Category Archives: old head

Fifteen

One evening in early May, fifteen years ago, I greeted my husband with alarm when he came home from work. I was newly on maternity leave, nervously awaiting the birth of my first child and had spent the day in conscientious preparation (washing baby clothes in non-biological powder, packing a hospital bag), eating and dozing off in front of the television. I had awoken in a daze to find myself watching a travel programme where a harried, old-looking couple were trying to find a suitable holiday for themselves and their morose teenage sons.

I had not found out the sex of my baby but I knew, deep down, that I was having a boy and I suddenly started to panic about how I was going to manage with a teenage son.  What on earth had possessed me to think this mothering business was the right thing to do? Why had it not occurred to me until now – when there was clearly no going back – that a little baby boy would grow up into a giant, sullen creature with whom one would have to find a suitable holiday to go on? The only thing that calmed me down that evening, as I paced around a flat punctuated by lots of little babygrows drying here and there on radiators, was the rationalisation that, by the time one had a teenage son, one would (hopefully) have got to know him and so the whole going-on-holiday-thing might be less of a challenge.

Fast forward fifteen years and I like to think I understand my teenage boy and what makes him tick, for now at least.

It seems rather abrupt, however, that he has suddenly attained an age that can be counted up in fives, leading me to reminisce about him being a baby, about him being five, and ten and anticipating the speed at which twenty will come hurtling towards me. Time with him feels like it is accelerating and is being used up at a terrific rate. Unlike the baby-time – those hours that could feel like days, or the sleepless nights that could feel like weeks. It is poignant and a bit sobering to realise that there is really not very much time left with him at home to have those family holidays in that sent me into such a flat spin back in 2001. I have now started to worry instead about how to fit it all in, about how to make it count, about how to not forget the hours, the days and the terms which are slipping away in a blur of football fixtures, cricket matches, margherita pizzas and mock GCSEs.

The time I do spend with my boy now is precious. In years gone by, he could often be an even-tempered, personable, intelligent and funny companion: at fifteen, he is all of these things consistently.   Most of the time, he has a new maturity of attitude and is equable and affable (sibling relations sometimes being honourable exceptions).

He has a new, deepened interest in music and has eclectic tastes – equally interested in attending a classical concert with his parents and grandfather to listen to Elgar and Vaughan Williams; in listening to and researching the music of the Beatles; in understanding the reason why 80s classics are 80s classics and even in attempting his own compositions on the piano or guitar. We spent an enjoyable hour or two recently listening to a downloaded ‘Best of British’ album where I challenged him to guess the performer and the decade of each track and a long car journey at Easter was punctuated by having to score and rank Beatles tracks out of ten. I can share favourite old songs with a truly appreciative audience, telling him about dancing him to sleep with Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’ when he was a baby, or explaining why John Lennon’s ‘Watching the Wheels’ struck such a chord with me when I stopped going out to work for a while.

He is endlessly acquisitive, searching facts and opinions on a diverse range of topics and – gradually – learning the difference between facts and opinions. He is articulate and well-informed on lots of current affairs, with a particular interest in the U.S. election, as well as an absolutely encyclopaedic knowledge of worldwide football statistics, honed by the considerable amount of his time which he devotes to football you-tubers. He is determined to get to the bottom of whatever he comes across, such as questioning me endlessly about the Cold War (as well as the rights and wrongs of 80s fashion) whilst watching Deutschland ’83 with me.

He is a child of his times in his communication strategies. He is a humourous texter (sometimes sending them to me in French or German, just because he can) and will sometimes talk to me via text from a different room in the house. This is not quite what I usually have in mind when I want to talk to him, but can sometimes elicit more information from him than a conventional conversation. He emails me his Christmas and birthday lists, but it is always politely done, with an acknowledgement that he does not expect everything on the list and with helpful links to the actual things he wants.   What he wants, aged 15, is trendy clothes (with a particular propensity for near-identical, ruinously expensive long sleeved grey tops), sheet music and lots of chocolate.

He is badly organised, messy, charming, impractical, beautiful, sensitive, bright and bonny.

He is physically stronger, bigger, hungrier, leaner and male-r than ever before, but I think he still has quite a way to grow.

If I could go back to the first week of May 2001, I would tell myself not to worry. Your boy is amazing and you will look forward to a holiday with him the summer he is fifteen.

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Time-keeper

refNo.1 son stood with head respectfully bowed. But I could tell he was looking at his watch, counting down the seconds before he would have to blow his whistle. His very first task as a trainee referee was to supervise two minutes silence on Remembrance Sunday. A weedy peep, betraying his anxiety, barely audible on a wind-buffeted playing field, signaled the end of the silence and that play could get under way.

The role of the time-keeper is essential to sports. From timing races to determine winners on land and water, to careful marshaling of the playing duration of rugby, hockey, netball and football matches, to clocks that limit breaks in tennis, constrain routines in gymnastics and force attacking play in basketball. Even cricket’s colonisation of whole days is prey to the clock, with lunch, tea and drinks breaks to be timed and enforced.

How well suited would my older son be to the task of time-keeper? All the evidence from home-life is that he would not be playing to a known strength.

The morning of one of his football matches typically involves him having to be woken up. He may even have to be woken a second time. “We need to leave in 45 minutes”, Mother in the Middle or I will specify. A little later, as he takes a leisurely breakfast, irritation ill-concealed, “Can you get dressed now. We’re going in 20 minutes.”

This prompts a move to the shower. The argument that he should wash after, not before, a game was made, won and ignored long ago.

“Five minute warning!” we yell, which may disturb him from his social networking activity.

When we’re kicking our heels at the front door, already swaddled in jumpers and coats, glancing at our time pieces, there will be a flurry of activity. “Where’s my socks? Which kit are we playing in? Who’s had my shin-pads?” Frantic searches, allegations, cross words enliven the house. Whatever’s lost will be found stuffed in a school bag or buried beneath clothes heading to or returning from the washing machine.

“Are we going to be late?” no.1 son will ask urgently, accusingly as he stumbles out of the front door, feet not properly in boots, coat dragging on the ground. Some days I resist the impulse to set out how any degree of organisation or time-awareness could have negated the need for this rushed, bothered exit; and some days I don’t. This, with age appropriate adjustments, has been going on for years. And my contribution truly sits among that list of futile things parents do (and should stop doing, but somehow don’t).

Once, when no.1 son was only nine or ten, I decided not to nag. Having told him the time we would be leaving the house, I left it up to him to get himself ready promptly. Half an hour after we should have left home, he was sat watching TV. We arrived barely before the match started. My stand had achieved nothing but inconvenience his coach and teammates.

Therefore, alongside the referees, umpires, scorers and judges, as time-keepers critical to junior sport, we should recognise the parents. Not equipped with high-tech chronometers, or backed by rule books, it’s mums and dads persuading, chivvying and marching their offspring out of the door that ensure junior sports fixtures start promptly. 

Watching the first half of no.1 son’s first match as referee, I started to become anxious. His nerves before the game were overt as he questioned me about various aspects of under 12 football: the duration, substitutions, off-side, identity of linesmen. With all that uncertainty in his mind, I began to worry that he might have forgotten to time the half. I tried to work out how long the game had been going. An even bigger puzzle was how I was going to gain his attention when, by my estimate, the first half would be over. I paced circuits around the pitch, trying to work out if he seemed aware of the passage of time.

Then suddenly and with impeccable timing, two loud blasts on the whistle, as no.1 son brought the first half of the first game of his refereeing career to an end.

 

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Little big boy, big little boy

202As the youngest sibling of a precocious brother and sister, the age gap separating no.2 son from our other children can seem greater than that of their birth dates. Yet, his closeness to his sister and ability to compete physically with his brother can also concertina those years and months. Eight years old and capable of being the little boy and the big lad.

Shopping with Mother in the Middle at the start of the week, no.2 son saw a teddy bear as tall as he is. He played with the oversized ted in the shop and declared he wanted it for Christmas. For the next few days, no.2 son would observe that big ted could be having breakfast with him, keeping him warm at night or sharing the joke in “You’ve been framed” reruns. A little boy craving a tactile toy.

Monday night at football training, no.2 son put in his usual shift. Running, tackling, passing – with an appetite for the ball and presence on the pitch that was rewarded with ‘Man of Training’ award for the third time already this season. With that accolade came the appointment as captain, signified with an arm band, for Saturday’s cup match. Not merely a big boy, but ‘Man of training’.

Twice in the week, I was on duty with the kids in the morning and walked the younger pair to school. No.2 son required, as he always has, reminders to and beyond the point of nagging to get himself dressed and equipped for school. Once out of the door, his hand finds mine. And so we walk, clasping paws, for the three-quarters of a mile to school, inside the gate and across the playground. A little boy whose need for the security of hand-holding remains stronger than any self-conscious anxiety about how that might look to his peers.

On Wednesday evening, I drove into Manchester with the two boys. As we approached our parking spot, we saw unofficial bonfires and ad hoc fireworks lit the sky. Stepping out of the car, there was a volley of bangs. No.2 son grabbed my hand, and dragged me in a direction away from the noise. I pointed the way we had to walk to the Etihad Stadium and he gave me a fearful look. We set off, his hand clinging to mine and pulling whenever he started at the sound of an explosion.

At the stadium concourse, Manchester City, the club with money to burn, held a dramatic firework display, which was too much for no.2 son. We retreated to the club shop and then to our seats inside, where the little boy recovered with a bag of sweets and watched his team lose its Champions League fixture.

Friday night brought indoor cricket. We arrived promptly and the hall needed reorganising before we could play. I set about moving benches and handed a ball to no.2 son, asking him to play with his teammates. Having cleared the hall, my attention returned to the team. No.2 son had organised a warm-up where each player took a turn fielding and catching the ball fed to them by my big boy.

Bowling first, no.2 son was disappointed with his effort. This, he explained to me later, motivated him to bat ‘properly’. For the first time, I see him guide and coax the ball, feet moving fluently, weight transferring to give enough momentum to the bat swing. Gone are the wild swishes and unbalanced swipes. He accumulated a run or more a ball and completed his overs without being dismissed.

I am umpiring at square leg, squatting on a gym bench, chatting with the county cricket coach. No.2 son, his innings over, pushes past the county coach and levers himself onto my lap. The mature, sensible cricketer reverts to the little boy in need of parental physical contact.

The following morning, Saturday, no.2 son and I walk – holding hands, of course – to the playing field for the cup match. At the ground, I tie the laces of his football boots, give him a tap and away he dashes to join his team. He starts the match in the position he has decided is his favourite – centre midfield. Under early pressure, prompted by the coach, he instructs his teammates where to defend at a corner. The match settles into a rhythm – one that no.2 son is doing more than anyone else to syncopate. He intercepts, tackles, dribbles, covers teammates, slips balls into their path and when the ball breaks to him on the edge of the area, he side foots it into the far top corner of the net. That it stays the only goal of a tight first half, owes much to his sprawling goal line block to a shot that has beaten his keeper.

The second half continues with no.2 son and his team driving forward and being caught by the opposition breaking fast. He intercepts one of their attacks, weaves past a couple of players before passing the ball wide. Seconds later the ball is returned to him in the penalty area. A clean strike sends the ball past the keeper. With a two goal lead, no.2 son is rotated off the pitch. The opponents rally, pull a goal back and the coach sends no.2 son back on the field with instructions heard on our side of the pitch: “Protect the lead”. Tackling and running hard, he plays his part.

Captain, goalscorer, midfield rock, recipient of the touchline dads’ plaudits and Man of the Match. I ruffle his hair and we walk across the field and back home – holding hands, of course.

We end our week of teddy bear envy, firework fear, cricket maturity, football achievement in the park. We have a kickabout, (pausing as no.2 son stands frozen by the presence of dogs) enjoying taking turns lashing shots at each other in goal. As the sun gives up on the day, the big boy’s biggest fun is had in the playground, being rotated on the hamster wheel and bounced on the see-saw.

Our youngest child is growing up at his own pace, which is both thrillingly quickly and reassuringly slowly.

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Thirteen

messi squaredIt does not seem possible that I am a mother to a teenage boy. But it was indisputably thirteen years ago, on an uncharacteristically hot Bank Holiday Monday in a now unfamiliar city that I then called home, that my body began the slow, agonising process of expelling my first child.

Thirteen’s body is now going through its own changes to expel the boy and embrace the man, albeit in a steady, incremental fashion. Not for him, yet, the spurting growth of many of his peers or the comically large shoes I see in my hall when his friends are visiting. He is still in clothes for children two to three years younger than his age and is anxious about his short stature, asking me nervously, without making eye contact, whether he needs to have injections to make him grow, like his hero, the footballer Lionel Messi.

And yet there are changes afoot. If I catch a glimpse of him unawares, I can see a certain new breadth to his shoulders, weight to his body and length to his jaw. I catch sight of him in a certain light and, just in time, stop myself from reaching out to wipe away a smudge from his upper lip, realising that is the first suggestion of some facial hair.

Thirteen is now aware of things that we have not discussed. Unable to restrain himself, he laughs uproariously at a rude joke in a film we watch together, that I had assumed would go over his head. He tells me, consolingly, that his brother has no idea what he is doing when dancing thrusting his hips in and out in parody of something he, certainly, does not understand. ‘But you do have an idea, do you?’ I ask, faintly horrified and he nods, briefly, smiling reassuringly.

Thirteen, whilst slow to show physical changes, certainly seems to be experiencing the emotional challenges of puberty. He is disorganised, quick to anger and tears and can create an argument out of any seemingly innocuous comment. In the week before his birthday, Thirteen leaves one of his school shoes at a cricket match, shouts at me for not preventing its loss, despite not being at the cricket match, recovers the shoe from a friend at another cricket match later in the week and then promptly leaves it behind again at a new venue. His insouciance at the original loss – ‘we can just get some more’ – and the subsequent loss – ‘it must be fate, you need to buy me some new shoes’ fills me with rage, but also seems vaguely familiar. I recall my father’s rage when, at a similar age, he warned me not to walk up one side of the drive as there was a loose roof tile and my languid response as I shrugged my shoulders with a teenager’s sense of immortality was ‘if it’s going to get me, it will. That’s fate’.

Thirteen is mercurial with his siblings. One minute shouting sarcastically at his sister, chastising her for her shortcomings and irritations, shoving her ‘by accident’ in the way past, the next helping her with her maths homework, patiently cajoling the right answer out of a sobbing, hiccoughing, temporarily more vulnerable person than him. He has the ability to switch into a completely different personality, seemingly at will and can change from sullen and objectionable to compassionate and entertaining – and back again – in the blink of an eye. He is felled, quickly, by embarrassment and his siblings know and, on occasion, exploit this mercilessly. On a recent trip to the country, to fulfil his father’s only expressed birthday wish to go for a walk (possible only with the deployment of threats and bribes), Thirteen was reduced to a shaking, crying rage by his brother and sister mooning by the side of a field. The fact that no one, except possibly some sheep, would have seen anything and that, even if they had, would have merely shrugged and smiled and not thought any the worse of Thirteen because of his younger siblings’ behaviour, was of no consequence to him. His humiliation was complete, his life was (temporarily) over.

I find it difficult not to get drawn into pointless arguments with Thirteen, not to respond to his kneejerk objection to things I say. I am slow to adjust my behaviour and, whilst I can see on one level what the correct parenting technique would be (pick your battles, they would say, don’t waste your energy in this argument about whether he or his brother and sister have more days off school a year), I cannot yet control the impulse to get drawn into the debate with him. Perhaps by the time he is eighteen, or twenty five, or whenever he grows out of disagreeing with me on principle, I may have found the perfect technique for dealing with him. He is already developing the perfect technique for dealing with me: ‘I’m really sorry Mum’ he says, spontaneously hugging me tight one Sunday night, after a tense weekend.Xmas piano ‘What for?’ I ask. ‘Basically everything this weekend’ he replies and I am flooded with happiness at my mature, beautiful boy, who is an overgrown toddler, needing a hug after throwing a tantrum. I want to tell him that I get it; that no one understands being overtaken by hormones and wanting to sob over apparently inconsequential disappointments like a forty something woman.

Thirteen remains intellectually curious and accomplished, a high achiever at school despite very little apparent effort. ‘What’s this?’ is a constant refrain, as he (over)hears snatches of conversation between his parents. He wants to know everything and be in control of everything he can. He strives to make sense of the world and where he is going in it. He is principled and moral – his vegetarianism has lasted four years now and he even eschews, martyr-like, sweets containing gelatine. He remains fixated on sport, both on the field and on the screen. He refuses to read anything I get him for months, then eventually picks up one of the books, becoming immediately obsessed by it and the sequels, devouring two thick books in a weekend and refusing all entreaty to save one for the holiday starting two days later.

Thirteen still lives with his daily disappointments and fears. He has such inchoate fear within him that seems to attach itself to an ever changing target of catastrophes – Ouija boards at school, space, whether any of the chemical from his science lesson could have accidentally got into his mouth during the lesson before lunch, flying on a plane, whether his lost (thrown away?) peanut butter sandwiches could have been found and eaten by someone with a peanut allergy who could then have gone into anaphylactic shock. Scarcely a night goes by when he is not anxious about something at bedtime, claiming that he feels sick and that something is really wrong. Efforts to console him are increasingly difficult. ‘Plane travel is the safest form of transport there is!’ I trill cheerfully to him as he sobs about feeling paralysed with fear about getting on a plane to go on his long-awaited football trip. ‘WHAT ABOUT MALAYSIA AIRLINES FLIGHT MH370’ he yells back and I have no answer. Platitudes do not work with someone who is very clever, very anxious and very determined not to be talked out of it. I try to take him for a trip to buy travel sickness medication. ‘It’s just a placebo Mum’ he announces wearily and walks away: several hours later he cries in despair ‘but why didn’t you buy it for me?’

When Thirteen feels pain or worry, I feel it too, like a punch in the stomach. When he cries to me of his fears about space and whether we could all be swallowed by a black hole, I want to cry too, because I do not understand it either and I cannot make it better for him. Thirteen is having to come to terms with my inadequacies: I can no longer make things up to placate him, I can’t explain ‘space’ when I do not understand it myself and what terrifies him terrifies me too. How to explain to him that I’ve just learned how to compartmentalise, how to dissemble, even to myself, about things. That in the end it’s just too exhausting to worry about every little thing. That he will have to come to terms with accepting that not only does he not know, his mother doesn’t know, most people don’t know but actually most people don’t care and are happier for it. I think, I hope, he will get there in the end. Perhaps Fifteen will be cheerfully checking the stars through a telescope and Eighteen will happily hop on a plane to go on holiday with his friends. And perhaps not.

Thirteen is still connected to me, physically, viscerally. He may have left my body back in 2001, but the cord is pulsing fast and strong, just as the little boy he was pulses in him still, as he starts his adolescence.

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