Just before Christmas, before we got locked-down again, I took my youngest daughter out for a couple of hours. She is fourteen years old. We drove to a city about an hour away that has a cathedral that’s currently festooned in elaborate Christmas lights. It also has assorted shops of the type that 14-year-old girls love (the ones that sell pink foam candy sweets and the bigger ones that sell expensive puffa jackets).
As I drove we listened to the new Taylor Swift album and critiqued it vociferously (I think it’s musically proficient but lacks soul; my daughter thinks “the songs all sound the same”). We chatted on the handsfree system with my eldest daughter, who lives 100 miles away and was getting ready to go on a date.
When we got to our destination we met up (at a careful social distance!) with two friends of ours. We all bought Christmas scented candles and salty snacks, and then we got hot drinks from the takeaway stand and went to look at the pretty lights. It was dark by now, the sky was a clear navy blue and the city was properly festive and magical.
When we got home again a couple of hours later, the heating was on and my husband had laid out a Moroccan takeaway feast. We ate it all together as a family and after dinner, my daughter and my 17-year-old son chose a Christmas film for us to watch all together. Which we did. With a big box of Christmas chocolates, and wine for the adults.
It was, I thought, a pretty perfect day for a fourteen-year-old girl who can’t have sleepovers with her friends at the moment (and can’t even have those friends over to hang out in her room). We were all getting ready for a strange, different sort of Christmas, one without crowds of people to celebrate with, and it was feeling quite depressing — but I was pretty pleased with myself for having managed to whip up some festive spirit despite the strange times.
Imagine my dismay, then, when not one full hour after the film had finished my daughter appeared again, silhouetted in the doorway of the sitting room. “I’m…just…so…bored,” she opined. “I can’t think of anything to do.” She looked at me expectantly.
Livid, I was. Livid. Do I really have to give every last piece of myself to this task, this endless working role of parenthood? I was tired. I’d driven an hour each way to look at Christmas lights and I’d watched a film I don’t even particularly like (Fred Claus, since you asked) and I’d been jolly and upbeat and I’d even started to felt pleased with the idea that I might have had a good day, in parenting terms. Until five minutes previously, I’d almost been smug.
It wasn’t enough, though. No way. Somehow, when my daughter got bored a few short hours later, it was my job to fix. Of course, it was.
This is what I’ve discovered, in around 23 years of parenting: that you give and give and give, and try and try and try, and somehow it isn’t ever quite enough. Either your kid tells you outright that it isn’t, or you have a nagging sense that you’ve forgotten to do or say the one vital thing on one particular day that might contribute positively to your child’s future. It’s relentless.
The relentlessness is precisely the thing I wasn’t prepared for, back when I thought it would be super-fun to have three kids. In my head, you had a few relentless years at the start where it was all feeding and nappy changes and making sure they didn’t walk into the road, and then you got some rewarding years when they thought you were the best thing in the world and everyone enjoyed doing jigsaws and collages with glitter glue.
Then, I thought, they’d disappear off with their mates more and more and there would be a scary new sense of freedom but also of a job done, a parenting task achieved, another level of life’s computer game triumphantly completed.
Instead, the “freedom” that greeted me when my children reached their teens and did start to go off with their friends felt quite terrifying, an empty void that yawned against the backdrop of a future I couldn’t quite imagine yet. I was lonely and wanted them home again.
Yet, in between those terrifying glimpses of freedom, I felt as desperately needed as I ever did when they were babies, and twice as inadequate. It’s not freedom when you don’t feel free. So I indulged them when they were around.
Basically, I’m very selfish, is the truth of it. I seem to want my children to need me to a schedule of my devising, not theirs. Plus, my indulgence of them in the past now means that it’s me they run to when they experience five seconds of boredom or the smallest of problems. I’ve always sorted things out for them before; why wouldn’t I do it again?
I’ll tell you why. It’s because sometimes, I’ve earned a precious hour on the sofa with a glass of pinot noir and an episode of Love Life, and they’re definitely old enough to deal with that and entertain themselves for once. Or at least to politely be bored somewhere I can’t see them.
Which, funnily enough, is exactly what I told my daughter on that Saturday night.