Two perspectives – the internal dialogue of parents

I recently read Alain de Botton’s ‘The Course of Love’ – and appreciate the opposing views of both his critics and fans.  Funnily enough, my son misremembered the title and referred to it as “The curse of love” which made me chuckle as it isn’t a bad description of the long-term relationship described in the book – best summed up by his central idea that “love is a skill not an enthusiasm”.  It has lines like “the only people who can still strike us as normal are the ones we don’t know very well.  The best cure for love is to get to know them better” (blimey, a bit pessimistic don’t you think?!).  I know de Botton would dismiss my views as optimistic Romanticism, but that’s ok with me.  I’ll happily stick with the view from ‘Captain Correlli’s Mandolin’, that those who “…truly love have roots that grow towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms have fallen from their branches, they find that they are one tree and not two” (I don’t think de Botton’s book will get quoted at quite so many weddings…).

The style as well as the conclusions in ‘The Course of Love’ won’t suit everyone (he uses a fictitious account of a marriage to illustrate his philosophical views about the relationships, switching between a narrator and his own voice as he does so), but I thought I’d give it a go after being intrigued by a review and it’s certainly interesting, even if you don’t agree with it all.  However, what’s specifically prompted this blog is this bit which made me chuckle:

“It’s just after seven on a Thursday evening.  Since this morning Rabih has attended four meetings, dealt with a failing tile supplier, cleared up (he hopes) a misconception about tax rebates and caught to bring the new CFO on board with a scheme for a client conference which would have great implications for the third quarter (or, alternatively it could be a bit of a mess).  He has had to stand in the aisle of a crowded commuter bus for half an hour each way and is now walking back from his stop in the rain.  He is thinking about how great it will finally be to get home, pour himself a glass of wine, read the children a chapter of The Famous Five, kiss them goodnight and sit down for a meal and some civilised conversation with his most sympathetic ally and friend, his spouse.  He is at the end of his tether and inclined to feel (justifiably) sorry for himself.

Kirsten has meanwhile been home almost all day. After driving the children to school (there was an ugly fight in the car over a pencil case), she put away breakfast, made the beds, took three work-related calls (her colleagues seem to have a hard time remembering she’s not in the office on Thursdays or Fridays), cleaned two bathrooms, vacuumed the house and sorted out everyone’s summer clothes.  She arranged for a plumber to come and look at the taps, picked up the dry cleaning and delivered a chair to be reupholstered, booked a dental check-up for William, collected the children from school, prepared and fed them a (healthy) snack, cajoled them into doing their homework, got supper ready, ran a bath and cleaned a set of ink stains off the living room floor.  Now she is thinking how great it will be to finally have Rabhi come home and take over, so she can pour herself a glass of wine, read the children a chapter of The Famous Five, kiss them goodnight and sit down for a meal and some civilised conversation with her most sympathetic ally and friend, her spouse.  She is at the end of her tether and inclined to feel (justifiably) sorry for herself.”

However, things unravel for the characters because they don’t say what they mean, so they then bicker over the laundry instead of having the evening that they were both looking forward to.  He then explains that this illustrates current parenting challenges: “Both are engaged with sufficient share of the other’s primary task not to be in any mood for unalloyed gratitude”, suggesting that this is because we think the daily grind of low-level chores are banal and meaningless, rather than prestigious.

He goes on to say “We seem unwilling to allow for the possibility that the glory of our species may lie not only in the launch of satellites….. but also in an ability – even if it is widely distributed among billions – to spoon yoghurt into small mouths, find missing socks, clean toilets, deal with tantrums and wipe congealed things off tables” and of how “…the good order and continuity of civilisation nevertheless depend to some tiny but vital degree on their quiet unnoticed labours”.

So, the next time you are brushing a small person’s teeth, bear in mind that you’re also contributing to the continuity of civilisation.  Pretty prestigious wouldn’t you say?

A home-made heart and a thought that counts

The Milk Tray Man, the Diet Coke advert, The Princess Bride.  The romantic hero is always cast in a dramatic, attention-grabbing light.  Either this reflects the fact that women are hard-wired for it, or that we’re being sold a vision of romance that we’ll spend a lifetime chasing after.  Consequently we cast our unsuspecting partners in the role of romantic lead and then become disillusioned if reality doesn’t deliver the fantasy.  We’re then at risk of throwing away the good for not being good enough.

In my younger days, I was the recipient of some dubious Valentines offerings, including a pitiful bunch of reduced-priced carnations from a garage forecourt.  Slightly more thoughtful was a CD posted through my door with ABBA’s “Take a Chance on Me”.  Unfortunately the thought was not enough to rekindle the relationship.  The shoe just didn’t fit and no gesture, romantic or otherwise was going to change that.

Given my patchy experience of Valentines gifts, I found it somewhat grating during the same era, when I saw others collect their expensive and reassuringly-showy roses from the reception desk at work (sometimes with a balloon or teddy bear in tow).  Whilst I would have liked something (I wasn’t immune to the pernicious desire to keep up with the others), even I could see that the balloon / teddy was a step to far.  It was just a bit weird.  These were women, not three year olds.

That V-day was topped-off by being wedged between bunches of enormous plumes on the tube home, when my nose was quite literally rubbed in the external markers of others’ supposed value.  A case of sour grapes left me wondering what the motivation for sending flowers to an office was.  If they were just for the receiver, why were they so ostentatiously sent? Yes, it’s lovely to surprise someone, but at that highly self-conscious age, it seemed to be about something more than that.  After all, in an open-plan office, an audience would be guaranteed.

Whatever the motivation, the experience was certainly good training-ground for what was to become ‘the-great-engagement-ring-display’, which is to young 20-something city workers what tails are to peacocks.  Diamonds may be “a girl’s best friend”, but my cynicism had me wondering whether the ring symbolised a life together, or the future husband’s (supposed) net worth?

More interesting was the preference for size over quality.  Someone pointed out to me that since no one can tell a diamond’s purity with the naked eye, it doesn’t really matter.  On the face of it, that may be true, but then the analogy creeps in.  Often others’ won’t know about the quality of a person, or a relationship – but you will.  Surely that’s what counts?

India knight hit the nail on the head when she recently said “Any pair of idiots can have a nice time while the sun shines. Romance is about what happens when it rains”, and that  “a real grown-up romance is built from 1,000 daily acts of kindness”.

Valentine’s certainly takes on a different focus and sentiment once you have kids. They make cards for their parents in a lovely unselfconscious way in all their misspelled glory. Whilst I’m not into the showy-stuff, nor am I one to shun the sentiment.  Dismissing the whole thing as a commercial enterprise is a puritanical step too far.

Whilst I agree ‘love’ isn’t just annual event, I’ll still be looking forward to a home-made heart and a thought that counts.  I’ll take those above any rose.