Oh to Describe the Teenage Years!
More from a surfeit of material than a lack, I haven’t been blogging much of late, although my desktop is cluttered with half-finished posts. That’s partly because I’m currently trying to meet the financial demands of an expat with spawn in an international school and a serial travel habit rather than a wandering hippie type.
It’s also because, while we’re still on the dog-ate-my-homework theme, I’m trying to fit the bulk of my workload into the school term, or when Zac’s away, so that holidays can feel like holidays, even if I do write about them afterwards. (Travel writing trips, while fascinating and fun, are very far from holidays.)
Couple that with a pathological inability to stay off social media, Vanity Fair and that hilarious Gif of the cat and the lizard in the bath, while “working” online, and – well, you have one neglected blog.
One of the big blocks is the teenage thing. Like any rational parent heading into the teen years, I’d expected hell on earth: grunting, tantrums and a parenting role reduced largely to personal chef, occasional taxi service and (in my case) erratic ATM. Much to my surprise, I’m very much enjoying it, especially now I’m outsourcing the taxi piece to Go-Jek.
While my spawn is far from a grunt-free zone, particularly when in the throes of jetlag – who knew he could sleep sitting up without support?! – he is, as we parents of teenagers tell one another when someone else’s graces us with a sentence or even a full paragraph, “positively talkative”.
Further, we get on very well. I LIKE seeing his face come to life as he chats to his friends. And I’m not resentful that it rarely does when he’s chatting with me. Although I miss the days when I had a readymade cinema buddy at home, he condescended to see both Spectre and Star Wars with me.
Distance is, obviously, de rigeur at this age. I’m his mother. He’s both a teenager and a male one. If I were his best friend, or even close to that, that would be intensely unhealthy. While I feel privileged that we just spent a month living on top of each other again without conflict – in England, Paris and Slovenia – it’s nice for both of us to have our space again.
I vividly remember the teenage transition from parents with feet of gold to parents with feet of clay. In fact, I have never again been so certain about anything as I was about absolutely bloody everything aged 15. But, possibly since my feet of clay have been on display since Zac was teeny-tiny, I’ve caught a lucky break.
This may sound negative. It isn’t meant to. There are many, many interesting and rewarding aspects of finding yourself the parent of a teenager – a process that seems to happen overnight. It’s fascinating to watch a child transition into a young adult.
The physical side is mesmerising. So seamless was the voice breaking that we spent several evenings discussing whether it was happening. After a few tense months when Zac seemed permanently stuck at slightly shorter than me, he now out-tops me even when I’m wearing heels. I’ve seen him sleep for 18 hours and wake up visibly taller. It’s jawdropping.
Teen boys do strange things to the domestic economy. One of Zac’s friends, a surfer, described an entire baguette, with lashings of meats, cheeses and a packet of cherry tomatoes, as a “snack”. Food-shopping and cooking become a delicate balance between battling middleaged spread and meeting the gobsmacking energy requirements of a slender teen with a turbo-charged metabolism who’s shooting up a centimetre or more each week.
The art, for the record, is finding high-cal snacks you can keep in the house WITHOUT being tempted to consume them yourself. In our case, these are: honey-roast peanuts, ginger ale, ginger biscuits, Nutella and sliced bread. We started, of course, with healthier options – cheese cubes, almonds and cashews. Shortly thereafter, I burst out of my jeans.
Obviously, the intellectual side is great. The conversations that emerge when your child has knowledge you don’t are just fantastic. The ideas a bright teenager with a surrealist bent can generate are awe-inspiring. And he can be laugh out loud funny.
The emotional side, too, is almost entirely wonderful. I love hearing about the ins and outs of teenage life, the friendships, the psychological development, the…… And here, you see, we hit the wall.
For this is the problem as a writer. Observing interesting things, having interesting experiences, and turning them into more (or, in this case, less) polished prose is something I pursue for both work and pleasure. The teen years make wonderful material. And it’s material I can’t, as a (quasi-) responsible parent, use.
To state the blindingly obvious, the teen years are when young people discover themselves, create their own space and build their own friendships and relationships. To do this, they require space and privacy. I’m lucky that Zac allows me a lot further in to his particular journey than many young adults do. And I’d love to write about it. But I can’t. Because he’s not material. He’s not a product. He’s my young adult son.
You see, you don’t have to go full Madonna to be an embarrassing parent. (If your experience of the internet is purer than mine, let’s just say she shared a picture of her 15-year-old in his underpants with around 6 million followers on Instagram – and tagged it #nosausage. He now lives with his father.) All most parents need do to be embarrassing – besides existing, which often suffices – is drop a childhood nickname in public.
In blogging terms, almost all funny stories (travel or otherwise) are out, because they’re embarrassing. His personal relationships are off-limits, because they’re private. Even in the classroom there be dragons.
I could, of course, just write about the safely funny stuff. The teenage grunting. The time he required a day off school even to enter the Musée d’Orsay – and he LIKES the Impressionists. The time he attempted to pickpocket the hotel room key rather than inspect a masterpiece of Slovenian architecture (in fairness, he did have a point).
But then I run the risk of turning my spawn into a caricature teen boy. And he’s more than that.
Luckily, unlike this family, I’m not a famous blogger. Further, blogging is only a portion of what I do nowadays – being economically dependent on selling a narrative of your life has long seemed precarious and potentially invasive, and seems even more so as social media comes to dominate what used to be the web – and only a fraction of that enters the home space. Still, even at my level, the intersection of public and private is a difficult one to navigate.
So, I think, for now, I’ll just say: #teensaregreat. The young adult years are fab. But, sadly, I won’t be writing about them very much. Although, now I’ve got this off my chest, I hope to write much more, and about many, many other things. Like, ya know, travel, and culture, and art, and fun, and life.