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Remember staycations, when we all stopped going abroad because of the recession? Well I’ve gone one better by not even leaving home at all. In fact two better because I’m still working during the days!

Julie and her dad have set off for Scotland, leaving me to look after Duncan. We get on pretty well, my son and I, but we’re not exactly in each other’s pockets. So once I’ve cooked supper for the two of us I have most of the evening free. Hours! With almost complete and solitary control of both the television and the stereo.

I love Julie so much, but it’s only when she’s away that I appreciate how much time her illness takes up; how much time I spend checking in with her, discussing problems, dreaming up new strategies. Only now I realise how many things I do every day just to make sure she stays OK; how many TV programs I watch that I don’t really Iike, just to keep her company, how much food I prepare just to make sure she eats sensibly, how many emails I compose to the school or her care coordinator. And then there are the many things I don’t do in case she suddenly needs me: get lost in a good book, listen to music I love, phone friends, have a second drink (in case I have to drive).

We all do these things for the people we love; we all have moments when we grumble about it; there are far worse things in life than having to compromise on the television you watch. But oh what a luxury to have a few weeks alone!

So for the next couple of weeks I’m going to spend my evenings watching some operas on DVD, reading lots of books, listening to lots of music, and down a few extra beers. That’s all I need from a holiday at the moment.

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“They can’t all be, can they?” asks Duncan, somewhat desperately, “I mean, it’s not statistically possible.”

I can see Joe’s shoulders start to heave with silent laughter, “Maybe it’s something in the water.” he says, hastily leaving the room.

We are discussing the astonishing fact that virtually the whole population of girls in Duncan’s year group – a couple of hundred girls aged 16 – identify themselves, when asked, as bisexual. Duncan knows because, for reasons best known to himself, he seems to have personally asked every one.

I very much doubt that this is based on a whole load of sexual experience – of any kind. Or that it predicts much about their future sexual experiences. It probably speaks volumes about the ambiguity that young girls feel about sex. At this age, everyone talks about it, but it’s hard to work out how much is bravado. Rather than admit in public that they don’t feel ready, don’t know what they want, and even find the whole thing a bit scary and repellant, girls can adopt a badge of convenience. If they declare themselves bisexual then they sound sexually sophisticated, while having a ready made excuse for rejecting any offers. And of course it testifies to the popularity of Orange is the New Black.

I am more surprised to hear that none of the boys in the year group seem to define themselves as gay (or bisexual). This group don’t seem to have any hang ups about homosexuality – they all know openly gay adults, including parents and teachers, and they genuinely seem to find it difficult to understand how it could ever have been a problem. But accepting homosexuality as a normal part of life is one thing – it appears that it’s another thing, in the maelstrom of being male and sixteen, to declare yourself gay. Unless they really are statistically odd, the likelihood is that there are some kids in the group (of either gender) who will eventually be very comfortable defining themselves as gay. And a lot of gay people in adult life will attest that they knew they were gay by sixteen. Why the boys don’t define themselves as that right now is anybody’s guess: perhaps they don’t know, perhaps they aren’t sure, perhaps they regard it as private, or perhaps they don’t feel safe. Or perhaps, like the girls, they feel ambiguous about the whole thing.

Or perhaps it is something in the water.

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My son is now at home all day with nothing to do, having finished his exams. He is 16. He has the full use of his hands, legs, eyes and brain. I have taught him to cook (and so has his school), my fridge, my freezers and my cupboards are well stocked with ingredients, and there is friendly shop at the end of the road which will give my children anything they want on credit.

So why is he ravenously hungry when I get home? He says he doesn’t know where anything is. I show him (not for the first time). He declares it is too much work to make a sandwich. Then he says he still can’t remember where anything is anyway.

So here’s my solution: the “Food, Where Is It?” poster. Just to keep him alive until I get home. All he has to do is forage for the food, work out how to unwrap it, put it in his mouth and chew. Surely that isn’t beyond him?

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“Do you remember when we used to do this all the time?” asked Joe last night. He was sitting across a restaurant table from me, we were having an early meal before our concert.

“Twenty years ago, before the children.”

For a moment both of us shared the same astonishing thought: that one day the children might move on.

It was a wonderful night out. It was the hottest night of the year, which brought it home that it was almost exactly a year since we’d had our last evening out – on the hottest night of last year.

Last year we needed a friend to come in and look after Julie, who at the time could not be left alone. This year she looked after herself, cooked her own dinner, put herself to bed. What a change.

We could go out all the time now. We’re just out of practice – it takes such a lot of effort to arrange and we have got used to our evenings at home in front of the TV. Once a year is not very good: we must practice!

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For the last few weeks I have been reading ‘Far From the Tree’ by Andrew Solomon, which is my excuse for not writing a great deal. At 976 pages it is a fairly hefty read! But the pages fly by quite quickly – the writing is simple and vivid – and thank goodness, it turns out that the footnotes take up half the book!

Solomon is exploring what it is like to raise children that are different from you (and, sometimes, what it is like to be those kids). His idea is that we all have multiple identities, and some of those are vertical – inherited from our parents – such as nationality, religion, or red hair. But some are horizontal – unexpected traits that are not shared with parents – such as being deaf, dwarf, or autistic – and some of which, like his own account of being gay, may be rejected by parents. He tackles each of these categories in its own chapter, describing the unique challenges and strengths of the group, and some of the science, intermixed with people he has interviewed at length about their experience. It is the case studies that make the book: some of these characters leap off the page, and there are some extraordinary stories. Solomon makes a very sympathetic interviewer: he spends time with his subjects – not just an afternoon, but returning to visit again and again over years, building close relationships that often become real friendships. He stays in their homes, he keeps in touch, and it does feel as if some of his subjects – especially the most poor, isolated and discriminated against – gained a real sense of validation from his involvement.

Later in the book, Solomon deliberately moves away from what we all think of as “special needs” families. He looks at families where children are prodigies, or the product of rape, or become involved in crime. There were some good points here, and the interviews were thought-provoking, but I’m not sure he made such a good case for some of these categories. The chapter on children of rape, in particular, felt as if it needed a book all of its own. As Solomon admitted, the real connection here was amongst the mothers, not the children, and this group sat uneasily amongst the rest: a story to be told, yes, but perhaps in a different way. It didn’t help that while many of the families in the early chapters were similar to each other (mostly American), in this chapter, Solomon travelled to Rwanda to explore the subject of rape in war. Changing cultures so dramatically is pretty jarring – how can we relate these women’s experience to mothers in New York? This section felt very compressed, awkward and uneven.

But even just for the first half, I’d recommend Solomon’s book to anyone who has found themselves parenting kids who are “different”. Much of the time, parenting odd kids feels isolating and thankless, but this book is full of parents struggling to raise such children. Amongst these pages you find people you recognize, muddling along from day to day, sometimes showing amazing courage and tenacity, sometimes laughing at themselves, sometimes giving up and hiding under the duvet. But for most of these parents, amazingly, once they had got the hang of it, a lot of them seemed to gain from the experience. It was hard, and they grieved at first, but they no longer wanted their child to be any different.

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I don’t know why I decided to sit a GCSE at age 50. I have been studying Latin on and off for about 3 years at evening class – something I had always promised myself I would do. But I was happy just pottering along, satisfying my curiosity, why did I decide to put myself through an exam?

It was all Queenie’s fault. The idea only surfaced when Queenie announced that she wanted to sit a GCSE. At age 13, Queenie is a linguistic genius with several GCSEs in modern languages under her belt already. Once Queenie joined my Latin class, the pace really picked up. I had been the star pupil before Queenie joined: in fact, I was often the only pupil, and certainly the only one that bothered to do homework. Now I had competition, and I didn’t much like it.

So when Queenie said she was going to sit GCSE, I said I would it do it too. “She needs a running mate.” I declared, graciously. Running mate be damned! There was no way I was going to be beaten by a 13 year old! (Of course, back then I had no idea I would have an operation a few weeks before the first exam.)

So what is it like to sit exams at 50? It is nearly 30 years since I last sat in an exam hall, and I can tell you it feels exactly the same. These exams don’t mean anything to me: I have my career, thank you, and there is nothing a GCSE in Latin can give me, but it still feels the same. You still feel nervous walking in. The trestle desk feels just as flimsy as it did back then, and the same person has scored their initials on it in a fit of boredom during a Geography exam, along with the word FAIL. The same fidgety person is sitting in the seat next to you, sucking sweets. Your heart still races when you look up at the clock and see you have less time left than you thought. And when you hand in your paper you still go home and look up the words you didn’t know in the heat of the moment, and you know despair.

I thought it would be interesting to remind myself what my kids were going through. I was astonished to find that I was still so very nervous, even though I don’t have any pressure on me at all to succeed except what I put on myself. My kids, of course, have plenty of pressure: slip a grade, and they don’t get to study at the sixth form college or the university of their first choice. In principle, slip a grade, and it might be difficult to do some things in life at all (though this risk is greatly exaggerated by teachers, I find).

So to all teenagers everywhere, sitting exams in this June heat, I salute you: it is every bit as hard as you say.

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I have been quiet for a while, immersing myself in keeping the household running, and everyone on an even keel while they sit exams. We are about half way through now and so far no one has missed breakfast, and no one has run screaming out of an exam hall. So that’s a success in my book.

Most of my (at home) job is reactive at the moment: I sit around being available for the next person who needs help with revision, or to go on a walk, or just to be distracted for a bit. We have watched lots of films (Julie) and documentaries (Duncan) and a lot of very silly sitcoms (everyone). I have explained calculus in words of one syllable, learnt the German word for mobile phone and copied out quotes from Lord of the Flies.

Meanwhile I have been having a battery of medical tests. How can so many tests involve fasting? It is cruel and unnatural. But the results of these tests are that I am in rude good health. Any pain I experience now is either imaginary or cannot be explained by current medical science. How charming to be told that lots of women of my age report similar pain – no hurry to try and find out what the problem is then. But the main thing is, I’m not going to die from it.

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