My daughter is doing her absolute best to send me to an institution. She revels in breaking my concentration, in pulling my focus, in distracting me in any way she can from whatever task I am feebly trying to complete. Even though she runs the risk of being on the receiving end of an apoplectic outburst on my part, she seems perfectly happy to gamble on the other possible outcome – laughter. If she succeeds in getting into that space where my nerves are deciding which fork in the road to take, incandescent rage to the right, abject surrender to her lunacy to the left, she is more often than not capable of swaying me, unpicking my pucker-faced frown one micro-muscle at a time until my smile breaks the rock of disapproval. Triumphant, she fans the flames of mirth until we are both reduced to a chuckling, giggling, laughing mess. She has my full attention. We are finally engaging on her terms.
The conditions are those of lockdown. Her school, along with all others in the country, is closed for at least another five weeks. We are approaching the end of our third week of home schooling, also known as emergency schooling and which I am thinking of dubbing ‘home in-sanitising’, such has been the accumulative impact on my sangfroid, my breezy can-do attitude, my façade of imperturbability. Any illusions I had of being a capable home taskmaster lie in ruins. To get through a single task on her curriculum without a protest or an argument or an aria of whines and moans, is a major victory. To have any period of time, however small, where I can see a mental pathway towards some semblance of organisation, is palpable bliss. To arrive at some sort of treaty where I feel I haven’t given away every last shred of credible authority, where I have retained a modicum of apparent power, is a morsel of sustenance to a dying prisoner.
I do not find fault in my daughter’s behaviour. She is simply being a seven-year-old who would rather play than work, who would rather see her father laugh than scowl, who would rather chaos than control. I get it. I share many of the same impulses. Which is probably what she instinctively recognises and tries to liberate in me. But, the work has to be done, or so I tell myself. A multitude of rationalisations come into play, all of which become tethered to the good parent/bad parent concept, and in my case most of which get framed in negative terms i.e. ‘If I don’t do this, then I am a bad parent.’
So, if I don’t build the day around her school requirements, I am a bad parent. If I don’t then look at and present every item on her timetable, I am a bad parent. If I don’t do all the activities, and sell the learning objectives, and extrapolate the lessons, I am a bad parent. If I don’t model the importance of education, I am setting her up to fail in life, and I am a bad parent. If I don’t stop myself from curdling the whole experience with my anger and impatience and insincerity, I am a really bad parent! And so on.
But I look at those internal responses and I see that they are conditions too. I am bringing a social, cultural and personal history to proceedings that colour how I view what ‘has to be done.’ I am allowing myself be dictated to by certain expectations laid out by society. Expectations that are arguably entrenched culturally in a country with a long, proud history of education and scholarship. And expectations that I have of myself as a father, and as a responsible parent and partner. And expectations that come from the particularly Digital Age flavour of modern capitalism and upward mobility – that go get ’em mode of self-starting, social networking, cross platforming, poly-branding, content-conquering self-promotion and hyper-productivity that tells us there are no obstacles to mega-commodifiable mega-functionality. Those expectations accuse me of laziness and procrastination. They ask me every day why I haven’t done more, written more, networked more, produced more.
An expectation I didn’t have was that my home would become a workplace or a classroom. And I am now realising that a big source of my current stress is that I am no longer understanding my home as a place of respite, as a haven of calm and harmony, as a natural repository of nurturing, mutually stimulating family life, as a hub of natural cut and thrust, of inevitable fracture and repair, of mundane, recognisable home life. No, I am now viewing the homeplace in terms of productivity and targets and KPIs. It is a place where progress reports are delivered at the end of the day. It is a place where I get paranoid about shirking responsibilities. It is a place where I am suddenly worried about office politics. It is a place where I crave the water cooler to have a bitch and a gripe.
I don’t believe this is what a home should be.
I have inadvertently brought work dynamics into a space where they simply don’t belong. In the process, I have lost sight of my surer instincts. I have stopped listening to my own guide for parenthood and also for self-management. I have allowed myself to become infected by the dehumanising ecologies of the modern workplace, where everything is quantified, recorded, measured, listed, complianced, bulleted, PD’d, PowerPointed, spreadsheeted, memoed, Survey Monkeyed, paper trailed, culpability-proofed, and all possible wiggleroom or notional autonomy is legislated for and against until the employee is not a person at all but a bag of indices and processes and sequences. But don’t forget to smile and love it and be your best self because the appearance of passion and 100% fulfilment is central to the charade.
Hmm, that probably qualifies as a rant.
The point I am trying to make is the larger conditioning of the world we find ourselves in, including our work and education spaces (always so inextricably linked), is inexpressibly persuasive and insidious. This remorseless period of pandemic anxiety and burgeoning populism, the rise of automation and digitisation, the disruption of social harmony and economic equity, it all makes its presence felt to one degree or another. We are bombarded with the 24-hour news cycle, relentless partisan advocacy, rampant promotion of products and points of view, and it is all kept afloat by the hum of mass subscription, of what is effectively universal surrender to the great conditioning machine of life.
It is a natural reaction.
But I think it is far healthier to look at how you can set your own terms. There are times you simply have to step out of the river and decide to watch it run by rather than letting it speed you passively to the edge of the waterfall, again.
For myself, even if it just an illusion, I want my terms to be my weapons of control.
I want them to dictate how I conduct myself in my relationships. I want them to help me negotiate my own career. I want them to set the tempo and timbre of my home life. I want them to be the clarifying forces that help me maintain my mental health and emotional stability. I want them to be the source of my love and trust, my confidence and generosity. I want them to serve me and those I care about most.
All contracts have terms and conditions. And many are non-negotiable. When it comes to life though, and your internal management – when it comes to that contract, I believe it is imperative that there’s room for manoeuvre. And who is going to negotiate your best terms, other than you? Who is going to write that charter, that manifesto, other than you? Who will defend it, uphold it, underscore it, other than you? Don’t you want that sense of purpose? That sense of clarity? Isn’t it desirable to say “These are the terms under/by/with which I meet the world.” You can choose your own adverb there. You may not want to be subject to your own terms. I feel they should be something empowering, born of conviction and tempered over long consideration of what is best for you. Above all, they should not be dictated by someone else. Don’t give away that power. You decide what is important to you. You decide how best to angle yourself in the world.
So, back to the ‘home’ classroom. Back to this moment in time. I accept the challenge of the current conditions. I own my combustible response to them. I accept the charges I’ve laid at my own feet. And I’m ready to reapply my own terms. Now if I can just find my daughter…