If you were suddenly given a couple of teenagers to live with for 6 or 7 years, while their hormones turned them into monosyllabic spider-giants with alarmingly long limbs, and knees and elbows like cannonballs (boys), or boy-mad hysterics who regularly scream “You’re ruining my life!” and hog the bathroom for hours (girls), it would be hard for you not to kill them.
As it is, most parents have already gone through such hell before their kids get to their teens – from the awake-for-a-solid-year horror of a new baby, through the public tantrums of the terrible twos and the biting and scratching of the fucking fours [then a brief respite for the wonder years – that heavenly period from about 5 to 11 where your kids worship you and will do almost anything to please you], then the maddening flounce-offiness of the tweens, followed swiftly by the sickening plunge into the perdition of puberty – that they (the parents) aren’t fully aware of how awful their lives have become. It’s the frog-in-the-boiling-water syndrome: because the heat is turned up gradually over a long time, the frog isn’t even aware of any real discomfort before it boils to death.
But snatch that frog (still alive, if only just) out of the boiling water, and see the glee.
My frog-snatched-out-of-the-boiling-water moment came a few months ago, when I stood in the middle of the Spar with my weekly shopping list in my hand, staring at it in bewilderment. On it were only two items: oven cleaner and Salticrax. I’d put both of them in my large trolley and now I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t have to trundle up and down every aisle, filling the trolley until it was almost too heavy to push, then handing over huge wodges of hard-earned income at the till, before driving home to unpack everything into the kitchen cupboards and fridge, in order for it all to be consumed within a hideously short time – sometimes as quickly as 2 days, if it was the weekend.
For many, many years, the weekly shopping list had been a fixture on the counter next to the fridge. My kids knew that when they finished something (crackers, pasta, bread spreads, butter, shampoo, toothpaste, whatever), they had to write it up on the list. If it didn’t get written up, it didn’t get bought. Axiomatically, if it was on the list, Mummy would supply it.
In my kids’ teen years, the weekly shopping trip – usually every Friday – became particularly traumatising. Not only were they now eating like 2 adults who’d been stranded on a desert island for ages and had just been rescued, they were also using face washes, medicated shampoos, tampons and other expensive toiletries at a rate of knots. Rare was the weekend my bank account wasn’t lightened by at least a couple of thousand rands.
I didn’t begrudge them these necessities – not at all. I’m just stating a fact here: raising children is expensive, and supporting two teenagers is the financial equivalent of giving board and lodging to two hungry hobos who you’re also clothing, educating and occasionally entertaining. (For the record: my kids worked and earned their own money for all “non-necessities”: extra clothes and entertainment, cellphones, computers, music systems, etc.)
That “aha!” moment in the Spar marked what I suppose was the beginning of my empty nest syndrome. My kids – now aged 23 and 24 – had boomeranged for a few years (leaving home and then coming back) after finishing school but now both had finally really truly left for good.
But it wasn’t the same empty nest syndrome that my mother – and many other women whose main job was mothering, and who therefore felt “unemployed” when their kids left home – had experienced. I remember my father telling me, after the last of we four siblings left our very big, rambling family home, that my mother spent all her time furiously cleaning, and that the constant noise of the vacuum cleaner was beginning to drive him bonkers.
Mine wasn’t that empty nest syndrome. Not at all. Mine was coming home on that day from the Spar, putting the oven cleaner and the Salticrax away in their respective cupboards in the kitchen, and then emptying a full bag of chocolates onto the kitchen counter, and realising that for the first time in almost a quarter of a century, I was going to be able to open and eat these chocolates without one of my kids hurtling through to claim their share. (This always amazed me: When I screamed their names at the top of my lungs because I wanted them to come and pick up their wet towels off the bathroom floor, they didn’t hear me; but when I unwrapped a Cadbury’s Top Deck in my bedroom with the door closed, very slowly and very very quietly, under my duvet in the dark, they would hear it from down at the bottom of the garden.)
This opened the door to other delightful “never again” realisations. Here’s a list of some of them, and, in brackets, the number of times I did or said these things over the course of my children’s lives with me.
• “Don’t leave lights on in rooms you’re not in!” (1 120)
• “What’s that terrible smell?” (349)
• “You’re not going out looking like that, young lady!” (33)
• “When did you last shower?” (70)
• “Get out the bathroom! What the hell are you doing in there?!” (170)
• “Who used all the hot water??!” (813)
• “Stop teasing your brother!” (643)
• “Stop teasing your sister!” (598)
• “Because I said so.” (94)
• “One day, when you have kids of your own, you’ll understand.” (66)
• “You’re going to call Child Welfare? What about Parent Welfare? Who can I report parent abuse to??!” (6 or 7)
• “It’s a beautiful day. Go out and do something!” (103)
• “I don’t care how awful you feel, you shouldn’t have drunk all that tequila. Get up and clean it up.” (21)
• “What are you doing??!” (311)
• “What do you mean, he’s still sleeping? It’s 2 in the afternoon! Wake him up!” (467)
• “This isn’t a hotel!” (120)
• Buying bread and milk every single blessed day. (730)
• Going to parent-teacher meetings, end-of-year concerts, prize-givings, etc (overcountable)
• Forking out cash for a neverending series of fund-raisers, excursions, cake sales, friends’ birthday presents, raffles, sponsored walks, etc etc etc (enough to buy a villa in Tuscany)
• Making and keeping appointments: doctors, dentists, opticians, driving lessons, karate lessons, play rehearsals… (loads and loads)
• Driving Mom’s Taxi (equivalent of to the Moon and back)
• Sleep deprivation – caused by sick kids in the early years, and kids out partying in the later ones.
• Putting your own social life on the back burner – because there simply aren’t enough hours in the weekend for both yours and your kids’.
Disclaimer: I loved raising my kids. It was very hard work but it was also such fun – I often used to compare life in my house to life in a circus, especially when my children were younger. The teen years were no joke – I take my hat off to any parent who gets through them without entirely losing their minds – but I believe the animosity of those years is necessary for the apron strings to be thoroughly cut. (My daughter, for one, hacked through them with an enthusiasm that would have alarmed me had I not been so thrilled that she was doing so.) It’s a whole new and wonderful stage when your grown-up children who’ve left home return as your friends.