METERTheir children are 18 and 17 years old. It was the youngest’s birthday this week and I made a horrible cake that definitely violated my minimum cake standards (I hesitate to criticize Nigella, but there is too much peanut butter). He looked a bit overwhelmed when we sang Happy Birthday, and I worried all day about him and his pandemic 17-year-old life, with no access to the places and people that help make 17 make sense. There’s nothing I can do about it, so I’m obsessed with the cake, sitting here wondering if I have time to replace it. I don’t, but I could anyway. What else do I have to offer you? Another load of clothes?
Because none of my children need me now. They could live independently without starvation or septic shock (the old man managed five weeks last summer) and after an emergency recovery tutorial on “what you can’t put in a microwave” at Christmas, probably without fire or explosion either. They can clean a toilet, press pants, and challenge an HMRC helpline; They can make soak rice, a pasta sauce from scratch, and decent chocolate chip cookies. After six months of Covid testing, you have more savings than me; the other is more cautious, but after a decade of not spending his birthday and Christmas money, I suspect he does too.
What is it like when your children grow up? It’s like that dream where you find a strange new room in your house, in a place that you thought you knew every inch, except over and over again. Does that convey how wonderful it is? Every new room is fascinating: there are so many things that happen there, things you always suspected or things you never imagined for a second, and very little of that is your business.
I don’t think I was a great mother when they were younger. I desperately tried to impose order on the chaos of life with a newborn, rigid about sleeping and feeding to the point of not being able to appreciate the lawless miracle of my young children. Each toddler play session degenerated on me simply organizing the Lego or stuffed animals by color and size. Later, when the old man decided that he hated school, my intellectual vanity made me say and do things that still haunt me on sleepless nights.
However, being a mother of teenagers that Love it. I still make mistakes, a lot, but the way that infinite possibility and utter frustration coexist at that age is still completely understandable to me. It is, in part, realizing how little time I have left with them and, in part, losing any aspiration for control. The older your children get, the more ridiculous you feel to be conventionally parental, it seems to me. Sometimes when I shyly suggest that the youngest could put his phone down, maybe on school nights he feels like he’s playing mom: he’s more level-headed about screen time than I am. . Mainly I feel like a privileged observer, trying not to show my fear or get in the way.
If you didn’t already know, last year taught me quite viscerally how little I can do for my children. I was already slipping into irrelevance, a benignly useless jerk who understands nothing about epigenetics or first-person shooter games, who gets hilariously horny about recycling and is embarrassed by sex scenes on TV. But Covid rudely reminded me and my fellow parents of our essential helplessness, as our children’s plans and aspirations, their fun, privacy, and autonomy were thwarted. You can’t isolate them from pain, of course. Your child becomes ill or sad, fails at something that he was desperate to succeed at. It also doesn’t stop when they leave home – they can date the wrong person at 20, feel dissatisfied at 30, lose a lover at any age. But if you always hoped you could sand down the rough corners of your children’s lives to some degree, a privilege, but one that many of us have, the pandemic proved by the fantasy that it was. When I felt most useless and sad for them, exams and adventures were canceled, friends were unapproachable, my kids would shrug their shoulders, pat me on the head and say I was fine, they were fine. But they weren’t and it wasn’t.
So, like a nearly obsolete parent in a moment of unprecedented parental helplessness, I’ve been reduced to the little things. Really, the ridiculously small ones. I send WhatsApps daily asking for shopping and lunch orders, I deliver stationery, and I deliver treats they haven’t liked since they were six years old (“I bought you a Kindergarten egg!” I text them like crazy). I iron their shirts, even if no one notices or cares, and who the hell irons the shirts? Like Lesley Manville’s character, Cathy in Mother, I do an endless and discreet order: I wash plastic cups with a half inch of fetid protein powder slime in the bottom, sweep up cereal debris, and match and put away socks.
Much of my motherhood has been like this: an accumulation of infinitely repeated small tasks. I got pregnant with the old man at 26; I’m 46 now. It’s 20 years of pants separated from pants, reserved dental appointments, and crushed milk cartons. There are at least 40 birthday cakes and I estimate something like 6,000 dinners (of which 4,500 were probably fish fingers). Sometimes I stay in the basement folding laundry at night while everyone watches TV upstairs and I find myself saying out loud, “This is my life,” in a somewhat astonished way. It is not a complaint, exactly, but an acknowledgment; an acceptance. I don’t think I expected motherhood to be so absorbing for that long when I was 26, but I also don’t think I expected to enjoy it that much.
I am deeply ambivalent about it. It stirs up a thoughtful feminist malaise and it’s hard to write about without looking satisfied, the kind of mother who says “World’s Most Important Job!” on their social media profiles. I would rather have taken them on horseback through Mongolia or something like that and that speech of the “most important job in the world” sounds like shit to me: the most important jobs in the world right now are the logistics management at AstraZeneca and the ICU nurse, definitely. I never expected to become Cathy, finding ecstatic martyrdom in domestic modesty. I thought I would be like my own mother, the breadwinner, fiercely loving, fiercely inspiring, excited for us but with a different life and ambitions of her own. However, I am not. I’m bored, asking, “How was your day, honey?” and: “What do you want for dinner?”
I know it’s not in anyone’s interest to do these things for my kids and they don’t expect me to. You do them and the world a disservice to send entitled baby-men. As a counterweight, I have tried to instill habits that make them more pleasant people to live with: take out the buckets and empty the dishwasher without waiting to be asked; not finishing good chocolate or leaving empty juice cartons in the fridge. Yet I can’t help it: every stupid gesture or little chore they could have done themselves is a misnomer of how much I love them and the few outlets I still have to show.
There has been an unexpected sweetness and simplicity to this stolen Covid time, the extra year with them that he was not entitled to. We’ve had time to talk and I’ve learned more from them than the other way around: about T cells, quantum mechanics, Lee Krasner, and the carbon footprint of fishing (no more fingers).
His generation is kinder and more tolerant than mine and I am learning from that too. Why, my son investigates, curiously, I feel uncomfortable with people with high self-esteem? Why so cynical about people’s motives, so suspicious of sincerity and positivity? When I stop ordering for five minutes and simply enjoy their company, I can see a future where my relationship with them is not defined by these unsolicited acts of domestic servitude. This is a time to let go, to step away from the washing machine and bond with my children as the adults they are becoming, and I am beginning to see how letting go can be wonderful.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism