What if we’re just not very good at being parents?
Horrible words, impossible words to say to Joey who had so much invested in being a good mother – in being a parenthood expert even. A gaggle of children around her feet, a series of girls’ books which only served to illustrate how well she understood the minds of youngsters everywhere, siblings who would happily entrust her with their own children for months – or even years! – at a time. Everyone knew Joey was the perfect mother. Everyone knew she and Jack were wonderful parents. No-one doubted it – except, perhaps, Jack.
If we’re so wonderful, how could we bring up a girl who acted as poorly as Margot did last term? Surely any decent parent would have squashed any bullying early on – how could she have got to a stage where she would have acted like that without us even noticing? And for heavens’ sake, what kind of father can’t make even an eight year old obey him?
“Cheer up, old man,” Jem took one look at Jack’s face as he came in, and gentled his voice a little. “Joey will be fine – you know she’s practically made of india-rubber the way she bounces back from these things. A few weeks rest wouldn’t hurt her, but she should be taking it anyway after birthing those two young monsters – I can’t think what you were thinking letting her go tramping around a cliff in the first place.”
“She insisted on it.” Jack’s voice sounded odd, even to himself, wooden. Joey was fine, but she might not have been. “Said she felt perfectly normal, and she’d had enough children by now to know when she was ready for a walk afterwards.”
“Sounds like Joey. I’ll get Madge to tell her just how stupid that was later. She really must learn to rest when told.” And Jack should have made her, they both knew. Joey had been foolish, but Jack was a doctor. He should have known enough to stop her. The reprimand hung unspoken in the air. “And that young fellow of yours has taken no harm other than a few bruises and a big scare. Give him a thrashing, have a stern word and then put him out of his misery. I doubt he’ll play such silly games again.”
Talk to Mike? Jack knew he should, he must, but the words he must speak refused to come to mind. “I can’t.” He shook his head helplessly after a minute. If he’d been a poor enough parent that Mike hadn’t listened in the first place then how could he find the words now to fix the situation.
Jem looked at him oddly. “The boy’s been naughty, but he’s sorry enough for it now.”
“I know.” Jack cleared his throat, trying to banish from his mind the picture of Mike falling. He might have been killed, Joey might have taken serious harm in her faint. They had come so close to disaster, and he had done nothing to prevent it. “I just.. I don’t know if I’d do if I spoke to him just now.” He might beat Mike bloody for the fright he had given them, he might clutch him to his chest and hug him until the boy had no breath left. Neither of those would be justice for a badly behaved eight year old, and he was certain that neither would qualify as good parenting.
Jem was quiet for a moment. “I understand. I felt the same way after Josette’s accident.” The disaster which hadn’t been prevented – and how could Jack have forgotten it? The terrible event of Sybil pulling a kettle of boiling water onto her younger sister, and the horrible wait afterwards to see whether Josette would recover fully. He remembered now, how Jem had acted, refusing to speak to his older daughter. At the time he had thought him cruel.
Maybe every parent felt like this at some time – certain that they should know what to do yet totally at sea as to what that action should be. After all, had they been a good parent in the first place the incident would never have occurred.
Jem wasn’t a man to show a great deal of physical affection or comfort but he patted Jack’s shoulder for a moment; a firm and reassuring gesture. “We’ll take Mike for a few weeks.” It was more a decision than a suggestion, and Jack was grateful for that. At this moment he didn’t feel capable of making decisions himself. “It’s not long until he goes back to school, is it? He can stay with us then go back to school from there.”
And maybe by the time the next holidays comes around, you’ll have remembered how to father him. Again the words went unspoken, but what could Jack do but agree to the suggestion? By next holiday, he would have had more than enough time to recover his calm. The incident would have been long-past, and he would be able to deal with his son again.
By next holiday, Jack was determined, he could be the father Mike deserved once more.