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How to explain to Duncan that his girlfriend can’t come and live with us, after falling out with her mother?

The world of a sixteen year old is very different from that of his middle-aged parents.

I do feel sorry for him when I refuse. It’s true we do have the space – though we don’t actually have a room spare to give her. But he can’t see what we lack – and maybe it is just as well that he can’t. As a family, we are chronically short of time, and energy. Duncan’s sister Julie has been very ill over the winter, in and out of hospital. She needs to know that she can take the time and space she needs to recover without worrying about anything else. And Joe and I need to be able to relax when we come home from work – years of caring for Julie have taken a heavy toll. The last winter has been tough on all of us, we just don’t have the emotional resources to deal with anything more demanding than deciding which movie to watch.

The Elsa we have seen is a lovely girl – kind, resourceful, and sweetly vulnerable. Other people’s teenagers are always more appealing than your own. It’s been a pleasure to have her around. Perhaps it would do us good to open up to someone outside the family?

But no, reason kicks in: is this really doing Elsa any favours? Most parents are there for life: she will have to mend the relationship with her mother sometime. At sixteen, storms come and go – but let’s face it, back at home in your own bedroom is still where you would rather be. And what will she do if and when she falls for someone else if she depends on Duncan’s family for a roof over her head?

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For the last few months there has been some quiet activity going on in the background of our lives here: a hall booked, a band engaged, and invitations sent out. Last weekend it finally happened: our family had a party.

We are not the kind of people who have a lot of parties. We’re quiet, and even before Julie got sick we would rather have had teeth pulled than arrange a big event. But when Julie got sick, we became very very unsociable indeed. We just didn’t have the time or the energy to talk to people, or even begin to explain what was happening to us, or how terrible we felt about it. We could scarcely get to work, or look after ourselves, let alone share a cup of coffee or send a Christmas card. It was only very imaginative and very determined friends that managed to keep in touch.

It’s been five long years and for the last couple of years we’ve gradually started to dig ourselves out of our shell. We lost some friends during the bad years, but adversity meant that we made some new ones that have become much dearer to us. We’ve recognised how vital friendships are, and that different friendships have brought us different things, the value of which is not always obvious at first. Sure some people shared our grief and pain, but we’ve also learnt to appreciate the people who didn’t really get it, but still stopped to talk to us, and offered help. We’ve got better at talking, and better (and bolder) at talking specifically about mental illness. We’ve also learnt to incorporate a near-permanent state of crisis into our life and carry on regardless.

This year, I decided I wanted to have a party to celebrate everything we have achieved, and to mark the fact that we have survived (so far) and that we do have such good friends. At one point, feeling very unwell and forced to have an operation, I almost called it off, but I’m so glad I didn’t.

It was a fantastic party: everybody was on good form, the food was great (not my cooking, but caterers!), the music was brilliant. People came from great distances, everyone stayed until midnight, people brought out guitars and jammed with the band, teenagers fell in love. The next day we just sat around and dissected it endlessly, reliving the funny moments and the nice moments, while other people sent us dozens of emails to say what a good time they’d had.

It was a brilliant night – a night to remember. Now when I look back on these years I won’t just be remembering the rubbish bits, I’ll be able to say, “Do you remember when we had that party?”. And we did it all by ourselves.

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So I come back from a week away in Portugal to find the family in a sad state. Joe has worked really hard to make sure that everything is provided, but it’s clear I’ve been missed. Everyone looks exhausted and joyless, and Julie has self harmed repeatedly.

There’s a certain pleasure to being Mary Poppins when your children are young: setting the table, tidying up the toy box, bringing out the sunshine. It’s nice to feel that you can make everyone happy, soothe tears, resolve arguments. But it’s not something you want to be doing for adults. You want to be able to come back and hear all the amazing things they’ve been doing in your absence, be glad to see one another, but not find that you have to pick up all the pieces of their lives for them again.

I enjoyed my holiday: it was good for me to take a break, even though I missed the family while I was away. It gave me a chance to look at the rest of the family in perspective, to think about what they need from me, and why I appear to be so essential to them. And whether that is a good thing.

Surely someone has written a song about this.

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My neighbour is in pain. Great pain. Pain to take her breath away and halt conversation. She is taking morphine. For these few days her world has contracted to her house and her boxes of pain relief.

My neighbour and I have been friends for some years, and it does not normally matter that she is older than me, old enough to be my mother. She does not like anyone to dwell on her age. But when I drop in to keep her company for a while after work, I am more conscious than usual of our age difference. This illness makes her very fragile, very vulnerable. I feel afraid for her.

This fear makes me awkward. When the morphine sends her into deep sleep, she doesn’t answer the door bell, or the phone. I hover awkwardly, wondering if I should use the spare key she gave me for emergencies. But is this an emergency? I don’t want to invade her privacy. I bring her chocolates and then worry that she might have no appetite, then books and worry that they might not be to her taste. I would like to do more to help her, but am afraid of offending against her immense dignity.

I try to imagine how I will feel when I am older, and might experience pain and sickness of my own. Will I have family near me? Will I have to rely on blundering offers of help from neighbours? Will I be afraid and lonely, or cheerfully resigned?

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I’m in the middle of one of those weeks which is like a really bad Italian opera. Not one of the great ones, but one of those flabby, cut-and-paste jobs that were just trying to make a fast buck. There is too much high emotion, raised voices and an unlikely plot.

Life with teenagers is not always easy. Life with two highly strung teenagers, both with mental health issues, can really suck. Week four of the school term, the nights are drawing in, homework is piling up, and there is a sudden flurry of assessments. Both kids, in their different ways, buckle under the strain. There are lots of tears, a lot of catastrophising and an overdose is taken (yet again).

I calm, coach, encourage and insist. I drive, cook and shop. I negotiate with school. I phone psychiatrists and therapists. As an after thought, I sometimes work. I don’t sleep, laugh or relax as much as usual.

I think, Why are my kids like this? What did I do wrong? What could I do differently?

I am sorry I had to miss a key meeting at work, sorry I forgot to go to the nurse for my blood test, sorry I failed to return my neighbour’s call, sorry there was nothing in the house to eat one evening. But it was all I could do to survive this week.

But hey, I wrote my blog post: and this weekend I shall bake some bread.

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The kind of work I do (programming computers) requires a lot of focus. There are some projects which require long periods of concentrated work; they need analysis; they have subtle corners requiring careful negotiation; they call for experience and skill, and also a certain kind of elegance. When I see a project like this coming up, I feel a tingling of pleasant anticipation – the thrill of the long distance runner.

You can be so absorbed in these projects that you lose all track of time. You fail to notice the pain in your back, or that your shoulders ache, until you stand up and realise that you have been hunched over the desk in some terrible position for hours. These projects leak into your daily life: you wake up with the solution to a problem, you are still solving equations in your head when driving the children to school, you try to hurry through cooking dinner to give yourself time to check the results of some tests you left running. You become obsessed.

It goes without saying that this work fits badly with motherhood! If you start to lose hours here and there, are unaware of pain, and forget to put on your shoes, then it is quite possible to forget to pick up a child, fail to cook dinner, or book the dentist. Even if you resort to alarm clocks (I have several) to force you to stop work and attend, your mind is elsewhere. You are not having a conversation with another mum at the school gates, you are miming responses while calculating how long it will take before you can get back to your desk.

There are two main classes of people who hate it when I become absorbed in a project at work. The first are my children, who resent not having my full attention. It has been a huge (and ongoing) challenge to learn the skill of shunting my work out of my head at the end of the day, and replacing it with all the things that matter to them. The second are the rest of my team at work, because it turns out that management is rather like motherhood in that respect: you can only do it well when you are not preoccupied. So it turns out that the skills I need for my children are needed to make me a better manager of people too. The tricky thing there is timing: while I can use a cup of tea, or the journey to the school gate a cue for doing my mental shunting around, at work I have to switch my attention very rapidly, even as I turn from my desk to answer a query.

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The summer is drawing to a close. The last few days of the long holidays are slipping away. There are last minute panics over school shoes, books and satchels.

Julie is preparing for sixth form: she is already getting up very early in the morning to make sure she can cope when school actually starts at the end of the week. There is no more uniform for her, which she finds exciting but also unnerving. It is the social world of the sixth form that worries her most: navigating the mysterious codes, signals and taboos of ordinary teenage life. The study itself worries her much less now that she has managed to finish one set of public exams. She will have extra support, but the chances are there may still be a few of the usual alarms and excursions (mostly to A&E) while she settles in.

Sometimes a friend or colleague with a daughter of roughly the same age as Julie lets slip some achievement: completing their grade 8 on an instrument, competing at national level in their sport, winning a scholarship to a top university. I seem to have friends and colleagues with some incredibly high-achieving daughters! This did hurt at one time – Julie had also been successful in everything she touched, until she became ill in her mid teens and all these things dropped by the wayside. I did once feel the loss of my golden girl. But I can honestly say that it doesn’t matter at all now: we have been through so much, and I am just glad to have her alive and out of hospital. I love to hear of the achievements of the children of my friends, and I don’t grudge them their successes. Julie has had her own (private) triumphs over her illness.

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When do family holidays stop? While the children were both young we loved planning holidays every summer, always looking for something new, something a little bit different from our normal life, something we could all remember together. But eventually they do grow up, and for a while, they may hate those holidays with you. What can you do then – do you drag them with you, leave them behind, send them away, or just abandon holidays altogether for a little while?

In Duncan’s view, our family holiday at the start of the summer holidays was a washout. Boat trips, fish and chips on the pier, cream teas: none of this was good. It was the holiday his sister Julie needed, but not what he needed. Duncan is at his most anti-family at the moment, most determined to reject everything we do, plotting his escape from the cloying world of home. He is abrasive, angry, critical and argumentative. When I made up my usual photo book of the holiday, I devoted one whole page to moody shots of Duncan glowering at a slice of cheesecake, or slumped against a wall. He did not smile for two whole weeks.

Fortunately he had another holiday lined up for later on in the summer holidays: a week on Gibraltar at cadet camp. I picked him up from the airport at the end of the week, and found him in the middle of a gang of young men and women, most of them two or three years older than him, all of them tanned, loud and confident. Now this was the holiday he needed, full of activity, army discipline, noisy physical games, flirting, nicknames and practical jokes. He tried (and failed) to pick up Spanish girls, and only realised later that he had been trying to chat them up in German. He was punched by one of the apes. He got to go on board one of the visiting warships. He brought back some photos from this holiday, and in all of them he is grinning from ear to ear.

Is this then the end of the family holiday for us? We had several years without them because Julie was ill; it was an effort to organise one this year. Holidays that include Julie are inevitable for some years ahead, as she needs constant supervision. But what are we going to do with Duncan if he doesn’t want to come with us? Can we organise it so that we always go away when he has a camp to go to? I can see that being quite a challenge, trying to coordinate our departures and arrivals! But he is too young to leave at home. Next year he will be sixteen, and perhaps he will be ready to spend a few days at home on his own, but not whole weeks. He can hardly feed himself, he would be lonely, miserable. He likes to say (aggressively) that he can do without us, but he is still only a boy: he does need us really, even if he can’t see it.

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I have been ill and in some ways being ill simplifies things. It becomes easier to say no, even when the demand is very pressing. It becomes easier to sit still and listen and watch the world go by.

I spent a day in the local hospital having some tests, and sitting there on the ward to which I was temporarily assigned, I watched the other patients; perhaps eight of us in all. The other patients were all very elderly, very frail, living from one moment to the next: a typical general emergency NHS ward. By comparison with these older patients I was young and, apart from this temporary suffering, generally in good health; I was fit enough to walk from the ward down the long hospital corridors to each of my various scans and tests without the indignity of a chair. I knew I would get home that night; most of my companions did not know exactly when they would see their homes again. I was not frightened by my condition: I was confident that whatever it was would be resolved somehow in one way or another. In all honesty I was enjoying the chance to be alone, to endure my pain in relative comfort without the constant demands of family. I was a tourist in this world of sickness, but the other patients, they all seemed to be natives.

Some of my companions had attendants, husbands or children, sitting patiently beside them, translating their needs, their vague discontents, to the nurses. Occasionally, voices raised for elderly ears, rang out across the ward: “She’s just going to take your temperature, Mum!” Some of the carers were elderly themselves, but they sat on on their hard chairs, holding hands with their particular old lady, sometimes chatting to the other patients, smiles and pleasantries lobbed tactfully between beds, conversations about the weather and the food. Staff flitted from bed to bed, fetching, soothing, attentive. Time passed slowly. The woman in the next bed offered me the lemonade which she, alas, could not drink. At the end of the day I was free to leave, and I left, slightly reluctant, slightly relieved to go.

The very next day I was back in the hospital and now I was the carer, the presence beside the bed. My daughter Julie had cut her leg again, deeply, needing stitches. She had been unsettled by my long absence at the hospital the day before. She was confused and disoriented, reciting the words from the notices on the walls. Her voices had told her to cut, and now they were telling her not to talk to us, it seemed. I translated her needs to the nurses, her vague discontents. I felt happier being on this side of the equation: not the subject of the conversation but from the safe “objective” perspective of the well; on the side of the nurses. After all these years of practice I can explain what my daughter needs with great precision. I had found it so much harder to explain what I myself needed when I was the one lying on the bed. But my daughter is quite at home on the bed: the world of sickness is her adoptive country.

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After two weeks at close quarters with my nearest and dearest by the seaside I have made the following lists.

Things of which my (teenage) children are afraid, although I have honestly tried to raise them to be confident and without fear:

Loud noises
Burglars
Fire
Nuts (although neither is allergic)
Blemishes in fruit
Having a bad haircut
Being shown up in public
Flying insects
Crawling insects
Speaking in public
Eating in public
Walking in public
Spots
Paper cuts
Being crapped on by a flying bird (note, with particular reference to sea gulls)
Not understanding something
Bones in fish
Boredom
Becoming like their parents
Thunderstorms
Being middle-class
Being mistaken for the opposite sex

Things of which my (teenage) children are not afraid, despite all my attempts to instill fear:

Deafeningly loud music
Roller coasters
Strangers
Flying a plane (my son)
Heights
Taking mind-altering substances (in theory, not practice, so far, to the best of my knowledge)
Conception
Starvation
Poverty
Old age (because it won’t happen to them)
Me

Things of which I am afraid:

Loud noises
Burglars
Fire
Death of my children
Heights
Roller coasters
Being poor when I am old
Serious illness
Terrible pain
Unemployment
Spiders

"A NEW NORMAL" by Celenia Delsol (c) 2021

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