Dropping her designer luggage onto the kitchen floor, she demanded my son show her around the house. This was my introduction to my teenage son’s first serious girlfriend. Later, she would seem surprised that her luggage was still on the kitchen floor where she had left it.
The depth of my patience was tested again at dinnertime after the young people in the house were instructed to come and peel vegetables. Entering the kitchen ahead of his siblings, my son tucked his too-long hair behind his left ear – a nervous tick he had developed in pre-school.
“Er, Jasmine* is not used to helping out in the kitchen.”
“Excuse me, son?”
“It’s just that where she comes from they have a man who does all of that.”
Turning from the stove, I resisted the urge to grab my son’s own man-bits before demanding he go straighten out Little Miss Designer. However, more hair tugging and an unusual stillness in his frame stopped me. I remembered only too well the flailing impotence of my own husband when caught between me and his ‘difficult’ mother. I didn’t want that no-win misery for my son. I took a deep breath.
“Okay, could the two of you at least set the dining room table? You can show her the ropes if tablecloths and napkins are also beyond her comprehension.”
“Yes, mum. Thank you, mum.”
The watery relief in his eyes made me thankful I had not compromised him in front of his special guest.
“Okay, run along and tell your brother and sisters to come and help out in here.”
Dinnertime, when it came, was a pleasant enough affair, and everyone seemed to have calmed themselves down, including me. The children had at last tired of teasing their brother and, to her credit, Little Miss Designer also seemed less haughty. She joined in with the loud and excited dinner banter which, as I understood it, is not something she was used to as an only child of Japanese diplomats.
I looked across the table at my young people and the newly minted couple and smiled. It seemed like ages since I had little else to worry about than the latest boy band nonsense, or hope my parents could not see me knocking knees under the table with a shiny new love interest. Although in this case, ‘parent’ singular since the children’s father would not be back from his business trip until a week Friday.
Although I am a stickler for black and white parenting and a child’s due regard for the rules of the house, I was glad that things had improved since my inauspicious start with our weekend guest. While it was unlikely that my son would end up marrying this girl, I did have sudden insight into the proverbial mother-in-law triangle. Going forward, I would have to accept, at least to myself, that no-one would ever be entirely good enough for my child.
In was in this spirit of cooperation that all occupants of the house eventually said goodnight to each other and bunkered down for the night.
Sunday morning, after a loud knock on his door, which was apparently not loud enough to rouse him, I entered my son’s room. Five-minutes of making busy, picking up clothes and fussing with curtains was usually enough time to see my teenager safely back on planet earth.
“Good morning, my dear, sleep well?”
“Yes, except Jasmine didn’t sleep too good.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Where is she now?”
“Here, mum,” my son said, pulling back the covers to reveal his sleeping girlfriend.
“Oh. Um. Okay. Er…yes,” I said, grasping for a script I did not have.
With that insightful and stupefied response, I left my son’s room, went downstairs trance-like, and wondered what the hell had just happened.
Not that this was my first experience with blind, parental panic. When he was little, my toddler-son had thrown a ferocious tantrum in the frozen food aisle of the supermarket. That day I discovered it was possible for even this old-school, black-and-white, take-no-prisoners parent to be immobilized in parenting terror, as shoppers tut-tutted their way around my out-of-control child.
Despite the pressure to remove my son from the supermarket, I took a deep breath and decided to leave him screaming in the aisle because I knew (prayed) that without me as his audience, he would soon come to his senses. It worked and the balance of power was restored. I didn’t know then how important this episode would later be along our parenting journey together.
In this moment, I yearned for the easy problem of supermarket tantrums.
Spooning teaspoon after teaspoon of coffee into a mug I don’t remember taking from the shelf, I felt helpless and powerless, with my metaphorical pants around my ankles.
Then came the anger. Anger at my husband for never being around for the difficult parenting dilemmas, angry at my son for putting me in this damned position, and angry at myself for eschewing the common sense which had always guided me through the stickiest days of motherhood. Abandoning an overflowing coffee cup, I grabbed that common sense by the neck and dragged it upstairs to confront my son. This time I did not knock.
“YOU, in my room, now! Miss, please get dressed and join us.”
Seated at my desk in the master bedroom, I finally felt that I was on familiar territory again and realized I didn’t want to give these young people a severe reprimand as much as I wanted them to truly understand the ramifications of their actions.
“Mum, I don’t know what you think has gone on, but nothing happened.”
“That is not the point, son. You know the rules of this house and you should have imparted them to your friend here.”
“Further,” I continued, ignoring my son’s attempt at interruption and his girlfriend’s affected sheepish muteness, “as the eldest you are the one to set the example for your siblings.”
“And you, young lady, understand that when you are under my roof I am your temporary caretaker and proxy parent. What on earth would your parents have thought had they walked in on the two of you this morning?”
“I apologize, ma’am. It won’t happen again.”
My radar for “empty platitudes to placate an angry parent” is pretty sharp, and I sensed that these two young people were genuinely remorseful.
“Look, kids, it’s not that I wasn’t young too, but I will tell you something my mother told me which has served me well, and that is ‘everyone has an unguarded moment.’”
Letting that statement sink in for a few seconds more, I elaborated and explained to them that even the best of intentions can get lost when emotions and physical urges take over. A chaste goodnight kiss might be possible for an older married couple, but young blood runs hot and can lead to that unguarded moment when caution (and pants) are thrown to the wind.
The ensuing laughter broke some of the tension, and it was in this frame of mind that the three of us had an honest conversation that morning after which the young couple prepared breakfast for the rest of the household.
Invariably when I tell this story, people ask, “Okay, but what happens when you are not around?”
When I’m not around, my children will have to rely on their inner compass and their training. They may break the rules, but they will do so knowing how their mother feels about their behavior. I can at least give them that when I am not physically there to guide them. Decision-making and the consequences of those decisions is, after all, part of growing up.
Some parents may be tempted to run screaming down the path of least resistance for that illusive ‘quiet life’ when raising children. I was certainly tempted that Sunday morning. And some parents may have a more relaxed view on this issue, but no one should be railroaded or chose a position based on fear of their teenagers.
We can all admit to walking on eggshells around our teenagers at some point, especially around the subject of sex in our home. I had to gird my loins to restore the rightful balance of power to help the kids through one of life’s firsts. With rare exception, I have found that a home runs more smoothly, and teenagers feel safer, when the balance of power favors the most experienced members of the household – the parents and caregivers.