It is somewhat scary, not to say deeply worrying, that there are no tests for natural parent-hood and certainly scant preparation. If you want to foster or adopt there are hoops a-plenty to jump through. References, interviews, assessments and training are considered essential. But literally anyone can fall into parenthood. Indeed all the women I met in the maternity wards in the 60s had ‘fallen’ for the current and, presumably, for all their other off-spring. None had worked and saved and planned the most appropriate time. None had had any kind of screening for genetic or other contra-indications. Few had been to ante-natal classes and certainly husbands were not involved because they were not allowed in at the birth anyway.
Certainly my own pregnancy had taken us by surprise and I suppose the decision not to terminate was the first one we made for our older son. Our child was born into adequate financial security and housing that at the time was no doubt considered good – running hot water, central heating, roomy bathroom, bedroom of his own when the time came. He also had a brand new cot and pram, provided by loving grandparents and mounds of toys, not to mention a constant procession of fond friends, all with nothing to do but lavish attention on him. However although we were both professionals working with children, child development had not been included in our training. Neither of us had had close contact with tiny babies and we had little idea of what the future held.
What I did not appreciate was that it would mean a good deal of unstructured free time, regulated only by the needs of a small baby. But sadly what I felt was boredom and entrapment and the loss of adult company, not to mention the money and status brought by a developing career. I had to wait for early retirement to get the same amount of ‘me’ time again.
What no-one else was either aware of, or if they were would have been helpless to tackle, was a couple in no way ready for this responsibility. We were not secure in our own identities, and in my case not yet ready to give up a career, which was as yet in its own infancy. Post-natal depression was none the less real if it was not recognised in the mid-sixties.
The next positive choice we made for our first son was that he would benefit from having a brother or sister. I’m not sure that at two and a half years of age he would have agreed, especially when it set him on the path of sharing just about everything with a younger brother for the next sixteen years or so.
Fortunately they lived together quite amicably, with none of the overt sibling rivalry and loathsome squabbling we have seen in other young children either then or now.
The next major step was the choice of boarding school education. Looking back now I think that nine years of age was probably rather young for such an adventure to begin, but both seemed to weather it well. Ideally I would wish every child to benefit from the level of education and access to the opportunities which they both received. But, sometimes we have to make hard choices. Mine was that I could not secure this ideal for every child, but we could do so for ours and did so.
The decision was also in part based on seeing the dilemmas of friends who, once the road to exams had started, either remained trapped in jobs to allow the children to complete their various stages, or moved to chase personal professional promotion and disrupted the children’s learning.
Once set upon the boarding school path, our boys enjoyed that stability, wherever the family home was. This proved to be a good choice, which resulted in good degrees and worthwhile careers. They tell us that they do not regret us making that choice for them.
Now, as fond grandparents, we have the chance to do better many of the things where I think we failed earlier. We plan dedicated time for our grandson. We spend attention and energy which we did not have in the hurly burly of our lives when his father and uncle were small.
I have also finally learned that the world does not come to an end if the house is not cleaned before you do something fun with a child, and that a child is not damaged irreparably if you say ‘Yes’ rather than ‘No’ to a treat.
One thing which intrigues me is the number of our friends who tell us they have no hopes of being grandparents. Either their children have not married, or divorced without children, or married someone older with children already, or simply feel that ‘children would spoil their lives.’
Is it really that we ‘war babies’ and ‘flower power parents’ (as our younger son calls us) were such terrible parents, or is it that, as small children they actually absorbed the unspoken heartaches, resentments and dilemmas and simply want to avoid them for