So your marriage has weathered the first stormy years of small children. Good work. The bad news is that you will encounter even more dramatic years when your children turn into teenagers. Before you know it, they will be tweens. From the age of ten, your prepubescent daughter will be heading out – in silver platforms and a denim mini, her midriff showing and her stick-thin legs shivering in the winter cold – to watch the interschool rugby match. That’s when you’ll find that the inner calm you managed to nurture after the toddling tantrums is a mere illusion.
By the time they hit the age of fourteen, their social life will far outstrip yours. In between driving them to after-school activities (‘But Dad said it was fine if I went over to Casey’s tonight to go over the dance test …’) and weekly social events (‘I said not a second before ten and don’t you dare pull up outside the party. Just park at the end of the road …’), it will become patently apparent that you are no longer cool. Your music is old, your clothes are embarrassing and your technology is from the Ark age. Your kids think you are about as hip as Cliff Richard.
Not only do your kids find you boring, you find your life boring – unless you think a fun-filled afternoon involves sitting alone in a steaming-hot car while your son is kept in detention for smoking behind the cricket pavilion. When you’ve finished your afternoon of ferrying them around to modern-dance classes, guitar lessons and rock-climbing practice, it’s homework time, after which you might just grab a quick peck on the cheek from your partner before you pack the spotty youngsters into the car for an early evening dress rehearsal of the school play. By the time you get home, he is deep into a late-night movie and you clean the kitchen, pack the dishwasher, feed the dogs and return seventeen missed calls before collapsing on the pillow with your make-up remover still in hand. Boring.
‘Generally busy’ may define your life during your kids’ earlier years, but when they hit their teens, you move into a phase of being ‘maniacally busy’. You are busy all the time. You are even busy when you sleep, mentally trying to figure out how you are going to squeeze seven lifts into your eighteen-hour day tomorrow.
And you’re not the only one who is busy. Last time you checked, he had a faintly panicky expression on his face when he realised he’d double-booked the Family Taxi for Friday night. You’re both frantic. Weekends are taken up moving from match fixture to match fixture. If you’re lucky, you can split the duties, so each of you can grab a second of ‘me time’. His is spent heading off to the gym for an early run, while yours is spent attaching moving eyeballs to the Halloween costume for Jani’s Saturday-night dress-up disco. The problem is, there is simply no ‘us time’.
Sometimes, during a late-night handover shift, your eyes meet for a second, and you wonder blithely why you are sharing a house with this person. You remember a smoky nightclub in New York, an evening a long time ago when he ravished you at the front door, and the way he used to hum when he made you an espresso every morning before you went for your walk. Now you want to slam the door in his face because he allowed your fifteen-year-old son to organise a sleepover on your anniversary after you spent last year’s nursing your youngest because of a hockey accident. Where is the love?
It actually feels as if your teenagers are sabotaging your relationship. Hormonal teens will show up any relationship cracks like high-intensity searchlights. (‘Whatever, Mom, why don’t you two just get a divorce?’)
It is safe to say that the teenage years are the most challenging for any parent. It stands to reason that it is also the time that you are most going to question what drew you to your partner in the first place. Who is this person with whom you are hand-rearing wild animals? Even if you do remember the good vibes, you often wonder why on earth you bothered. Your nerves are frayed, you bicker about money, and any fun you do have is usually at the other’s expense.
Put it into perspective: What feels like sabotage is just normal teenage behaviour. Sounds trite, but it is useful to chat to other parents of teens, or to read a guide on the emotional and physical changes that teenagers exhibit. That way, when you catch your son with your man’s private collection of skin mags, you can simply tick the box instead of calling up a sex therapist. Although it feels like a crazy zoo, the journey from adolescence to adulthood is well documented and comfortingly predictable. If you can see this as just another life phase, it feels far more manageable.
Focus on your partner: It does feel as if the teen phase will never end, and your partner is most likely the last person on your mind, but now more than ever you need to act as a team. Your kids are starting to carve out their own niche in the world. Before you know it, they will be dating and finding their own life mates. You have yours. Make them more important.
Laugh it off: Humour is your best relationship weapon. It can help his balding, your sagging bum, your failing eyesight and your daughter’s monster moods. Act like good parents should, but when the doors are closed, the two of you can have a giggle.
Be a witness to your life: It is hard to look at your existence with any objectivity when you are in the trenches. But you have teenagers, for heaven’s sake. Life is meant to be crazy. When one of you starts to waver, or drift off into the boggy ground of relationship doubt, the other needs to point out that the craziness will pass.
Have your own life (not theirs): Now more than ever you may find that your own needs aren’t met. You are a chauffeur, cook, housekeeper, social organiser, therapist and general punchbag. Fight for your right to do things that fulfil you and don’t give in to every single whim.
Learn to let go: Teenagers are desperately trying to find their own way in the world. It is no longer your job to cosset and protect. Let them make their own mistakes and turn your focus to your partner again. It feels impossible to do this, but your gaze should start to shift towards a vision of the two of you and the life you want to create in the next few years when your kids finally leave home.