Last year saw both my father and step-father successfully married off which, in some weird parody of a Jane Austen novel, was a relief. The four of them brought my tally of parents to six, including another two maternal figures in my life – one biological, one acquired subsequently. There are a few other parents that I've fostered along the way but I've only firmly adopted four to add to the two necessitated by biology 101.
In theory that herd could rise to eight or so but I now find that prospect unintimidating; I've got fairly adept at managing them over the 38 years they've been turning up or wandering off. It takes time and a bit of practice to really get the hang of childing but in the end it comes pretty naturally.
However, there are some difficulties – language for one. English doesn't contain conveniently brief words for "the woman my father married after he left my mother but before he met his current wife", or "the man who is father of my half-brother – although I think of him just as my brother because we grew up together and I was none the wiser until I was in my teens – and anyway, this guy isn't really around any more and was certainly never part of my life". Mum and Dad are "Mum" and "Dad" and I happily refer to my stepfather as such, although I always call him by his name.
When a new friend or lover is reckless enough to ask about my family – a sign the relationship is flagging – it requires patience on their part and, usually, a paper and a pen on mine.
There are other linguistic irritants – why, nearly 50 years after Larkin says sex was invented, is there still not a collective noun for parents? A set? A cohort? A cadre? A bloody-nightmare-to organise-a-wedding-or-graduation of parents? What the hell is the correct terminology for my relationship to my sister-in-law's equally complicated collection?
Perhaps "consort", "paramour" and "companion" should make a long-overdue return. "Boyfriend" and "girlfriend" lack a certain veracity in describing someone eligible for a bus pass. As the baby-boom fades into a muffled echo and the Summer of Love turns to the Autumn of Viagra, their thirtyish–fortyish progeny face the odd reality that their parents could still be remarrying well into their eighties and beyond.
None of this is unusual; looking at the families of friends, I count myself lucky that my parents can be counted in even numbers and single digits. Perhaps it should be considered unlucky. There are certainly advantages to having third, fourth and fifth opinions from older and wiser heads.
It's always faintly ridiculous to read articles explaining how to deal with recently acquired step-children – be they toddlers or teenagers. Such pieces are somehow reminiscent of Gardeners' Question Time – "I recently acquired some children but one of them seems to have got puberty, is there any way I can stop it infecting the rest of the crop?" The same is, of course, equally absurd in our relationships with our parents.
None of that makes the latent panic surrounding the new relationship any less terrifying. Any adult's relationship with any parent tends to be one of figuring out the boundaries and, then, how frequently they can be broken. All of this permeates through that cheerful mesh of guilt, anxiety, love, frustration and the irrational cries of our inner-teenager. The lack of DNA cuts through some of that, at least enough to allow space for an almost equal conversation.
There are, of course, issues relating what can be said about whom to who, in how much detail and when. Perhaps unusually for families, honesty seems to be the best strategy. Although brevity comes a pretty good second. Additionally, however tempting it may be to seek revenge for the mortifying stories of our own infancy related to teenage dates by telling tales of stupid things said or done in a parent's thirties or forties to their new partner, it's not worth it. In the end, they still have much more ammunition.
An unscientific Google search for "step-parent" brought up about a zillion sites offering advice on becoming one but nothing on dealing with them. This seemed odd. As the children of the children of the Summer of Love deal with their parents moving into the Autumn of Viagra, the decisions are going to become rather tougher than what the grandkids should call their aging relatives.
The prospect of caring for an elderly parent is not an enticing one at best. The idea of looking after – let alone living with – three or four, all with half-remembered enmities and desires, might make for a great movie script but not much of a life.
I'm pushing 40 and my cadre of parents (that is the right word) are now in their sixties. Obviously, the ideal is for them to pass on peacefully, snowy-haired and dispensing Solomonic wisdom to a hoard of adoring and bright-eyed grandchildren. Meanwhile, my siblings and I will stand in reverential silence in the East Wing of the family estate bought with the proceeds of my surprising but overdue call-up as a striker for Manchester United.
In the unlikely event that that's not how events pan out, then the issues raised are fraught with questions that have no easy answers. I have no great desire to help my biological parents change their nappy or form sentences – but at least there's a sense of returning the favour. Would I do so for a comparative stranger? I have no idea. Less dramatically, should the parent that I think of as a Parent pre-decease their current partner, what does our relationship become without the common link?
Possibly, Irritable Duncan Syndrome has a plan to have all the over-seventies that haven't had supper with the Prime Minister shot by Jeremy Clarkson. If not it may be time to start thinking about the practicalities of our aging, if convoluted, families.Reuse content