{ in·deed·a·bly }

adverb: to competently express interest, surprise, disbelief, or contempt

History repeats

Six thirty on a weekday morning. Clear blue springtime sky. Sunshine streaming through the skylight.

I’m having breakfast alongside my kids.

The younger boy is the picture of contentment. Shovelling in cereal on autopilot, while watching the Transformers on TV. Optimus Prime is still saving the world, just as he did back when I was my son’s age. The ageless robot must be in his seventies by now!

By contrast, the elder boy looks tired. Resigned. Defeated.

He dejectedly watches an annoying YouTuber breathlessly tout the latest Fortnite in-game purchases, while shamelessly dropping affiliate commission codes. The YouTuber publishes a new video every single day, perhaps there is money in it?

Today the YouTuber is encouraging his viewers to spend real money dressing up their virtual avatars to look like the Bananas in Pyjamas. I must be old, I don’t get the attraction.

Not long ago, he would have been playing Fortnite himself. His last school report put paid to that.

The daily grind

At just twelve years of age, he is already trapped in the daily grind.

Out the door by 7:30.

Commute to school.

A day full of lessons, regularly skipping lunch because there isn’t time to eat.

Commuting again.

Two hours of homework just to keep up. Projects on top of that.

Dinner.

Chores.

At the end of the day, there is maybe an hour left for fun. Any extra is borrowed from sleep, an opportunity cost decision. Live for the moment, regret it in the morning.

By the time the weekend rolls around he dreams of nothing more than sleeping in. His rapidly growing body demanding repayment for the accrued sleep deficit.

Weekends used to be for riding bikes, birthday parties, and playing. These days his harsh reality is they are mostly spent catching up on all the things not completed during the week.

It sounds all too familiar, and I genuinely feel bad for him.

But here is the thing: he has largely chosen this path for himself!

Choose your own adventure

We’ve talked about the importance of balance and prioritisation. Of pacing himself or burning out. The difference between good and good enough, and how to determine which option to choose.

He humours me and politely listens, but he doesn’t hear what I’m saying.

None of his classmates’ parents run their own businesses, they mostly work in important jobs in respectable professions.

None of them is semi-retired either, though it’s not what you see but what you believe!

They drive nice cars, live in nice houses, and have nice things.

We don’t have a car. We rent a tired house located a bus ride, rather than a walk, from his school.

The state primary school he previously attended was very diverse. It spanned the majority of the socio-economic spectrum from incarcerated parents and kids who were frequent flyers in the foster care system; through to the comfortably middle-class, snobs and social climbers.

My son had studied the outward prosperity, happiness, and respect each was accorded. He was yet to learn there is a difference between style and substance, that appearances are often deceiving.

He admired the sharply dressed city workers wearing suits and driving expensive cars. Failing to notice that these parents rarely made it to the school play, sports day, or parent-teacher meetings.

Very busy people doing very busy work.

When viewed through his eyes, this group could be described as being cash rich but time poor.

Sports car. Image credit: Wirden.

The trappings or illusion of success. Image credit: Wirden.

He despaired for the children who didn’t choose their parents very well. Wearing pyjamas while dropping their kids to school in the mornings. Loitering around the neighbourhood smoking drugs and killing time. Unwilling or unable to help their kids get their homework done.

This group seldom made it to the parent’s events either.

Again when viewed through his eyes, this group might be described as cash poor but time rich.

The vast majority of the parents (and often grandparents) fell somewhere between these two groups. Clothes more Primark than Prada, driving boring minivans or tired looking SUVs.

Blending in rather than standing out.

Uninspiring to a child contemplating how to best chart the course for their own future.

The price of admission

He had learned that the price of admission to the professions performed by those outwardly successful parents was a university degree. This was often, but not always, true. Real estate agents?

Another thing he had learned was university graduates earn more than non-graduates, on average. Again this was often, but not always, true. Performing arts graduates?

My son may have only the vaguest of notions about the kind of work he would one day like to do. However, he has a very well defined idea of the lifestyle that job will need to sustain!

When the time came for us to choose the high school he would attend, his top priority was a school that would offer students a realistic option of gaining admission to a top university.

That surprised me. When faced with the same decision, I had just wanted to attend the same school as my friends.

He selected an outstanding school with long odds of admission, but which achieved top university acceptance rates that ranked amongst the best in the country. Operation: Gordon was launched to make his dream a reality.

Careful what you wish for

One year into his journey, I suspect my son is questioning the wisdom of his choice.

The relentless pressure of being continuously graded against anticipated performance in GCSEs… in several years time.

Which only matter until he completes his A levels.

Which only matter until he is admitted into a university.

Which only matters until he is awarded a degree.

Which only matters until he lands his first job.

At that point he may start to see through the myth that status equates to success.

That money equates to happiness… though a shortage of the former certainly makes finding the latter more difficult.

While attempting to raise his spirits over breakfast, I reflected on my own journey from a similar circumstance to where I find myself today.

History repeats

Half an hour earlier, the whistle of a suspiciously chirpy canary extracted me from an intriguingly bizarre dream.

In days gone by my restless slumber would have been shattered by blaring klaxons. A noise designed to instil a sense of urgency and controlled panic into submariners, when they learn their boat is leaking far beneath the waves.

Too insistent to ignore.

Act now or perish.

The alarm would have been strategically placed far enough away that I couldn’t reach it without getting up or falling out of bed. A sadistic trick that night owl me played upon morning me. Bastard!

Fatigued.

Bleary eyes.

Foggy mind.

Dull headache.

Churning stomach.

The products of giving the coping juice a nudge the night before.

Alarm silenced, I would greet each new day with a resigned mixture of trepidation and dread.

The forlorn hope that it might be a big mistake or a cruel joke. Was today actually a bank holiday?

Or perhaps I was still asleep, and this was all just a vivid dream?

No such luck.

Another day on life’s treadmill: waking up tired, herding kids, commute, work, commute, wine, collapsing into bed.

Focusing on surviving, rather than living.

  • Present a small target.
  • Keep your head down.
  • Don’t draw fire.
  • Tiptoe through the minefield.
  • Avoid skirmishes.
  • Survive the battle.
  • Winning the war is above your pay grade.
  • Soldier on.

Hopes tempered, dangerous beasts in the wild, that are best viewed from a safe distance.

Dreams locked away in a dusty mental corner. Safely hidden from manipulation, ridicule, or scorn.

Finger trap. Image credit: Casey Fleser.

Finger trap. Image credit: Casey Fleser.

Eventually, I saw through the puzzle. The “game of life” was a ruse, impossible to win.

Like a Chinese finger trap, the trick was simply to not resist. Don’t play the game.

The problem wasn’t the big bad world in which we live. It was the choices I made, and those I had been avoiding.

Chasing a magic number, a moving target.

Seeking agreement, consensus or endorsement.

Waiting for permission, for someone to fire the starter’s pistol.

When had I empowered those others to make decisions for me? What qualifications did they possess, that could possibly allow them to know better than myself what is in my best interests?

Realising this was confronting. An inconvenient truth.

I had spent decades on that treadmill. The “best years” of my life.

Owning that fact was humbling and liberating in equal measure. The safety net of excuses removed.

Once, not so long ago, I would have dreaded that moment the alarm went off.

Today, not so much.

A new beginning

The alarm still goes off at the same time each morning.

Gone is the klaxon, replaced by an exultant bird song.

The same outcome, yet infinitely more pleasing to experience.

The kids still need to be fed, dressed, and propelled towards another day of learning.

For me, this is now a relaxed and enjoyable part of the day rather than a chore. Free of hangovers and existentialist dread.

Simple choices, but not an easy ones. Similar to deciding to stop biting my fingernails, another habit of a lifetime, but accompanied by unexpected social consequences.

  • Coping juice was confidence in a bottle.
  • Instant relaxation.
  • An enabler of problem avoidance.
  • A tolerance tonic for fools and bores.
  • The magic switch from harried worker to engaged father.

It wasn’t the alcohol that was the problem, it was my hiding in the bottle.

Removing that crutch left nowhere to hide from my dissatisfaction. That too was confronting.

I made some changes.

Semi-retirement, via the adoption of a seasonal working pattern.

Recognising that I had “enough”, and that the pursuit of more was optional.

I made my peace with some things. Arguing with ghosts is a fool’s game, you can’t change the past.

I embraced selfishness, choosing to do more of what I enjoy, and saying no to things I did not.

Which created a whole new world of problems.

Routines disrupted.

Balances of power shifted.

Relationships recalibrated or abandoned.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, and I recognise there are some things that must be learned the hard way. Hopefully, my son will figure it out for himself at a younger age than I did.

My choices aren’t for everyone, but they seem to be working for me.

Giving up the coping juice didn’t make me happy, but I feel depressed much less often. These emotions aren’t two ends of the same spectrum, but I suspect they are related.

Scaling back my business activities didn’t make me happy either. However, doing so freed up the time required for me to enjoy more of the things that do. My kids seem to enjoy seeing more of me.

Consciously reducing my income certainly didn’t make my lady wife happy. It hasn’t impacted our lifestyle costs at all, but has closed the door to some “what might have been” dreams.

What I do know is that I no longer dread Sunday nights or waking up in the morning.

Not so long ago, I approached the start of each day like a condemned man approaches the gallows.

Lately, my elder son does.

Is that something else he has figured out for himself?

Or did he learn it from me?

Now that is a troubling thought.


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4 Comments

  1. Caveman 12 May 2019

    As Philip Larkin said:

    “They f*** you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
    They fill you with the faults they had.
    And add some extra, just for you.”

    I wouldn’t spend too much time worrying about whether your son has got some things from you. Of course he has. Both good and bad. That’s how it works. The best bit of parenting advice I’ve ever been given is that if, on balance, you’re getting more things right that wrong then you’re winning.

    The biggest thing you have taught him is that he is control of the decisions that affect his life. It may be that he’s not loving where he’s at right now, but understanding that you have some control over the world is a big lesson…and one that many adults never learn.

    Congratulations on the drinking. It’s not an easy thing to do either physically, emotionally or socially even when you’re a ‘normal’ drinker. I was in a bad place with that in my early 20s which led to me sorting myself out. I only drink occasionally now but I know how you felt.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 12 May 2019

      Thanks for the wise words Caveman.

      The great thing about being a parent is we each get the f*ck up our children in our own unique special way!

      What is unexpected is how much they learn and absorb from us, both consciously and unconsciously.

      We have a huge baring on their baseline for what is “normal”, which may make all that grumbling about work hereditary… they may catch it from their parents!

  2. weenie 14 May 2019

    Never would have equated the work with school in such a way, nicely written!

    Never seen it that way perhaps because I mostly enjoyed school – were pressures to pass exams any less then? I was certainly under pressure from my Mum to do well and to follow my older sibling’s footsteps to get into uni. I however did not have my life broadcast on social media so I guess had I not done so well, at least I would have remained pretty anonymous, not so easy for the youth of today. I also think I’ve been fortunate to have not really experienced many ‘dreaded’ Sundays. In fact, in a way, I’ve mostly looked forward to Mondays, new start of the week and all that.

    Good to read that you have taken steps allowing you to spend more time with the family, although it appears that certain dreams have been sacrificed (for the moment).

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 14 May 2019

      Thanks weenie, great to hear you’re inspired when looking towards each week ahead.

      The pressures to excel in exams have existed since exams were invented. However the system my kids are navigating is very different to the one I grew up with.

      The measure of success for their schools, remuneration of the head teachers, and retention decisions regarding their teachers appear to be driven in large part by standardised test results. SATs when the kids are small, followed by GSCEs and eventually A levels.

      This has led to a school curriculum designed to teach the exam, more so than seeking to equip children with the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in life beyond school.

      Long ago and far away where I went to school, the curriculum seemed focussed on equipping students with life skills. There was an exam at the end of each term, mainly to see if you’d been paying attention.

      The only standardised testing was at the end of the final year of school, to determine a university entrance mark. From what I remember that seemed like an incidental thing at the end rather than the single minded focus throughout.

      It is possible that was more a product of the area and schools I attended, which were strong on the school of life. Vocationally rather than academically focussed. Less than 5% of the student population went on to tertiary study straight after school, though I suspect many returned later as mature age students.

What say you?

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