James Cracknell’s Boat Race sacrifice was worth it. Parents have needs too

Cambridge's James Cracknell celebrates with his medal after the Men's Boat Race on the River Thames,

Cambridge's James Cracknell celebrates with his medal after the Men's Boat Race on the River Thames, London. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Sunday April 7, 2019. See PA story ROWING Boat Race. Photo credit should read: Adam Davy/PA Wire - Credit: PA

Should a marriage and family stop you following your dreams? No!

Family life. It's what we all aspire to, isn't it?

On Sunday, I spent the day at my parents' house, sitting around, writing poems and watching Fleabag and Line of Duty.

It struck me, as I was left alone to do my thing, that there are few other people on this earth who let me be myself so completely as my parents. There are few other places on this earth where I can feel so completely at peace.

But, as much as family life can be a haven, for some it can also be a prison.

As children, you can be put into the straitjacket of being 'the clever one', 'the sporty one' or worse, 'the thick one' or the 'funny one'. (Imagine the pressure of the latter when you're not in a good mood!).

In families like that, it can be hard to find your way. It can feel as if your life has already been decided for you and the hopes and expectations of others can be oppressive for the spirit.

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Families need to encourage our dreams, not put obstacles in the way of them.

Families that don't let us be who we feel we truly are can weigh like an albatross across our backs.

I've often discussed with my friend James Marston the difference between selfishness and self worth.

Selfishness is hugely discouraged; self worth is supposed to be our greatest aspiration. Yet, we concluded, how different are they really? In many situations, they can end up being the same.

At the weekend, another James, the rower James Cracknell, took part in the Boat Race for Cambridge, becoming the oldest man to win it in 190 years.

'Behind every great man an' all that,' tweeted his now estranged wife Beverley Turner after the hard-won victory that appears to have helped sound the death knell of his marriage.

'James has spoken publicly about his latest feat, demonstrating to his children you can do anything you set your mind to,' she wrote in The Times. 'He won't mind me admitting that I consider that to be b******* – I wouldn't want my children to view such an exit from familial responsibilities something to aspire to.'

Whether James Cracknell minds it or not, Miss Turner has hit on the core dilemma at the heart of every 21st-century family – the conflict between 'following our dreams' and our responsibilities at home.

My friend Sue Bayliss, our agony aunt, told me yesterday that she had recently read a book about the rise of narcissism in today's world. If every child is told they are special and different, and if every person believes, thanks to social media, that their every mouthful of food is worthy of attention, then the tendency towards narcissism grows.

Narcissism means doing what you want without care or thought for how it affects others.

But then again, anyone trapped in a relationship where the voice of what they truly long for is perennially silenced will have some sympathy for James Cracknell's need – and it is a need, not a selfish desire – to be the person that he is. A rower. A goal-oriented person. Someone who has to push himself to the very limits of his physical capability just to feel alive.

If you ask me, it is James Cracknell who has set the right example to his children, not his wife, Beverley.

I would hate my children to grow up to be martyrs, sacrificing their dreams on the altar of somebody else's idea of what a family should be.

Many people live in loveless marriages while loving someone else, or in fear of their own safety if they were to leave.

Others feel they are in chains because they are required to troop around garden centres or wipe bottoms when they would rather read a book.

There are different levels of unhappiness and of course a balance between duty and desire must be struck.

The children's needs must come first, of course.

But if those needs are always at the cost of the parent's, duty will weigh heavy and destroy the parent's soul.

Soulless parents are no good for children.

A daddy who followed his heart and found his own way to be happy and win the Boat Race can be someone to be proud of.

Children need Daddy to play with them and cuddle them and tell them that he loves them.

But they also need him to be happy.

I have to say, for parent and child, a parent's happiness may be the greatest need of all.