25 November 2021

Slowly at first, if you can

In the video call with Mia's teacher last week, there was an impromptu reflection on the era of the Pihlaja Girls at the local primary school. All three of them had gone through this teacher's classroom, over how many years now, has it been seven years, it has, hasn't it. Yes, it has, and they have all been wonderful, models in the school, the sorts of girls that bring joy to the lives of everyone they meet. I thanked her and then we went on to have the sort of conversation I've never known how to have, given my lack of experience both in primary school as a pupil myself (I was homeschooled) and as an immigrant (how much of any of this is just British norms). The girls have always done well and the kinds of things they need to improve on seem small and insignificant and the meeting ends with me thinking, there are now only two more Parent-Teacher meetings I will have at the primary school. 

I think about this one thing often these days: how there was a last time my youngest daughter rode in the pushchair, the stroller. This passed without being noticed, of course. The day would have come and gone and then the pushchair would have sat unused someplace in the front room for a time before we eventually got rid of it. I do vaguely remember donating one to a charity shop on the high street, thinking what I often thought about pushchairs, that they take proper abuse and though when I was a young, the young father that I was, I tried to save money on them, I quickly realised this was a mistake. Something would break and there you would be, stuck with a child or two or three that needed to be transported. I'm sure that the best one we had — a Mama and Papa's one that must have been over £300 new — was given to us, or we had bought at some discount in a car boot sale or from a friend. 

We took that one to Malaysia, and I remember the first day, we left the hotel for a walk, thinking we could push it on the street, but it became quickly clear this wouldn't work. The pavements weren't level or there were stones missing. We walked over a ditch where there was water flowing and I remember Naomi saying, there's rubbish in the water, and indeed there was. That pushchair was then relegated to the back of the car, to be pushed in malls, the Sunvalley Mall, when we went on Saturday or Sunday and drank Starbucks coffee for 15 ringgit and then had lunch for about the same price in the employee food court that we found by accident one day, looking for the toilet. Mia would sleep in it, and the other girls would tag along, and we would go to Toys R Us or the expensive supermarket where I would pretend to be the sort of white person everyone thought I was, with the expensive British pushchair and fat shorts I bought because I was gaining weight. 

My own parents take some measure of pride, I've sensed, in how they raised their children, but I have not managed that same pride, not even in secret, not even when some external validation comes. Mia's teacher praises our family and I immediately am embarrassed — Yoko, certainly, but not me, this has all been in spite of me. I want to start telling stories of my own selfishness, the times I've been short with them, or shouted, or how they can tell immediately when I'm displeased, or the ways my own terrible habits have turned up unexpectantly in them, how we've barely held on at times, how they've been very sick and I've thought they were not, how I caught Covid from Mia only because I didn't actually believe she had it. The list is endless — how can you even begin to count the good against the bad, the accidental wise decisions against premeditated ones that were terrible mistakes. 

People tell you to cherish the time when your children are young, and you certainly should if you can. But cherish is a word that you use when you're forty when you can even begin to think back about pushchairs with some sense of nostalgia. It's hard to cherish in your twenties because you're just pretending. Everything is pretend, it can be undone as easily as it's done. But you can't, of course, say you're pretending when you're a young parent. You can say it after the fact, but not while you're doing it. You have no momentum. You're like a pack mule weighed down and pushing up a mountain. You can never stop, you can't risk any loss of movement forward. Someone tells you to cherish this moment instead of whatever it is you're doing, sweating or being annoyed, and you try to smile and agree. 

Now, a decade has passed, and I can sense myself wanting to say the same thing to people, to the woman with the baby on the train when I was coming back from France and feeling unsettled, the baby with the full head of hair who was smiling at me. I wanted to go over to her and say that thing I hated being told, to appear to her like some middle-aged ghost and tell her to cherish this moment, it's gone now, it's always going away. I didn't say it, thankfully, for this one time at least, I could control myself perhaps because I too am still in the middle of the cherishable time. I still have time, I still have moments that I should cherish. And I know better now, after years of missing them, that the moments you cherish, you don't recognise when they're happening and that's okay. It's okay, because given some space, or a different context, or a decade, you realise that you did cherish the moment, you were there. All of you was there, despite everything else.