My conviction that I am a bad mother has cast a pall on Mother’s Days past. When I’m depressed, motherhood feels like an ironing pile that never goes down. I will be wiping bums, pairing up socks, adjudicating disputes, sweeping floors, scolding without end. Wracked with guilt, I want Mother’s Day to pass unremarked sans daffodils, sans nice-lie-in. It’s not the normal working mother’s guilt but something more subtle which sadly wouldn’t be solved by putting in more hours at the parental coal face. It’s not what I do, but who I am.
When a good friend was agonizing about whether to have children, I invited her round to discuss the pros and cons. My husband was away at the time and I was in sole charge. The cons were immediately apparent: the mess, fuss and constant clamour of competing demands. I knew she’d miss the freedom to create storylines and choose the dramatis personae in her life from an international cast of characters. She looked terrified and I hadn’t even mentioned the guilt! The cons list was as long as your arm. But were there any compensations? I said running jokes, because they are easier to communicate to a third party than unconditional love.
My kids love repetition more than me. “Again,” they say. “Again.” Not again, I think. I try to distract them with a debate about the dumbing down of children’s fiction.
“In my opinion, Thomas and Friends was a wasted opportunity. The modernisation could have given birth to something whacky and off the wall like The Magic Roundabout. Amazingly, Thomas and Friends is more banal and no less offensive than the original. Over to you John. Where do you stand on this issue?”
“Mum, stop talking, read it again.”
Thank goodness for running jokes; the one repetitive bit of family life we can all get behind.
Every night, John asks: “have I got the ring of confidence, mum?” when he’s finished cleaning his teeth. A few weeks earlier I had commended his brushing and declared: “you have the ring of confidence,” when he bared his teeth. “What’s the ring of confidence mum?”
“It comes from a toothpaste ad from my olden days. The ring of confidence will make you feel a million dollars, even when you’re wearing your holey jeans.”
“Like you can climb Mount Everest?”
“In real life?”
John hates tidying up but loves polishing our taps until they gleam. “Mum, this tap has the ring of confidence.”
Running jokes can be redemptive as well as reassuring. Some of my personal favourites deploy black humour to alchemise angst and redeem family life from my depressive tendencies. When I was depressed ‘doom’ became a verb. My family maintained that I was more dooming than doomed. I thought it was the other way round. I was forced to exist in a house of doom, drive a car of doom and navigate biblical rainstorms every time I left the house.
In our family running jokes, rather than photographs, reveal us as we really are. I look terrible in pictures and feel more at home in one of the comic set ups I’ve had a hand in creating. I wouldn’t say this was in my DNA; it was nurture rather than nature that led me to understand the importance of catchphrases and comic tropes in rescuing family life from the quotidian.
I can’t picture the inside of my childhood home, but I do remember my dads catchphrases: “hit the switch titch”, “put it there pal” and the secret rabbit face my mother wasn’t allowed to see.
My dad liked running jokes because they allowed him to maintain his mystique. He never anecdotalised or reminisced.
Like fine wines, his running jokes get better with age . For forty years, he said “plagiarist” every time Germaine Greer came up in conversation. He repeatedly claimed that he could write a better Bob Dylan song than Bob Dylan and repeatedly assured us that he was within a whisker of finishing his poetic opus The Last Great Whale.
As long as families are full of people repeating themselves, there will be running jokes. You can’t escape them, even if you want to; we are captive audiences!
My grandmother used to say: “I’ve got a lot of secrets, I will take them to my grave,” every Friday night after four huge glasses of Pinot.
Running jokes are sometimes in the eye of the beholder. My brother and I thought this was hilarious, but it irritated my mother. One evening, we found out why: “If you mean I’m not Mick’s daughter I already know.”
I don’t have any secrets I’m planning to take to the grave; my kids know that I’ve suffered from depression for years, and have found that running jokes and other rituals often cheer me up.
This Mother’s Day is the first one in living memory where I haven’t been depressed. Ironically, I am now in the early stages of Huntington’s Disease. I’m constantly breaking things and bashing myself. Yesterday I bashed the top of my head on a sharp edge of the bathroom cabinet door. “Shit”, I always say, and sometimes “fuck”.
“You must have your Mother’s Day present early,” John said. I got a beautiful installation of found objects on my bedside table and four letters full of kind words in blue envelopes. At least I think they were full of kind words – John favours highlighter pens over pencils or biros, so I asked.
Modern children are meant to be self-absorbed and unempathic. Mine are more accepting and tolerant than most of the adults I know. Now that we both have children, my friend and I agree that this capacity for forgiveness is one of the biggest surprises of motherhood. I thought John and Anna would retreat somewhere hard to reach and would mistrust me after all those years of dooming. Their forgiveness means I will have the ring of confidence this Mother’s Day.
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