Facing the News

In the 41 years I’ve known her, my nan has been an avid watcher of the news. I can picture her craning forwards in her armchair in front of the television, a pained expression on her kind, world-worn face, as whispered syllables of dismay issue from between her lips: tch; oh dear; no no; ahh; oh dear me.

Why watch it then? I used to think, rather bullishly.

I avoided the news for years. Somewhere between my teenage years and motherhood I lost the ability to deploy empathy boundaries. Anything upsetting – the ill-treatment of animals; children suffering; images of people starving – would cut me to the core and continue cutting for weeks, months or even years afterwards. The news, with its constant deluge of depressing stories, seemed a logical cull in order for me to preserve some semblance of equilibrium.

It wasn’t just the news, however. I clearly remember being reprimanded by one of my house mates at university for refusing to watch Schindler’s List, because I was scared of the impact (on myself, if you will!) of watching so much suffering and, infinitely worse, knowing it had all actually happened.

“You shouldn’t not watch it just because it will upset you!” cried my friend, her eyes blazing. “It’s meant to upset you. Everyone should watch it, to make sure those things never happen again.”

I felt rather ashamed, but how could I explain to my friend that ‘upset’ in my case consisted of sleep deprivation and daily mental torment for an untold length of time? As far as I was concerned, as there was no chance whatsoever of me ever developing or tolerating Nazi sympathies, there was no need for me to watch such a film.

When I became a mum everything was amplified a hundredfold, particularly anything involving children. “I’m sorry, but I just don’t have a sense of patriotism where starving children are concerned!” I once blurted, semi-hysterically, when a group of acquaintances were having a moan about donating to Comic Relief while the UK was in a recession. “I’d be mummy to the whole world if I could!” Then I went off and had a good old self-righteous sob.

I subscribed to several of those £2-a-month charities but always changed channel the second one of their harrowing adverts appeared on the TV screen. I know it’s horrendous, I thought. I care. You don’t have to rub my nose in it. And the news continued to be horrific, and I continued trying to avoid it, but the stories and the names kept filtering through, despite my best efforts at avoidance: Victoria Climbie, Tiffany Hirst, Baby P, and the one that utterly broke my heart, caused me to break down in tears several times at work and deprived me of untold hours of sleep, Madeleine McCann.

I spent the days following Madeleine’s disappearance glued to BBC News 24, wishing, hoping and praying for her to be found. I could not comprehend some people’s attitudes surrounding the tragedy. Why should the Portuguese police spend all their time looking for her? Her parents shouldn’t have left her. As if she was nothing more than a camera, or an expensive gold watch that someone had carelessly left in an unlocked hotel room …

I couldn’t think about the police, or even the parents. My agonised mind could not reach beyond that little girl, and what she might be enduring at any given moment. I became obsessive, even though I knew that my inability to function on various levels because of a news story was not helping anyone, least of all the McCann family. All I could do was raise awareness and donate a little money to the search fund. That year I could not bear to celebrate my birthday, and asked for donations to the fund in lieu of gifts. I was not alone. I believe the world became a slightly darker place for many people, the day Madeleine McCann disappeared.

Then, a few days ago, Antoine Leiris posted a message addressing the terrorists who shot 129 people in Paris last Friday and, as one of the 15 million people who read it, my insular, self-protecting outlook changed for ever.

The weather was rubbish. I never like November much anyway (it’s always rife with sick bugs), and I wasn’t looking forward to work. I was in a real ‘can’t be arsed’ mood, to be completely honest, as well as exhausted and slightly under the weather, and was seriously considering rescheduling my teaching for another day.

Then I read Antoine Leiris’ words. I don’t think I have ever felt so humbled. I realised in a heartbeat that my response to suffering had been all about me: its impact on me, and my absurdly petty worry about my inability to deal with it. Deal with what, exactly? My life is utterly blessed. In the wake of the unthinkable, here was this amazing man demonstrating courage, hope, and the profound strength of love. His spirit was undaunted and he knew that he and his small son Melvil would be able to continue with their lives and their happiness despite the presence of heartbreak.

Needless to say, I pulled my socks up and drove to work, wiping away tears en route.

I watch the news now. I make the same sounds as my nan, but I watch. I have decided I can empathise and shed tears without wallowing indecently in someone else’s grief. If people endure horror, then I can certainly manage to endure bearing witness to it. I try to show a greater appreciation of what I have, too; counting your own blessings is not the same as thinking ‘I’m alright, Jack, pull up the ladder’. And for the really tough stories …? Well, some things do find their way into your heart. It’s probably called being human.

As for Melvil Leiris, I will continue to think of him as time moves on, as I do Madeleine McCann, but in a different way. Whenever he pops into my mind over the years, instead of welling up over the poor little boy who lost his mummy, I will attempt – in my own greatly watered-down way – to emulate the positive thinking of his father. I will imagine him at home and at school, with his friends or grandparents or with his dad, the best dad in the world. I will hope that he is happy, and I will strive to feel happy for him.

In the highly unlikely event that you have not yet heard or read Antoine Leiris’ tribute to his wife Helene: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-34862437

When Parenting Falls Short

One of the least helpful, and in fact potentially most damaging, pieces of advice parents can give to a child who is being bullied is to stick up for him/herself. Unless the child in question is the type to do so, they’re not going to do so (not straight away, at least) and your increasingly frustrated demands that they “don’t put up with it” will simply serve to make them feel more self-loathing and less empowered. It’s not that they’re refusing to; it’s that they can’t. And they probably won’t be able to explain why, which you’ll find even more frustrating.

I’m speaking from experience here. In my adolescent years I was incredibly vile and mouthy to my mother much of the time (sorry, Mum), so she was genuinely perplexed when my response to girls at school making cruel comments was to freeze, wide-eyed, like a rabbit in the headlights. How could I turn on the vitriol tap so readily for someone who loved me, yet barely manage to stammer a few words in my defence when being picked on at school?

As a parent, I hoped and prayed my children would be naturally confident and assertive, as the tedium and sheer slog of having to acquire those attributes later in life is such an arse-ache (besides which, being bolt-ons, they never sit comfortably). It’s hard to touch wood and type at the same time, but so far Big Daughter has sailed through school academically and socially without many hiccups. She’s not an A-lister (praise be!), but she’s confident in her own identity and for a 13-year-old girl that’s reassuring. She is also both calm and eloquent, a perfect combination for combating verbal taunts, and if required to I have no doubt she would use her impressive karate skills and considerable strength to put an assailant on the floor.

The Boy, Toby, is also pretty good at karate, but the similarities end there. Ahh, the guilt. Before I had children I naively worried about passing on my crappy eyesight or sloping shoulders, when what I should have worried about was the inability to self-defend. By eight or nine Toby had become what most children regarded as an ‘easy target’: different, sensitive, reactive, emotional, musically talented and not at all rational. (You’re welcome, son.)

Blips between friends could be, and were, resolved. Alex and I appreciated that Toby could be high maintenance, with his quirks and his constant singing, and his friends and their parents were very supportive. But not everyone was a friend, and my goodness, it was a rough road. I think I found it almost as rough as Toby did: as someone who does not deal well with confrontation and still struggles to be calmly assertive, I tended to go on the defensive and several times made things worse by taking children to task in a – shall we say – verbally aggressive manner. (“I didn’t stick up for myself, but I’m damn well going to stick up for my kids!! Here I go, off to holler in the street in my dressing gown like a chav. This is bound to help.”) And there is nothing I have experienced that is worse than seeing your children suffer.

I’m happy to say that things are better now, and Toby’s confidence is growing (hand in hand with a healthy dose of pre-teen attitude, but that’s OK). But when I reflect on those years, my inability to help him saddens me. Couldn’t having gone through it myself somehow have prevented a repeat performance? No, it couldn’t, because it wasn’t my fault and it wasn’t Toby’s. There will always be horrible people.

So what did get us through? In my case it was a girl called Ruth.

At 13 I left the local comprehensive (where it was felt I had ‘slipped through the net’, whatever that meant) and started attending a private girls’ school a few miles away. Having been brought up on a diet of Enid Blyton I anticipated lots of jolly japes and everyone being lovely and kind (not like some of those rough, mean, bigger boys and girls from my old school). Needless to say, ‘disappointed’ was the understatement of my life … my pleas to return to the comp were unheeded, however, so I was there to stay, standing paralysed in the new, glaring headlights and reeling inwardly at the torrent of intimidation and bitchiness that ensued on a daily basis.

At break time a few days in, a dreaded trio of tall, poodle-permed girls made their way over to where I was lurking near the music block, wishing away the minutes until the merciful protection of lessons resumed. I remember the terror, the adrenaline, the familiar seizing up. Their taunts were to do with my hair, or my clothes … I don’t remember now. Suddenly someone was standing next to me – someone small, just like me – and she was giving back as good as they gave out, like a scrappy terrier taking on three rottweilers (rottweilers with poodle hair). The gratitude came later. What struck me first was amazement that these three beefy girls did not kick my defender across the school car park. Any moment now, I kept thinking …but it didn’t happen. After a few more exchanges, the girls turned, sneering, and walked away.

They, and others like them, returned many more times, but with Ruth by my side I made it through. We even enjoyed some of the ‘jolly japes’ I had initially envisaged. 28 years later, we still do.

In Toby’s case, he had a group of good friends who had known him since reception and generally stuck up for him but sometimes couldn’t resist teasing him too (he was a few years younger, remember – and we’re talking about boys). During the last year of primary school one of these friends convinced Toby he’d hacked his YouTube account and replaced his avatar with an image of a gay lap dancer, causing Toby such distress that eventually the friend relented and admitted he’d done no such thing. I tried not to laugh too much when Toby told me about this.

But the most loyal of Toby’s friends is a lad called Jack Speed*. My initial impression when Jack Speed first came round for tea was ‘whirlwind’: the boy could not sit still, and several times during the meal he’d leap up from the table to start playing (I use the term loosely) the piano. When we went to the park he dived – as in head first – over the gate and disappeared from view, and my heart sank as I was sure he must have injured himself, but no, he was fine, rocketing up from the tarmac seconds later.

Over the years the boys have visited each other’s houses numerous times, playing on the Wii and later the Xbox and bickering like a pair of old women, but whenever the chips were down Jack could be relied on to stand up for Toby, even when no-one else did (Toby himself included). He didn’t care, and still doesn’t, about Toby not being one of the ‘cool’ kids. That’s pretty remarkable when you consider the levels of peer and image pressure encountered during the first year or two of secondary school.

As time went on, I got to know Jack Speed better. I saw how kind and patient he was with Little Daughter, having younger siblings himself, and have several times overheard him encouraging or calming an upset Toby. “Don’t worry about it, Tobes”, he said at a lads’ get-together at our house a while ago, when Toby was losing sorely to some other friends on the Xbox. “You’ll be be more of a success in life than me. I’m in bottom group maths.” I could have wept.

When parenting falls short (and, with the best will in the world, it always does at some point) it can be a relief to know we are not our children’s only influence. Guardian angels come at unexpected times, in unexpected guises. Whether they’re taking your side in the playground when you’ve done nothing to earn it, or letting you borrow their cycling helmet after they’ve been banned from the bikeability course for being ‘a danger’, it is difficult to express the wonder and gratitude you feel when someone fantastic openly values you at a time when you don’t much value yourself. This is what starts to build self-worth and, in turn, confidence.

* My thanks to Jack’s parents for letting me use his full name, which is quite simply the best name in the world. Toby even named his guinea pig Jack Speed, although guinea Jack Speed was a girl, which once rather confused the vet’s receptionist.