I’m the mother of two teenagers. Ah, I know I don’t look old enough – thank you – and, indeed, just 10 minutes ago I was on the playroom floor with toddlers, engineering intricate wooden railway networks to which even Brunel would have doffed his top hat, and pulling Play Doh out of the wall sockets. I turned around and Friends is on an endless loop, someone’s staged a coup in the crisps cupboard and the Steinbeck books are no longer mine – but the smallest hiking boots in the hall are.
It’s hard, this parenting malarky, isn’t it? Hard in that sneaky way that takes you by surprise, because it looks so darn easy. From experience, I’ll liken it to climbing Pumlumon – not even 2,500ft and looking all lovely and gentle from afar. You map it out with strategic precision, confident you’ll be home for tea, then suddenly you’re floundering in marshy nothingness, miles from human life and trying to figure out which way’s north.
But – who knew? – it turns out I’m getting it right after all. I watch a TED talk by the wonderful Julie Lythcott-Haims, an advocate of letting kids make their own mistakes and giving them a safe space in which to fail. Of not helicoptering them towards the path you’ve chosen and instead letting them find their own road, with you, unfailingly, at every dead end and wrong turn. She has me at hello, a full seven minutes before we get to those three magical words we all yearn to hear.
Love and chores.
Love and chores, people! If that’s all kids need, mine are in luxury. They change their bedding, vacuum carpets, walk the dog and pop the washing on. They each cook once a week and quickly become far better at it than am I – although, in the interests of good journalism, I should disclose that for every beautiful bolognese and perfect pie, there’s a curry without rice. There’s a pasta bake that, between the worktop and the kitchen table, somehow ends up splat on the floor. And there will always be Lionel-gate; the day my delicious vegetarian bolognese – rather than the leftover beef one – ends up in the dog’s bowl and the littlest teen hears the kind of swear words ordinarily reserved for Putting Up the Big Tent (remember Ross’ sandwich? You’re getting close). But, hey, no one said being good at love and chores makes us the Waltons.
In between supervising all the hoovering and watching the dog merrily gobble up my tea, I’m referred to genetics. A finding on the latest scan doesn’t make me any less of a medical mystery to neurology, so it’s time for a fresh pair of eyes (for me too, please; I have genetics and ophthalmology booked for the same week). Newbie Teen volunteers to bake Top Teen a wonderfully gooey, sugar rush of a Rocky Road-type birthday cake, pops one candle on the top and accidentally blows it out himself while singing. Top Teen falls into the helpless giggles that happen about, oh, twice a year between teen siblings and I would do anything – anything – for whatever the hell this is not to be genetic.
I re-watch Julie Lythcott-Haims, dab my eyes and realise the kind of parenting I subscribe to is tough love. As in, tough, you’re doing it… but whether it sparkles and shines or ends up in the dog’s dinner, I will love you more than you will ever understand.