These days I find I’m getting a lot of useful parenting advice from poems like The Prophet and Desiderata; poems I grew up seeing badly framed and hanging in everybody’s guest bathroom. Who knew that one day I’d honestly find them more helpful than most parenting books?
And why? Well, take the example of the latest parenting book that I read. I can’t remember the title but the author is a big proponent of something called ‘Authoritative Parenting’ (not to be confused with the more heavy-handed Authoritarian style, or it’s opposite, the I’ve Completely Bloody Given Up Because Nobody Listens to Me Anyway style). Authoritative parents are loving, nurturing and responsive to their children, but they take no crap; they can be trusted to steer their offspring towards their best possible futures, with a firm hand and a courageous heart. It’s very positive, very motivating, very Captain of Your Own Destiny stuff. So why, you may ask, would someone turn away from this, in favour of inspirational poetry from the 1920s?
Well, I’ll tell you why. It’s because according to The Prophet and Desiderata a) nothing my children do is my fault and b) it’s all going to turn out fine in the end, no matter what else happens. Obviously, these ideas are balm to my neurotic and self-flagellating soul.
I’ve never needed these reassurances quite as badly as I did this last week, when the smaller child had her school concert. Regular readers of this column (my mom; my brother; my husband, sometimes), may remember me writing about a similar concert this time last year, when the child was some sort of bug, and wasn’t entirely engaged with her role. Well, this year, things have changed. It may be that she’s a year older. It may be that this time she got to wear a gold dress and glitter, rather than antennae and fake legs. I don’t know. But this year she took things very seriously: she practised her routines for weeks, and was very excited about the dress rehearsal, which was put on for the school the day before the actual concert.
‘She was great,’ her big sister reported back that afternoon. ‘She remembered her dance steps, and all the song words.’
‘And her dress looked amazing.’
‘But then, right at the end she lifted it over her head and the whole school saw her knickers.’
‘What?’ I cried, aghast. This has happened so many times that I don’t know why I even bother being aghast anymore, but I feel I should make the effort.
‘Darling, please,’ I begged the little flasher. ‘Keep your dress down tomorrow. They’ll be filming.’
‘Okay,’ she assured me, cheerfully.
‘Your dress. Tomorrow. Keep it down!’ I reminded her again that evening.
I even whispered it in her ear as she slept, in the hope that it might penetrate her brain that way. ‘Do not bring disgrace upon your family or your motherland. Your dress … keep it down.’
But the next day as I sat in the darkened auditorium, watching the world’s most clothing-averse child standing there onstage, fiddling with her hemline and blinking up into the bright lights, the only thing that brought me any comfort was reciting Khalil Gibran:
‘She belongs not to me,’ I paraphrased, ‘ I may give her my love but not my thoughts, for she has her own thoughts. Please keep your dress down.’ (Of course Gibran didn’t say that last bit. That was me, and I know it adds nothing to the poem, but I couldn’t help it.)
Is it a terrible thing to admit that your children sometimes shame you? Hah! Show me the parent who has never been embarrassed by their offspring and I’ll show you a child who has never raced, naked and cackling loudly, through a snow-filled parking lot into an upmarket garden centre.
‘She’s not my daughter,’ I explained to startled onlookers, as I corralled my little nudist and bundled her back into the car. ‘She’s actually the daughter of Life’s longing for itself.’
But they didn’t seem to care whose daughter she was, as long as someone got her out of there.
Anyway, The Prophet has assuaged a lot of parental anxiety by telling me to just relax, it’ll be fine. (Of course, ‘Just relax, it’ll be fine’ must be said in prose poetry, by a prose poet. My husband says the same thing all the time but that just makes me cross.)
And the bigger child? Well, she has presented different challenges. For her, Desiderata has aided me best, especially in those tense moments before leaving the house, when the child would come downstairs and show me the outfit that she’d spent so long – hours! – putting together.
‘She is a child of the Universe,’ I’d tell myself, forcing a smile. ‘No less than the trees and the stars.’
If only the Universe had been a responsible parent. But the Universe just smiled benignly upon her and left the dirty work up to me.
So I was the one to explain why a person cannot go to the shops wearing a swimming ring as a skirt. Or wrapped in a bath towel. Or dressed in the bedlinen.
‘You’re not going out wearing a pillowcase,’ I was forced to say, once. ‘Get back inside!’
‘I’m a mermaid,’ she informed me, waddling to the car as fast as she could. ‘This is my tail!’
Her eccentric dress-sense has even drawn comment from her father, which is quite a feat. Normally, he neither notices nor cares what anyone is wearing. But one sunny day a few years ago, as we promenaded along the Morges waterfront, he suddenly squinted at his firstborn, who was skipping along ahead of us in her favourite candy-striped three-quarter pants, a purple polka-dot shirt and silver high-tops, and observed to me that she was one dancing poodle short of qualifying for a circus job.
‘I think its the little umbrella that really does it,’ he said. ‘Why is she balancing it on her head?’
‘She’s not balancing it. She’s wearing it. The handle is tucked into her ponytail.’
‘We have to do something.’
‘Whether or not it is clear to you,’ I said, invoking Max Ehrmann’s deathless words, ‘no doubt the Universe is unfolding as it should.’
‘The Universe must be blind.’
Perhaps. But the audience at the school play was not, and few could have missed the moment, seconds before everyone left the stage, when the child couldn’t contain herself a moment longer, and flung her skirt over her head.
It was fine, though. Because, the night before, as well as programming the child neuro-linguistically and reciting verse to myself, I had also found the time to dig around in the clean laundry pile, and unearthed the most modest, bloomer-like knickers that the child owns. She might as well have been flashing a pair of board shorts to the world.
Yes, the poetic may inspire you to reach for the stars; but it’s the prosaic that will make sure your butt is covered while you do it.