Friday, 12 July 2013

The Interference of Strangers

There are two ways to help someone with their child-rearing. You can offer advice or help when it’s needed, and if it’s rejected you can accept that. Or you can decide that your way is right and their way is wrong, and feel that righting that wrong is the most important thing. I have had a lot of help and advice from friends and family through pregnancy and all the years that followed. Sometimes I took it and sometimes I didn’t and they respected that.

One thing my friends and family don’t question is the way I dress and treat my children. I’ve brought all my boys up with long hair. I get rather sick of the gender expectations placed on children – the ranks of pink and blue clothing and toys; the constant either/or with no in between. Sometimes, because of their hair, people have thought my boys were girls. Angelic long blonde hair is instinctively perceived to be feminine, and mistakes are made.

What I find harder to deal with are the intrusive comments of strangers. ‘I think you need a haircut.’ ‘You should go to the barber.’ Sometimes this is just from people on the street. Sometimes from shop employees, who should really know better. My eldest’s grandparents were once told that he would grow up gay if they let him keep his hair long, which pulls two misconceptions together – one, that hair length is related to sexual orientation, and two, that it would be a bad thing if he were to be gay.

Then you get the other comments. Often my children don’t wear shoes – especially whilst in the pushchair. What’s the point of putting shoes on a child that isn’t walking? That one’s a constant draw of, ‘Your feet will get cold!’; ‘Ohh, where are your shoes?’; ‘Have you lost your shoes?’ When they’ve been seen holding a Sindy doll they get, ‘You’re a boy, you don’t want to be playing with a doll!’ And my husband has been told more that once, ‘don’t use long words like that, he won’t understand.’ (Being a man seems to draw more comments from old ladies on how you raise your children.)

There isn’t any way in which comments like that are helpful.

Most of these comments came when we lived in a larger seaside town, rife with pensioners and uneducated people, and I spent a lot of time wandering around the place with my children. They came in charity shops and Asda, mostly, whatever that may say about those places. Since moving to a rather smaller town and spending a lot less time wandering it doesn’t happen nearly so often. Now we live in a residential street and mostly encounter other people on the school run or in the playground.

Now the interference becomes far more closeted and sinister. Living in a nice residential street in a nice area seemed like a big step up from a flat in a big town. We have a front door that opens straight onto the garden. We have a sandpit and plants and a herb bed. We have our own walls and floors to do what we like with, and front and back gardens to enjoy. But we also have neighbours. We have some lovely neighbours, some neighbours we barely interact with, some neighbours we barely see. Having grown up with neighbours who all get on together and share ups and downs, and having lived in a flat with wonderful neighbours who felt like family – an adopted grandfather and an adopted sister – I find it a bit strange to live in a street where half the neighbours are almost invisible.

I’ve debated for a long time whether to blog about the issues we’ve had in our new home. I’m not sure if it’s advisable or not, but I think it needs saying. Other people may be suffering the same kind of problem. There are a lot of very nice people where we live, a lot of people who will help at the drop of a hat and are good friends. Then there are the others. The ones who like to say things behind their hands, to gossip and criticise without even an intention of helping. The sly comments and oblique criticisms of, it seems, anyone who is different. The drawback of living in a rather smaller community is that there seems to be an uneasy balance between the anonymity of a large place and the over-the-fence gossip of a small one. People seem to think they can comment on your life without commenting to you.

For two years we have been subjected to anonymous calls to the health authorities and council about how we live our lives. This sprung out of the fact that when Ben was born he was making noise in the night, and then spiralled out of control. Perhaps it was affected by the fact that I am very introverted and have trouble talking to friends, let alone mere acquaintances. Our poor health visitor has to call us apologetically and relate these things to us, in the full knowledge that we look after our children very well. Criticisms have ranged through shoelessness, unhygienic playspaces, noise, bullying at school, lack of outdoor activity, and playing on the windowsill. This person has accused us of cruelty to our dog, and gone as far as posting an anonymous newspaper clipping through the door while they knew we were away with highlights accusing us of laziness and animal cruelty. Of course we know who is doing this, and we have had the police involved, but it makes it no less pleasant to experience.

The craziness in all of this is that there is no neglect or cruelty; that any initial issues of noise were dealt with immediately; that my children are very healthy and very happy, as is our dog and both cats. They (the children, that is) are often praised for their politeness and consideration. They are doing well at school. We try to live our life in a way that doesn’t impact on other people, but I refuse to conform to convention just so that we look ‘right’ to other people. I won’t cut my lawn until I want it cut (I do love the lawn flowers and grass seed heads). I won’t cut my children’s hair because someone wants it short. I won’t force them to wear shoes if they don’t want to, or a coat if they don’t want to. They’re quite capable of telling when they’re too cold and asking for more on, just as I’m capable of judging if they need me to take over their decisions.

Why post this here? Since seeing another friend blog about a similar kindof anonymous interference, I think it’s important to get these things out in the open. How does one defend oneself against anonymity? I would say, be honest with the authorities. Speak openly with your doctor or health visitor. Trust them and let them trust you. Defend yourself where you can. Know that you’re better than that, that you’re doing fine, that your children are well looked after and perfectly happy. I reassure myself by thinking that no matter how mad I am (depressed, eccentric, sensitive), I am better than the kind of person who has to resort to anonymous harassment. If you’re a good parent, be proud of it.

As parents we’re forgetful and disorganised. We lose things. We get stressed and sometimes lose our tempers. But we do our best. Our children are not neglected, unhealthy, or unhappy. Temporarily bare feet, tangled hair, dirty hands and faces are a sign of enjoying the world. I will be proud of the fact that my children bring home reports that praise their kindness and pleasantness, that they are given awards for smiling and being a friend. I will be proud that they are intelligent and individual and that they are growing up healthy and happy. I will be proud that they love books and science and history and art. I will be proud of the fact that they will enter the adult world thinking for themselves, whatever they choose to be. If you are a good parent, you should be too.

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