AND NOW FOR THE HARD PART
After becoming the pin-up for working mothers everywhere, Allison Pearson returns with a brutally honest take on navigating the teenage years
After becoming the pin-up for working mothers everywhere, Allison Pearson returns with a brutally honest take on navigating the teen years
It was 2002. I Don’t Know How She
Does It, my novel about a woman trying to juggle a career and small children, had just been published and I was at a reader event when a woman came up to me.
“I hate to say this,” she said with a bitter laugh, “but what you’ve written about is the easy bit. Just wait until Kate Reddy has teenagers.”
I had no idea what she was talking about. Literally no idea. My two children, Evie and Tom, were 6 and 3 back then. The baby era of broken nights was, if not behind us, then soon coming to an end. That summer, we finally potty-trained the small boy, who gleefully ran naked round our London back garden, peeing everywhere except in the potty I chased after him with. “It would be easier to house-train a puppy,” grumbled my husband.
Evie had recently learned to read and entered the magical — for busy parents — world of Harry Potter, where she lost herself for hours. If I thought about it at all, I assumed that this parenting lark would carry on getting easier as the children got older and became more independent.
Seriously, what was I thinking? Fast-forward a decade and my daughter and her friend are holding a fancy dress party at our house in Cambridge. My husband did try to veto the plan — “I don’t want a house full of drunken teenagers doing drugs and trying to have sex with each other!” — but I am worried that our daughter, like every other 16-year-old girl of her generation, is anxious and under too much pressure — from schoolwork, from social media, from things I barely understand.
Why not let her have some fun for a change? So the party went ahead. A version of it appears in How Hard Can It Be?, the sequel to I Don’t
Know How She Does It. “Emily’s party” definitely has factors in common with Evie’s party.
For instance, my husband’s precious Jane Austen collection had several pages torn out for roll-ups — and much worse. He did mount Custer’s Last Stand at the front door, trying to confiscate alcohol and prevent uninvited guests coming in.
The supermarket vodka smuggled in, the teenage couples swarming remorselessly upstairs, like extras in a zombie film, looking for a place to copulate. Me asking Evie if it was necessary for the “disco” to be quite so loud and being told that no one had called it a disco “for, like, 100 years, Mummy”. That much is factual.
Other bits are horror stories I’d heard from people with kids the same age. Such as the couple who thought their son’s 18th birthday party was safely over, woke at 3am to hear noises coming from their wardrobe, opened the door and discovered Romeo and Juliet shagging on the mum’s Joseph coat.
As a novelist, I am part-magpie, partcannibal. I hoard all the glittering anecdotes, saving them up until they find the perfect place in a book. I am relaxed about cannibalising my own emotions and experiences (the closer to the bone I can bear to go, the more powerful the connection with the reader).
So, I am bloody and graphic about Kate Reddy’s menopause, because any embarrassment is mine alone.
For my family, it’s different. The lonely marriage in How Hard Can It Be? is definitely not my relationship, although Kate’s growing disillusion with her husband, the sense that time
is running out and she is living for everyone except herself, was based on scores of conversations I had with middle-aged women.
Emily and Ben are close in age to my own kids, but they are not the same people. Unlike poor Emily, my daughter has not shared a picture of her naked backside (the dreaded “belfie”) with a malicious friend and seen it go viral. But she so easily could have; that’s the point.
ONE REASON I felt compelled to write this sequel is because social media has wrought such vast, often pernicious changes in the lives of vulnerable adolescents like my own. Parenting Teens in the
Digital Age — the title of the book a despairing Kate consults — is much harder than being a parent at any previous time in history.
Children might be in their own bedroom, but there is no respite from the 24-hour connectedness to the peer group, which can bully or induce envy and self-loathing.
We are up against forces unimaginable to our own mothers and fathers. When she first discovers Emily’s bare backside is bouncing around the worldwide web, Kate aches for that time when her daughter was little and she could still fix any problem.
“How am I supposed to protect her from things I can’t see or hear?” she asks. “Am I so out of touch that distributing pictures of one’s naked arse has become socially acceptable?” The generation gap has always been there, but this chasm between adults (who just about know how to use Sky) and their tech-savvy offspring is new and scary.
An American friend who had parental controls put on all the technology in the house found out that her clever daughter had not only downloaded “How to Bypass Parental Controls”, she had paid for it with her mother’s credit card. That went straight into the book.
“I feel like a stone age person living with Steve Jobs,” wails Kate Reddy. Which parent in the 21st century doesn’t? Marvelling at their mother’s cluelessness, my kids often chorus, “Are you from the past?” Yes, I admit, I
As a novelist, I am partmagpie, part-cannibal. I hoard all the glittering anecdotes, saving them up until they find the perfect place in a book.