What’s your earliest memory? Your first day at school? Playing in the garden with a sibling? Mine was my junkie mother, strung-out on heroin wearing knee-high black leather boots kicking a hole in a stained-glass window.
Something must have really pissed her off that day. I certainly remember the intensity of the moment, but I knew no harm would come to me – it never did. This was just one of her turns, and f*** me, if she didn’t look like a real force of nature standing there raging on the stairs.
This was the late Seventies, so I couldn’t have been much older than four or five. My mum and I lived as a single parent family in a squat near Ladbroke Grove after she and my father had split up when I was 18 months old. I used to crawl around various “borrowed” houses, sometimes under the watchful eye of the notorious punks Sid and Nancy (mum always used to say that Sid was “such a nice boy”). Drugs, prostitution and overdoses were commonplace, but I’ve never been happier in my life.
Suffice to say, whenever I talk about my childhood it raises eyebrows. But now that I’m a father to a one-year-old and about to become a parent to a second daughter, I find myself reflecting on my upbringing, how I think it affected me, and what lessons I can learn to help me become the best dad I can possibly be. I truly believe my mother was a model parent and these are things she’s shown me.
The Big Reveal
In the winter of 1982, I accidently walked in on my mum injecting drugs in the kitchen, and both of our lives changed forever. Mortified, she immediately entered herself into a rehab programme for heroin addiction – this was the wake-up call she’d needed. In her own words, “If I carry on like this, either I’m going to die, or you’ll be taken away from me – I promise neither is going to happen.” As there was no immediate family living close to us, I was taken into care when she moved from London to a detox clinic in Kent.
This was probably the hardest moment of both of our lives. I loved London and my life there, and now I had to leave my friends behind, join a new school, live with strangers in a strange little town and most mortifyingly, be separated from my mum – who was having to deal with all of these issues too while going through cold turkey.
People talk about having to make sacrifices for your children; this was something else entirely. She’d have to leave behind the warm blanket of heroin, a decent job, her friends; all of this while dealing with the guilt she felt about sending me into care. That takes incredible faith and strength, and if I show half of her courage as a parent, I’ll be lucky.
If you don’t like kids, don’t be a foster parent
The notion of fostering is admirable. However, the lasting impression of my first foster family isn’t one of benevolence – it was almost as if they resented the fact they’d chosen to foster children in the first place, but their Christian faith somehow tied them to it.
As a scared and uprooted nine-year-old, I did go through a spate of bed wetting when I first arrived, and I remember they took a very dim view of this – so much so that the mother called me into the kitchen once and admonished me for it. I was then sent to the study to “sit and think about the work involved in having to wash your sheets so often”. But this exacerbated the problem, and I held a burning animosity towards them from that point on. The main lesson I’ve learned from being fostered is a simple one: if you don’t like children, don’t become a parent.
The kindness of women
After over two years of recovery, I was allowed to go and live with my mother in rehab, which was in a large converted country house. Apart from a handful of staff, there were about six other women there – all recovering addicts from a variety of backgrounds.
Being surrounded predominantly by women as a kid only seems to have had a positive influence in my life. I managed to relate to women easily from a very young age, and this can only bode well for my daughters. Growing up as a young adolescent surrounded by a ragtag bunch of eccentric, damaged, emotional and at times dangerously unhinged women, has given me a highly developed emotional intelligence too – something that I feel has been invaluable to me.
Sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll
In communal situations, the women in rehab would sometimes forget I was there and start to discuss subjects like sex in front of me, which gave me a unique insight into the female psyche and meant that I wasn’t shocked by much in later life.
In fact, growing up around drugs has also given me a more balanced attitude to vices – recreational drugs are ok (if a little boring), but I much prefer a Negroni. Therefore, I can’t see myself being overly protective of my children when the time comes for them to experiment with various substances, as this only seems to engender rebellion or curiosity.
One parent families are just as good
In my experience, one-parent families, are just as likely to produce
bright, intelligent and emotionally stable children as any other. If I
think very hard, the only negative aspect of growing up without a dad was a lack of encouragement when it came to sports.
I’m also not particularly aggressive or competitive – traits that I’d assume usually originate from the male side of the family, and ones that might be harnessed positively in certain situations – but sometimes aren’t. If growing up without a father figure meant I was one of the kids that got picked last for the school football team, I can live with that.
Despite some truly turbulent events in my formative years, there was always one constant in my life, and that was the unconditional love I received from my mother. I’m certain that this was the difference between me going completely off the rails as a teenager and the (I would hope) rounded, wise and emotionally developed person I am today. So even if I can’t promise my daughters the world, they’re going to be loved to within an inch of their lives, and that’s the most important gift a parent can give their child.