About once a week I see kind, strong women cowering in the face of their children

Image of Susie Boyt

What can you do to avoid the inevitable in life? I don’t mean feeling vaguely discontented for no reason, or moths that see cardigans and think “plat du jour;” no. I mean can the boundaries of human development and common experience be hi-jacked and redrawn? I met a novelist a month ago who said her mother, aged 81, was staving off old age through sheer will power. I must remember that when it’s my turn.

I have teenagers on the brain, specifically the way teenagers clash with their parents. Is this an important part of nature, a necessary stage, like photosynthesis, or digging up dahlias at the end of the season, or could it be sidestepped by wit, charm, courage, fancy footwork -- by (whisper it) hard cash?

When I hear a teenager I love being horrible to his or her mum I quietly shake my head and think, “how can a person who is stylish in the extreme, so fresh and original, bear to be such a cliché? How can someone with so much justified personal vanity not mind how bad it looks?”

The withering glance of the teengager, the throwaway insult that slashes the hearts of those who gave them life, the little grin that comes when they see the comment hit home, the dart piercing the armour and the skin and the extra layer of skin grown specially for the purpose, can these things be outlawed before they begin? I don’t suppose so. The elastic of human relations must be stretched as far as it can go in order that vital developmental processes take place, I fear. But what if it snaps? What if the mothers, the fathers, can’t recover?

I only ask because it will be my turn soon. I would dearly love to play a blinder and stave it off, for I would rather be eaten by sharks than enter this territory. Ideally, I’d like to hibernate until it is all over, Sleeping Beauty-style, on a stage covered with silk ferns and paper roses.

Wiser folk are full of, “Oh, sure, you lose them for a little while, but take it from me, they come back in the end,” as if the whole teenager-parent battle was a less tweedy version of “Brief Encounter,” without the Rachmaninoff. But in “Brief Encounter,” as I recall, didn’t one of the parties have to move to Africa to make things better?

A friend phoned in tears recently. Through some dreadful turn of irony her own teenager had just repeated the exact same words that the playground bully had used against my friend when she was seven years old in 1981. How was this possible? She had never told her daughter about the incident, so to hear these words again was traumatic in the extreme. It produced a sort of madness. Was it possible her childhood assailants been reincarnated in her own home? Her husband said she was being “a bit over sensitive.” Her sister said she ought to shrug it off and “mum up.” Her head was spinning. If she was now giving house room to her bullies, did it mean they had been right about her all along?

“It does not,” I said.

Another friend told me, “I always felt I loved my parents more than they loved me, somehow. They were always busy and I felt I had to impress them, be a bit amazing and hide my needs. I tried to play hard to get to inspire their affection. Now I do the same with my children! How is it possible I have drawn the short straw each time?”

I remind her of that thing Auden wrote: “If equal affection cannot be/Let the more loving one be me.”

“Obviously never had kids though, did he? And don’t forget all the amphetamines he took.”

“Well…” I murmur, “well….”

About once a week, on beaches or street corners, I see strong, kind women with the courage and spirit of mountain lions, cowering in the face of their children. Their fear is accompanied by a sort of hallowed awe for these creatures who are so fresh and glamorous and powerful. Sometimes teenagers seem like superstars who feel compelled to sue and sack the managers who knew them before they were famous. Is that it? Is it simply that old showbiz explanation: “where there’s a hit there’s a writ”?

“Why didn’t you answer my texts?” a mother asks the son who used to say “I love you” to her 55 times a day.

“Because I could see you were trying to start a conversation,” he replies.

Whatever you do you must under-react in every way, the wise ones counsel, but at the same time you must not tolerate rudeness or cruelty. What does that even mean? It reminds me of a woman I know who once said, “I may have been unfaithful, but I NEVER was disloyal.”

The only answer to this sort of sophistry is “Eh?”

Please cross your fingers for me.

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