It’s late on a week night; I’m not sure which one. Not Friday, because I haven’t had the pizza that traditionally marks the conclusion of another week spent sharing a desk with my spouse as all the buildings in a 500-yard radius conduct demolition works and the owner of the restaurant opposite says, “Hiyalright?” with exactly the same inflection to every passer-by for nine hours daily.
All other evenings feel the same: everyone looks at their phone while something we aren’t really watching (and which I am only pretending to understand) plays on TV. The dog fidgets in his sleep; my spouse alternates fidgeting and sleeping. I glance at my younger son, stretched out along the sofa. Something stirs in my mind, a vestige of a long-forgotten ritual. I grasp for it, frowning. There’s definitely something I’m supposed to do here. Eventually, it comes to me, sort of.
“What time,” I say, hesitantly, “do you go to bed? Is it 10? Half 10?”
He glances over, eyebrow raised in mild amusement. “I mean, I’ll take half 10,” he says, which makes me think it was not half 10 in the Before Times.
There is a problem: I have forgotten how to parent.
I know my experience is not typical. Parents of younger children have done exponentially more and harder parenting this year. Reconciling wrangling smaller children whose opportunities for fun and socialising were drastically curtailed, home-schooling and work has been an intense, unforgiving challenge, as my hollow-eyed friends testify. The situation was and remains far worse for parents of severely disabled children with complex needs. The Disabled Children’s Partnership found that 76% of 4,000 families they surveyed had seen care and support withdrawn and an unsurprising 80% of parents said their own and their children’s mental health had deteriorated. Parenting in these circumstances is beyond all-consuming.
But I bet I’m not alone among parents of older, more autonomous children in letting things, er, slide somewhat. For months, my parenting was reduced to the basics: light catering, laundry and catastrophising. It’s not that I voluntarily withdrew my services; more that my sons wanted nothing I could offer. A nature reserve trip, a walk on the moors or a beach picnic? No, no and no. They’re not Enid Blyton characters.
The elder turned 18 in May, which confirmed an inevitable shift: he is twice my height and far more sensible, a teetotal vegan who exercises, reads about Middle East politics and flosses. He’s also stuck at home on a boring, anxious year out, desperate for work. What’s my job as his parent now? I have become an ineffectual cheerleader, leaving cereal bars outside his room and sending him links to dreadful jobs with encouraging messages: “You probably wouldn’t have to administer Covid tests – it’s not like they have any!” and “It says power tool experience, but maybe you could bluff?”
For the 16-year-old, it felt ridiculous nagging him to leave his phone downstairs at night or telling him to go to bed. Why? What did the next day hold anyway? Did the kids facing the zombie apocalypse in The Walking Dead have bedtimes? (I don’t actually know, I found it too frightening to watch. Maybe now it would be light relief.)
With the apocalypse on a low-to-medium simmer he’s back at school for now (a nation casts its eyes to the heavens in mute entreaty). I need to step up the parenting. But how? I can’t help him study and he rejected my offer of a new protractor set. It’s a far cry from the rigid demands of our Belgian primary school years, where acquiring a mountain of stationery (dimension of squares on graph paper, shape, number and brand of crayons all strictly specified) became a non-negotiable fortnight-long nervous breakdown. Any skills I acquired over all those years seem useless: I need to reinvent my role with fewer office supplies and more… what?
More acceptance I think; more patience. I can’t make 2020 better for them just by worrying about it. More optimism, perhaps: disruption means change and change is galvanising, even exciting, when you’re their age.
I also think it’s time for more Tedious Parent Behaviour. Perhaps my job is still being boring, and interfering. I know it feels good to be parented, as well as maddening. I sometimes pine for it, overhearing my husband bat away his mother’s questions about his lunch. I have been sneaking off to a friend’s to work, and her regular deliveries of tea and caramel wafers have a wistful taste of cosseted childhood, even though I’ll have teeth like Shane MacGowan’s soon if I keep accepting them.
So I’m going back to predictably quizzing the 16-year-old on his day and his homework, telling him to drink water and when to go to bed. I’m nagging the 18-year-old to wash his hands after the gym and take screen breaks. They loathe it, of course, but it’s the little things that show I care: infuriating, smothering little things.