I don’t wish my teenage children away – but I’m no longer enough for all their needs | Andie Fox

I don’t wish my teenage children away – but I’m no longer enough for all their needs

Maybe the intensity of nuclear families can be diluted by building a community of ‘extended, chosen’ family

Group of teenagers sitting with phones

My husband and I went to Italy for our honeymoon just before the pandemic. It was a strange time. Everything we fell in love with about Italian life became its undoing not long afterwards – the spontaneity, socialising, multi-generational family homes, the shared space in the evenings where foot traffic, scooters and bar patrons mingled together in alleyways, all that joyous communal life.

We left my children behind in Australia, one of them a teenager and one not yet, in a patchwork of care arrangements provided by generous friends. I fielded calls from the children while walking up and down ancient streets in Bari and Bologna. They were bickering with each other, they couldn’t find their school ties, they missed us, they did not feel like school today. I told them my phone reception was bad and I would call them when I got to the apartment.

It was detachment enforced by time zones and travel but also, I must admit, an abandoning of self to the moment. Italy can change you forever with its beauty and I wanted to surrender to it. You hope, in those moments of minor neglect, that you are role modelling female emancipation to your children. You hope.

In the year after our return the pandemic swept viciously across the world. In Australia, we retreated to our suburban home with doors closed. Our family, now a nuclear one, barely saw the resident teenager. A great chasm opened behind her closed bedroom door, and like Proserpina in the paintings in Italy, she was lured away to the underworld – 24-hour internet.

It occurs to me that even happy nuclear families must be stifling for teenagers. In middle age, my husband and I are at constant risk of becoming too civilised. After a day in demanding jobs all we want by evening is a bit of uninterrupted time for separate projects or to binge on a favourite TV show together. Sometimes we share a bottle of wine instead, and then we do not get around to anything else. There’s no adventuring on offer for a teenager.

And there is probably never a good time for an argument, but in middle age I find myself particularly driven towards peace at home. Few arguments seem worth the tension and unintentional hurt. There is enough going on during the day. For teenagers, maybe that disengagement is also sometimes oppressive.

Archaeologists say the evidence that teenagers were never meant to be raised in a nuclear family are all the calories it takes to grow a teenager to adulthood. No single set of parents could have secured those quantities in their foraging efforts. But I think more compelling than that is the emotional energy it takes. Really, there are only so many times you can have that argument about waking them for a maths exam.

My mother, who comes from the bush, assured me that there was a time when we sent teenage girls off to be governesses on properties. They cannot have come up with that plan by chance, she noted. All things considered, there have historically been a great many ways for teenagers to leave the parental home, from boarding school to Viking ships.

I do not wish my teenage children away but, equally, I am no longer enough for all their needs. Now that my younger child is a teenager too, and the isolation of the pandemic has subsided, I am finding we are able to practise him leaving home and me letting go more often and more gently.

Recently, he arranged his own routine of breakfasts on Sunday with his godmother and her father, an Italian nonno. We cannot all live in extended Italian families, and maybe we do not want to either, but we can build an “extended, chosen” family as an alternative.

Another friend’s teenage son is almost finished school and spends his Sundays with her long ago ex-boyfriend, learning carpentry. He lives at home happily (more or less, he’s a teenager) with his married parents – my friend and her husband – but those Sundays in the heat, learning to build and repair with his hands, must complement the philosophy and poetry he learns from his father perfectly. It is reinventing family.

Still another teenager I know, this one the young adult son of old friends, often drops in for a meal or to stay the night with us. Sometimes he greets me while also looking for food in our pantry, like the kindergartener he once was in my home. We are a cosy place to stay on his transition from family home to independence and he rewards us with his sweet company.

There is an intensity in the structure of nuclear families that, frankly, often gets more extreme in the teenage years. Maybe that intensity can be diluted by having connections outside the home. The uncertainty of the teenage years can foster the urge to control, but the way to strengthen families is not to double down on their segregation – it is to open them up.

This community of chosen family is not utopia. I am sure I fail it sometimes. And some of what we have created has come down to luck, because our trust in one another as friends turned out to not be misplaced, when we all know such communities are not always safe.

There was a time, in the thick of the pandemic and the storm of self-individuation with my eldest child, where I wondered if what I had set out to do as a parent, with all this trust in the world, was the right path. It was humbling.

This winter my 13-year-old son went overseas with close friends to learn to ski. It tested my conviction about letting go. My son was under instruction from my husband to send me several photos a day, something he dutifully complied with, to my delight. But a couple of days into the trip he apologised for not having also got around to calling me. It is just that he was so tired by the end of each day and the time difference did not match up well. But he was thinking of me and could not wait to share stories with us.

Oh, I know, little one. I know that feeling of travel and awe. I know that feeling of finding parts of yourself far from home and in other families. And I know you are coming back too.

  • Andie Fox is a freelance writer who writes about motherhood from a feminist perspective