My six mums and dads
As affectionate son to half a dozen parental figures, Nick Bibby wonders if we need a new social protocol to deal with the complicated love lives of the baby-boomers
Tuesday 20 November 2012
Last year saw both my father and stepfather 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. 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.
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. For all of its majestic diversity, 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".
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 said sex had been 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? 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, and "lover" is obviously a non-starter.
As the baby boom fades into a muffled echo and the Summer of Love turns to the Autumn of Viagra, their 30-ish to 40-ish progeny face the odd reality that their parents could still be remarrying well into their eighties.
None of this is unusual; looking at the families of friends, I count myself lucky that my parents can be counted in single digits. There are certainly advantages to having third, fourth and fifth opinions from older and wiser heads. Especially when you know that Opinion #2 has refused to speak to Opinion #3 for the last quarter of a century.
Although Larkin's second most famous line may be slightly less true of legal water than bloody ties, any adult's relationship with any parent tends to be one of figuring out the boundaries, and 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.
There are, of course, issues relating to what can be said about whom to whom, 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 with tales of stupid things said or done in a parent's thirties or forties to their new partner, it's not worth it. Well, not very often anyway; they still have much more ammunition.
A 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 ageing 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. Having four or five octogenarians sharing a room with me is not an enticing prospect.
I'm pushing 40 and my cadre of parents 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, Iain Duncan Smith has a plan to have all the over-70s 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 ageing, if convoluted, families.
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