Recently, I discovered that my son (almost 18) was thinking of leaving home. I asked him how he felt about this and he looked at me and said ‘But what about you? You’ll be on your own’. I was momentarily floored by such a display of compassion but did manage a response – ‘I’ll be fine! I do expect you to move out at some point and you won’t be far away!’ Phew! But it subsequently stirred up my emotions and opened a period of reflection about the journey myself and my eldest child have been on.
I should say from the get go, I did not employ any attachment parenting strategies during my first-born’s early childhood – almost the opposite in fact. I became pregnant at 22, shortly before my graduation from university. I lacked confidence and followed all mainstream advice: I let him cry it out; I used to walk him round in a pram for hours to sleep because I thought I shouldn’t just hold him while he napped. It all felt counter-intuitive but I thought it was the ‘right thing’. When he was two, I was diagnosed with depression. When I’m not berating myself for these things, I remember that I breastfed him for just over a year and actually, I did hold him a lot and took him pretty much everywhere with me.
But this post isn’t about the early days – it’s about now. How have we transitioned from those early experiences to actually, a very companionable relationship between a mother and her teenage son. I don’t have any instructions! We all know there are no road maps for parenting, but here are some moments where I think progress, for us,
On his 9 th birthday, my son was given a Playstation game by one of his friends. I forget the name of it now but it was a 15-rated game (his parent must have bought it), which he very much wanted to keep but I refused. He was pretty upset!
However, we were able to have an open conversation about it (after he’d stopped being upset and angry with me!). I told him I wanted him to enjoy being nine, not to rush to immerse himself in a virtual world that was potentially beyond his maturity to rationalise, that this wasn’t about me sticking blindly to someone else’s censorship decision but was about me using my judgment to protect him and to value his childhood. He never mentioned the game again. He even started self-regulating his gaming and did not try to play games rated above his actual age without discussing this first. I hope that he took from this that I valued him and would protect him but that I also valued his opinion and we did negotiate future access to games.
At thirteen years old, in common with thousands of school children, my son had to select the GCSEs he was going to study. He did well in his year six SATs so he was selected for the EBacc programme. I was given a few reasons why this was the best route for him – mostly to do with ‘what others would think of him’. He wasn’t keen. He didn’t want to do a modern language and he wanted to do more than one ‘creative’ subject. I listened to him and his reasoning. Despite the school’s resistance, I took him off the EBacc programme.
Fifteen years old….things get a bit hairy! Surprisingly, not literally! He was completely unmotivated at school and not engaging much socially. Migraines, which he had had very sporadically since about 9 years old, started to become a real headache (pun intended). He was having at least one a month and they debilitated him for 3 or 4 days at a time. His attendance at school nosedived, as did his potential in his GCSEs. I could write a whole other post about my disappointment and disillusionment with the school system but that’s not my purpose here. My son was so disconnected from almost everything at this point, that it was a real struggle to connect with him in any way.
Forget all that about making eye contact when you talk – my best chance was to talk to him while we were driving so he knew I couldn’t look at him! Or while he washed and I dried. Or while he lay in bed with his eyes closed. I shared my experiences of depression with him – which was hard. I had to let go of my aspirations for him. He didn’t get the right grades to go onto A Levels. He told me he had no interest in university. I had always thought, as a bright kid, that he would do these things. I shed many tears.
So in a peculiarly perverse way, I have maintained attachment to him by letting go. He benefits from having autonomy. There are still boundaries and expectations but I have to let him find his own way, even when this seems ill advised to me, and not what I would want for him. But it’s not about me.
Keep them close, but let them go.
I am a single mum to three delightful children – two sons and a daughter – aged 17, 8 and 4. I can’t label my parenting style – it just is! I am currently undergoing a career change after accepting redundancy from lecturing at college (FE jobs are rather limited these days). I wor part time in HR and will be going back to university in September to complete an MSc in HR. Also this year, I am taking my two youngest abroad for their first time ever! I am a little scared! Wish me luck!