They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.

chryslerbuildingAs always, we’re moving through so many moments with each of our kids. On any given day there is no shortage of opportunities to practice, to decide who I want to be. Do I resort to screaming, which I hear is the new spanking?

Often I don’t know what to do, at least not at first. Especially if I’m worried about getting it right. Especially when I feel like their entire sense of self is riding on our every interaction.  Being convinced I’m going to fuck it up and it’s just a matter of how is no way to live. It reminds me of that Philip Larkin poem, a real classic.

This Be the Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

I could write up a little formula for Pearl’s squall-like meltdowns:


1. Let her know I’m available.
2. Physically stay out of her way.


1. Try to ‘”fix” it, whatever it is.
2. Get hooked.

She finds her way to me, to us. Words come, spoken shakily at first – you know that jagged intake of air after a child has been crying a lot? – with remnants of the rage that rocked her world minutes before.

She might say, “I didn’t want Aviva move my box where I was hiding my GUM!”

And then I might say, “Oh, you didn’t want Aviva to take your box?”

Tonight I actually suggested she speak to Aviva about it at our next Family Meeting. This acknowledgment of sisterly injustice seemed to satisfy her, enough so that pretty soon she was helping me sweep the kitchen.

Since we brought Pearl home from the hospital, two days after she arrived here from outer space, Aviva has been getting all up in her space. Today, Pearl was intently going after a red m & m, and Aviva took it right out from under. Later, Pearl was happily doing her dance moves and Aviva scooped up Pearl’s whole body. Pearl screams, Aviva ignores her, and I have to bite my tongue every time. As a little sister myself, I so want to leap to Pearl’s defense. But then she won’t get to defend herself, and nobody will learn anything.

Then there’s Aviva and all the ways I keep learning her. She writes notes. Can you guess who else used to write notes? The notes say things like this:






Greg is not the least bit rattled by Aviva’s written words. I am simultaneously moved and triggered by them. They remind me so much of myself as a child – hell, they remind me so much of myself right now. This makes me pause and consider  how “best” to respond, whether to, what the right answer is. I want her to feel honored, seen. I am sensitive on this issue and can easily start questioning myself – am I overreacting or underreacting or neither of these? Self-awareness is one thing, but there’s also something called the paralysis of analysis. Too much thinking.

So tonight, I just asked her. Greg was out with Pearl picking up a challah at Stone Soup. I went up to Aviva’s room, where she was curled up in a little ball on her bed in her penguin feet pajamas, her head buried under the pillow. I sat down on the bed. I felt like this is what a Good Mom does, she sits down on the bed, all ears.

I asked her how things would look if we treated her like our own daughter. She said then we wouldn’t pile her clothes up on the dresser. This led to a completely fruitless conversation about the piles of clothes in her room. We didn’t really get anywhere. I came back downstairs.

OK. I started this post 24 hours ago, which when in comes to the daily machinations of everyday life, renders it obsolete. I don’t even want to bother recounting the rest of the evening, because the fact is, it went fine. We wrote thank you notes and lit candles and ate and played some music and went to bed. It was a million years ago. Today, like every day, is brand new.

Pearl woke up with a fever and we canceled all of our plans. Greg’s on kid duty up the street with Aviva and the neighbor kids, whose parents both had to work. I’m drinking my second cup of coffee and debating a third. Pearl is snuggled up next to me watching “Annie,” but the Motrin has kicked in, she has perked up, and now she’s patiently waiting for me to get up and make cookies with her. She wants my undivided attention. As a wise mama has said, “Attention is love.”

Instead of worrying multiple times a day about whether I’m getting this mama thing “right,” it helps to remember that my kids are growing towards the light and my job is essentially to water them, and that in a way, the watering just happens when I’m really here, paying attention. When I turn off my computer, it’s surprisingly hard to fuck that up. (It’s also hard to fuck up any recipe that calls for two sticks of butter!)

And then there’s Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan: And if this floor don’t shiiiine like the top of the Chrysler building, your backsides will. Apparently she didn’t read that Times article.

9 thoughts on “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.

  1. Lisa Madden says:

    Great post. When I was “young” and I say it quote/unquote because I am not “old,” (haha) the one thing that would keep me awake at night was if I hadn’t read a book to my daughter before she went to sleep. This didn’t happen often; but if for some reason I recalled as I lay in bed and recounted my (full as hell) day and realized that I hadn’t read her a book, I was besieged by guilt. Completely overwhelmed. It would stick with me for days. I was a parental failure of the greatest magnitude.

    Add one more child; two years later add another. Read a book to each of them? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. They are all who they are because I read my oldest a book nearly every night, just barely read my second a book and my third was lucky if he had a book nearby to chew on. Literally.

    Do we as parents screw them up? Well, that is one perception. Or do we as parents give them older siblings to enjoy (and younger ones as well) so that they can forge bonds and relationships with those people that will be with them longer than we will?

    I see my father in my younger brother; I see my mother in my younger sister. Did these two people take parts of my parents away from me when they were born? Absolutely. But they are constant reminders of people I love, and I love them too.

    I think it is win/win!


    • Jena Strong says:

      Beautiful description, Lisa. Your comment could very well take the place of this entire post. It’s so true – the sibling relationship is so formative. We put so much on ourselves as parents! But I look at how I became myself, and my sisters are smack dab in the middle of those stories, as well as of my life today.


  2. rowena says:

    I’m feeling this. Yes. From the poem to the stupid Times article to the older kid saying (no notes yet) that nobody likes him, usually when asked to do something he does not want to do.

    I’m just going to have to do the best I can as a person in transformation and as a mom. I’m just to have to fuck up my kids in my own personal manner and then… well, help them get over me, make them as strong as possible so they can fight their own demons.

    I don’t think there’s a way to keep the demons from arising.


  3. Melissa Hathaway says:

    Stopped by and just HAD to read this post—so glad I did!

    I just tell Reid he needs to learn how to write real soon so he can start keeping that journal of all the mess I am making of his life…this of course he can take to therapy when he is an adult and save some time & money (eventually he’ll thank me for that :)!

    Thanks for the window into your life and the mirror to view mine!



Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s