Anna Dusseau | 15th July 2020
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”Oscar Wilde
The year is 2016 and I’m sat on a riverbank overlooking the Thames. There is a boat race that takes place here and it’s fun to watch. We try to avoid the crowds; going upriver as far as possible until we find a patch of grass to squat. London is an unbelievable place. The guy in front of us turns his head, blonde eyebrows bristling in the sunlight, and gives a wink. “Nice to see you, mate…” And now he’s shaking my husband’s hand; they are work colleagues. I bury my head in the backpack, searching for sandwiches, and let out a small sigh. Here we go, again. By the time we are packing up, Eyebrows and his long-legged girlfriend are in a party mood, swapping stories and swigging the dregs of warm prosecco. It’s nearly 4pm and I have a stash of sixth form marking waiting for me on the sofa, not to mention half the city to cross by tube with our two children. Hoisting the baby into the sling and holding my daughter’s hand firmly, I give my best smile, the one that says: it’s been lovely. But Eyebrows claps my husband on the back and beams caddishly at us both. “How about a quick drink at The Staff and Flag?” And I look at him squarely now; the approval he seeks, and the cost either way. I don’t want to disappoint him. But I also don’t fancy sitting in a packed beer garden with two tired kids, telling Long-Legs about my pelvic floor, while ‘the boys’ queue at the bar. That’s so, completely, not who ‘we’ are. But, when in Rome, or Hammersmith. “Go on then,” I laugh, mentally weighing up orange juice vs. lime soda. Gak! The things we do…
It’s important to be ourselves, but my public default seems to push against this. Like the Hydra (female) or the snake-haired Medusa (also female) or even Usher’s questionable idolatry of ‘a lady on the street, but a freak in the bed’; I am different things to different people. Why? My parents separated when I was very young but they are both, in their own ways, people pleasers; my mother forever carrying the cross of Catholic charitability – and, in the process, seriously blurring the lines between friendship and service – and my father, a natural joker and storyteller, essentially a private person yet unable to prevent himself from attracting a crowd with his ability to spin a good tale. I can’t blame them, though. This time, I’m the parent and the buck stops with me. Why on earth would I change our weekend plans and find myself playing ‘peekaboo’ with a paper napkin, purely to satisfy Eyebrows’ need for male company when ordering a pint? I hate myself for it. And yet, years later, with three children now and an altogether slower pace of life on the rural outskirts of a small village, I am back in this boat again. I smile and nod whenever we cross paths with the Reverend; she’s a nice lady and there’s no need to scowl. I force myself to relax around kids who drink soda, knowing mine will want one too, and telling myself it won’t do any harm. I’ve even found myself hushing my children around families who abhor any form of bad language – a parenting approach as self-defeating as it is misinformed. And I do it, I suppose, not exactly to please other people, but because I am painfully capable of tuning into their vulnerability; the fact that flexibility isn’t an option for some families, but it is for us. We can suck it up for a few hours, and still come home still knowing who we ‘really are’. Can’t we?
Religion can be problematic here. And I shoot myself in the foot from the word ‘go’ because I am – quite vocally – fascinated by religion. As incredible as I find actual religious belief, I can’t help but wonder where my career would be now if I had pursued this interest beyond school, where I took Religion and Philosophy at A Level. The weaving of stories, the tremendous human history, the architecture, the logic (both for and against) – the whole thing grabs my academic interest. In fact, so enthralled and – seemingly – open-minded am I about religion that I’ve sometimes been mistaken for someone who wants ‘saving’; I don’t. And I do try to make my position clear. I respect your choice. I understand where your belief comes from. I am familiar with these stories, too. But it’s a murky pool to paddle in. Either you’re religious, or your despise religion, right? It’s less common to sit on the fence. Or perhaps that’s not the right analogy. What I mean is, there isn’t a ‘fence’ for me at all; I like to take a wander around and come back into ‘my field’ any time I like. Do you know what I mean, or have I lost you here? I can’t figure out whether I’m supremely tolerant, or a gigantic asshole. I think my in-laws might say the latter. For over a decade, they come to visit us each year loaded with gifts from their region of Provence: sweet almond calissons, black treacle-tasting nougat, foie gras. I have never made a stand on this before, never voiced my abhorrence to even have the stuff in my house. I didn’t want to rock the boat. But my children force me to consider, every day, the dance I am doing and who, exactly, I am dancing for. In the end, we told them to forget the foie gras, which is French for a slap-in-the-face. Animal rights isn’t really a ‘thing’ over there.
Last year, we spent the weekend with a straight-up pain in the ass. My husband lived in Scotland for a few years when he first left France and his Glaswegian housemate, Colin, has become a permanent feature in our lives. Unlucky-in-love Colin always has a new girlfriend, and our weekend getaway in Yorkshire last summer was no exception. “Any objection if I bring Suzie?” came his rhotic accent, reverberating on speakerphone. I paused midway through the bathtime splashathon and looked curiously at my husband. “Suzie?” he asked. “What happened to Rachel?” And, a month later, my conclusion was that Suzie had probably bonked Rachel over the head with the bludgeon of a six-month Private Eye subscription box and buried her – fittingly – somewhere on the shores of Loch Lomond. Suzie was a ‘tough cookie’ and very funny, so long as you were laughing with her. In truth, she was good with the kids, too, and we spent both Saturday and Sunday playing games in the big garden of the cottage we’d rented, baking vegan brownies, and being pirate explorers in the woods at the end of the lane. On the journey home, our daughter – the only one who wasn’t fast asleep – took her headphones off to inform us that she’d like to spend the weekend with Suzie again, sometime. But I wasn’t sold. The evenings, once the children were in bed, had taken on a different vibe altogether and, more than once, I’d had to avoid my husband’s eyeline, for fear that my expression too clearly read: ‘another winner’. Not that Suzie was fundamentally an awful person; all her principles – veganism, broadly ‘leftish’ views, rapidly mounting distaste for mainstream values – were actually beliefs I share. It wasn’t ‘her’ that was the problem, but rather the fact that she was so verbal and unswerving in her exhibition of being ‘herself’ that there was no room for anyone else. I don’t want to be like that, either.
Of course, deciding to homeschool is the ultimate ‘test’ in some ways and provokes all sorts of reactions. We have some very cool, incredibly lovely friends, who send their children to school, but totally ‘get’ our choice to home educate. And we, in turn, ‘get’ theirs. But it doesn’t always work like that. Withdrawing your child from school and deciding you’d rather pay a lifetime of tax for a system that you don’t participate in, rather than engage with that world, carries implicit criticism of what goes on there. Nobody wants to hear that. Opinions are strong on both sides of the ‘fence’ and – this time – it’s a high one, with less legroom to ‘mooch about’. One side questions homeschoolers inability to live in the ‘real world’, whilst many home educators themselves feel that the ‘real world’ is heading in the wrong direction. I now find myself in this category and curl my toes at newspaper headlines which shove more of the same down our throats, in an attempt to ‘fix’ the problems in society. More homework, longer school days, stricter discipline, more rigorous testing. Children are entering Reception without basic language skills? Let’s start them at two. In fact, let’s cut out parents altogether and take them directly from the maternity ward. People can’t be trusted; it’s better to hand them over. The same is true on the streets. More robust policing, a rise in stop and search and, in the office, companies micromanaging employees to an extent that questions their humanity. Swipe in, swipe out sends a clear message: you have no personal responsibility. Accepting the status quo requires a certain palette, like foie gras. And – just like eating meat – the less you consume, the less you can stomach it. Still though, when faced with the inflexible thinking of friends and family, who tell us categorically that our children ‘should be in school’ and that theirs ‘can’t wait for September’, I smile and nod. I tell them that I understand their viewpoint, and I swallow the powerfully opposing viewpoint I now hold because, in the end, I don’t want to be a dick about it. I wish I was a little more like my mother, a fully-invested and unapologetic people-pleaser. Or, failing that, more like Suzie, slipping out at 9pm for a roll-up and an uncensored tongue-lashing of anything and everything that doesn’t fit my world view. But I am neither of these things. I am, it would seem, a reluctant pacifist. How about you?