15th June, 2018
As for all aspects of parenting, what you encounter when your children become adults cannot be predicted, has no guidebook and offers a host of opportunities for problem-solving, or, put in more positive terms, solution-finding. I have four adult children in their thirties and whilst their father and I have safely navigated childhood and adolescence, I am finding that being the parent of four adults surprising and certainly material for growth. For example, something that I wasn’t aware of as much as I might have been is that no matter what direction their lives and your own go you are still and always will be, first and foremost, in their minds, a parent.
In recent years I have taken up creative writing and in my three novels, to date, I created a central character who is a psychologist and a mum, which isn’t that surprising as I know a great deal about both and the writing has given me a wonderful way of exploring many issues and scenarios. Obviously, being fiction, it is all made-up but equally obviously, to me, I have drawn upon my own lived experiences in combination with reading, research and discussion with and observation of many people. Many novelists, especially first-timers, are accused of over-personalising their writing and the accusation that one’s stories are autobiographical is generally meant as a criticism. This has certainly been the case for me in some of the feedback about my writing from my children. The warnings about the dangers of this are a core component of the industry of writing courses and advice to authors that has mushroomed in recent years. However, like Barbara Taylor Bradford, I do think that “a novel is a monumental lie – with the ring of truth about it” and none of it duplicates the complexity of life in any specific and exact way.
I did think that my grown-up children would be pleased that I was being so proactive in trying to realise a life-long dream of story-writing and although they have given me positive feedback about the writing in general the actual story-lines and characterisation that I have used caused some upset, which, of course, I regret. In some ways, when readers accuse a writer of being autobiographical it is actually a big complement because it must in some way feel real to them! So, what are the learning points from this? Firstly, when creating characters, if there is any chance of them resembling a real person too closely, consciously change the presenting details, e.g. their appearance, age, job and/or personal situation. The underlying themes and issues your story may be exploring should not be excised because these are what will bring ‘the ring of truth’, the universal human truths, that any kind of good story must contain and probably motivates you to write in the first place. Secondly, don’t actively encourage or ask your children to read your stories. I’m not suggesting that you keep your writing secret because it is an important aspect of your life and who you are and parents must in all things be authentic. When you talk about what you have created, if they ask to read your work, then fine but always with the caveat “this is a story”. Thirdly, don’t forget to put a clear and explicit disclaimer at the start of the book, which is what I did with my first novel and then had to backtrack and insert at a later date.
So, back to parenting adult children in general; you’ve done all the nurturing, supporting and caring that has got them safely into adulthood and hopefully will feel justifiably proud and happy about this but the whole point of parenting and doing this effectively is to help the child become an independent, autonomous individual with views and thoughts of their own. Ideally they will be questioning and critical and, because they have grown up in a different world to the one that you did, they are going to have different perspectives but hopefully what is likely to be the same are the values by which you have parented. This will be apparent in the discussions you have where the differences are aired, listened to and debated where conflict and acrimony doesn’t feature or, worse case scenario, the communication breaks down completely. As William Blake wrote in his poem ‘The Poison Tree’: I was angry with my friend: I told my wrath, my wrath did end. I was angry with my foe: I told it not, my wrath did grow.” The important message here is that differences have to be discussed and that communication must continue. If parents can keep trying to get this right with their children of whatever age not only will there be reciprocal learning for all involved but they are also ensuring a wonderful legacy for their grandchildren and for all the children yet to be born.