This month our Parents in Dialogue discuss their experiences of how they feel on realising their children are growing up and becoming young adults...
When your son becomes a man - Kim's view:
Single mums are amazing. As well as keeping the house clean, delivering the kids to school (vaguely on time) with all their sports paraphernalia intact, encouraging the ancient car to continue to do the rounds of shops and ballet classes and rugby practice, getting to grips with modern plumbing as the boiler is coaxed once again into providing hot water for bath time and holding down a job so that you can afford to eat Mums are there to dispense school advice, wipe away tears spilt over unworthy girlfriends, help with tricky algebra homework and choose the appropriate shirt for an important evening out. Mums can do anything. Mums are invincible. Mums are the constant in life upon which everyone can rely. She is the centre of the world and master of the kitchen.
So what happens when it all gets a bit too much, the mask slips and the kids catch a glimpse of the fragility, exhaustion and frustration when it breaks through the super-human façade of Mum’s comprehensive coping? You obviously hide your distress as much as possible for as long as possible. But there comes a time when you simply don’t have the energy or the desire to protect them any more. You are breaking. And your teenage son sees – perhaps for the first time in his life – that the single trail you his Mum treads is not an entirely happy one.
Your son’s young face creases with concern. He clumsily puts his arms round your shoulders – trying so hard to emulate the protective embrace he once saw his Dad provide. And he fights the desire to show his own distress at his mother’s overwhelming and uncharacteristic show of emotional turmoil. You know you need to pull yourself together and put the brave face firmly back in place, but just for a moment you see how your son is maturing into a good man. And it brings a small smile to your face and allows you to navigate back to take the controls of family life again.
Watching my Daughter turn from a girl into a young woman - Bob talks:
13 and a half is a tricky age for a girl. About ten things happen all at once. As a Dad I find myself looking on...
...I view a growth spurt, a tendancy to spend long periods in her bedroom (doing what remains a mystery to me), a new interest in boys, the onset of periods, a chest of drawers covered (and I mean covered) in lotions and potions and eye masks and facial wipes and God knows what and now I can also herald the joyful arrival of mood swings, and a growing interest in boys. Oh. have I already mentioned boys!
I say "look on", because that in truth is perhaps all that I can do. Increasingly, in raising my now teenager daughter I feel more like a facilitator than a hands-on parent. I ensure she has the necessary sanitary wear, money to buy replecements, a bedroom that is "her space", and every now and then I buy the odd thing (like a spray or a perfume) that will hopefully let her know that I know she is changing and growing up.
It would be quite wrong to play the "it must be harder being a single dad" card with this scenario of raising a teenage girl on your own - I am sure that Mums (single or in partnerships) find it difficult too. But I do wonder if it is at times like this, girls would benefit from having a Mum at home? I remember (with a slight shiver) a Mum saying to me "it is all well and good you being there when your daughter starts her periods, but there will be things you just don't know"!
"Things I just don't know". I'll say there is!
We muddle on through though.
Amidst the tension that comes with watching this transition into adulthood comes moments of deep joy (and dare I say pride). Priya came out of the bath the other day, and sauntered through the kitchen with her hair wrapped in what I described at the time as "one of those bun things women can do with a towel". I had not taught her to do it - and it may seem inconsequential - but it offered a glimpse of someone growing up, confident, and doing the things that grown-up women do. And as a Dad I like that.
An interesting episode occured when I received a random visit from two single mums in the village a few weeks ago. They arrived with wine and olives and plonked (yes, plonked is the word) themselves down on my sofa. We started chatting and laughing when, after 30 minutes or so, Priya came out of the kitchen into the living room with a mixing bowl under her arm vigorously stirring some cake mixture - the message was clear - I'm the woman in this house...!
Many lone fathers I speak to with daughters will recognise this ability for the eldest daughter to take on a role she should not take on...it is a tricky one.
...I'll add it to my growing list of things "I just don't know"
“One child down, two to go...” says Kirsten:
... was my foremost thought as I dropped my eldest son off at university one rainy Sunday evening nearly four years ago. I noted the sad expressions on the faces of other parents who were also ‘losing’ their offspring but couldn’t feel sadness. This single mother of three could only see the positives of her eldest child taking his life to the next stage.
Privately, the relief of having one less teenager to worry about on a day-to-day basis was immense. Plus I could move my ‘office’ out of my tiny bedroom and make a study out of his.
I pretended not to notice his silence as we drove north and the landscape and weather changed to reflect his mood - more rugged, bleak and wet. I wandered to myself how an 18 year old used to everything London had to offer would make the transition to a Nottingham city, albeit one teeming with 30,000 students, but not his friends - yet. I firmly told myself it was down to him and there was nothing I could do to ease the transition: he was a sociable and attractive young man and my worrying was counterproductive.
Instead, I quietly celebrated getting him this far, raising him and his younger brother and sister pretty much single-handed for the previous few years. Recalling how he could have so easily dropped out of school at 16 when his parents separated, precipitating his move to a local state school where he knew no-one, he had been the child I worried least about and suddenly he became my biggest problem. Remembering the feeling I experienced when I noted he had climbed out of his bedroom window one weekday night to meet his friends still makes me feel sick. There was a lot going on in his life I didn’t know about (and to be honest, didn’t want to know about). He could have been smoking dope and binge drinking and he was threatening not to go to school at all.
When he eventually returned home he told me that he had been meeting friends who were supporting him with his worries of his parents’ acrimonious divorce and change of school. These 16 year old friends were also going through some challenging life changes themselves: one was pregnant; another recently orphaned and one had a parent with terminal cancer. Phew, that’s some support group when you’ve just turned 16 years of age.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
A few days later he’d worked out how to pay his own school fees (with generous support from his school) and returned to his old school. Almost overnight he grew up. He became the first one up in the morning with a smile on his face - a far cry from the grumpy boy whom I’d learned to avoid in the morning. When he won the leaver’s politics prize a couple of years later (with some stiff competition - the daughter of a senior cabinet minister was in his class) it was obvious that he fully realised it was down to him and he’d gone on to achieve things he may not have even attempted had life been easier for him in earlier his teenage years. He also recognised what a privilege his education was, whilst I suspected he quietly resented his peers who took it all for granted.
He’s matured in other ways too (or seemingly come through unscathed, as I’d like to think of it.) He once said he’d never get married as a result of his parent’s acrimonious split, but that hasn’t stopped him from developing a 2 year relationship with a lovely young lady. He said he could never be a teacher, but that hasn’t prevented him from taking off this summer to the Middle East to teach English in Palestinian refugee camps in a programme which allows the refugees to get decent jobs, a proper education and decent housing - and crucially, escape the camps. He also aims to improve his Arabic to get an advantage when it comes to job hunting in the not so distant future.
It’s with the benefit of hindsight I realise he could so easily have gone down the drink and drugs and rock’n’roll route. I don’t know what stopped him, but I count my blessings every day.