.  Clearly myself and my girlfriend are in some category which allows people to tell us how to live our lives.  Before coming to visit us, her father told her bluntly that she had to leave me.  There was no reason given.  I accept I am unemployed, but then are hundreds of thousands of men in the UK.  I worked hard to try to get a job and having been to 28 interviews in 12 months, I finally secured work.  It may not be the greatest job I could have got, it pays £7000 per year less than I received in my last post, but it is permanent, it uses my skills and those things are not to be ignored in the current economic climate.

I have never attacked my girlfriend (I have never attacked anyone) and am like a father to her child.  We argue far less than is the apparent national average despite me spending the bulk of the day with her.  I am not a drug addict, an alcoholic or a criminal.  I do all that I can to make her and her child happy.  Yet, it is not enough, she has been told repeatedly to leave me as I have been told repeatedly to leave her.  There is no sense that I am an adult, that I can make my own decisions, make my own mistakes indeed, and live with the consequences.  I cannot predict the future.  Looking back there was little I could have done to spare myself from redundancy.  Yet, somehow, I am expected to have prescient powers that would have allowed me in the 1980s to know what careers and which employers within those careers would be safe bets in the 2000s.

Remaining with my girlfriend then opens me up to further charges (and she has experienced very similar on her side from her father), that I am naive, that I have no idea what I am doing and need to be guided.  Mistakes dating back decades are raked up for both of us.  For me it is joblessness, for her it is having a child as a single parent, that seem to be the clinchers, the things that rule out us being able to shape our lives properly or to make decisions.  I am not even permitted to say I am going for a test for Asperger's (let alone doing it) without being ridiculed at length by my father. 

I am a man, I have run offices, I have made financial decisions, I am trusted by the state to drive on the roads, to vote, to pay taxes, to obey the law, yet I am not deemed capable of taking decisions on my own health and above all on my own relationships.  My girlfriend and I have been utterly loyal to each other, we have had no other sexual partners since being together and yet our parents see the other as being reckless and bad for their child.  If they knew how hard it is to find someone who you are compatible with, I would hope that they would be pleased for us that we have managed to find someone who makes us happy.  Even if my girlfriend had all those bad characteristics, it would be up to me and her to decide whether the relationship should continue. 

We have been facing so much anyway, that I would just beg for her and my family members, if they cannot tolerate the partner we have chosen, just to stay quiet.  If you cannot say something nice, say nothing at all is what I would say.  However, any attempt to get them to back off elicits even more patronising criticism from both sides that even at ages 43 and 38, we are not capable of making our own choices and have to have parental intervention to show us where we have gone so wrong.

Parenting is not about ensuring that your children live their lives very precisely the way you have set out, even if that was possible (and, of course, parents, whatever they might think, are fallible; my father lent me money so I did not have to pull out of the house purchase and now says, three years on, that that was a big mistake on his part and I should have continued renting).  Parenting is about equipping your children to deal with the world out there and what it might throw at them.  Yes, you will act as a fall back, a safety net as far as you can, for many years.  However, once your child is an adult you have to recognise that the state views them sufficiently mature to do all the things like vote, have sex, die for their country, go to prison, whatever and live with the consequences.  You may disagree with how they live their lives, but if they are happy and are not making other people unhappy, it is not your place to intervene. 

You can never control another person's life, even your partner's and to try to do so ends in bitterness and failure.  As a result of my brother and father and my girlfriend's father constantly haranguing us to end the relationship, we feel large chunks of our families have turned their back on us. 

Men take it harder than women which is why I have ceased contact with my brother and father over their repeated criticism of my relationship.  Ironically, my girlfriend keeps trying to get me to make it up with them.  However, being an Asperger's sufferer (however much my father denies it), I remember all the insults and shouting as if it occurred hours rather than weeks and months ago, so it makes it that much harder to move beyond.  In addition, all the signs are any attempt to re-establish contact from my side will be seen as me admitting I was wrong and apparently giving them the green light to harangue me further in an attempt to direct my life in every aspect.  To accept that is to give up any standing as an adult and to accept the view that I am incapable of living my own life and making my own decisions.  I do not know what their motives are but clearly they seem to be very far from any kind of love.  For practical reasons, I have to maintain contact with my father, but unfortunately it comes at a high price. However, I have no such connection with my brother and I anticipate that the last time I will see him is at my father's funeral.  

1 comment:

Charlene said...

I left home at 18 a month after finishing high school and went to Louisville where I still live. I got an apartment with two other girls splitting the rent. I was working part time for $1.65 an hour US and going to school. That's how it was till I married.

I would have worked two jobs to get away from home. It was ust necessary to get the chance to be an adult. If I'd have lived with my mom in our small town I'd not have a world view and know I would never have felt happy or successful.