Coming of age

6 Mar

The Wonder Years - if only

A purple bruise on the forehead from an ill-timed charge with another child; exposed, shiny flesh on a damaged knee, the result of a misjudged turn on the bike; a bitten cheek from a bedtime wrestle with a sibling that bleeds dramatically. Like it or not, these are all things that I – and most other parents – deal with on a regular basis and they are as inevitable as a child’s demands for breakfast, lunch and supper. A child falls, I wait for the sobbing and then I watch as a bump forms or a livid scratch leaks blood.

These bumps and falls and scrapes and grazes need a little sympathy, perhaps some cream or a plaster, and in more serious incidents where the medicine cabinet doesn’t suffice, A&E. The child, in most cases, mends.

Recently I’ve been picking up my crying baby several times a day and kissing his brow. He’s just learnt to walk and he’s a lethal combination:  incredibly fearless and accident-prone. Today, he nose-dived down the stairs and was saved, James Bond style, by the elastic of his nappy. Luckily, one of us had their eye on the ball. I was, at the time, inspecting the rapid formation – almost as incredible as the sped-up video-imagery on a nature program – of a white head on my upper lip. My husband and I know what to do with injured children. At times it’s as easy as opening the cupboard and saying “Would a biscuit make it better?” (I’m amazed at how many people disregard the whole ‘food as comfort’ thing. A bit of sympathy food sometimes – ditto bribery with sweets – is a fine parenting technique in my eyes. It stopped the incessant crying and ear-splitting screaming dead in its tracks today. And not one of my children is obese – YET.)

My daughter has just turned 11. She’s far too tall to bang her head on sharp worktop corners and just sensible enough to realise that climbing down from tall surfaces should be done feet first – but that doesn’t mean she isn’t experiencing a different kind of pain, the kind that is not so easy for her to describe and certainly much harder for me to fix. She’s had to deal with quite a few tricky issues in her short life, and I want to be able to help her through the tough times, although I know I’ll never be able to save her – or my other children for that matter – from feeling wounded.

Last week a series of unexpected things happened: we found out that a close family friend was quite unwell. My daughter also received an email from her father – whom she never sees – that instantly made her feel guilty and sad. This happened about ten minutes before we were sent notification about her secondary school place. We live in Lambeth and while there is a shortage in the borough, we’re lucky to have a good local comprehensive. However, my daughter preferred a local ‘academy’ style school, further away, a popular choice London-wide and therefore much more over-subscribed. We put that as her first choice, and the local comp second.

We read down the page as the results arrived by email, my daughter duly burst into tears and I immediately knew that she hadn’t been allocated a place at her preferred school, the one that her BBF (her phrase, not mine) had been given a place at. I also knew that it wasn’t just the school that had caused her crying. All the sadness and hurt and feelings of failure and uncertainty had been brewing during the week, and this just happened to be the trigger for her emotional outpouring.

I wanted to say to her “It’s alright, I’m sure you’ll have lots of friends who’ll be going to the same school. And you know that thing that X has got? Well, with all the medication available nowadays, everything’s going to be OK, I promise. And your real dad. Well your real dad’s a lost cause because he’s the adult and he shouldn’t be sending you emails like that. He never deserved a daughter like you. But back to the school. Did you know that Stella McCartney went to her local comprehensive, and look where she is now.” (This last comment wouldn’t have worn one bit as my daughter’s not stupid. She knows Stella’s father was a Beatle.)

But all that would have to come later, and she’d have to find out most of it for herself, because trying to talk to a child – or indeed an adult – who is crushed, or sad, or angry, is pointless. You have to sit, and listen and stroke their hair. The motherly advice can come later.

Everything’s kind of alright now. She soon realised that the school she’s been given a place at is actually quite cool. It transpires lots of her friends are going and the uniform is a pleasing combination of green and black. She sent a short, friendly email to her father, to show him that she’s OK and he’s the one who should sort his problems out if he wants to see her. She’s still getting her head around our sick friend, but we all are so we can work through it together.

I don’t know exactly what my daughter was thinking about as we sat side by side watching Don’t Tell The Bride (my sympathy offering because the biscuit tin only works with the younger children), but her polite sobbing eventually subsided. Soon we were talking about ways to wear her new school skirt. Should she leave it knee-length or do the obligatory waist roll and make it a mini? Or, I suggested, she could lower it onto the hips to make it a midi, which at least raised a laugh and I had my daughter doing her usual thing of insulting my sense of style. It was good to see her smiling again, even if at my expense.

I went to bed feeling a little less than smug, but closer to satisfied, as a mother with the ability to comfort my most challenging child. I’m not that good at remembering what I need when I head to the supermarket, so remembering exactly what it is to be an adolescent – or very close to it – is something I’m having to try very hard at.

For although I’d managed to help fix my daughter’s temporarily crushed heart (she’s too young to have experienced real love yet but other problems can have a similar effect) I know that there will be a hundred and one times when my company and a few well-thought-out positives, will simply not be enough to mend her shattered soul.

And yet. We’ve all been there. Weirdly enough, the first time I had my insides torn out, stamped and pissed upon, shredded and blown to smithereens with cheap explosives (and yes, I’m being overdramatic to help you to remember the first time that you ever had your heart broken), I was offered nothing other than a chocolate digestive. Now this simply highlights the fact that the boy I had been going out with and given my virginity to was not in love with me at all. He believed that a bite of something sweet and crunchy from the bottom of his tuck box, laced with trans-fats and finished off with some claggy chocolate, would potentially piece together my broken heart.

But he was not infatuated with me so he didn’t understand. I literally cried for days, and I do believe that I still have the very pillowcase from my dormitory school days that bears the faint smudge of mascara – resistant to a squirt of Vanish – from the weeping that occurred over a number of lachrymose nights. C, if you’re reading this I got over you the minute I met someone called Massimo on a Club Med holiday. Looking back, he was hideous and had terrible chat-up lines, but he helped me to forget you. But you could have waited a few more days after you’d dumped me, before you snogged the most popular girl in school by the smoking tree, in full view of everyone. I felt like I wanted to die.

I’d like to say to my children that life gets easier but I’m not sure that it does. When you’re an adult it’s harder to find the time to cry, harder to admit that something has really hurt us when it may be seen as something totally innocuous in other people’s eyes. But then being a child is pretty rotten when you begin to realise that a lot of life is out of your control, and you sometimes have to ride with it.

For children there is little escape when the shit comes down. No alcohol or drugs to numb the pain; no leaving the house in the evening for a walk, with the freedom to go for as long as you want or need; no going out for a slap up meal with friends to forget about how bad you feel. No, as a child you just have to sit the whole thing out, usually on your own, on your single bed. And because a child is experiencing certain feelings for the first time and has little to compare them to – including rejection, heartache, or simply realising that people and life can sometimes be pretty rubbish – then these emotions will feel very raw.


One Response to “Coming of age”

  1. Leanne White March 6, 2012 at 4:08 pm #

    Im now crying and back on my single bed!!!, it is a lonely place to be, i prefer crying now even if I have to climb a hill alone to really let rip

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