Friday 31 October 2014

Suddenly my boy's a teenager

Now that the son of Adele Parks has reached a milestone, she feels she is entering – or perhaps being relegated to – new territory altogether. And all too quickly...

Published 20/02/2013 | 06:00

Adele Parks with her 12 year old son Conrad, at home in Guildford.
Adele Parks with her 12 year old son Conrad, at home in Guildford.

I returned home from the first school drop-off this new term and closed the door with a little too much force; the slam reverberated through the house. The moment the clatter faded, I noticed the emptiness. A void. Silence. The blankness shouldn't have been a surprise, especially considering that it was not the first school term I have returned to an empty home after a noisy, chaotic break and noticed the all-consuming silence.

The calm was partly a relief, partly heartbreaking. I was reminded of the first time I had dropped my son off at the school gate and didn't have to cajole, bribe, beg or threaten him to get him to surrender his vice-like grip. Today, Conrad dashed into school without so much as a backward glance. He was prepared only to wave from a distance, goodbye kisses a long-forgotten memory. All this is because my child has moved out and my teenager moved in.

Suddenly life is all about suitably branded T-shirts, mobile phones and how much credit he has on his iTunes account.

I realise that things change: what I had not appreciated was how fast. It's only been a hop and a skip from those carefree pre-teen days, to him spending most of the holiday in his room "chillaxing" (which, I've come to understand, means listening to loud music and texting friends).

There is nothing new here, other than the mode of communication. When I was his age, I used to drag the telephone from the hallway into the downstairs loo in a desperate effort to carve out some privacy. There is a time when friends suddenly become all-consuming and family are reduced to background noise. I guess I simply hadn't expected it would happen for my son, that it would happen to me.

A whole new set of challenges come with this next stage of motherhood. I have long believed that as a nation we don't do the teenage years particularly well. You only have to look at the rates of teenage crime, depression and drug/alcohol use. We are excellent and accommodating with intrinsically cute babies and toddlers, but with (arguably less appealing) teenagers we hide behind the fact that they are traditionally uncommunicative and are meant to grow apart from us.

As a nation we fetishise childhood and then demonise the teen years. Is it any wonder the kids are weirded out? They take their lead from us. Now my son is approaching this danger zone I have to ask, do we allow it to go wrong? Could we do better?

It seems the sole purpose of every fashion-designer, restaurateur and leisure-sector employee is to ensure that modern childhood is as dreamy as possible. They coo, cluck and clamber to accommodate bulky buggies and gap-toothed tots. There was a period of my life when it was physically impossible to walk down the high street and not have smiles, balloons, stickers and other freebies foisted on my son.

Don't get me wrong, I think this is a good thing. I'm delighted that so much effort is put into providing happy childhood memories. What does concern me is that this effort comes to an abrupt halt the instant a child blows out 13 candles.

We endlessly laugh at the expense of teenagers (although at least humour hints at the fact that there are issues to address), but often teenagers are ignored. It is almost impossible to find a course for a teen who wishes to begin any sport.

The assumption is that all sports are embarked on at four years old (when the choice is endless) and that, by the teen years, a young person either shines or has lost interest.

What about kids just wanting to give something new a go without the embarrassment of joining a class for elite athletes?

Who sells clothes for pre-teens, early teens or simply small teens? The result is that these young teens have to wear ill-fitting clothes, highlighting the fact that they simply don't fit in. There's no place for them – at a time when they are more than ever desperate to blend in.

So without any help from society at large, parents are often clueless as to how to proceed.

But we should be congratulated. We've produced a confident, independent and secure boy. Well done us. So why do I want to cry? I guess I have just realised that childhood is finite, indeed our run at it might even be over.

He loves secondary school. There has not been a single day when he has shown any reluctance, instead he speeds out of the door like an Olympian off the blocks – for which I am truly grateful. He is extremely busy with new friends and hobbies – friends I don't know very well; hobbies I don't understand.

The truth is that I have noticed he is rather more his than mine now, by which I mean he is his own self and I am an add-on.

We have always been a tight unit. Mother and son. I've been his oracle, sanctuary, security, guide, judge, nurse. We did everything together. Even if we were doing separate activities, he liked me to be close by; so if I was working he would read a book in my office and if he was playing football or rugby he would expect me to be cheering on the sidelines. Neither of these things is true any more. He would rather be alone in his room and would prefer that his friends were cheering him on.

He doesn't need me to sit in on dental appointments, I now knock before I walk into his bedroom, simply because it feels right. I feel I owe him that respect in his own space.

I am rational enough to know that the fact he is so successfully independent is a good thing – parents are supposed to prepare their children for exactly this. But . . . am I ready? Who is going to prepare me?

Two specific things bother me. The first is that I miss my little boy; I miss his trusting dependency on my (illusionary) infallibility. The second is whether I will get it right for this young man. I don't want to let him down. Not now, not ever.

When I was pregnant and initially preparing for motherhood, I read everything on the subject. Some of it was horrifying, some helpful. Other mothers (my own, my friends' and strangers) would share their experiences; we swapped books and tips on every aspect of development, from the correct way to approach feeding to the correct way for the baby to make his debut in the swimming pool.

I am not as prepared now. I remember when he was born and the house was full of gifts, friends, well-wishers and health visitors. No one has rung me up to chat excitedly about these forthcoming milestones.

We know teens are going to become a bit smelly, spotty and grumpy, but babies are all these things, too, so why can't we forgive our teenagers for these biological facts the way we forgive our babies?

Why can't we be a little more patient, indulgent and kind? Are we spent?

In fact, teenagers are not greeted with much enthusiasm at all, and I think that's wrong. I am so thrilled with the young adult my son is becoming. He is a delight, but I know there will be plenty of times when he doesn't feel he is (and there will be plenty of times when he really isn't!) and it is going to be challenging.

Being a teenager has always been difficult; it is a time of uncertainty, learning, success and failure, but it has never been harder than today. Teenagers' lives are fraught with the stresses of constant exams and the endless pursuit of an unfeasibly perfect body. Their mistakes are exposed and magnified beyond reason; social networking is the biggest bully in town, and digital photography and video are the backup henchmen.

Do we, on some deep-seated, subconscious level, resent them growing up and so behave poorly towards them, exacerbating an already flammable situation?

It would be understandable. For one thing, our children are like giant egg-timers – as they grow, we age.

Their blooming youth and impending journey into adulthood serve to highlight the fact that those of us who are their parents are staggering through middle age. It is an uncomfortable thought. Perhaps on some level we are a tiny bit jealous; added to this the fact that they make us feel a little staid and surplus, perhaps it is understandable that we are not all at our best, all the time.

I am going to do my best. I won't be physically doing as much for him as I used to (any attempt to tie laces or pack bags is greeted with a swift protest). I may not even be allowed to be around him as much as I used to be – I am definitely not going to be allowed to kiss and hug him as much as I used to.

But I am resolute that I am going to love him more, not less, as he goes through the years when he might be gangly, spotty, argumentative, drunk and aloof.

Isn't the definition of love that you love someone when they deserve it least but need it most?

That is, probably around the 40th time of unpacking sweaty, soggy, stinky sports kits that have been festering for a month in a plastic bag under the bed.

As every mother (and all Friends viewers) knows, it is as Robert Munsch wrote in the introduction to his best-selling book, Love You Forever: "I'll love you for ever, I'll like you for always. As long as I'm living, My baby you'll be."

Whatever it Takes by Adele Parks is published by Headline

Irish Independent

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