They fuck you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to, but they do.
Those are the opening lines of Philip Larkin’s poem This Be The Verse. Mostly I like to use those lines to blame my parents for all my faults. When I catch myself walking around a ladder instead of under it, I stop and think of my mother’s superstitions and get annoyed that I have absorbed that from her.
But then this week, I heard my three-year-old shout, “Don’t stare directly at the SAD lamp.”
“What did you say?” I asked her, sitting next to my Seasonal Affective Disorder lamp for the suggested 20-50 minutes of the day.
“Don’t look directly at that lamp,” she repeated. “Keep it on the side.”
Not for the first time in recent months, I found myself absolutely shocked by my older daughter’s ability to pick up everything we are saying and doing. I know endless generations of parents have discovered this for themselves but, like everything about parenting, it feels new because it is so new to me. First, we started spelling our words but she learnt S-U-G-A-R faster than we could spell it. With my parents, I speak in hushed Bengali. My daughter suddenly responds like a budding Tagore.
My father serves himself ice cream in a coffee mug to throw her off. He says nothing but she watches him, eyes him carefully, thinks, and asks, “Why do you have a spoon in your coffee?”
He rushes out of the room.
And these last few weeks, I have been hitting a bit of a pandemic wall. We have no childcare help, it’s snowing in upstate New York, where we are for the winter, the sun sets at 4.30pm, the skies are grey, the roads are deserted. On the news, the covid-19 cases climb and I open a site that lets you see how full your local hospital’s ICU unit is.
“Forty-four per cent,” I say to my husband. “That’s not bad, right?”
“What are you talking about?” he asks. I have been so obsessed, I forget that we were not in the middle of discussing this. I tell him.
“Don’t check such stats,” he says. “That’s not going to make you feel good. Do something else.”
None of this is healthy, none of this is joyous.
I have been sad, I have been scared, and I have been anxious. I have also been trying hard not to let my children see any of these emotions and I have been performing for them with ferocious commitment. The hollower the pit of my stomach, the louder I sing. The more my right shoulder tenses up with anxiety, the more determined I am to roll on the floor and perform a mad act. The sadder I get, the more I turn into a joker. And at night, when the children finally fall asleep, I collapse on to my own bed, exhausted and still sad and anxious and scared. I picture my mask falling, my lipstick smearing across my face. I fall asleep troubled and wake up exhausted but laughing and drizzling syrup on to pancakes for my children.
“Why you sad?” my two-year-old asks as I perform. My two-year-old. The younger one. The one who may not yet know what my SAD lamp is but who definitely already knows how to identify sadness when she feels it even if she doesn’t see it.
My three-year-old, more actively aware of emotions, watches me closely, her moods mirroring mine. Mine mirror hers back and we dance around in a cruel house of mirrors, feeding off each other. She stomps her feet and throws her glass and finally, this week, I realise I’m doing it, I’m fucking her up. I may not mean to, but I am.
I do not want to do this. I tell my husband, I put words to my concerns and hope that by acknowledging it, I can change it. I hope that awareness will give me control. And I accept that I will not parent flawlessly. Larkin was right.
In further proof of parents fucking us up, my parents were the ones who had told me this poem in the first place but they replaced the bad word and made it a more benign line, telling me, “They mess you up, your mum and dad.”
Diksha Basu is the best-selling author of The Windfall and Destination Wedding.