Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels (name that tune) last week, random flashbacks of scenes from Boyhood continued to pop up in my head like the last surviving bubbles in a dead drink.
Studying my teenage nephew during a visit home, I tried conjuring up early versions of him but couldn’t replace his face with anything other than the present tense. His voice in the key of deepening monosyllabic disgruntlement; his side profile a shadow of his Dad’s.
In the adjoining room, a montage of family photos captures him grinning as a boy blowing out various configurations of birthday candles. His growth is almost imperceptible with each passing year until it becomes a challenge to reconcile the young person towering over his grandparents with the toddler stepping out from his tractor; one not unlike our own with their shared severe fringes and the absence of self-consciousness.
As impossible as it is to interact with him as anything other than the young adult he is, the inevitability of our little one eventually crossing that threshold into burgeoning independence is an unimaginable given. In the way it’s difficult to recall her as a baby; guesses at sketches of her future-self are fleeting sleet showers that never lie long enough.
Back then, what mattered most was converting the kitchen into a science lab for the sterilisation of various feeding paraphernalia with all the diligence of surgical staff scrubbing in. The scrupulousness extended to the stairs by taking ten minutes to climb them to avoid detonating creaks that risked waking her up as she slept through the neighbour’s pneumatic drilling; or berating each other for slipping out of whispering as she slept with the TV on.
I can’t remember if my nephew was breastfed; or if his mother wore him on her. Baby-led weaning was a term not yet invented despite it describing a practice around forever. I know his mother was entitled to three months state maternity pay only, so some things were different. No doubt calculators were brought into late-night discussions on childcare options to determine bottom lines. That for every there-and-then, there was a next-short-while, and a long-haul to be weighed up and balanced.
One of the many triumphs of Boyhood is its resistance to clichéd cinematic drama. Not a whole lot happens other than the spinning of family life on the axis of time that rushes under the wheels at a terrifying rate that goes unnoticed until it’s too late to notice. A series of moments revealing its members trying on the best version of themselves in their efforts to find one that fits. A string of here-and-nows, and as many long-hauls that suddenly show up as next short-whiles. The essence of life, essentially.
Our here-and-now is much like any other family from a similar demographic contending with modern life with all its attendant worries and woes that don’t need repeating here. It’s invested with the same sense of urgency and importance every waking phase of life radiates when you’re in it. For now, there is a lot of early year parenting going down. The merits of the various local pre-schools are currently occupying our chin-strokes. There will come a time when none of it will matter as it does now, if it ever will to the extent we fear, or should fear. But it seems important right now.
Looking around, empathy is the grown-up version of everyone holding hands as they strive to keep the show on the road. Relief ripples out when an exasperated parent braves the letter page in the national press to say it like it is, and occasionally a phrase will take on a life of its own to become a sound-bite that’s meant as short-hand for the commonly understood experience and corresponding crusade for fairness.
“Raised in childcare” has been doing the rounds lately. It has been circling my head, too. For all the sympathy I have for those who agonise over childcare, and the frustrations I relate to concerning the balancing act of work and child-rearing, I’m personally relieved to report that the full-time carers of our child are not raising her.
They are the same exploited, over-worked, underpaid, women enabling many families to just about break even. The carefully selected cherished minders whose responsibilities far exceed the dismal recognition and acknowledgement they receive by the state or in their wage-slip. The women depended on for their undervalued love of children and integrity in maintaining their care and well-being for a sizeable chunk of pre-school life before the baton is passed on to the state.
State educators will no more raise our child than her child-minder before them. Their collective responsibilities and potential impact are immense, but her fundamental sense of worth, her early values, norms, attitudes, rights, responsibilities, and sense of self, will be shaped predominantly by her home environment, as only they can be. Educators and child psychologists are unanimous in recognising this.
The disappointment many parents feel at how family life has panned out next to their expectations is recognisable. The gnawing sense of feeling undermined by the state and the market place, and the inability to direct family life according to a reasonable yet dearly-held script is understood by many. And of course, the concern is played out against the importance of the first five years of a child’s life broadcast on loop as though it is the beginning and end of child-rearing.
When the time comes for us to look back through all the birthday candles hopefully extinguished by our one, it will not be the child-minders or teachers we’ll be directing the hardest questions about her rearing to.
Raising a child as we both understand it: a marathon task involving a long haul battle with ourselves to maintain perspective in the here-and-now. A series of moments whizzing by.