Bringing up two children as a single parent can be a gruelling, often thankless task. But bringing up two teenagers alone makes those early days seem like an easy, breezy, walk in the park.
At least when they’re little they generally accept their lot. Their personalities and characters are only partly formed and they can’t grasp the concept of choice.
In short, they do as they’re told. Teenagers, however, do as they’re told not to.
Of course it’s normal human nature and all a part of growing up. Instinct has pre-programmed them to question vehemently everything that they’re told and then to either do it reluctantly (which generally only happens if they’re on their best behaviour because they want something or they’re in the dog-house for a prior conviction); or they do their own, much easier version involving little or no effort whatsoever; or listen, cogitate and then disregard it completely.
And that is only if they have actually listened to you in the first place.
Sometimes you can have a long, intense conversation with a teenager but then you ask for their opinion it’s clear they haven’t a baldy what you’ve been talking about. Their mind has been elsewhere, on some other parallel universe and the only clue is that their eyes seemed to glaze over when you began talking ten minutes ago.
Women may be from Venus, and men are from Mars, but teenagers are from a galaxy far, far away, dotted with black holes where all the odd socks, CD cases and lost keys end up. And where all your savings get sucked up, never to return.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not a criticism. I’m hardly in a position to complain. Heck, I was the worst teenager imaginable. In fact my “attitude problem” lasted well into my twenties and even then was never fully resolved. But at least there were two parents to diffuse every situation. If all rhyme and reason failed, mum would just refer me to my dad.
As a single parent, there really is no-one else to refer to, or to threaten with.
“Go and see your dad!” isn’t an option and so you have to do all the reasoning, the arguing and — if absolutely necessary — the reprimanding on your own with no back-up.
So all things considered, it’s really no coincidence that my hair started to go grey and I began inadvertently grinding my teeth at roughly the same time as they both reached their teens.
Nevertheless we do get on famously most of the time. We even socialise together occasionally, which is something I probably relish a lot more than they do, but I’m always proud to have my boys at either side, accompanying me and looking tall, smart and handsome just like their dad was when we met.
Of course, the opportunities for this get fewer and farther between as they get older.
No more trips to the zoo or the circus, or the panto or even the cinema, unless I stand a few feet away from them in the queue, just in case they get spotted by a mate. After all, being out with your mum does nothing for the street cred does it?
So you have to adapt, be imaginative and do as much research as you can to source the rare opportunities for an inter-generational experience that teenagers will actually enjoy. Recently I found three such occasions on the Belfast social calendar and believe me each one was as much fun for them as it was for me.
First up, a trip for us all to the Ulster Hall for a really unique event — a screening of the original 1920s silent horror movie Nosferatu, accompanied to great effect by the magnificent grand organ. It was quite simply brilliant or, in the words of my two, “well cool”.
Next was a trip for me and Finn, my younger son, to the Catalyst Arts Centre in King Street for what was ambiguously described on publicity posters as ‘An ultra-violet Rave Cave’. This turned out to be a mass painting session in a darkened room, accompanied by a DJ playing dance music and live drummers. Overalls, paper and ultra-violet paints were handed out at the door and the what you did with it was up to you. Mad, but great fun and at only £3 each it was well-worth the experience.
Lastly, I took Luke, my 18-year-old, to the Queen’s Film Theatre (QFT) for a special one-off screening of Donmar Theatre’s live production of King Lear, starring the wonderful Derek Jacobi in the title role. I chose this because Luke is preparing for his English A Level this year and King Lear is one of the plays he is studying. For me, it was just an excuse to enjoy some world-class theatre at the fraction of the price of a West End or Stratford-on-Avon ticket. Ten quid a head, in fact, and worth every penny.
Fortunately, Luke thought so too, turned to me and thanked me profusely as the curtain fell at the end.
It was just as well he did too, because I was all prepared to utter my favourite King Lear quote: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is, to have a thankless child!”