Never has a poem described my own predicament more accurately than “Landmines In the Living Room” by John F, McCullagh. Though I have hoarded poems of love and loss like so many precious emeralds over the years, it is in this one about the perils of having one’s child at home for the Summer after they have left for academia, that made me stop and go oh heavens above, thank goodness it’s not just me!
Those Landmines in the Living room
Can do a man much harm
And, being metaphorical-
They’re a challenge to disarm.
When my daughter’s home from college
a month can seem an age
A simple misspeak or misstep
can incur her wrath and rage.
Her life of course is difficult
She cannot drink or drive
She sleeps all day and parties nights
It’s a wonder we’re alive.
Weight opinions carefully
Whenever she’s around
Don’t set off a screaming match
you will not win a round
We have a fortnight left until
We pack her out the door
And when she’s gone I’ll miss her-
until she invades once more.
Though Finn is not a child in possession of a temper, his weapon of choice is a sort of disappointed superiority and it is me that he is frequently disappointed in! So while I may escape the “wrath and rage” McCullagh describes, there is simply no way of escaping the eye-rolling and irritation while rather suspecting you may be imposing on someone conducting the very important business that is doing nothing at all, right there in your very own living room!
For in the Summer that he turned twenty (TWENTY!!), Finn went from boy to man, and this is a man permeating every inch of a house that while too big for me now, seems almost doll-sized when he is here so vast is his presence. I can hear him everywhere. Smell him in every room in which he lingers. Find all that he owns scattered across every surface (and stacked in boxes in the hallway), and follow a trail of gluten-free crumbs to track his movements around the house.
And of course I’m driving him absolutely nuts. And I know I am. And I can’t stop. He wants me to sleep when he is due to arrive home late, but also needs me to pick him up should he be beyond the village and instead serving the masses at his new bar-job with shifts that end at silly o’clock and sometimes way after. So I do not sleep at all. When he isn’t in, I worry (there have been two knife incidents locally -one fatal and one that involved one of the staff in his workplace – that have terrified us both) and when he is working I have to stay up late enough to pop a cardigan over my pyjamas to go and collect him at one or two in the morning, for taxis are few and far between and Ubers almost non existent.
So I am tired and when I am tired, I fuss. I fuss about him not eating enough and eating way too much. I fuss about him dominating the TV I would prefer not to be on. I fuss about him forgetting things and drive him crackers reminding him. I fuss about mess, about his hair, about his beard. About things that need ironing, about things that need washing and about things that need doing because to my mind he isn’t doing them and to his they don’t need doing!
Hells bells yes. We have reached Peak Each Other. I am in maternal overdrive and he wants independence while apparently never needing me more. We have reached Peak Each Other, so thank heavens then for the grace we both extend: him to me, recognising that for a number of reasons, this has been the hardest Summer of my life, and me to him, for it cannot be easy to come from living independently to being back to where there are rules you barely realised existed because they were once so instinctive and familiar, and have in the course of a year been all but forgotten. Thank heavens then that the longest and most difficult of Summers is almost over. Thank heavens then for a lovely little house in the next town he will share with six friends, while being just a five minute drive away from me, when university re-commences in two weeks time.
I write often about keeping house and the routines and rituals that make it not just possible, but often lovelier, but rarely touch upon how who we live with impacts the way it is possible to live. I do not say that you may find yourself in constant flux, bending yourself into a pretzel trying to please those who are trying, but bless them, failing, to please you. I do not acknowledge often enough that cats that like dragging stacks of freshly washed underwear around the kitchen will drive you insane and kids coming in the middle of the night will break your sleep and make any semblance of mindful commitment to domesticity feel impossible. I rarely mention how your partner’s moods or whimsy can be your undoing, or how toddlers can make it feel as if you are living in the midst of a perpetual hurricane. I do not say it, but I hope that in the pages of BrocanteHome over the years you have found proof that it is so in almost every house. That our ideals have to accommodate those with other priorities and there will be moments when all your efforts seem pointless or unappreciated.
For the past two nights Finley has stayed in his new house as it is but a minutes walk away from his workplace, and today I will be packing all that he needs to live comfortably there during term time up for him, so that his Dad can deliver it all tomorrow, and bring Finley back for the last week or so at home. It is muchly done. For sleep evades me right now and in the middle of the night I find myself wired and edgy, pacing the house at two in the morning overwhelmed by various grim worries and packing bits and bobs as I wander, sad that he will once again be going and ever so slightly happy that he will be gone, for it seems I cannot function without sleep, though sleep being the nowty bugger that it is, continues to dodge my presence even when there is nothing to keep me awake!
And of course I miss him already. All those things I despair of, I miss. But I know that this is but the natural order of things: that our little fledglings are meant to fly away for they simply outgrow the nest. And that when they are gone, we are free to feather and line it all over again in anticipation of their return. I know all this. I know that when he is once again settled, I will turn the dial down on my maternal anxiety, and pick up the routines I carved for myself in his absence. And I know that ever since the days when his toddler nursery broke up for the Summer, I have always, always been discombobulated by the shift in routine – a danger inherent to that which we prefer to do daily, for life is almost constantly in flux – and that just because he is now much taller than me, instead of being knee-high, it doesn’t mean that my own response to that state of flux will ever change.
Isn’t it astonishing though, how we come to know ourselves eventually? How our children grow and as we come to know the versions of themselves they are slowly but surely cultivating, we also come to understand parts of who we are too? That in their eye-rolls, we find ourselves a little ridiculous and in their resistance to the struggle we have in letting them go, they teach us that it is necessary regardless?
It is hard and fraught with complexity, but landmines in the living room exist to establish the boundaries between the brink of independence and the parental anxiety this rite of passage inspires and while we do well to avoid them, we do better when we learn to understand that even when they explode in our very faces, they are but the glitter of emotion we have rightfully taught our children to express.