Lately I have been reliving my teenage years, in a way that only a woman turning 40 can. I’ve started drinking cider again for a start.
I feel the need to mention that I also went to see Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet. Not only was this a welcome return to my life before children, it is also the play I studied for A level English, so is guaranteed to transport me back to self-indulgent melancholy.
The opening scene (thank God they’d moved To Be Or Not To Be back to roughly where it’s meant to be) saw Hamlet, in full teenage angst, listening to records in his bedroom. Although it was Nat King Cole rather than Nick Cave, we all knew how he felt.
This regression had also been sparked by the startling new research that Goths are more likely to be depressed. This led to much mirth and mutterings that people get paid to do this sort of thing. Now whilst not a full blown goth, I did have one of those tassled skirts and had a fondness for wearing purple and amplifying my paleness. And I did love a bit of teenage angst. Nothing too dramatic you understand but a general “Noone understands me, you just don’t know what I’m going through” kind of thing; I wrote some truly terrible poems. Obviously on the surface I was relatively perky and functional but this was only a symptom of just how terribly complicated I really was and only added to my tragic isolation. Noone even noticed.
This all came hot on the heels of a difficult week. My 9 year old had been something of an uphill struggle. Tired from returning to school, frustrated that we wanted him to eat vegetables and have a shower, all of the wheels had fallen off and we were witness to some extraordinary displays of pre-teen emotion.
He was a temperamental horse refusing every fence. It’s difficult to know what to do with his melancholy when he’s refusing to eat or calmly rearranging furniture or throwing things down the stairs – more in defiance than temper. So much so that I was slightly concerned that half way through the Act II I’d heckle Cumberbatch to get a bloody grip and be nicer to his mother.
I think back to myself at that age and how I would never have dared to behave in such a way to my parents. This was the 80s and such things were not done in my house. But then Dear God I wanted to, all of that frustration and outrage festering away with nowhere to go.
My son is amazing (obviously) in many ways. He can be effortlessly charming when he feels like it, persuading even the most reluctant souls that something is a great idea. He is kind and has a fierce sense of justice. He is fearless and thrill seeking and is able to judge things instinctively, often in mid-flight. He’s not a model student by any means, but he is sharp. He has a logic which causes him to pick holes in everything. He won’t accept things blindly but constantly needs to try it out for himself to see if there is a better way.
These are all the things that make him wonderful, but also make you, on occasion, want to get him in a headlock and scrub his head. He’s an awkward bugger and will argue black is white (I don’t know where he gets it from). He always thinks he knows better, often ignores what you tell him. He rarely seems to look for approval. I have often said my parenting manual will be called ‘Kids Who Don’t Give A Fuck About Stickers. He is hardly ever still or quiet and we are often exasperated.
What was difficult was that, with this ill-temper, came his constant insistence that we don’t love him, that we prefer his younger brother and that he has no place in the family. He packed a case and announced he was leaving!
As a parent this is hard to hear. I cannot imagine ever being able to love my children more fiercely than I do. There is no obvious reason for him thinking that we prefer the other one. Admittedly, he does suck up to us a bit more. He can turn on the soulful eyes when required and is a little more, shall we say, straightforward. He fills the niche left by his older brother and as a result is largely careful and diligent. He has his own brand of stubbornness but it tends to be a little less confrontational – you may read that as ‘doesn’t send me into quite such a rage’.
There is something which makes my first born feel that it is his very nature that we’re objecting to, rather than the leaping over furniture. That the things we find frustrating are so wrapped up in who he is, that there is nothing to be done. Compare this to his brother who simply doesn’t like wearing trousers.
I had to explain that actually feeling like you don’t belong isn’t always a bad thing. Some of the greatest people felt a bit different to those around them – the key is to find other people who feel that way too and stick together. There is nothing that he could do that would make us not love him. “Even if I murdered someone?” “Well, I admit we’d be disappointed but yes, even if you murdered someone”. He then decided that this was brilliant as this meant he could do what he liked. We pointed out that although we will always love him, the things he does can still make us angry, or sad, or proud, or excited – and he gets to choose which one, and so do we.
There have been consequences to it all, but on the understanding that it is because we love him, not because we don’t, that we have a responsibility to turn him into a civilized human being – one that washes and eats brocolli.
And then it occurred to me that all of this is just practice. Just like rollercoasters practice danger, and ghost stories practice fear, all this drama is just practicing loneliness, practicing sadness, testing how far you can push people before they tell you to bugger off. All my teenage angst, far from making me depressed, gave me a jolly good rehearsal for the times when genuine sadness, grief and loneliness struck. Life might be rubbish but there is a comfort in melancholy because you know the drill. Tori Amos and that bit about the “too too sullied flesh” will make you at least feel like you’re in good company.
In the end, all you can do as a parent is keep telling them that you do love them. Over and over again. I was reminded of that bit in Good Will Hunting where Robin Williams keeps telling Matt Damon that it’s not his fault until he eventually cracked.
It’s easy to take it for granted that our children know that we love them, but no harm can come for telling them as often as possible, even when we feel like it the least. And that we love them because of the annoying bits, not despite them. They need the chance to have a go at being angry and misunderstood in the comfort of their own home, before they try unleashing it onto the big wide world.
Sometimes, I think that might be asking a bit too much of everyone but we can only do our best.
Please can someone pass me the cider.