There’s only one parenting book, I believe, anyone truly need read.
It’s very short, and it’s got pictures:
Zagazoo by Quentin Blake.
(There’s been a recent animated version of it on TV – the book, I think, is better.)
I reckon you probably don’t need to read any other book on creative practice either, though I know some others of which I am quite fond. But definitely, for parenting, just stick to this one.
I am not going to be a spoiler and reveal the book’s full, glorious narrative arc for those who haven’t read it yet, but I can share the premise. Boy called George has met girl called Bella, (okay, it’s not overtly a very queer book, but on a deeper level – in terms of embracing slippery identities as part of the essence of life – you couldn’t get much queerer). George and Bella find they have enough in common to want to spend their lives together. And then one day – out of nowhere – a baby shows up, in the post. (N.B. this is one of the great things about this book – it skips over pregnancy and birth completely, smoothing over the thorny issues of whether or not you had the birth you wanted, or whether you adopted, or became a step parent – let’s cut to the chase: you have a baby on your hands.)
A baby called Zagazoo.
George and Bella are delighted.
Delighted that is, until little Zaggy starts to change…….
To the horror of the young couple, the baby proceeds to undergo a series of terrifying transformations. It turns into a screeching vulture by night. Then a small elephant by day, that knocks over the furniture. Then a warthog who drags mud all over the carpet. And then – my personal favourite – a dragon who sets light to the cardigan of a lady, come to sell raffle tickets at the front door. It’s awful. Especially so because they never know, from one day to the next, which creature is going to show up when.
One day they come downstairs to find- not a vulture, not an elephant, not a dragon- but instead a strange big hairy thing. The hairy thing doesn’t speak much – it mainly grunts and grows. And grows. And grows.
Ladies and Gentlemen, those who slip between the binary, and those who expand the meaning of both, the day has come in our household when my cute, red, bald little Zagazoo, who arrived in my lap, twelve years ago this month, has turned into this:
Of course, I knew this was coming. I read Zagazoo back when my son was small, back when I was studiously reading my way through great stacks of parenting literature, back before I realised that Quentin Blake’s slim volume was the only one I really needed. But still, it has come as a shock. It has to.
It’s part of the story that it is shocking.
And I have been trying to figure out why – what it is exactly that is so unnerving, about this utterly predictable and inevitable change.
The closest I have come is this: it feels like one of those stories in which someone goes looking for a great monster, up a mountain; and then, while gazing around, looking for the beast in vain, the ground begins to shake, and the awful realisation dawns: the mountain IS the monster. Seeing my son, leaving his boyhood behind him, is like the land coming to life. Because for the first part of motherhood, I – not he – sort of was the land. I was the mountain. I was monstrous.
My son climbed up onto me, clung to me, fed from me, slept on me, peed on me, wept on me. When he was on my back, it seemed a long way down to the ground. And then he grew, and there was more to the world than me, but I still managed to maintain something of my mountain-like status, all the way through his childhood. I, and my husband, (Blake is good on the co-parenting aspect of things) were still the terrain within which the vulture, elephant, dragon and the other creatures that our son became, roamed. Our lad is autistic, and one of the reasons I love Zagazoo is that it is not cautious about the extent of the transformations involved in raising a child. There have been times when my son has turned into a wolf – no kidding. Bared teeth, claws, wild eyes, on all fours. Savage. But still a beast within a landscape that was defined by his mum and dad. Now, however, as I look at my hairy, hoary twelve year old, I feel the Frankenstein-like enormity of what we have done. Twelve years too late, I realise the monstrous truth of the matter: we have unleashed a new life into the world. Not just into our house, our garden, not just onto the little mountain of us, but beyond – all the way to the horizon. He is here. Hair and all. The whole glorious, vulnerable, terrifying, terrific structure of a life.
This is hard. Hard because it is difficult to go from feeling so powerful- mountainous – to feeling, relatively, powerless. Just a small mum-sized hillock. Often seen as a pillock. My daughter – not yet hairy, frequently a little elephant- likes to play the songs from Disney’s Wish in the car at present. My son – far too cool to like this film much – informs me that many of the songs from this movie were written using AI. Maybe, but there is still one that makes me cry, whatever its artistic merit, or the lack of it. It’s the one near the start when the magician- not-yet-revealed-as-the-villain-but-all-the-signs-are-there – sings, along with the young hero, Asha, about their longing to protect the deepest wishes of each of the citizens of the land. It doesn’t take much of a leap for me to hear this as a song about parenthood:
You still amaze me after all this time….
Leave you here, I don’t wanna
Promise as one does
I, I will protect you at all costs
Keep you safe here in my arms…..
If someone tried to hurt you, I don’t
See how that could happen
I’d fight for you in ways you can’t imagine….
Well, clearly, the ‘at all costs’ line is sinister. My son has always been good at predicting the plot lines of films and stories, so he could see the smiling magician, turning into an evil, over-controlling, power-hungry dude a mile off. But, small, soft hillock that I am, I still feel a certain amount of sympathy with the guy – at least with the longing to protect the beloved, to keep them safe in your arms as long as you can, and – as I think of the long, hard battle ahead to procure our son an EHCP that might enable him to access an education that could genuinely nourish him- the line ‘I’d fight for you in ways you can’t imagine’ has a resonance that I am sure the AI and/or Disney lyricist never intended. But I already know I can’t protect him ‘at all costs.’ I have just written a novel about the dangers of over-protective parenting. And yet….
….It is painful to feel how very limited my protective powers are. This is not in any way to diminish the importance of safeguarding and child protection, in person and online (we just bought our son his first phone – parental controls are switched on….), but on the imaginal level I don’t feel mountainous anymore. Even if I were to lock the lad in a tower, like those anxious, jealous fairy tale parents, my powers would be seriously compromised because:
A) I bet the phone signal at the top of the tower would be strong, and he would be sure to find a way to smuggle a device up there and so could access the world through the internet, without having to grow his hair down to the ground.
B) I cannot protect him from himself, and, on the bad days, he has told me that he hates himself, his body, his life, his future. Our world – and all its messed up messaging – has already made its way inside him.
Which is why a cheesy Disney song makes me cry. Because I can’t keep my son safe from himself. Because, wonderfully, terrifyingly, he is not up a tower but out in the landscape now – and the landscape is far larger than me. No matter that I still help him get to sleep at night, that he still calls for me when he wakes, no matter that he is at home full time, because we haven’t found him a school that will work for him – he is in the world, and the world is in him, and both are outside of my arms.
What to do?
Well, as I said, Zagazoo is the only parenting book you ever need read, so I turn to it for wisdom:
What do you do when your child changes beyond recognition? When the whole landscape shifts? When a new chapter starts unlike any of those that have gone before?
According to Zagazoo you do exactly the same as you did before.
You have your moment of looking on, aghast, like George and Bella. But even this is part of the job: you see your child. Fully. Witness them, through all their transformations. And then, having seen them, having exclaimed,“This is impossible!” – you get on with the impossible. You live with the creature in your care, whatever their latest shape may be, as best you can. You live with them through their warthoggydays, their wolf-ish ones, and then you live with them through their hairy, grunting days of growing pains- and growing can hurt, terribly. You hold them when they want to be held, but mostly you just hold space for them. It is the least you can do. It is the most you can do. It is all you can do.
And truly, letting go has been the gig from the very beginning, quite as much, if not more, than holding on. Letting them out of the womb – or in Zagazoo’s case – the postal package. Letting them- in whatever way they can- roll, crawl, totter, fall, climb, and fall again. Letting them feel what they feel. Love what they love. It is a shame, I think, that the term ‘permissive parenting’ has come to be such a derogatory one because giving those in our care permission to be who they are is pretty much the core of what’s involved, I think.
Until the day comes when….
But I said I wasn’t going to spoil the ending. So, I won’t say what happens on the final pages of Zagazoo.
And I am not at that stage yet in our own story – not quite, though I feel it coming – so I don’t know for sure what transformations lie ahead for us. Or surprise endings. Or dramatic twists.
For now, I know only that I have a new creature at home. A hairy one. Sometimes a hating one. Often raging at me, at himself. Almost always afraid. But, somehow, against the ever more mountainous odds, I have to keep faith, and- small hillock that I am- know that I can still be here, providing limited protection – a point by which to navigate – a hump, a home, in the very bumpy landscape of this amazing and monstrous world.
A P.S. and a question for the month, for those who want it:
You may be wondering how any of the above can apply to creative practice, as I suggested at the start. The thing is, I believe a creative process, essentially, involves you holding space for and allowing a series of surprising, and often extraordinary transformations. No more, no less, than this.
So, my questions for you are:
What transformations have you witnessed, in those in your care, or in the work that you make? Vulture/ elephant/ warthog? The dramatic ones and the daily ones (and they may be both daily and dramatic!)? Can you name them?
And can you notice and name your own transformations? From mountain to hillock? Or from aghast to accepting? From angry to sad? Once you start naming them, I think it is astonishing how many there are, how many we weather, so many zig zags- an entire zoo’s-worth of change.
Artwork by Xavier Singer-Kingsmith @xotuski (Insta)