Every Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, it takes a while to find the right card. Y’know, the one that just says ‘Have a great day’ and not ‘To the best Mum in the world!!!!’. Because, I love my Mum and all, but best Mum in the whole world? In a population of nearly 8 billion people? That just seems statistically unlikely. And a super high bar. Frankly, nobody needs that kind of pressure.
Looking back on my childhood, it’s not the unusual and the exceptional that stands out. It’s the day to day rubbing along of life. It’s watching the telly, reading a book, playing on the computer, having my Dad wake me up after I’d gone to bed to tell me he’d beaten my high score on Tetris – the ‘nothing special’.
And there’s a huge, huge power in that. To know that it’s nothing special to have parents who are just there, and always will be. To have parents who take you seriously – not in a ‘this is serious’ way, but in a ‘you are a person’ way, and for that to be just the way it is. Being considered a worthy opponent, a partner in the requirements of life, someone with an opinion about things – these are important.
Growing up, when I said I didn’t want to go on holiday with them when I was six (I had not enjoyed my previous canal boat holiday), they didn’t say, tough, I’m the parent and you have to, they arranged for me to stay with my Granddad for the week instead. And on a larger scale, when at fifteen I was not enjoying living in Tanzania where my Dad was on a multi-year posting, they once again arranged for me to come back to England and live with a family friend for two years instead.
When I spent a decade wanting to be a boy, they didn’t insist I wear dresses (apart from that one wedding, when we compromised on the bridesmaid’s dress for the ceremony, so long as I could get changed immediately afterwards), and nor did they rush out to read up on trans activism and hormone therapy – they just bought me the tracksuits and the swimming trunks and let me get on with it. When secondary school uniform dictated a skirt, they told me the rules and said if I didn’t like it I’d have to change it – and so I did. And when I decided being a girl was OK after all, that also wasn’t a big deal – my life and my choices always felt like my own.
It wasn’t all idyllic, of course. There was nagging and tellings off – some deserved, some not – and disagreements with both siblings and parents. My wishes were respected, but not always agreed with. I didn’t get to go to the rock concert at twelve, or move out to live in the caravan at the end of the garden. I was made to stay at the table until I ate the food my Dad had made for me that I didn’t like (I usually won that battle of wills, eventuallly). Shouting occurred, on all fronts. But I always knew the storm would pass.
Later – and maybe even at the time, to some extent – you realise that not everyone has that solidity, that knowledge that no matter what you do, it’s ‘nothing special’; it doesn’t change the fundamental base of your relationship. And you realise that ‘nothing special’ is pretty amazing, really. It’s something to aspire to.
And then there’s the flip side. Where now, as the parent, you do the same things for your children. And you see – with all your adult knowledge of some of the terrible things that also go on in the world – just how fortunate they are, to have the freedom and respect and security that they do. And that it sometimes seems they do not appreciate this one little bit. That they see it as ‘nothing special’.
And you worry that maybe it isn’t – maybe you should do more, maybe the house isn’t stylish enough or there’s not enough frolicking in fields or taking off on adventures together – or maybe there should be more chores and family service, more character training and crafted conversations over dinner? Is ‘just’ getting along with each other, most of the time, really enough?
I’m not saying you shouldn’t aim to instil a sense of gratitude and responsibility in your kids – those are good qualities, for your children and the world around them. And the big events are memorable and valuable in family life too.
But it’s also a Good Thing for your children to see that respecting them as people, accepting them for who they are and what they’re interested in without trying to change that to suit your own preferences, handing them the reins of their life – that this is ‘nothing special’. It is not something that has to be earned, it just is. Because the child who knows this – not who’s been told it, but knows it in the depth of their being from having lived it all their lives – will carry that with them, and apply that to everyone else around them. And imagine the power of that, spreading out in ripples.
‘Nothing special’ isn’t just enough. It could change the world.