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16 March, 2014 / Parenting

When the kids don’t need you…

I’d been away for three days for work. No big deal, I know – I didn’t expect champagne and bunting to herald my return. But… a tiny bit of fuss would have been nice. A hug, or a resume of all the things I’d missed. ‘Did you have a good time?’ asked one of my sons, gazed fixed upon his iPad.

Yes, fine, thanks,’ I replied, setting down my suitcase. And that was that. Clearly, family life had trundled along fine without me. No one appeared to have been excluded from school, developed scurvy or even noticed my absence particularly. I sloped upstairs feeling thoroughly disgruntled, until it occurred to me that… this is what’s meant to happen.

Indifference to parental comings and goings, I mean. And it’s okay – it really is. Sure, it takes a little getting used to, but think how weird it would be if your adoring offspring remained that way forever. It’s lovely, being watched intently by a three year-old while you apply your make-up. Imagine, being that fascinating to anyone! But if a seventeen year-old were to behave like that, I’d assume drugs were involved, or that they were building up to make some terrible announcement. ‘What is it?’ I’d keep barking. ‘WHY ARE YOU STARING AT ME LIKE THAT?’ My blood pressure would be through the roof.

We know, of course, that children are programmed to gradually separate from us, progressing from occasional eye rolls to full-on communication avoidance. For me, the toughest time was when they hit the 12, 13 mark. I wasn’t prepared for my once-loving children to suddenly regard me with disdain.

I took to hovering around them like a needy kid who’d been shunned from the gang. When they had friends around, I’d buy their favourite snacks and barge into their room to serve them. They’d all look round in alarm, as if I’d waltzed in wearing a fringed bikini, and someone would mutter, ‘Just leave it at the door, would you?’

Then, gradually, the distance between us began to feel normal. And as soon as I’d accepted it as a perfectly healthy developmental stage, I stopped the loitering, the snivelling and bribing them to hang out with me. They were stretching their wings. That’s what kids are supposed to do.

Anyway, it’s not all bad news, this feeling of being slightly redundant and not knowing what to do with ourselves. Here are some unexpected – and quite delightful – things that happen as the kids start doing their own thing.

– If teenagers seem aloof, it’s because they are busy thinking about the world. Like this Ukraine situation: ask an older relative what’s going on, and they’ll have you pinned to the wall for 17 hours until you have to invent some domestic emergency to get away. But ask a teenager and they’ll come back with precisely the kind of short, digestible response you required.

– You’re not needed. Of course, you hope you’ll always be their first port of call whenever they’re worried or sad. What I mean here is being ‘needed’ in a cutting-up-food, dabbing-lotion-onto-verrucas kind of way. The tedious stuff which we didn’t mind while it was happening – but don’t exactly mourn when it’s all done.

– You feel more united as a couple. When your kids won’t hug you anymore, you and your partner are likely to seek solace in each other. Happily, there’s more time to be ‘romantic’ (ahem) now you no longer have drifts of Lego to sweep up. Plus, nothing creates a sense of solidarity like being regarded as a pair of imbeciles by your kids.

– You and your teens can enjoy a new way of relating to each other. I mean, what choice is there? They’ve made it clear they don’t want you checking their homework or arranging their pizza toppings to look like a face.

– You can do what you want. When our boys were tiny, virtually every sentence Jimmy and I uttered to each other started with ‘I’m just…’ ie, ‘I’m just… going to the shops/kitchen’ (which implied, ‘Is that okay with you?’). We were shattered and stressed and felt it necessary to keep each other under constant surveillance. You couldn’t have a pee without asking if that was all right. The one time Jimmy ventured off piste – ie, ¬†went to the pub without written permission – I threw a cake at him.

Those days are long gone. Now we just say, ‘I’m going to town and then I’m meeting Andy for a drink.’ And that’s that. No wrangling, no negotiating, no ‘I’m just.’ God, it makes me so happy to be able to type that.

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