My eldest daughter is five years old, and she climbs things. Chairs, sofas, door frames, but most especially walls and trees – the moment I turn away from her she is scrabbling upwards and scuffing school shoes. Wherever we walk, I see her eyeing up trunks and sections of stone – in her mind I think she is already at the top, waving. As she never thinks of how to climb down, I have had to learn the art of tree climbing again as well. My other daughter and her teddy spend a lot of time among the roots, looking up, dead leaves and small swear words drifting down to them.
At the moment, the inside of our car is a small gymnasium, the inside of our house an intricate network of footholds and grips. I am the one who is wrong-footed: until now she has been a verbal child, full of words and ideas, but missing every physical milestone by, well, miles. She is bookish, as I was called on Sports Days. But she doesn’t know this, she hasn’t ever heard this word. She suddenly wants to climb, so she climbs. As far as she is aware, height is her only measurement.
And its not just climbing. To my delight, my children have amazingly few categories in which to place themselves. They pick up a doll or a truck without asking who it is ‘for’, they build things and play fairies, they wear what keeps them warm and makes them feel good (not always the same thing, naturally). They are not girly girls or tomboys, or pretty all the time. They talk about the people they know with words like brave or kind, not short or skinny, and ‘funny’ is the greatest compliment they know how to give. They catch tiggers by the toe. They think ‘historic’ is a good thing.
Forget what they tell you about womanhood. For 10 years at work, arguing with the police and the council, negotiating with the hopeless, the dangerous, cleaning up human shit from the floor of my office – i was soft. Now, for my children, I am hard. My shields are titanium. Disney princesses, dieting, make up ads, creepy comments – they ping off my force field in all directions. All the time. Aaaalll the time.
My children made me selfish, and i definitely didn’t care. I wanted their privilege to be utterly, utterly unexamined, for God knows i had examined mine enough, i thought. At arch little student parties, where it was funny. In places where other people suffered and died, where it was not. In prisons and needled doorways, shelters and chilly inquests, where i stood on the cliff edge of my solid ground and felt certainty drop away. I wanted my children to keep theirs for as long – oh, as long as they could. I’d sit down with a glass of wine one evening and tell them all about the patriarchy and discuss maybe moving into their own bedroom. They would be 25 years old.
To be fair, where we live, it hasn’t been hard. I have tucked us away in rural, southern England; our small market town inexplicably left leaning and very, very white. An island of Guardian reading, bookish sorts (see, i found my people) in a sea of cotswold Tories, where everyone is kind and warm and they use the word community a lot. It is everything a person who brings a Waitrose picnic to a protest march could hope for. Three quarters of my children’s friends are named after woodland animals or Victorian chimney sweeps. There is a cafe in town that will not serve you organic falafel unless you are demonstrably breastfeeding, regardless of gender, and the farmers market is made entirely from sourdough. When it comes to raising navel-gazing, middle class kids, i really am shooting fish in a vintage barrel. Metaphorically speaking, of course. No fish have been harmed.
So, five years later, we really think we have tackled the difficult stuff. I hide commercials from my children as if they were pornography. We try to be honest about death, about each new choice, about their bodies. We do not acknowledge the existence of Little Mix.
That’s not to say we are sentimental. No one who lives with our cat can be that. Little mouse corpses are examined sombrely at breakfast, like the gifts they were intended to be. ‘Does this mouse have a penis or a vagina?’ asks first daughter. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ says the second, ‘it’s dead’. ‘Christ.’ I think, dispatching the body into the hydrangeas with a Doc McStuffins plastic trowel.
On our way to vote in the referendum, i let slip that, as woman, i should be mindful that i am able to vote at all. I immediately have my daughter’s full attention. ‘Why?’ I see her scanning for a foothold in the walls around her, sensing something dangerous and radical beyond. ‘Because voting is fun!’ I chirp. It’s bullshit and she knows it. Voting is fun if you like community centres without anywhere to park, and that is definitely old news in our world. I don’t want her to assert her rights yet. I don’t want it to have even occurred to her that she needs to. She doesn’t ask me again, but i wish i could suck the words back in. They hang there all the way in the car, mouldering with the apple cores and organic snack bar crumbs.
Avoiding bad news is not easy, this summer. I have to strengthen my defences. After Brexit, i hear the ripples flowing out towards us, lapping quietly at the door. We see a friend crying on the street the next morning. There are arguments at family gatherings, hushed discussions at the school gates. Elsewhere: a Polish man beaten to death, graffiti on graves and motorway bridges. Beaches and rubble dust. Syria, endlessly. A trickle, then a flood. Holding small hands, i hurry away instead of comforting others. i point elsewhere, sweep newspapers away in cafes. I turn off the news, the radio – click, click, click as i plug up the leaks.
As autumn arrived, the ripples became waves. But as far as my children were concerned, the US election campaign lasted for 24 hours. The day before voting, I showed them a picture of both candidates for the very first time. My eldest daughter announced that Trump was worried, my youngest said that he looked like a man who was afraid of cats. I agreed that pussies do indeed seem to scare The Donald a little. I tell my children that Mr Trump gets very angry when people say he has small hands, and they find this as hilarious as it actually is. Clinton looked liked granny, according to both daughters. My stomach twisted a little. President Granny felt like a long shot, suddenly.
The next morning, there was no hiding the noise. The waves were breaking. I could not quite bring myself to turn off the radio, could not help it; rubbernecking at a car crash. The news seeped under the door and pooled around my feet in the kitchen. Listening in and pouring coco pops, i don’t hear her until she is chanting it like a mantra at full volume. ‘WhatsaracistwhatsaracistwhatsaRACIST?’. She and her sister are laughing while they repeat it, parrot like, taken from Today. I bellow at them to stop, but its too late now: the genie is out of the bottle and its funny to them. A game. This is worse than when she was a toddler shouting ‘fuck’ in the lifts at Debenhams. No choice now but to put down the milk and wade in.
I don’t want to tell my children what racism is. We are lucky to have been able to ignore it for so long but even so I’m not bloody ready. It is 7.13am and i am un-caffeinated. I haven’t even got a bra on – famously my minimum requirement for explaining the history of the United States to anyone. I kneel down and try to lay those ideas bare before her, shallow and unadorned to show they are not mine. I hope they’re not mine. Racism. Misogyny. Hatred. These words are quicksilver; mercury in my mind. Heavy, poisonous. I pretend to carry them lightly, to inspect them as dispassionately as a dead mouse, and the effort makes me breathless. She cannot feel the weight of them yet, but she will. My heart knows; it’s beats leave icy little vapour trails.
And I know as I’m talking that i am drawing a map where before she had only a wide open space, the corners pinned down by our family of four (and the cat). I am marking out the contour lines of her body, the colour of her skin. Who she is now, and where. ‘Skin?’ She asks me, incredulous. ‘Because of their skin?’ She laughs and looks into my face to check that I am too. When she sees i am not, she glances down at her arm and strokes it, thinking, for the very first time, about how it looks.
Standing in our kitchen, I see new boundaries spring up for her in the distance: uncrossable borders, roads, subway station tracks. The barred thresholds of neighbourhoods, professions, late night taxi cabs, certain bars, uncertain futures. All the places we think we cannot go, or cannot go alone. And round the corner, i see more: grey areas and small horizons. The bites not taken, the calories burned, the inches pinched, The counting, the counting, the measuring up. All her good ideas couched in apologies. I list them silently ahead of her. Bullet points.
In that instant I want to pick up the radio and hurl it from the window. The TV too. My phone, all the screens, the news, the endless news, none of it new to me. I want to cast them out of this happy kitchen kingdom, dropped from the top of our towers to be ground into the dust.
Trump is not the only one who wants to build a wall. We may not want to keep out the same things, yet we all share the same rage: we who cannot protect the people we love from the things we fear. Though they take a different form, my instincts are the same as theirs and, just then, it makes me all the more furious.
This turning tide of poverty – of compassion, of ideas – is washing my defences away. Of course I knew they were temporary but i had spent five years forgetting, my finger in the dam. I have heard echoes all these years, and examined nothing. We don’t find anything uncomfortable in our home – unless you count our sagging second hand chairs. I cannot keep my fears out with walls, or keep my daughter from climbing them. In truth, I have been hiding behind them myself.
I must be kind and brave, as she is. Kind enough to hear everyone, even when they are hard to hear indeed. Brave enough, when she needs to, to tell them to shut the fuck up.
I can see that not only am I going to have to actually parent in the real world, Im going to have to stop shouting at Newsnight and instead try to be the change I want to see in the world – to quote a man who I feel would have been very sympathetic about matching voluntary sector pay to the costs of wrap-around childcare.
I laugh again. Her father and I are idiots and Philip Larkin was right. I hope we don’t fuck her up too much, my funny daughter.