Before the birth of my son, I rarely thought of my childhood. Little did I also think of the parental qualities of my mum and dad. Any thoughts on my early years were limited to the recollection of the unprecedented and as of this day insurmountable sense of safety and security that defined my childhood. From my teen years onwards, the feeling that emerged was that of deep gratitude towards my parents whose sacrifices gave my a level of education above their pay-grade. But not much else. I am not one to romanticise childhood, and to be honest, I feel more comfortable now as an adult rather than as I ever felt as a child and even less so as a teenager.
But after Johnny was born something clicked. Suddenly, I started recalling moments of my childhood. Incidents and stories of a bygone era, filtered through the eyes of the boy and the mind of the adult. Flashes from short movies of my childhood started playing with every little trigger. I succumbed and entertained the memories. I still do. My parents feature prominently and the more I play in my head the scenes from the past, the more I observe and evaluate their parental qualities. Every observation, good or bad, turns into a comparison of how I behave towards my son.
The memories have a function. Rather than a product of an idealized past, they are blueprints of behaviour and parental style. A quest to find out how to strike the perfect balance between providing positive influence and reinforcement whilst allowing sufficient room for self-development and reflection. My parents got this balance absolutely right. Whilst I am very much a product of the opportunities and influences of my environment, which was determined by my exposure to stimuli carefully placed by them, I am also very different both from them and from my siblings, which goes to tell that they did not attempt to create a son in their own image or in the idealized version of who they could have been, as is often the case. This strategic feeding of information and calculated exposure to stimuli was so masterful that it felt and seemed effortless. I wonder how did they achieve this?
My trips down memory lane are attempts to unpack truth from the past and to extract some guidance for the future. This is not to say that my past is in any way exceptional. My parents had good but not exceptional jobs. My dad worked for the Bank of Cyprus and my mum is still a public servant. My parental home is roomy but far from a palace. In other words, I am a fairly representative product of middle-class Cyprus of the nineties, with some nice twists such as the fact that our household was a deeply political one, which was not very common back then, albeit less so than it is today.
Politics were always lurking in the environment. I remember my dad attending political meetings, having lots of political opinions, which he still never fails to vocalise, and always surrounded by newspapers. I also recall lots of conversations about social justice and equality. You see, my parents were social-democrats before the bankruptcy of social-democracy in Europe. Don’t picture a couple of rebels though. They were indeed very much a product of their generation, with all the political naïveté and risk aversion that characterises baby-boomers. As for developing a sense of national identity, I don’t recall much talk about ethnicity or even nationhood, although they talked a lot about Greece but always in relation to literature, theater, books and current affairs. A cultural, critical attachment to Greece rather than an everything-goes association with an imagined motherland.
The library of my childhood home provided a refuge for me, a sanctuary away from the noise and the hurdles of the world. And the books I ‘consumed’ were the triggers for our most intimate conversations since they raised more questions than they answered. To my eyes my parents were, as parents typically are in the eyes of their children, bastions of knowledge. Little did I know at the time that they were probably as clueless as I feel right now. But the way they used books was masterful; books became both rewards and measures of merit, as well as means of socialisation. I enjoyed reading books and the more I did the more time I spent with my dad in the bookshop browsing and eventually buying and reading books. It was a ritual that entailed pleasure, approval, knowledge and a habit that proved handy later in the future. Once more, how on earth did they achieve this?
While the books were a defining feature of my childhood, it was during my teenage years that I started doubting and challenging my parents and their beliefs, as most teenagers do. My parents were no longer bastions of knowledge, if anything, they seemed a bit dull and too comfortable in their ways. Their responses to my many criticisms were a bit blaze. Sometimes they engaged, other times they didn’t, occasionally I was told off, but nothing out of the ordinary. They waited it out and eventually out it went and I started liking them anew.
Although mum and dad were not ones to adopt a non-confrontational approach, we did not quarrel with each other all the time as many teenagers do. They picked their fights carefully — mostly cigarettes and bad grades in classes I found boring. This mode of communication was never clear to me, and it is not to this day; I cannot say with certainty that I can predict their response. When, for example, a few years later, I announced to them that I would not study law, computers or economics, as were their mildly expressed preferences, they did not protest; rather they pointed out their concerns, notably that I would struggle to find a job and urging me to make a list of potential jobs I would be interested to pursue with a degree in Politics and International Relations. I did and that was it. In a similar vein, they did not challenge my decision to pursue master’s and doctorate degrees in the most unemployable of disciplines that is political theory and philosophy. I don’t know how they managed to keep a cool facade. Putting myself in their shoes, I doubt I could ever be this accommodating, especially not for the first degree. Looking back, I see that by not protesting my decisions they gave me agency over them. Now I have none other to blame for my decisions than myself, though by the end things turned out well.
But come think of it, I never considered not going to the university, neither did I ever consider a degree in the Arts (God forbid). I was still within the parameters they set, a true product of the influences of my childhood. Recalling the various milestones of those early years, I only now realize the trend. The environment and the influences to which I was exposed set the boundaries of what was acceptable, whereas their own views were a point of reference from which I was free to diverge so long as I remained within the general boundaries. And indeed this is how things developed. I was always challenging them but in doing so I never diverged considerably from their own beliefs — I always hovered slightly to the left or right of their politics, depending on the subject matter and the phase I was going through, and I never pursued or showed interest in a way of life significantly different from their own.
This balancing act between boundaries and freedom was most interesting during my teen years when their objective was not so much to guide me but rather to help me develop mentally, emotionally and intellectually, as well as help me survive the hormonal turmoil of teenhood. It was during that time that I started challenging them the most. I was on a mission to deconstruct their heroes and to expose the inconsistencies between what they professed and what they practiced; that all too human vice that we all have. Not once in those years did I feel the need to self-censor. I could express a contrary or contrarian opinion without feeling that they would love me any less, or that by expressing such an opinion I would disappoint them in any way. Looking back, I realize that they had as strong opinions as I do now. Judging from the pigheadedness I share with my father, I don’t reckon that he felt any less committed or passionate about his beliefs than I do now. Yet he and mum masterfully gave me space to explore and develop into my own person. How on earth did they do that?
The years went by and all of us changed. I spent a decade in an existential and actual journey going from one university to the next, whilst they continued being politically active in an ever changing political landscape. Their points of reference shifted, yet they still lead their political lives based on the same landmarks that are no longer there. I make point of it, having the benefit of being exposed to other places, ideas, and about a hundred grand’s worth of formal education (all privileges I owe to them). They, of course, protest and we agree to disagree.
The birth of my son solidified my transition to adulthood. I realize how ridiculous the proposition that I only came to terms with adulthood after turning 32 sounds, but it does not make it any less true. Now, a certified, accredited adult, I am at last able to relate with my parents as one. And the more our daily lives start to resemble each others, as do our concerns and worries, the more grateful I feel for their parenthood style. My realizations, commonsensical as they may be, are revelatory: I never paused to consider how they raised me instead of merely what I got out of them raising me. It is only now that the spotlight shifted from me to them, or rather to the new baby, that I reflect on their parenthood. In a way, I feel that their work is done. Now their role has changed, they are fully-fledged, carefree, excited grandparents to a lovely little boy who’s character shows more by the day.
I now sit back and enjoy them enjoying being grandparents to the little monster. I think they are even better grandparents than they were parents. Probably it’s because they don’t have all the stress factors and concerns that are endemic to parenthood. Now they are free to enjoy loving and displaying their love towards a baby that is as much their own as it is ours. And the little one is happy to be with them, even during the period that we are going through where he only has eyes for his mum.
I don’t know the recipe for good parenthood, and it’s not like I can do anything beyond read books and get tips from my own childhood. For better or worse, I cannot emulate my parents. The circumstances were different, the world was different. It was before mobile phones and consumer internet for crying out loud. But one thing I feel strongly about is that at the very least I owe Johnny to be as good a parent as my mum and dad were to me growing up. He deserves to feel the sense of security and happiness that I felt as a child.
At the same time as I try to figure out how to give space for Johnny to become a person of his own without getting into harm’s way, much as my parents did, I also find myself trying to avoid things that they did, which although well-meaning, were misguided. This scrutiny, of course, is much different from the rage-fueled questioning and doubt of my teen years. In the era of adulthood, I humanized my parents and came to terms with their ills and graces, both of which had a determining effect on who I am today.
And here I am now, having to make important calls that will affect the baby’s future and other various micro-decisions that will not likely have a grand effect on him. When I am about to make a decision, I subconsciously consider what my parents would do, either to emulate or avoid. They are, after all, my point of reference. As for my parental style, and considering that the baby is still a baby absolutely dependent upon us for everything, I try to combine instinct and evidence. Suffice to say that utilizing my instincts is a first for me. I normally rely on verifiable, empirical data deriving from scientific research. But many things are a first with the baby.
This is part of a series of entries titled Fatherhood Diaries where I record thoughts on life as a new dad. Click here for all the Fatherhood Diaries.