In the midst of all of the worry about money and what, if anything, E intends financially for December, life goes on. Despite the fact that I’m living in a state of almost constant anxiety about money, most of my time at home is still spent cooking, cleaning, doing laundry and shouting at the kids to tidy their rooms. To be honest, being a single mum isn’t that much different from life as a mum when E was here. However, there are still little moments when the fact that I’m bringing four kids up on my own is brought home to me with a sudden rush.
When E and I had the children, we agreed that I’d tell the girls about puberty, and he would do the same for the boys. Basically, I’d do periods and boobs and he’d do beards and willies.
I dutifully went through ‘the talk’ with the girls as they approached their teens and was greeted with grim stoicism about what was to come from Oldest Daughter and rabid curiosity from Youngest Daughter. I then relaxed, thinking that my job was done, and the next round of talks was over to E. However, E managed to completely avoid any conversation at all with the boys because he left when they were just 10 and 13. Whilst I was comfortable with being a single mum (or Lone Parent as I prefer to call myself – it feels a bit more dashing), and quite happy to answer any questions they might have, I did worry that there were certain areas where the boys would just want their dad and that they might be more comfortable talking to a male parent than a female one.
Of course, the fact of the matter is that most kids would rather die than talk to their parents about sex and puberty, and in the event, thanks to brilliant sex education programmes at their schools, there was actually very little for me to do in terms of sex education. In fact, any attempt to offer up information was greeted with horror by all four of them. I frequently used this for my own amusement – if I wanted to freak them out, I’d put on my serious face, say “let’s talk about puberty” and watch the colour drain from their faces and the horror creep down their spines. To this day, all I have to say is “this programme contains snogging and shagging” and I get the TV and the living room to myself. There’s an unspoken agreement between all of us that, whilst we can all watch programmes containing snogging and shagging, we absolutely NEVER watch them together.
They all reacted differently to sex education. Youngest Daughter learned about the mechanics of sex (from the sounds of it from the same animation featuring the 1970’s couple from The Joy of Sex that I was shown when I was 11) and decided there and then that there was NO WAY she was doing THAT, whispering to me in a horrified voice: “I don’t GET it. we’ve been told how babies are made, but some of the girls in my class STILL don’t want to adopt”. Oldest Daughter and Oldest Son took everything in their stride with their usual quiet assurance and never even mentioned that they’d had the classes at all. Youngest Son, by inevitable contrast, delighted in loudly repeating every detail of what he’d learned that day and has pretty much been making erection and testicle jokes ever since (you literally cannot say the word ‘sack’ in front of him without a Frankie Howerd-esque repetition of the word and a florid wink).
As a result, we’ve pretty much got on with everyone going through puberty without really making a big deal about it. I’ve made sure there’s a steady supply of sanitary towels and tampons in the bathroom, and that’s been about it. Thanks to Youngest Daughter’s theatrical way of dealing with her periods (flopping around the kitchen with a hot water bottle, and a pack of ibuprofen, saying “I have the WORST CRAMPS and the HEAVIEST bleeding”) the boys are also now perfectly equipped to deal with any future female friends who struggle with their periods (at least I hope so – they currently react to Youngest Daughter’s pronouncements with rolled eyes and sarcastic muttering). I suppose, if nothing else, the concept of girls having periods won’t faze them.
Of course, the changes that girls go through were familiar to me. But boys? Obviously, I knew the theory, but I had no idea in practice. I grew up with a sister. The only males in my life were my dad and my uncles. My only understanding of what happened to boys was seen through the confused prism of adolescence. I vividly remember my friend B’s voice breaking whilst he was playing the Artful Dodger in a production of Oliver. He did a sterling job, but I remember being astonished by how his voice changed over the course of one term at school. Until then, it had never occurred to me that my Dad had a deeper voice than my male friends or why that would be. Obviously, I knew that men spoke one way and boys spoke another, but it never occurred to me to question why (I was a naive kid).
Years later, knowing exactly why, I still listened with mild astonishment as Oldest Son’s voice deepened and broke. I was used to the fact that Oldest and Youngest Daughter’s male friends’ voices had changed (and multiple parties had also demonstrated that newly broken voices have no idea of how loud they can be) but the fact that this was happening to my baby still surprised me (I still don’t recognise his voice on the phone).
I was also taken aback by the way in which Oldest Son has developed physically. The girls kind of softened into themselves, their childhood bodies matured and became ‘womanly’, but Oldest Son’s face and body has grown more angular, he’s changed shape and lost the soft lines of childhood. He’s still the same Oldest Son, still principled and clever and funny, he’s still the roguishly funny child that crawled out of the cat flap (and made a run for the pub), climbed up the chimney when he was bored and nearly set my house on fire when trying to make a camp fire with a desk lamp, but he’s all of those things in a very different shell.
Unlike the girls, whose physical changes were as familiar to me as breathing, watching Oldest Son grow up is a curiously fascinating process. His very difference has made me feel anew that intense feeling of responsibility for them that I felt when E left.
This was compounded the other day, when Oldest Son showed me the faint beginnings of a moustache. A bit like when his voice broke, I was amazed – it’s not that I didn’t know that men grow facial hair, it’s not even that I hadn’t considered that my boys would one day have to shave (or not – although, I do struggle imagining them sporting full hipster beards) it’s just that I didn’t know *when* it would happen. My response (after squinting seriously at the shadow on his upper lip) was to excitedly ask him if he’d like some shaving stuff for Christmas and what sort of thing he’d like. He gave a quiet shrug and said “I guess so” which made me realise that he had no more idea than I did (probably less of an idea, after all, I used to buy shaving stuff as gifts for E, he’s never had to buy it or use it).
It was a bittersweet moment. It made me grateful to be a single mum – after all, if E had still been here, he might have shared it with him instead of me. I felt lucky. But I also felt sad for Oldest Son that he didn’t have his Dad to talk to or share this with.
Anyway, I’ve now consulted with other Mums – with older sons – and know what I’m getting him and I’m hoping that I’ll now know exactly what to expect when Youngest Son gets to the same age. Obviously, knowing him, he’ll do adolescence in his own unique way, but I’m hoping I’ll be a little bit better prepared next time.