We marked it with a family dinner; then he headed off to Juicy Tuesday at Manuka, clutching his own, genuine ID. The others would never have been allowed to go to Juicy Tuesday. Or Shimmy Wednesday. Or Bamboo Thursday. School nights were for study and sleep. But that’s what happens, isn’t it? As parents, you loosen up; you learn which fights are worth picking, and which to let go. Or perhaps you just run out of steam.
The pandemic has wrought changes too. Those rules we once enforced as if a successful transition into adulthood depended on them feel petty now. We are alive; we are together. The things we used to work ourselves up over - piano practice, swearing, too much time on the XBox - belong to some other, half-forgotten world. Of course, it’s easy to feign insouciance once you’ve come out the other side. But I do believe Covid brought a shifting of perspective. It forced us to give up the illusion of control. It helped us fix our eyes on today’s small joys, instead of constantly looking ahead to the next academic hurdle. We were always planning: our days, hours, minutes logged in columns marked "profit" and "loss”. I don’t miss that.
His older brothers - now 21 and 24, and sharing a flat elsewhere - have watched the things he’s got away with with a mixture of awe and envy. Super-conscious of their responsibilities as corruptive influences, they’ve egged him on, passing their IDs to him under the table, keeping schtum about his empties, letting him crash at theirs. They helped bolster his perception of himself as the family rebel.
On Tuesday evening, the house quickened to their plotting and prattle. The dinner over, the dishes cleared, they prepped the birthday boy for the night ahead. At one point, I caught sight of them, heads bent together, as they poured vodka into a hip flask. It reminded me of their old chemistry set experiments: the test tubes, the funnels, the squeals of delight as the potions fizzed and popped. They blasted some techno tunes and turned on his new smoke machine. For a brief time, there was clamour and laughing. Then: the slam of the front door, the crunch of tyres on gravel, and - poof! - they were gone.
For a brief time, our entire lives were clamour and laughing. And then - poof! - they were gone. Left with the echo of their voices, my husband and I reflected on those mysteries people of our age reflect upon: the miracle of childbirth, the passage of time, the “what happens next?" of it all. We marvelled at the way tiny tearaways metamorphose into men. Just weeks before, they’d carried their granddad’s coffin on their broad shoulders with dignity and poise.
We know we are lucky. Our sons haven’t fully left yet. The youngest still lives with us, emerging from his room at the top of the stairs, like the Pope on his balcony, to grant us a daily audience. The others stay nearby and appear most Sundays, foraging for food, gossip and an episode of Succession. Maybe one day - one FAR-OFF day - they will bring grandchildren with them. Those grandchildren will tramp their dirty shoes up and down the stairs and kick balls against the back fence. We will tolerate their wildness because we will be older and not responsible for their upbringing. Indeed, we will relish the opportunity to be corruptive influences, egging them on, passing chocolate buttons and other forbidden non-fruits under the table.
For now, though, we are in a state of flux. So are they and so, unfortunately, is the world. Their lives, like everyone’s, will bring their share of disappointments. We will have no power to mitigate their pain.
There are bigger, more existential fears too, together with the guilt that comes from knowing we are handing our children a more precarious future than the one passed down to us. The planet continues to burn, Covid to mutate and the UK to be led by amoral idiots. Those coming of age today are less likely than us to find stable jobs or to secure the homes we bought with 95 per cent mortgages. Somehow, our generation managed to take everything that came its way, and f**k it up for the next. Yet Generation Z has to put up with being depicted as feckless and disaffected.
Disaffection would be the logical response. We appear to be teetering on the brink of global conflict the likes of which the world has not seen since 1945. Less than 48 hours after his birthday revelries, our youngest saw the headlines and said: “Oh great, I’ve turned 18 just in time to be conscripted.”
With bad news cycling like raw fish platters at Yo! Sushi, despair laps at our feet. Yet, our sons seem resilient. Life goes on, as it has to. They work hard. They worry about what's happening elsewhere. But they also socialise with friends. They drink and dance and go to festivals. If I had a wish for my youngest’s birthday it would be this: that he and his brothers are not crushed by the world’s sorrows; that they snatch what happiness they can; that they remain enraged by injustice, yet open to all life’s possibilities. And that they and their peers take better care of our messed-up planet than we ever did.