Other People’s Problems

My younger daughter was always taking things on. I was going to say that she was always championing the underdog, but that’s not it. I remember when she was in her early teens, she described to me some problem a classmate was having and how she was trying to help her, and variously intervening and worrying about the situation, getting quite worked up. I listened mainly, but at one point I did suggest that really it was not up to her to solve her friend’s problems. From memory it was something cultural; the friend’s parents, from a more conservative background, were placing restrictions. Or something. My daughter shot back to the effect that it was up to her. I recognise my own yen to solve problems, mainly for my kids (snowplough parenting, they call it now) but in her it was extreme.

I was reminded of this when the two of us went out to dinner recently, many years later. We are more or less strangers to one another now. We haven’t ever really talked about why she left, how she feels about me or her dad etc and I suppose I have assumed she just hates me. I’ve felt upset about this but essentially powerless to do anything, to push myself forward, to make demands, even demands of a small amount of time or attention. I try to show that I love her, but am conscious that my every effort will likely be read as further proof that I am, what? aggressive? passive-aggressive? controlling? demanding? needy? selfish? Whatever.

So we’d been to see a movie, and then I suggested dinner. I hadn’t dared to presume, especially as she had told me that she didn’t want to be out late: her father was coming home from a business trip and she wanted to be there. The thought crossed my mind that he would not do the same for her. It’s the sort of thing I would do, whether my children wanted it or not. But not him. Unless he is very much changed. Nevertheless she accepted the invitation to dinner and we headed to Chinatown, just behind the cinema in Leicester Square, and tried to find somewhere with a lot of vegan choices. We joined a fast-moving queue to what seemed like a very authentic restaurant, heaving with Chinese diners. The long menu was full of things we’d not spotted, glancing at the one outside, with items even an adventurous eater who had spent time in HK (me) found startling. Not just the feet and lips of creatures but various innards you never see on menus here. Never mind, she ordered tofu with veg and I ordered spicy aubergine, so that we could share, and both, with some plain rice, were absolutely delicious.

So we were sitting and chatting over our meal, and she was telling me that she was struggling with what to do after she graduates this year, in terms of further study or career moves. And I was astonished when she said, in reply to some comment about job security and pensions (not very exciting, I’m sorry) ‘I know! I’m going to have to look after both of you! Dad doesn’t have a pension either, and [brother] and [sister] are not going to make much money!’ I was dumbfounded.

  • that she thought her siblings would never make money
  • that she had any interest in supporting me (given she hates me)
  • that her father (an international investment banker, Cambridge graduate, Dean’s List MBA and general big swinging dick) might need financial support in his old age
  • that she felt that she was somehow responsible for us at all (when I feel we should be there to support her and her siblings and not the other way round)

It’s funny, because at the same time as (when little) being incredibly kind and a peacemaker, she was always very strategic and ruthless in other ways. All of the children were very good at chess, but she was possibly the strongest. She invariably thrashed us all at Blokus. And she had the whole family round her finger one summer when she started awarding made up ‘puppy points’ for good behaviour! I always thought of her as kind and loving: when in the supermarket with me, aged 6 and up, I’d find her playing peekaboo with toddlers sitting in trolleys. Now she says she doesn’t like children. And her twin says she was always bossy and domineering, which I never thought at the time, but maybe he’s right.

She told me when she was very small that she would look after me when I was old, and I would live with her and she would make me eat vegetables. (This was before she became a vegan so I don’t know that she meant it for my own good, it may have been more in the way of getting her own back!) Of course small children say many such things and soon change their minds.

She was the one who woke and cried in the night when she heard me and her father arguing. Perhaps the others did too, but I remember she was the one I knew about and tried to comfort. And we both – BH and I – used to reassure her that Mummy and Daddy were arguing and that was ok and we were not going to get divorced. I feel guilty about that because it turned out not to be true, even if I believed it at the time.


Image: I used to think, when I heard harrassed mothers in the supermarket, that their children would grow up thinking their name was Shut Up or Stop That. This stone plaque was spotted in the cathedral at Ely.

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Florence Feynman

I am a middle aged, middle class woman, thinking.

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