They fuck 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.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.
Admittedly, my knowledge of Larkin is limited beyond my awareness of this poem. I hear he liked a drink (what poet doesn't?), and that his father had an odd zest for Nazism. I came across the poem in the Family section of our favourite weekend newspaper, The Guardian, a couple of years ago. I took a liking to it immediately as a new mother fearing her own inadequacies, as well as a person who appreciates highbrow literary types - Larkin was asked to be Poet Laureate but declined - beginning a poem with a line so strong as "they fuck you up, your mum and dad..."
The first line of this poem is on a constant loop in my head as I muddle through days as a mother. It was present when I was in a coffee shop with P last week, our conversation consisting mainly of "P, please sit down", "P, Mummy says no shoes on the chair", "P, Mummy would like you to eat your muffin nicely and not like a savage." It hovers as I'm letting P run the length of an aisle in the supermarket, ensuring that she doesn't run into other shoppers, but not quite motivated enough to deal with the certain tantrum which would result from stopping her. Larkin's words echo as I allow her sweet face and big, pleading blue eyes to convince me without speaking that she needs yet another horse from the generic My Little Pony collection which she is so fond of.
My Mom has always said that no one is ever truly ready to become a parent. Even with my relative new presence in the sphere of motherhood I've also realised that you won't know for years whether you have done more fucking up than raising well. My general approach to parenting is a relaxed one - I encourage P to explore, I don't overuse the word "no", I ensure that she doesn't eat rubbish, I give constant cuddles, we sing songs all the bloody time, and I make sure she knows how clever and wonderful she is.
This all points to being a good mother, but looking at the examples provided above, you can flip all of those to be negatives - exploring leads to recklessness and ignorance of boundaries, lack of exposure to being told "no" can mean your kid is a spoiled, entitled brat, too much strictness with foods can be a gateway to eating disorders/food issues, too much physical contact can affect independence, and showering a kid with praise all the time could leave you with an arrogant prat of an adult child.
I know that like everything else in life, it's about the blessed happy medium. However, also like everything else, finding that balance is difficult. One day I think I'm far too accommodating, then on another I feel like a cruel tyrant. I happen to think P is as well-behaved as a two year old can possibly be, but I suspect all those bastards that cast us numerous hairy eyeballs when she tantrums would beg to differ.
I think of my own parents, who must have raised me well as I think that if P turns out like me, then we would have avoided Larkin's bold assertion. It's tremendously arrogant of me to hope my daughter is like me because I'm so great or something, but I'm really not too bad. Ok, I'm a flake, which I get from my Mom. I'm hard to get to know, a gift from my Dad. I hear some people are intimidated by me, so again, thanks Dad. I love the arts and culture, something else I managed to inherit from my Mom.
All in all, I'm kind of alright. I'm hoping P will be the same and I don't fuck her up. Not too much anyway.