From a very early age, I knew that if I were to be a parent, I’d have to confront an issue I’ve always had. It was something that I was dreading, and yet, it was an inevitable stage of development I’d have to endure. I knew it. Rather like we all have to accept that one day, each one of us will die.
And that’s how much I was looking forward to tackling this thing, this beast, this towering issue, this nightmare monster that sat in the middle of parenting, leering and beckoning at me.
No, I’m not talking about discipline.
No, I’m not talking about nappy changing or toilet training.
I am, of course, talking about trying to stop any child of mine from eating with their mouth open.
There’s the old jazz musician joke that hell is a room full of banjo players and accordionists playing together. My hell would have a room where people eat with their mouths open, chewing their food slowly and noisily.
It’s disgusting. I wish people wouldn’t do it. But they do, and they really do their best to eat this way near me. I hate that wet, chewy, dripping, moist sound of people eating. I hate it so much that as I’m writing this, my heart rate increases, my palms start tingling and my jaw clenches. StopitstopitstopitstopitstopitSTOP IT! URGH, I hate the IDEA of it. I hate it more than I hate racism, and I hate racism a lot.
I only recently discovered this issue of hating a sound actually has a name: Misophonia. It’s a real thing, and it is quite common. It appears to be prevalent in people who suffer from depression (hello!), and it’s not pleasant at all. The effect is a bit like being on the receiving end of the classic nails-down-the-blackboard sound. Nobody likes that sound.
Well, I say “nobody”… I bet there’s a masochist somewhere that gets some sort of transgressive thrill from it. I suppose you’d have to be a particularly odd kind of masochist (“squeak my blackboard, mistress…“), but hey, it if floats your boat, who am I to call it unattractive?
Anyway, the reaction you have on hearing a blackboard screech? That instinctive tightening of the shoulders, the clenching of the buttocks, the wincing, the outraged squawk of “Christ, will you STOP THAT?!”? That’s me if someone eats with their mouths open. AARGH fucking stop it now!
This was what awaited me the moment my wife and I decided to have a family. Sooner or later, I’d have to tackle it, but boy howdy, was I not looking forward to it. No child instinctively eats with their mouth closed. It takes patient training to learn how to do it. The problem with misophonia is, you are robbed of all patience. Therefore, I am left with the problem that when I hear people eating with their mouths open, I want to push them through a plate-glass window. How can I be a good, patient, and instructive father, teaching my kid table manners, without wanting to defenestrate them?
I must confess that I haven’t found many techniques that work. Asking my child nicely (“please darling, can you not eat with your mouth open? Daddy doesn’t like hearing the noise of people eating. It makes me go all stabby…”) never prevents it. Before long, she forgets herself and she starts open-mouth chewing again, and then the impatience segues into rage. Shouting at Alice is a very tempting short-term solution, but doesn’t solve the problem, and it causes tears and rage, and the permanent resentment and fear of me. Ignoring it, and hoping Alice realises what she’s doing, or wait until she grows out of it, does not work for me. It just won’t. Sadly, more often than not, I Hulk-out when it happens.
Poor Alice is bewildered by this, and I don’t blame her. She’s still learning how to put t-shirts on by herself in the mornings, so what chance has she got of noticing when her lips open too far apart while chewing? And on top of this, she’s learning all the other table manners at the same time (Eat properly. Sit down. Eat with a knife and fork. Don’t use your fingers. Keep your napkin on. Don’t leave the table while dinner is still happening. Don’t just eat the meaty bits. Wipe your mouth with the napkin, not your shirt. Stop smearing food around your mouth. Eat the vegetables as well. No, you can’t have pudding as your main course. That’s too much ketchup, it doesn’t count as a vegetable. No, ketchup is not “soup”. Why are you singing? Stop spilling everything. Oh look, you’ve got rice on the FLOOR now! Don’t get up, dance around the room, and then come back to eat… And so on), so it’s no wonder that it’s horribly unfair that a seemingly-minor issue causes Daddy a confusing ragestorm, when she’s got already got plenty on her mind to deal with.
Then there’s the fact that we rarely eat at a proper table, at my own insistence (I know, I’m worse than Hitler), and instead eat most of our dinners on trays in front of the TV, with Alice sitting at and eating from an old side-table. Hey, at least we have our meals as a family together!
There are some deep-seated psychological reasons why we don’t eat at a dining table much, and I won’t bore you with them (massive trauma from my childhood, nothing interesting – certainly nothing that would make for bizarre and fascinating reading anyway). Suffice to say, we have tried. Sarah has repeatedly attempted to get us eating our evening meals around the table, using a whole variety of distraction techniques, bribes, entertainments, and cajoling (remember, these distraction techniques are for MY benefit). Unfortunately, so far none of these tactics has worked. It’s pretty awful. Alice seems to like the novelty of eating at the table, and Sarah enjoys it. I flee away from it. Adulthood fail #32.
And because the drilling of table manners into children has been the parenting job I love least, I’ve completely avoided it for the most part. The only time table-training comes into play by me is if we’re eating away from home – at someone’s house, in a child-friendly restaurant, at the grandparents’… at which point I become all “Father” and instruct Alice on how to hold her knife and fork properly.
Each time this happens, I must come across like the fussiest parent ever. Sometimes I’m impressed that Alice does actually cope with this rather well, but to be honest, the unwillingness to tackle table manners properly is perhaps my biggest failing as a parent. That, on observance of her peers, Alice is no worse and no better than any other child of her age, is possibly down to a combination of both her and Sarah working independently, rather than anything to do with me. And, shamefully, I rather think the bulk of her table manners come from her teachers guiding her and her classmates at school all eating lunch together. I used to scoff at news reports of children attending school not being able to eat at a table properly. The idea that some kids attend school before they know how to handle knives and forks was something I used to chortle at. What stupid parents! What failures they must be that their children have no table manners!
And yet, here I am, worried that I have been one of those parents. None of this makes me look good. I know this. Thing is, I’m so entrenched in not eating at the table, and finding the sound of open-mouthed chewing to be so revolting, I don’t really know what to do about it. It is my hell: The person I love the most, doing the thing I hate above nearly all things.
P.S. I also really hate the sound of liquid being poured into a glass or a cup. It’s on every single advert and television show ever, and it’s usually a sound that cuts through dialogue. Actually, humans, can you please stop doing it so much all the fucking time? You absolute bastards…