The sweary verse strikes again

We annoyed each other last night as we sometimes do. The better you know each other, the easier it is to hit those pressure points. Granted, the subjects of our argument were little things blown out of proportion but anger seethed through the darkness palpably.

Eventually we did talk it through and this morning we were able to take everything before God for renewal. Prayer is a helluva thing.

But last night, I lay awake thinking about our need to learn to handle conflict in healthy ways that don’t affect the baby. It’s all well and good to “have it out” when it’s just the two of us but when there’s a little person absorbing everything and looking to you for stability it’s a bit more complicated.

Then out of nowhere, Philip Larkin’s poem, This Be the Verse jumped into memory. It goes like so:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

One of my English courses at university began with this poem. I think the idea was to help us get turned on for “Aspects of Literary History” by a sweary verse or two.

At the time, I found it unbelievably depressing. Actually, to an extent I still do, especially the outcome. But it would take an optimist of clinical proportions not to see that there is some truth in what Larkin is saying.

We are all profoundly shaped by our families of origin (this is a term I get from my father – he loves it). It’s where some of our deepest hurts lie. But it’s not a case of pointing the finger at your parents. We’re all products of the human condition. We’re not perfect.

Remembering this poem, I now find it a bit affirming, even in spite of its ending. It’s not saying that you might mess up. It’s assuring you that you will. That’s not a “get out free” card from doing the best we can with this parenting thing. It’s also not a reason to avoid taking responsibility for the people we become and the direction of our lives.

Reading this again now, I feel more strongly that we must do our best, minus the frightening pressure for perfection.

The image is of Philip Larkin. Doesn’t he look cheerful?

[she/her] • writer • unschooler • team Soul Farm • Revillaging podcast • breastfeeding counsellor • Trinidadian in Cornwall

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  • Agree with you Adele! I know the poem, and it rings depressingly true…. now that my children are grown up, I have had to come to terms with the fact that – even as I promised myself not to repeat my parents’ mistakes – that inevitably, we made mistakes – sometimes big ones – and my sons are living with the consequences of our (at times) poor parenting.

    More philosophical (as time has passed and allowed me to forgive myself my parenting mistakes), I now believe it is impossible NOT to mess your children up in some way. After all, if i had to do it again, there’s a lot of things I would do differently – but parenting allows you no practice, no trial scenarios.

    Well, except for when we adopted Luke we were told to take him home for a week and bring him back if we found he was not suitable! I was full of righteous indignation (rightly so, I think. Adopted kids have enough going against them) Although there are numerous instances of natural-born children whose parents want to give them back! Just last week one of my grade 8 girls (youngest of many) said her mum asked the nurses to put her back and bring a boy! (Now there’s a child who will be scarred in the future!)

    So back to being philosophical – parenting is like life. As you say, mistakes will be made, but it’s how you recover that counts, and the fact that you do the best with what you knew – or were capable of – at the time. For a child, once they know they are unconditionally loved (and this is something mine never suffered from!), they will be able to recover – and even grow stronger and more resilient – from the difficulties inflicted on them by their parents and by life itself. Knowing the power of God’s amazing Grace helps too!

    At least that’s my experience!! Thanks for sharing xo

    • What a rich and insightful comment! I thought you might know the poem. That statement “parenting allows you no practice, no trial scenarios” is so golden I may write it out and pin it on the wall somewhere. I cannot believe the adoption agency said that! So much for putting the child’s interest first. It’s such a scary thing, parenting, but it’s good to hear from a parent whose kids have grown up that you can forgive yourself and that they can recover.

  • As a parent you are under pressure: the rooky, sleep deprived parent of a new born (good luck!) or the frustrated parent of boisterous toddlers or the exasperated parent of stroppy teens. And when under pressure we ‘revert’ to learnt patterns of behaviour, but that doesn’t mean we can’t or as you say shouln’t try to change. Being aware of these patterns is the first step towards changing them. I think it’s an expression of Larkin’s depression that he see’s these parental mistakes as eternal. My father suffered from severe depression which was founded in a very unhappy childhood in 40/50’s Dublin, and he just couldn’t see the possibility of change in the world, although he struggled to give me ‘everything’ he didn’t have growing up. The difficulty is gaining persepective to see where there is room for improvement. It’s very easy to look at other people and see how they might benefit from change but we all have blind spots.

    But I think we do worry too much about being perfect and that sense of dissatisfaction actually feeds more negative behaviour. So as you suggest, a dash of Larkin’s wisdom is healthy – you will make mistakes. The key is too forgive yourself and in turn your parents, for the crime of being human. And as long as your little one knows that Mummy and Daddy love them and each other, I think it’s healthy that they can see differences can be expressed and overcome, but obviously you’ll want to keep the plate throwing to a minimum!

    • You made me laugh aloud at the suggestion of plate throwing! I fully agree with what you’ve said about the difficulty of seeing ourselves and our own faults. Forgiveness is so key. I also think quite often we may not realise that we haven’t forgiven our parents for past hurts and that ultimately holds us back.