‘Hands up which other university parents are bloody glad to have got rid of their lumpen, food-gobbling, space-invading kids…’
When I tweeted this the other day having just dumped my offspring at Durham I got accused of being a bad father. But I don’t think I am. A bad father wouldn’t have been labouring in the dark at 12.30 a.m. getting the car packed for the long trek north. A bad father wouldn’t have forked out so liberally and uncomplainingly for all those things they spring on you when you arrive — 30-odd quid for the week’s JCR induction entertainments; 25 quid (50 if you’d been naive enough to buy new) for a gown they’ll probably only wear about twice…
Obviously, I miss the little sods a bit. The house feels weirdly empty, my schedule is eerily free, and, yes, I suppose I am rather sad that my days will be no longer be punctuated with those tiny displays of semi-affection that late teenage/early twentysomething kids occasionally grant you, when they can be bothered: Girl making me one of her ‘Buddha bowl’ specials for lunch; Boy grudgingly accompanying me to walk the dog (‘But we’re not going to be going too far, right?’).
Really, though, four summer months is far, far too long to have to endure in close proximity to children of that age. Even if they’re ones you made yourself; even if some of that time — at your expense of course — they’ve been off on tours of Southeast Asia with their mates or on largely pointless internships abroad for which you’ve stumped up a grand in air fares in return for one desperate line on a CV.
I’ve heard tell that there are some parents out there who are really good at getting their university-age kids organised: making them do waitressing and pub work to pay their way; landing them internships that last the entire summer and will lead to amazing jobs; encouraging them to get ahead on their reading lists; getting them to be useful round the house, doing their share of the chores and so on. But I’m not one of them.
Because, unfortunately, I was reared by laissez-faire parents myself, I’ve always been horribly indulgent towards my own brats. So long as when they go to stay with other families I get reports back on how delightful and charming and polite my children are, I’m prepared to put up with any amount of appalling behaviour at home.
And they know it. ‘If you don’t want to be asked to do a boring job again, do it badly,’ said Boy cheerily, after he’d washed up a few dishes, missing out all the seriously dirty stuff which he’d ‘left to soak’, and put half the stuff in the wrong cupboards because he doesn’t ‘know where everything lives’. I’d guessed that this was the underlying strategy. But he could at least have been less vauntingly frank about it.
Girl is even worse: a ruthless and implacable negotiator. If she’d been in charge of Brexit, we would have left three years ago with no tariffs, the other 27 member states in permanent vassalage to us, a £39 billion sweetener paid by the EU to us in compensation for the indignity we’ve suffered while being a member, and Barnier, Juncker and Verhofstadt dragged down the Mall in chains prior to being ritually strangled by the Queen in Churchill’s Cabinet War Rooms.
One day — though I pity the poor husband — this talent may serve her lucratively and well. But at home I feel rather like the Verve must have done when they had to surrender all the royalties of their biggest hit, ‘Bittersweet Symphony’, just because it included a sample from an old Stones track. Any reasonable person can see I’m being unfairly treated. But I’m perpetually up against a female Allen Klein who just laughs at my weakness and my pathetic pleas for empathy.
Nowhere does this generational injustice manifest itself more cruelly than in the TV room. ‘But it’s my living!’ I plead. ‘Can’t you just indulge me and let me watch something new on Netflix, so I can review it?’ The kids just don’t care, though, least of all the female one. If it’s her official TV night — which it seems to be pretty much every night — then either I have to endure something utterly life-wasting like Bake Off or retreat to the grim solitude of my office where I’ll watch alone on my computer. And where later, she’ll poke her head round the door and cackle at me for being a sad, lonely, anti-social, unloved old man.
One of the perks of having older children, I’d always hoped, was that finally you’d have companions with whom to share quality viewing time. But that’s not how it works. Even if it’s something they like just as much as you — Thrones, say, or Top Boy — they’d much rather binge-watch on their own because that way they don’t have to be annoyed by your comments or embarrassed when there are sex scenes.
This rule applies not just to TV but everything else too: though they occupy the same house as you and are more than happy for you to pay for everything, they don’t actually want to be with you, let alone talk to you, except in rare moments of their choosing. Invariably, because they’re on a different body clock, these are the very moments when you don’t want to be disturbed — either because you’re trying to work or you’re about to go to bed.
I was complaining about this the other day to my father, who says it gets slightly better when you’re much older and your daughters come to minister to you after you’ve had a heart op. But sons, apparently, remain generally useless. ‘My advice is not to have kids,’ he said. Thanks for the valuable life tip, Pa.