Walking through the parks and playing fields in yesterday's fine but windily cold sunshine it was striking to see so many fathers with their children. Well, I assumed they were fathers. I suppose they might have been uncles, mother's boyfriends, or strangers just about to achieve an abduction, but I reckon my hunch was right. They were an interesting mix. Some clearly just doing their duty, time-serving, bored, and watching the clock, until they were allowed back home again, or out to the pub, or somewhere else they'd rather be. Others, animatedly engaged in what was going on, playing the games, shouting the rules (fathers do seem to be rather shouty about rules), trying to restrain their need to win. One chap was even fully kitted out as a goalkeeper for his small children, a girl and a boy. I should add, in a spirit of gender justice, that unlike the small lady tennis player the other week, this girl was well-co-ordinated, and had some pretty nifty footwork. It got me wondering, given the divorce rates, whether the value of the park is that it's neutral ground if the parents no longer find one another congenial company. For fathers and children to stay in touch at all, they must go outside and play games, whether they want to or not.
A couple of nights before, I'd been sitting in our nearest park in Barton, in the twilight, after a long walk through this end of town, through Old Headington, and the Quarry, to Risinghurst and the C S Lewis reserve (noisy children about, no kingfishers), and my quiet time before going home to cook dinner was disrupted by loud yelling and screaming. The distance, and the fading light, made it hard to see at first, but it seemed that a woman and some small children with an equally small dog, were shouting about another even smaller dog, that was making a beeline for theirs, and was in turn being furiously yelled at by another woman, out of sight, who I imagined was its owner. I don't think there was any real set-to, but the noise set my teeth on edge. The smaller dog was reclaimed, the mother and the three children kept walking, and with their dog, passed my bench. Well, it's everyone's bench really, but I was feeling really grouchy. "What's that bloody woman doing dragging her children round in the dark on a chilly night?" I was thinking. That was an unkind thought. It occurred to me that, this being a modern world for women as well as men, she might be the only adult at home, and none of the children was big enough to stay home alone. Perhaps she had been at work all day, and just fed them after coming home. Perhaps the dog couldn't be walked until afterwards, because hungry children are more infuriating than walkless dogs. And to get a walk at all, the dog had to go out with the whole posse, and endure all the thrills and spills of shouting and shrieking (which it's possible dogs enjoy quite as much as most children and some adults).
Thinking back to childhood,I can't remember much "quality time" with either of my parents. We didn't have to endure ballgames in the park with Dad, thank goodness, and by the time we got a dog, we could walk him ourselves (just as well as neither of the parents wanted to). It's not a gripe, I'm not a great fan of quality time. It looks rather stressful. I preferred my own time, plus dinner, and occasional journeys to Whipsnade Zoo, activities at which I permitted both parents, in turn, to shine. But we always knew where our parents were. Dad was at work, Mum was at home, sometimes they were both at home. I think that's better than being in the park. And in those days, you could go to the park on your own.
But if called on to choose - playing some daft ballgame with Dad, or going out for a twilight stroll and screaming with Mum, I think I'd go for the screaming. And maybe that's the reason why, whatever the game, Mother always wins.