When my three youngest children, who are 4, 6 and 8, returned to school last Monday, I wandered around my house feeling a bit stunned, clearing up piles of phonics prints-outs covered in scribbles, sweeping up heaps of Lego off every conceivable surface, finding piles of sweet wrappers hidden under cushions.
It was hot and sunny outside and the stunned, strange combination of flat-lined euphoria and exhaustion I was feeling reminded me a tiny bit of how I felt the day after a rave: I was returning to myself, but with terrible hair, a low level sense of concussion and a distinct feeling that something profound and weird had just gone on. I wanted to feel happy but I was not quite sure what to do with myself. And besides, unlike my kids, trotting off to their village primary school, I was still shut in, the kitchen and four walls of our house, my reality.
…while my primary school kids were taking up all my oxygen, I had to leave my teenagers, more or less, to make it up as they went along on their own.
I wasn’t alone, anyway. Upstairs, I could hear my daughter Dolly, who is 17, logging on to conference for another day of distance learning drama from her college in Oxford. Her elder brother Jimmy, who left teenage life during lockdown and is now 20, had left for work at 6.30am. His year of art foundation course was interrupted a year ago, and he deferred his university place last November. Living at home and working as a gardener certainly wasn’t part of his game plan for this year, but he’s been grateful for a job for the past year and is optimistic that when he does take up his place at uni in September, it will be whole hearted and real-life, not on a screen.
My strange, relentless, remarkable, difficult, wonderful, bizarre experience of being a parent in the last year has been often focussed around my younger children. While the first round of homeschooling last spring had a certain novelty value in its wild weirdness and the fact I didn’t feel pressurised into doing anything with the kids other than reading to them and a bit of colouring in, trying to home school three kids on three screens over the winter was frankly no joke. It was sometimes traumatic, and I don’t use that word lightly.
The particular need of teens during lockdown
And while my primary school kids were taking up all my oxygen, I had to leave my teenagers, more or less, to make it up as they went along on their own. For Jimmy, this meant making the difficult decision to defer his university place, then find a job, not at all easy in a pandemic, and stick at it, when all the usual goals that a “year off” might lead to – like a long stint of time abroad to say nothing of absolute liberation from parental control – were nowhere on the cards.
Dolly, meanwhile, has applied herself to studying drama, on a screen, from her bedroom upstairs while her younger siblings create havoc of homeschool in the kitchen. We live in the middle of the country, which is beautiful in many ways, but means that even sneaking out for a walk with a friend has been almost impossible.
The challenge of lockdown for teenagers
When I think of everyone, it’s her I have felt for the most. Jimmy had already barrelled through his fairly hair-raising teenage life, pushing all the boundaries and buttons that teenagers do. But Dolly was on the cusp of much greater teenage freedom when lockdown bit; she certainly had not planned to spend so much of her 17th year at home, with her younger siblings and mum and Netflix as her main company.
Watching the way my teenagers have navigated this tricky year has reminded me, again, of how much I respect teenagers. I would almost say I am in awe of them. Alongside toddlers, they are the age group that get the most stick.
My daughter certainly had not planned to spend so much of her 17th year at home, with her younger siblings and mum and Netflix.
I always want to kick back against the voices, of which there are many, across the decades, that say teenagers are moody, unreasonable, irrational and not a great deal of fun to be around. In my experience, and despite the massive curtailing of all their personal freedoms and loss of the experiences of essential rites of passage that make the change from grown-up child to young adult so essential, I have found a year of being unusually close to my teenagers has reminded me how resilient, creative, gritty, funny and hugely emotionally intelligent they are.
It’s OK for teens to be online
They might not be able to see their friends, but I can hear them talking to them, from inside their bedrooms, and I know that they are connected in a way I fail to be with my friends. They look out for one another too, are quick to support each other when life gets tough, and in my experience are never judgemental, never bitchy.
Parents still matter to teens
I have also been aware, more than ever, that while my teenagers have not needed the physical care that my younger children demand of me every day, my presence matters to them. This was perhaps more important than ever in early lockdown, when the world first got weird, and also in late winter, when exhaustion fatigue really set in at simply being in the house all the time.
Dolly didn’t need me to help her get onto a conference (thank goodness, since I was down in the kitchen swearing at three separate Microsoft Teams log ins) but she wanted me to be there for her: to make tuna sandwiches and talk about her course work at lunch time while the kids binged on Minecraft, or watch something in bed together late at night, or just go for a walk together when the sun came out.
Teenagers = less complicated than you might think
Teenagers are often described as complicated, but I disagree. They want presence, communication and demand a lack of judgment. None of those things are actually hard to do as their mother, as long as I can give them my time, and a willingness to see things from the perspective of a much younger generation, to listen and hear who they are. They want to be seen, and as their mother it’s a great privilege to do that.
I leave this year of lockdown with a sense of luck. I feel lucky to have been given the extra time I have with my almost grownup children. I feel lucky for the presence they have demanded of me. I feel grateful for the many late-night kitchen conversations I have been awarded as a result of being locked down together. Sure, there have been an awful lot of bowls of cereal to clear up, but that’s a small price to pay.
— Clover Stroud
Picture: with thanks to John Angerson
Order Clover Stroud’s books: My Wild and Sleepless Nights and The Wild Other: A memoir of love, adventure and how to be brave
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