When my parents told me, as I’m sure they must have done at some point, that I was “going through a phase”, I didn’t realise at the time that a) they were right and b) this would continue throughout my life. I don’t mean that I’m still going through the same phase; I’m much tidier now, for one thing, and I play my music more considerately and call fewer people fascists. But this thing of going through phases – it never stops and it applies as equally to parents as to kids.
As your children keep changing, so does the job of bringing them up, each different phase bringing its own specific concerns, which vanish as new ones arise. So now, for instance, I find it very hard to get exercised about breastfeeding rates, or MMR vaccines, or homework for primary school kids, or what age they should be allowed a phone. We’ve passed all those milestones and they’ve faded into the distance – so huge and daunting while they were looming in front of us but now so small and insignificant in the rear-view mirror.
Once phases are over, you become blasé about them and develop a thicker skin on behalf of everyone else’s kids. “Oh, they’ll be fine,” you reassure any parent who’s in the throes of weaning or separation anxiety or their children’s first exams. You’re an old hand now, an expert.
But here’s the joke: to keep you on your toes, parenthood tucks a few surprises up its sleeve, hurling a new challenge at you every time you relax. I may be laid back about dummies now but I’ve become a parent of teenagers and that is a whole different kettle of ball games. Those with grown-up kids may smile fondly, give me a little sympathetic look, say, “Oh, they’ll be fine,” as I lay out before you all my new worries about unsupervised house parties and piercings and pink hair and walking home in the dark with earphones in.
You who have survived these years, you have every right to be smug. I don’t believe there is anything much that’s new about parenting teenagers now, whatever we may think about the internet and pornography and dieting. These are details, the current incarnations of an old problem that at heart is simply that these are the years when you can no longer, despite your best efforts, exert much control over your children or guarantee to keep them safe. And inconveniently, even as they start to become irritating, with their mood swings and their music, you remain desperately in love with them.
I am often cross that teenagers get such bad press when there’s so much that’s good about them but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to parent. And of all the things you have to watch them go through, the hardest to bear is sadness. When children are young, their sadnesses are often fleeting or fixable. Friendship ups and downs, bumps and scrapes – things that can be soothed with a plaster and a kiss. But teenagers are nearly adults and often their problems are adult problems, existential even, things you feel yourself and can’t even fix for yourself, let alone for them. Seeing a teenager gloomy about their present and worrying about their future can be heartbreaking – they’re leaving behind the safe world of childhood and they know this only too well. It’s still so recent to them, so close they can reach out and touch it, but it’s fading before their eyes and they will never live in it again.
Trying to console them that life actually gets better as you get older sounds lame and unconvincing to their ears. “Dad,” said our 13-year-old the other day, “once you’re past 50, you basically just start to decompose don’t you?” We laughed but it was rueful laughter. Here we are, trying both to hold on to and let go of them. Decomposing before their very eyes. And yet, unexpectedly, often happier than they are themselves.
I read India Knight’s In Your Prime last week, with an air-punch of solidarity at its acknowledgement of the pleasures of middle age. I’ve stopped expecting anything to be easy, so maybe that’s why it’s less of a shock that nothing is. It’s not such a bad phase to be going through.