There was a letter in the Guardian recently – a woman who was wavering about moving her boyfriend in after he once shouted at her six year old son. ‘He has a fiery temper’ she said, which sounds much more acceptable than ‘my boyfriend is a bully’. Words and their interpretation aside, Annalisa Barbieri counselled her against moving in with him as did the 146 comments that followed. It wasn’t because the boyfriend had ‘failed’ a test. It was the fact he had bellowed into the face of a small child. Game over. One of the commentators that followed said her father had since apologised for shouting and bullying her and said over and over how much he loved her but it was ‘too late.’ You never ever forget the shame and terror of being screamed at. Especially when the other parent or step parent is sitting in the same room pretending to be deaf.
Some children can be obnoxious. You see it in those Jo Frost programmes where a four year old rules the house or will only eat biscuits. But it’s always because an adult has allowed and encouraged this behaviour which benefits them (the adult) in some way. Plus all the cruelties done to children stem from adults forgetting what it feels like to be a child. And much of the time, children know their vulnerability and total reliance on adults. So when introducing a new boyfriend or girlfriend, especially on the heels of perhaps losing a beloved parent, it has to be done carefully.
Shouting aside, I’ve been subconsciously watching out for impatience, irritation, boredom, and bare tolerance. Poor boyfriend. It’s all right for me to roll my eyes at her ceaseless chatter but not him. And it’s easy for me – his children are thoroughly grown up enough for me to share beers with them. I’m the toothbrush and broccoli Nazi, boyfriend is the fun one who suggests pizza or asks her what she wants for dinner and how about meeting her favorite children’s author because he’s thinking of staging one of his books. I found myself pouting with jealousy because all I could add to the conversation was: ‘time to brush your teeth’.
The Girl and I are staying with my boyfriend who will henceforth be known as Bear (well because he looks like one) in his almost-but-not-quite-finished house. We’re here for a while so we brought Stan the new kitten as well. ‘You’re not just getting me’ I said in the car, ‘you’re also getting a step-daughter, and a step-cat.’ He laughed. ‘Yeah but I signed up for it.’ Right answer.
The Girl has a very good father already who sees her regularly and is properly involved in her life. He is meticulous, tidy, organised and knows how to put up flatpack furniture. The happiest I ever saw him was rubbing his hands together at the prospect of building an Ikea kitchen. A few days ago, Bear brought down a flatpack shelf and with the briefest of promptings, The Girl built it. I was open-mouthed. She definitely gets that from her dad.
The Bear is very different. He is also handy, but lives in a swirl of noise, colour and middling chaos. Stuff gets lost on a regular basis. This terrified me at first because my father would constantly lose things but would scream and shout until other people in the house (his wife and daughters) stopped what they were doing, to run around, finding, placating, sorting it out. Bear doesn’t expect anyone to sort stuff out for him. He cooks gourmet food for The Girl, while quizzing her on her times tables. He accepts her intelligence and curiosity and pushes it slightly. But unlike her father who openly says that she can twist him round his little finger – calls her his ‘princess’ as it should be. He openly and thoroughly adores her. The Bear likes her very much but expects her to think and question. She in turn is too young to hide her feelings. I watched them walk down the road to the shops this morning. The Bear stomping along, shirt hanging out and The Girl bouncing and hopping by his side, her pony tail boinging. They reminded me of Timon and Pumba in The Lion King.