During the dark days of early motherhood I sometimes used to console myself that in a mere eighteen years it would all be done with: weaned, potty-trained, educated, my two sons would give us a cheery wave and trot off, as I once had, to busy independent lives, first as students, too hectic for visits home in the holidays, then as working cogs in the wheels of their first jobs, paying rent on some grimy shared flat and generally having a blast…all I had to do was keep the show on the road till then.
Cue hollow laughter. Twenty three years on and my dear student sons are showing no eagerness to leave the nest. They take up a lot of space between them and have busy social lives that include house parties and steady girlfriends. We recently moved partly to accommodate this state of affairs, to a dodgier postcode that made the size of the property we required affordable. It is a large, detached, splendid Victorian house, divided up as follows: a communal ground floor; a first floor which is, in theory, solely for me and my husband (in practice the attraction of our power-shower means there’s always a family queue to get under it); while our sons have the top floor entirely to themselves – a space as big as a decent flat, comprising separate bedrooms, a TV room, a games room, and a bathroom.
So now it’s not the squawk of a hungry baby waking me in the small hours, but the same child shushing friends after a late night out, trying to hopscotch over the squeaky boards outside our bedroom door en route to the top floor. Or it’s the thud of darts, or the whack of ping-pong balls, or vigorous wii gaming, or attempts at ‘quiet’ conversation. During one particularly bad broken night, after already having shouted up warnings, I stormed upstairs, hair wild, dressing gown flying, only to find myself face to face with a nude (male) teenager on the top landing. He covered his private parts and said hello. I said hello back and retreated downstairs. It went very quiet after that. They had been playing strip poker, explained my son during the course of his apologies the next morning. The friend in question had already left by a back door, too embarrassed to meet my eye.
And then there was the ceiling falling down, just before Christmas. The first floor ceiling; the floor, in other words, of the upper storey occupied by our sons. I was alone in the house at the time, in the kitchen, stir-frying onions. Four minutes earlier and I could have died. The men in my family say I exaggerate, but Victorian plasterwork is thick and heavy – any number of the chunks that fell down could have crushed my skull. Hearing the thunderous noise from the kitchen, I honestly thought the house was being bombed. The insurers said it was bad luck, century old plasterwork, just one of those things (which was why they wouldn’t be paying), but I blame the table tennis games, the wii leaps and bounds, the darts celebrations.
There are other tensions too. Like the delicate matter of husbands feeling displaced - (private research tells me I am not alone in my observations) - resenting having to share the spotlight of He Who Must Be Spoiled with other demanding – younger – not to mention male - adults. (Freud would have a field-day). More prosaically, there’s the laundry - only delivered to the washing machine (I refuse to retrieve it) when it has reached mountainous proportions; and the food – huge supermarket bills, constant fridge-scavenging, indifference to an evening meal until plans for going out are cancelled, or vice versa. (People say a microwave would help, but I have never possessed one and anyway there isn’t room in the kitchen).
And then, most tediously, there’s the Mess. My primary tactic is never to venture to the top floor. Out of sight out of mind etcetera. If I rant loudly and long enough it gets cleared. But it can get very bad. Embarrassingly bad. As evinced by the kindly policemen, checking over the house after an attempted break-in, who came downstairs, grave-faced, to announce that the intruders had clearly ‘done over’ the top floor. Er…no, officer…that would be our sons...
Not an ideal situation, then, on several fronts. And All My Fault, I was sure. I am too adoring, you see, too indulgent. For somehow, since those early dark days twenty years ago, I have become the most smitten of mothers. In spite of noise and near-death experiences, I like having my sons around and make no secret of it. Knowing that as they do, surely they are just taking advantage? But then, looking around, I see countless parents-of-adult-children in similar positions, making similar compromises – houses bursting at the seams with grown-up occupants, not just students enjoying long university holidays, but older ones, looking for work, or in their first jobs. One couple I met recently had just got rid of their THIRTY THREE YEAR OLD, and that was by taking the drastic measure of buying him (and his wife and two children) a house. Daddy-Bank, they called it – a term I hadn’t heard before but which I now see coming down the track towards me, as un-stoppable as a runaway train.
The economy is partly to blame, of course: our now bonkers property market, over-stocked with places no one can afford to rent, let alone buy. Every one knows young adults can’t afford to leave home. But I believe there is something else going on; something to do with all that middle class energy our generation have invested in family issues: the rights of children, the privilege and importance of parenthood, the need for ‘quality time’ and involved fathers, prepared to cut umbilical cords and get home in time for children’s baths. The result is that many of us now enjoy much closer, more intimate relationships with our grown-up offspring than we ever knew with our own parents. Mollycoddling, some might call it. Rewarding and wonderful, would be the counter-argument. Which ever view, that once easy cut-off point – finish education, then leave home – is no longer quite so obvious.
As for my own sons - loving their home comforts (and parents) aside - both are keen to forge careers and futures entirely of their own making. They just recognise, as do we, that it’s probably going to take a while to get there. But I also like to think that maybe the process will come full circle; that we could be edging towards a new golden age of families looking out for each other to the bitter end. Better, after all, to have granny parked in the corner of the kitchen, shucking peas, or performing some other useful family chore, instead of staring dazed at some communal TV screen in an old people’s home. I shall call it ‘pay-back time’ I tell my sons. They think I am joking.