I love my chickens. Any hobby chicken-keeper will tell you that they are all so different, in character as well as appearance. There is friendship and altruism as well as rivalry. My two large fluffy orange Buff Orpingtons allow the little old black Pekin bantam to sleep between them, perched on the roof of the chicken coop like the filling in a sandwich. What I don’t enjoy is rat control. I hate having to kill animals. I tolerate the grey squirrels eating the chicken food as I can’t do much about it. The reappearance of rat runs, however, necessitates stuffing poison down the holes, then covering them carefully to prevent the chickens or wild birds eating the poison. I read that Lady Murial Dowding (wife of the WWII bomber command veteran, Sir Hugh Dowding), would talk to the rats, asking them to leave, which they did. Hugh Dowding observed them himself, streaming over the garden wall. I have tried something similar, but without success. And so both the nurturing and the poisoning continue.
OK, its not an exact analogy, but it did prompt musings on the balance between the enjoyment of just seeing the children live, and grow, and managing the negatives in our lives. What are the things that can and do jeopardise the generally positive relationships we try to nurture?
The trigger points include:
(1) Lying – they are brilliant at it. We can seldom tell who did what unless we find conclusive evidence. Who emptied the Pimms bottle? And the whisky? Well beer cans concealed in a room are a clue as to where the beer went. We don’t have a strong-room the kids can’t access to hide things in, and going tea-total isn’t an attractive option. When Billy was small I would perform a reality triangulation check (“we haven’t got any homework this week”, “Simon stole my blazer”, or whatever it might be) by asking “Would your teacher say the same thing if I asked her?” The usual response was, “No, please don’t say anything”. Jo has an imaginative take on the difference between fact and fantasy. We wouldn’t call it lying, more trying to make sense of the world by putting herself in a situation she has heard about. Since Billy dislocated his knee on the rugby field we have had years of her ‘bones popping out’, to which we nod sympathetically.
(2) Stealing – or helping yourself to what you need. Money disappearing from my purse or Tony’s wallet is pretty destructive of a relationship of trust. Finding your computer or phone charger has vanished is extremely annoying. They get through industrial quantities of earphones and headphones as their own never seem to work or are broken. All the jewellery I inherited disappeared, one or two broken bits turning up years later. We know it was Jo’s magpie tendencies but what happened to it remains a mystery. Even now she can’t or won’t say, other than that Billy suggested they could use the precious stones to decorate light sabres, Ben Ten rings, or whatever else their creative imaginations had dreamt up.
(3) Lack of empathy. It’s a funny one – they are not unaffectionate or completely uncaring, but have an inability, or reduced ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. This is common with children who have suffered early trauma. It’s a neurological rather than a moral failing, although the extent to which they are willing to learn and adjust may have an element of choice. Abraham Maslow talked about a hierarchy of needs. Towards the bottom of the triangle are survival needs such as food, shelter and security. One could add that receiving – as opposed to giving – love is the most basic need of all. Without it babies fail to thrive. I see that many versions of Maslow’s diagram on the Internet have inserted ‘Wifi’ at the base, signs of our times. Higher skills are only learnt when basic needs are met. Life in mid-teens for our two is still about learning to feel safe and not quite trusting that their needs will be met. Thinking of other people and how they might feel is hard. It just doesn’t come naturally. They can by loyal to friends. At Billy’s former school not telling on your mates seemed to be the number-one rule, although they shopped him quite happily, so he tended to take the rap for everyone else’s misdemeanours as well as his own. Being in with your mates is far more important to Billy’s survival than academic progress or adult approval.
Here are some positives, and they are many.
(1) Every negative has its flip-side. When they lie, and we have calmed down sufficiently to have a civilized conversation, we can use it as an excuse to talk about values and find out what’s going on in their lives. When Billy fixed up what looked like a drug-deal, under the guise of going to the cinema, we were able to have conversations that revealed how much he knew about drugs and how and where to obtain them. Frighteningly easy it seems, even without money. We could talk about the dangers of associating with ‘friends’ who give you things for free. We could make some new house-rules. All friends are welcome but with the caveat that we must be introduced to them, and that no drug-dealing is to go on from the house. It is their home but our house and we say who comes and goes. So far they have complied. There is a balance to be struck between freedom and boundaries. The latter are in place not because we hate them or don’t trust them (which we don’t), but because we love them and care about them. When we wouldn’t allow a school friend of Jo’s who came for the weekend meet a man she had met on Facebook her surprising response was “Your are the best parents ever!” Nice to have some endorsement.
(2) Stealing: I take this as an opportunity for spiritual advancement. Buddhism extols detachment from worldly goods, and Jesus seemed to think poverty was easier to handle than riches. When the things that are broken or disappear have sentimental rather than monetary value, I remind myself that we don’t take any of it to the grave and that the sentiments aren’t destroyed with the objects that embodied them. If money vanishes we do have conversations about trust. We have not yet called in the police, but in serious cases of theft or violence we would rely on the community police officers to put in a word of warning. We live in a consumer society and it is tempting to think that emotional needs can be filled by material objects. It’s a chance to remind the children as well as ourselves that just being together and enjoying each other’s company is what really makes us feel secure and happy. Jo was awake and ready to start her day at midnight, and invited me to watch a film with her, streamed from her iPad to the TV. It wasn’t really suitable for a 14 year-old, and raunchier than I would normally watch, but it was a comedy and we laughed and relaxed together. Precious moments.
(3) Empathy: I remember years ago watching a TV series about adoption. I was worried at the time by an adoptive mother, who was evidently quite needy, complaining that she didn’t think one of her adopted children loved her. It’s not about the children loving us but us loving them. We were lucky enough to be filled up with love as children and have some, hopefully plenty, to give to others. If their holes never get filled to the point that they can overflow in return, that’s their business, not ours. Parenting is not about being loved but about deep moments of connection, of making a positive difference to someone’s life. The sense of having love to give and not having children to give it to was emotionally far more painful and disturbing than the physical and emotional exhaustion of therapeutic adoptive parenting. Being a family of ‘strangers’, opens you up to others. The only members of our extended household who have a close genetic connection to another member are some of the chickens. And not many of them are actually close kin as I often get the hatching eggs from EBay, or buy pullets from a garden centre, so as not to have cockerels mating their mothers and sisters. A family doesn’t have to be mum and dad and two biological children in order to work as a family. We may be pretty dysfunctional at times, but it kind of works for us. To get back to the chicken analogy with which I started, we feel a bit like the orange chickens buffering the more vulnerable members of the family from the elements. That’s our privilege.