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On pandemic parenting

This column first appeared in the Western Mail in February 2021

Just IMAGINE if, at the age of 13, you were ordered to spend your first full year as a teenager locked up with just your mam and/or dad for company. 

Imagine if the same order mandated no hanging about in town/parks/youth club/outside Tammy Girl (born after 1984? Google it). Limited physical contact with your friends. No team sports. Uncertainty over exams, proms and many other milestones and rites of passage. Just as you were ready to expand your universe, it would shrink in front of your very eyes. 

Reader, I HAVE imagined it many times and shuddered accordingly. As Elvis (or possibly someone even wiser who died long before him, presumably in a more dignified manner) said, never judge a man-slash-teenager until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. 

The words of the sage ghost of Presley (or a less hip-thrusty native American, perhaps) have formed the bedrock of my approach to parenting during this pandemic. Not that I’d want to walk a mile in my teenage son’s shoes (they’re two sizes too big and smell of ageing cheese, for a start). But you get the gist. Every time I’ve been on the verge of losing my temper, I remember how difficult this is for young people, and I recalibrate my allowance-making-ometer accordingly. 

A year (and what seems like a lifetime) ago, I wrote on this very page about all the feelings swirling around as James became a teenager. I shared my fear of losing him to the mists of the mandatory grunt-sulk-and-sleep phase. 

Little did I know what was hurtling towards us. That just as we were both preparing to loosen the apron strings, they would be tightened and tied into a triple knot by forces stranger than we could ever imagine. 

And so it is that the poor lad has had to endure more of my company than he has since starting primary school. There are few upsides to independent parenting, but one saving grace is that he spends a few days a week with his dad, so he at least gets a break from my over-salted cooking and rubbish jokes.

Balancing full-time work is a lot easier, knowing that I can put in a few 14-hour days to compensate for the days when he needs me to be teacher’s assistant, sounding board, cook, counsellor and chief dispenser of cwtches. As the poet Philip Larkin put it so eloquently, the curse of parenting is that you never feel as if you’re winning. It’s a constant process of messing up, reflecting, learning and tweaking. For so many, that has been thrown into sharp focus this past year. All parents are fighting their own battles on the home front right now. For me, I’ve learned to accept that just good enough will do. We’ve stayed (relatively) healthy. We have a roof over our heads and food on the table. I am able to work from home. For all of those things, I feel so, so fortunate. 

More than anything, I’ve been so impressed by the resilience he’s shown. He’s just cracking on with things, keeping his chin up as best he can despite all he’s missing. As he put it to me, when I compared the plight of his generation to that of our octogenarian neighbours Jim and Sheila, who lived through the World War 2 Cardiff bombings:

“At least I have Netflix and Spotify. I mean it could be worse….”.

He has a point, but we should be under no illusions about the impact of this pandemic on young people’s mental health. Children and young people may not be likely to get seriously ill, but they are very much the victims of the virus – and our response to it – in other ways.

Research by the Office for National Statistics published last Autumn found that one in six children aged five to 16 had a probable mental health disorder, up from one in nine in 2017. Meanwhile, the NSPCC says the amount of counselling provided by its Childline service has risen by 10% since the pandemic started.

A few years ago, I made two life decisions in a beautifully random example of accidental foresight. Number one was getting a dog. Number two was to start studying counselling part-time. I don’t get to say this often, but go two-years-younger me!

In my early counselling classes, learning about the power of active listening, and about resisting the temptation to try and “fix” things for people, I never imagined I would soon be flexing these new skills daily, with my own flesh and blood. Having a dog means we have to get outside, come rain or shine, and on those long walks we talk and talk. And I Iisten in a different, more mindful way. 

I’ve accepted that I am powerless to change anything for The Kid™ right now, but what I can do is create a safe space where he can name and explore his feelings. That, in its own way, feels like enough.

Meanwhile, I’ve expedited my passing on of crucial life skills. James can now proudly make five different dishes, including a mean grilled cheese sandwich. Future housemates and partners, you can thank me later. 

We’ve binge-watched box sets about the American civil war, the Chicago Bulls and the civil rights struggle. We’ve started running and doing yoga together. Both of these developments would have been unthinkable a year ago (oh! how he used to scoff at my hippy-slash-outdoorsy leanings). 

Every night we write down three things we are grateful for, and it’s become a record of how our lives have changed, some of it for the better. The dog, yoga and walks feature regularly on James’ lists; daily confirmation that the things that really matter in life are not material possessions. He’s also learning about the tools he can use when things start to feel too much. 

In the year I was preparing to let go, I’ve had to hold him tighter than ever. And in the process, he’s taught me a lot in return. Pandemic parenting has been the biggest challenge of my life. But it has brought plenty to be thankful for, too. 

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