Our kids are growing up and out: their peers matter more to them than their parents. In evolutionary terms, they’re attaching themselves to a tribe outside their biological family to gather the support they’ll need for their adult lives. As they can join more than one tribe, they can also reinvent themselves; at home, you might be the stroppy one but with peers you can be born again, and if you’re lucky, again and again.
Big milestones are coming thick and fast – exams, enrolments, employment. Just as momentous as these rites of passage are the emotional shifts, as friendships become more private and their interior lives are more inscrutable. Romantic relationships have begun. Somebody said that having a child is like having your heart go walking outside your body; having that child fall in love is like someone else’s child taking custody of that heart. I found it difficult enough to pass on their outgrown baby clothes to other people’s children so, despite my kids’ impeccable taste in partners, this development is quite a challenge.
The time we all spend together is diminishing and they’re not often wholly present in the same room. There are visual and aural clues that they’re at home (a key in the lock, a shower running, a plate on the floor, a head round the door) but they increasingly exist as synecdoche, a whole represented by a part. The house is always on standby for extra guests or no one at all. The kitchen is either under-stocked (who knew they’d eat so many eggs? I’d buy some chickens but I can’t face the night-time worry as the mangy Manchester foxes prowl) or it’s full of meals prepared for five but plans have changed or aren’t shared in the first place. I need more Tupperware and endless flexibility.
There is little place for parental vanity. Before our summer holiday, our eldest daughter lost her phone and with no time to replace it I handed her mine. It was a relief for me to be free of social media and the responsibility for taking photos that make us all look happy at the same time; for her, it was more than relief, something more like a life support system, as she adeptly reconfigured all my settings to hers. ‘I’ll take photos’ she said. Almost without exception, in the photos she took of me and her dad we look vaguely ridiculous, infirm and close to senility. This is how she sees us:
Though it makes me cringe, and laugh, this is as it should be and I’m aware how lucky I am that they are healthy and happy enough to take us for granted. We didn’t have children in the hope of keeping them in primary school forever or permanently squabbling around the kitchen table. If I’m honest, I’m not sure why we had them but it wasn’t for that. And I enjoy their growing wit, independence and capacity to earn their own money (and spend it). But there is no doubt that their separation from me at times feels like a rejection of me; the emotional storms of adolescence trigger feelings from my own teenage years. I can feel as lost and frustrated as them, leading to stand-offs, sulks and misunderstandings.
But, like all phases of transition, this isn’t just a period of parental loss. As I write it’s early evening, which is usually the time the teenagers start circling for food or lifts or clean clothes. But they’re all out for the evening and I’m here with the dog, having time to try to make sense of a stage of our family life which will shift as quickly as all the others have (though in those earlier stages the the energy and time to reflect was limited).
The next shift will be when the eldest leaves home, the thought of which makes my breath quicken. But when she was twelve, the idea of the future her in clubs or at festivals or travelling without her senile parents would have shaken me too. Now she does these things without a backward glance and I’ve learned to be okay with it. And as she, and the other two not far behind her, move more permanently into the world outside their childhood home, I’m hoping my attention will too. I’m hoping it won’t be the fearful vigilance of waiting for foxes to pounce but of a newly remembered independence of outlook in the safety of family interdependence.
Their teenage years are re-presenting me with my own adolescent feelings but, seeing myself as they see me, I am impossibly ancient; I’m younger and older all at once. It’s been like this since the first one arrived, each stage in my life in some way recycled with them. The intense vulnerability of the new born-new mother; the unpredictable tiredness, hunger and glee of toddlerdom; fears of separation and pleasure of new attachments in nursery and primary school (does anything else explain the willingness of parents to be involved in PTAs?); the cravings for privacy, lurches in mood and sense of urgency of adolescence. It may be a denial of physical reality to hope that my children’s young adulthood will reignite aspects of my own in me but there are glimpses that their growing up and out is not entirely my loss. While our children’s childhoods confront us with our own, for good or ill, their emerging adulthoods can revitalise us. The empty nest is a powerful and desolate metaphor for this next stage in my life (which developmental psychologist Erikson starkly coined the time of ‘generativity or stagnation’), but human fledglings can launch their parents out of the nest alongside them. For we experience our children’s transitions in relation to them, not as passive spectators. I won’t slavishly reproduce what they do (I’m happy to leave the festivals and clubs to them). In fact, knitting, reading and looking at birds already come quite close to the top of my list of favourite pastimes. But I can feel myself becoming less constrained by domestic routines, and as a consequence less secondary in my own life. I suppose, or hope, that this is how our fledglings are feeling too.
Now, I wonder if the milkman delivers eggs?