More often than she stages shows, Nina tells jokes. Our son, Sam, discovered knock-knock jokes during his first year at primary school. He found the format uproariously funny and spent large amounts of time at the dinner table improvising his own versions. They often went something like this:
“Water cup who?”
“Water cup on the table! Ha ha ha!”
Sam would then erupt in peals of laughter. My husband and I would grin bemusedly. Nina would quickly join in the mirth, often trying to laugh even more animatedly than Sam. Before long Nina was attempting similar knock-knock jokes of her own.
For about a year the kids carried on with their nonsensical knock-knock jokes, until I finally took matters into my own hands and purchased two books of actual, at least slightly funny, knock-knock jokes. This turned out to be a very wise investment. It is far easier to at least smile, if not laugh outright, at knock-knock jokes that have some comic accuracy, rather than jokes that make sense only to the teller.
During her reception year at primary school, Nina came home one week with “The Ha Ha Bonk Book,” by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. This book is a classic of children’s comic literature, and several of the jokes included made me laugh heartily when Nina told them. Whenever that happened, Nina would inform me, “That was a real laugh.”
“Yes, it was,” I would agree, still grinning.
“It wasn’t a fake laugh,” she would add, thoughtfully.
“No, you’re right. It was a real laugh.”
“Why do you do fake laughs sometimes?”
“Well, when you tell me jokes that I’ve heard several times before, or when you tell me jokes that don’t really make sense, it’s hard to do a real laugh,” I said, diplomatically.
“But you laugh the first time, and a little bit the second time,” Nina observed.
“That’s true, I do, if I think the joke is funny.”
Nina became so enamoured of many of the drolleries in “The Ha Ha Bonk Book” that she memorized many of them. One afternoon at school pick-up Nina was in particularly good spirits.
“I sat with Mr Richards at lunch today,” Nina announced cheerfully, “And I told him the ‘tweetment’ joke, and he said I was a born comedian!”
Mr Richards is the deputy head teacher at the primary school Nina and Sam attend. I admired my daughter for being brave enough to regale her deputy head teacher with her favourite witticisms.
“So Mr Richards liked that one?”
“Yeah, and then he told me one about a footballer, it was hilarious!”
I pictured Nina and Mr Richards sitting at a student lunch table trading wisecracks, and had reason again to be grateful our children had ended up at a primary school where something like that could happen.
Nina continued adding to her repertoire. Each time she told a joke that brought a real laugh, she smiled knowingly. She was highly skilled at distinguishing between genuine and forced laughter, and only genuine laughter truly satisfied her.
I waited a very long time to have children. I met the man who would become my husband when I was seventeen, and married him at twenty-three. But several barriers stood between marriage and parenthood. My own parents divorced when I was five, and that event had serious repercussions on my childhood. My father moved out-of-state, and my siblings and I saw him once a month at the most. My mom did her best as a single parent, but until we moved in with my stepdad when I was eleven, life was tumultuous. I knew that I wanted to be certain my marriage was rock-solid before having children. I also knew I wanted to be able to have parenting, rather than making ends meet, be my primary responsibility. I wanted to do a good job as a wife and as a mother.
It wasn’t until I was thirty-three that I felt ready to try to become a mom. By that age I had realized that no marriage is truly rock-solid, but I knew that ours had weathered several storms and had lived to tell. My husband and I had moved to England, and it was the Golden Age of the Internet, so we were better off financially than we had ever been before (or have ever been since). We decided to see if we could join the ranks of parents. Our son, Sam, was born in 2002; I was thirty-four. Our daughter, Nina, was born a couple years later.
I took motherhood seriously right from the start. I didn’t work outside the home, and I devoted large amounts of time to the children. When Sam was three, he was diagnosed with autism. This came as a massive blow, but I quickly resolved that I would work even harder to be a good mom for Sam. I set aside time to play with him with as much attention as I could muster. It was not easy to stay engaged when the Lego Duplo fireman extinguished yet another blaze, or one more marble emerged from the Theraputty, but I gave it my best shot. It was orchestrated rather than organic play, and even when I was fully attentive, part of me remained somewhat separate, observing the play like a scientist, with an eye towards further improvement. This became my habitual mode of interacting with both my children. I call it meta-parenting.
Whenever problems arose with the children, I consulted as many sources as possible for advice. I now own enough parenting books to fill a few bookshelves. After all, I had not returned to work outside the home, so motherhood was my profession, and I saw all my reading as continuing education. Much of my research has certainly increased my skill as a mother, but it has also contributed to obscuring a fundamental truth of parenting. My children don’t want “The Best Mother In The World.” They want me.
Sam, because of the way he works, is content with small doses of intimacy, but Nina is not. Nina wants closeness often, and she wants it to be real. She is not satisfied with meta-parenting; she craves a deep connection. This is a problem for me, as I am a worrier. I worry about my performance as a parent. I have countless other worries: some very serious, some quite unnecessary. All of them detract from my ability to give Nina the undivided attention she longs for. It is impossible to be fully present when preoccupied.
Nina is an intelligent girl. She has figured out the ways to access my authentic emotions. One of the easiest methods is to anger me, but a far more pleasant approach for both of us is for her to make me laugh. Laughter, for me, is cleaner than happiness. Happiness is murky territory. It can sometimes be overwhelming; it is always ephemeral, tinged with the sadness of certain loss even while it exists. But when either of my children says or does something funny, I feel my parent-persona crack, I feel my worries evaporating, and for a few heavenly moments, the children and I just enjoy ourselves and each other.
The next time Nina tells me a knock-knock joke, I will listen to the words, but I will also hear the subtext. For Nina, the heart of every knock-knock joke really goes like this:
Me: “Who’s there?”
Nina: “I am.”
Me: “I am who?”
Nina: “I am me. And I am here. Are you?”