In which I ponder…teenagers

(I have loads of drafted unpublished posts and I found this the other day. I imagine I didn’t post it because it might have caused offence to said teenage offspring. They are both out of their teens now, and this still rings true, so here it is).



Unless you have teenage children, you really have no idea how stupid, emotionally unstable and embarrassing you are.

In the glory days when they are young, you are perfect. You’re the best Mum – the prettiest, the cleverest, the kindest. You can do no wrong. Children have fights in the playground over who has the best mum or dad.

Then, overnight – and without warning – you become persona non grata. It starts with the rapidly dropped hand in sight of the school gate and the cheek turned away as you lean down for your goodbye kiss, and is followed up quickly by eye-rolling and a reluctance to be seen in public with you. Then before you know it you are – apparently – a fully fledged psycho.

I’m happy to say that these stages of teenager-dom are close to being over in my household. In fact, one of my children is no longer actually a teenager, and has moved out to his own place. But I do still have one hormonally charged resident sharing my home, and although I’m fortunate that for about 98% of the time she is absolutely the light of my life, during the other 2% she comes close to driving me to the sort of psychosis she thinks I exhibit anyway.

I read somewhere once that teenagers are particularly sensitive to changes in the volume of voices. I hope I did anyway, as every time I am even slightly irritated I am accused of shouting when I’m pretty sure I am not. The problem is though that then we get into a cycle. Because originally I was mildly irritated about something like – oh I don’t know – the sink being full of washing up when I got home from work. But then I’m irritated about the fact that what we seem to be debating now is not whether it is reasonable to fill the kitchen sink with your redundant plates and mugs – often along with uneaten food – but whether or not the amount I am ‘sooooo upset’ about it is commensurate with the crime, which apparently hadn’t been anticipated*. And if I’m not careful, I can then find myself shouting things like – ‘if you want to see me soooooo upset I can do that if you like’, and I end up looking like the teenager while she sighs and does the washing up.

So the other great thing about being the parent of a teenager is not only that you can be stupid, embarrassing and emotionally labile, but you can be a complete loser as well.

This dynamic is made more difficult by being a single parent. If you’re still happily ensconced in wedded bliss with the other parent of your teenager – or maybe even if you’re still ensconced but not necessarily happily – you should have at least one other adult in the house to support you during these interactions. How I’ve longed for someone to say ‘don’t speak to your mother like that’. Also what your teenagers don’t realise is that when they say we are being unreasonable, horrible, or difficult, we are often wondering if we are or not. Am I an awful parent? Am I? There is no one to debrief with, no one to back you up, or to discuss where you might be going wrong, or could take another approach, and it makes it all that little bit harder.

I have been extremely lucky that my own teenagers have been largely lovely**. We’ve even reached a stage where sincere apologies and reparations are made after there has been an incident. But as a parent, I’ve learnt that you also have to be prepared to apologise when you’ve overstepped the mark, and that admitting that sometimes you’re not sure, or you find it hard seems to build trust and understanding. It’s ok not to be the expert, to be fallible, imperfect. And to be honest – whilst they are struggling with never being a teenager before and all that brings, we are also struggling with never having been a parent to a teenager either, so we’re going to make mistakes. When you do this, of course, it does mean that you’ve gone full circle from superhero to real actual person, but it also seems to open up the door to a new type of relationship – a more adult and authentic one. And you teach your children that it’s ok to make mistakes so long as we learn from them – the first stage of which is admitting them.

Of all the phases of parenthood, these teenage years are the ones with the highest anxiety. You must let go, you must allow them to start to assert their independence, go their own way, take some risks. Even though every fibre of your body is saying ‘stay home with me, where it’s safe!’. I have successfully traversed the nail biting experience of knowing your child is in another country alone, of first forays to nightclubs, of driving with their friends down the coast for the weekend. Every parent of a teenager will know the horror of the unanswered call, the text message with no response and of waking up in the early hours of the morning and discovering their teenager is not yet back from their night out in the city.

I’m no expert, but I’ve tended to allow a higher level of independence than many parents, often out of necessity rather than choice. As a single working parent, I couldn’t drive my children everywhere, and we live in a major city. They’ve been navigating the public transport system near and far for years, and learnt to drive right in the city centre (literally terrifying for everyone concerned). My son was at school in the UK, flying back and forth on his own. Both children have made the long trip to and from the UK alone – the first times only just in their teens. I like to think that these experiences have contributed to making them the independent, brave, adventurous young adults they are today.

However, on the rare occasion, I’ve put my foot down with regard to what I’ve felt was an unreasonable request. And when the inevitable onslaught of begging, and accusations of unfairness and being horrid etc etc has begun, I’ve asked them this. Do you think I am saying no to this because I’m a dreadful person who just wants to ruin your life (as suggested) or….could it be something else? Then I’ve made them tell me why. And of course, it’s because I love them and I want them to be safe. Even very bolshy teenagers seem to find it hard to remain quite so indignant in the face of this. And if they carry on being rude or difficult, unplug the internet and take the modem to work with you. If nothing else it will make them come out their rooms.

I would say though that it’s also my experience that teenagers often ask to do outrageous things in the hope that you will say no, in order to absolve them of the embarrassment of declining to do so, even though it would be achingly cool or would ingratiate them with someone cool if they did. I’ve been happy to be the fall guy and have everyone think I’m a bitch – to the extent that we even had a code which would tell me in a text message that I should say no, prior to the call asking me. I won’t tell you what that code was so as not to embarrass my kids, but you should think about setting one up with yours.

So if you’re currently parenting teenagers, good luck! But remember – like all those other stages, even when it feels like it’s lasting forever, it will be over before you know it. And then adulthood beckons – so enjoy them while you can.

*even though I have repeatedly, since the beginning of time, been expressing irritation at said dishes in the sink…

**well I would say that wouldn’t I? But it’s true.


Stop all the clocks…

When I was seven years old, my best friend was a little girl called Jodie. She was more adventurous, outspoken and courageous than me, and I loved her for it. We rode our bikes together across the Lincolnshire countryside – so far from home that later, when we both had children of our own, we were appalled – had sleepovers in the garden, and wrote our names and the date on the wall of a cottage in her dad’s timber yard.*

In 2002, Jodie was diagnosed with breast cancer, but treatment put her into remission, so she and her husband Jim and their two small boys forged forwards in life, embarking on the renovation of a beautiful but virtually uninhabitable Grade II listed property. The return of her cancer and a terminal diagnosis was a devastating blow to everyone who loved her but especially to her young family. Jodie had always been stubborn and tenacious, and she used the same bloody minded approach that had ensured her business success to confront her illness. We used to joke that she was too stubborn to die, but really she was just determined to see both her children start school.

Jodie died in 2005 when her boys were 5 and 6 years old. She had fought a brave, hard fight but in the end the big C got the better of her.


So it was with devastating and heartbreaking irony that today we laid her eldest child to rest, having taken his own life. A beautiful, intelligent boy of just 16 years, much loved, with so much to offer the world.

There are some things for which nothing can be said. There are no words of comfort available, nothing which will make it better, nothing which will make it go away. There are some things which can only be borne, not gotten over.

At Jodie’s funeral we had known what was coming. Jodie had asked me to deliver the eulogy, and my writings had been vetted in advance. She had organized the ceremony with Jim. But it was still hard. It was still heartbreaking. In the church today there was little that I recognized, and I can only think that I got through that day in a blur.

But there is no possible preparation for what we had to do today.

His dad said that George had not been able to see the point of life. But if he had asked me I would have told him that the point was in the hundreds of people in the church today, at his grave, and at his wake. It was in the gatherings of the last two weeks, as his family supported one another to get through all the arrangements necessary after the (always untimely) death of a child. It was in his close group of school friends, as they let off balloons in his memory and put together slideshows of photographs of his life. It was in the eulogies bravely delivered by his devoted father and by his best friend.

Because the point of this life is quite simply love.

Hold your children close tonight – and every night.


*it’s still there

In which I ponder…single parenting


I consider myself fortunate to have found myself a single parent when my children were 14 and 12 years old and not when they were younger. The sheer volume of work, every minute of the day, that very young children generate must be overwhelming on your own, and I take my hat off to the amazing mums and dads who do it.

Occasionally, over the years I have had friends tell me that they have been a ‘single parent’ this week.

‘John’s been away on business for 4 days, so I’ve been a single parent too’, they say.

Anyone who is actually a single parent will recognise this sort of attempt at joining your (not particularly desirable) club, and it’s well meaning, of course. Any time spent caring for children alone can be exhausting.

But of course, this isn’t really what single parenting is.

Single parenting is parenting with no prospect of anyone taking equal responsibility for those tasks. Ever. There is no one coming in 3 or 4 days to give you a break. There is no one at the end of a phone to tell you you’re doing a good job and they’ll be home soon. And of course, it’s not just the parenting. You will be doing all that mumming or dadding alone, and then absolutely all of the other responsibilities of adult life and of householders will be exclusively yours too. Going to work (that bit is pretty easy really), paying the bills, sorting out the tax, doing the housework, maintaining the car, maintaining the garden, maintaining the house, doing all that household admin. All yours and yours alone. Lucky you! No one is going to run that errand for you while you cook the dinner, or run quickly round with the hoover. No one is going to sit on the phone for an hour trying to sort out a problem with your phone bill while you make a start on the laundry. No wonder single parents are so knackered.

Post separation/divorce parenting for me has turned out to be quite different to how I had imagined. There has been no 50:50 split, not even every other weekend relief. Six evenings a month are spent with their father and his new partner – if they are not away on holiday or on business, which is often. No half the holidays each. No attendance at parent’s evenings and one long weekend in Melbourne for my son and 5 days on the Gold Coast for my daughter being the sum total of holidays spent with their father in nearly 5 years. And when he is not well, he cancels. Oh how I’ve wished this worked the other way…All this is his loss, of course. But it has meant that the burden of working out arrangements which balance my work and half decent parenting have been…challenging.

As they’ve gotten older, of course, the need to be there in a supervisory capacity has reduced, but the need to have a presence, to exhibit my commitment to parenting them and my availability to them has to some extent gotten greater. Through these teenage years they need to know you are there, that you love them and that they are your priority at all times, even when they are being – quite frankly – a bit dreadful.

So it’s not really been the tasks that are so exhausting. No amount of food preparation, taxi driving, laundry, homework nagging, concert and sport watching and cleaning up compares to the sheer overwhelming responsibility of it all. The agony of decisions, for example, about where they can drive, with whom, at what sort of time of night, is left entirely up to me. Which parties they can attend. What time they should be home. Who they can hang out with. I could go on. Obviously the children always think I am being over cautious and I probably am – I have no-one to run these decisions past. There is no one to say – don’t worry, they’ll be fine…and then to sit up with you allaying your fears when they are late and not answering their phones.

I’ve never felt the loneliness of being the single mother of a teenager quite so keenly as on the occasion of my daughter’s 16th birthday party. If I had any advice to other parents about 16th birthday parties, it would be to strongly advise against them based on my experience, but suffice to say that by 9.45pm I had closed said party and contacted parents to collect their children. As if I didn’t already feel terrible enough about it all (and with the distance of time, it was not soooo bad – some smuggled-in alcohol and a couple of drunkards), in a conversation with a father after the event, he said to me – in a tone that could only be described as judgemental and patronising –

‘I understand you are a single mother’

and then went on to suggest that in view of this I should have known not to hold this party. Because obviously there was only one way this could possibly go, given that I am a single mum…

Over time I’ve developed my own system to check out my decisions in the parenting realm. I ask myself – if the thing I am afraid of happening, actually happened – if they crashed the car, went missing, got hideously drunk and did something silly – would I feel comfortable explaining to other people (including their father) what safeguards I had put in place to prevent this from happening? It’s not foolproof but it helps. I’ve explained it to the children, and they seem to accept it. I’ve never been the parent of young adults before, so I’m just feeling my way…

I’ve been so very, very lucky to have great children, who actually have given me very little to worry about. But all parents know that this doesn’t stop us from worrying. Sometimes I think I’ve done a good job, they are nearly done – it looks like I am going to be able to send them out into the world safely and as great human beings. But I know there is still time for it to go wrong and that, in fact, parenting is never over.

What is sure though, is that I wouldn’t change a minute of any of it. Being a mum and raising my two children will, without a doubt, be my greatest achievement, my greatest joy, and the absolute best use of my time, my energy and the space in my brain.

And God knows, as I get closer and closer to the moment when they both fly the nest, I know I’m going to miss this part of my life terribly.