I remember when we took our first born home and shut the door on the friends who had helped us get there. Standing alone in our two room flat, that funny little place that up till then had been ours and now was Ours, with that wriggling creature rendering everything different and new. The city streets we drove through, our street, the stairwell we walked up, the flat, all felt transformed. It was as if we had been away for years, like the man a friend had told me of who had come out of prison after a long sentence and was in shock at how much Scotland had changed; “Where are all the old bangers?” he had said in looking at the cars in the streets, “Is everyone rich now?”.
For us it was sudden shock and fear that overwhelmed us. All I could do was stand there thinking, in the words of the late great Spike Milligan ‘What are we gonna do now?’ – little aware that I need not fear since that impossibly beautiful creature had but one mission, to teach us how to look after it. Those first few years were too busy with feeding and cleaning and tending and soothing and entertaining for much reflection, especially as number two came along almost exactly two years later. But the memory knows its job and squirrels away all of those experiences for later.
Those memories are constantly popping up now that my impossibly beautiful creatures, my silver darlings, are Almost Men now. The Almost Years – that equally terrifying time of transition and newness for a parent. This time rather than womb and world my boys hover between room and world, between life with us and life alongside us. Though this time my silver darlings have no inbuilt single minded mission to guide them and us. This time they are as adrift as us in understanding ‘what to do’. At least at the start.
In the early phase of that transition it seems we are all equally ill prepared. But then suddenly they start to show you the way again. Painfully slowly this time (an infant demands you get with the programme rather faster than a teenager, or perhaps you were just too tired to resist back then) you begin to learn that your job is not to wait hand and foot as in those early days, but to stand aside and support and care from further away.
You have to learn that the overwhelming need to care and protect for your infant must be replaced with something else. Which of course is incredibly difficult as you have just spent the best part of 15 years getting really good at that. Now you have to learn to stop seeing yourself as the auteur of this production, working in the rehearsal room with the performers. The performers are stepping on to the stage now and you are no longer needed as auteur. The cast have rejected the auteur and seek to be self determining. What they need now is a stage, and an audience.
You have to step out from behind the stage and find yourself a seat in the audience. Which is not to say you have no role – as every opera lover knows the audience can encourage or discourage the performers, can maintain the right atmosphere or ruin it. And of course we are no ‘ordinary’ audience members. We know this performer rather more intimately than most, we care about them rather more deeply than most. But transition we must.
Being the auteur was a safe and familiar role – albeit terrifying and sometimes painful. If they fall from the slide, it’s my fault. If they come off the bike, it’s my fault. If they are sad, it’s my fault. The constant dread of what might go wrong and the constant preparation to berate oneself are as much a part of early parenting as late nights and unidentifiable semi-solids in unexpected places.
Transitioning now to the audience feels deeply uncertain. The requirements of the role have to be learnt, and this time the outcomes are more in their hands than mine. Our first attempts to take our new positions, they on stage me in the stalls, are faltering and stiff and riddled with mistakes. But slowly night after night we get a little better.
I begin to see my Almost Men find their voice and slowly I am learning how to aid and not impede the performance. Slowly I am learning to let the memories of who we were together fall away enough to allow the performance of who we will be emerge. Though one thing has not changed. I still find myself wondering ‘What are we gonna do now?’.