Lockdown reinforced the bond between me and my son when we needed it most

  • Rob Kemp for The Independent ‘Voices’ May 2020

Before, the gap between us was already beyond socially distant. I was delighted when that started changing for the better

Shaving his eyebrows off within three days of lockdown was never going to be a great look for my teenage son – even if only his mum and I were going to witness the outcome. While some of his mates went for more dramatic demonstrations of despair, my son’s decision to remove what little facial hair he had in the first place led to almost instant regret; “Dad, when I wear a cap I look like I’m having chemo,” he said.

Sharing moments of anxiety, frustration and boredom with my child has become our new norm during the past nine and a half weeks – as it has for many families. The irony for me was that I’d just finished writing a book about fatherhood focusing, in part, on the “drift” that occurs between parents and children when the adolescent strives for greater independence and an almost mournful mum and dad cling on to the child they’ve raised – or the memories of that experience.

The gap between me and my son was already beyond socially distant. It wasn’t through any specific fight, row or clash of alpha male attitudes in the home but more – as my book research confirmed – when the teenager no longer needs or wants to be seen to rely upon parental support. Combine that with the demands of GCSE revision and my own workload and it’s fair to say that my son and I had become little more than ships that passed in the dead of night – usually on the landing by the loo.

Then came lockdown.

Thrown into the unnatural, angst-filled confusion of the pandemic’s opening ceremony – that period we’ll always remember as the mad scramble for Andrex and spaghetti – we, like most other families, struggled to adjust. I’ve worked from home, and pretty much spent every working day in mild isolation, since 2006. My wife never had. But suddenly she found herself running projects and dealing with overseas clients via the computer in our son’s bedroom.

Our offspring was not only turfed out of his nest by 9am but also had the comfort rug of meeting his mates pulled from beneath him. The eyebrows were the first howl of anguish. We feared that his wonderful crop of strawberry blonde hair would follow suit.

But then “Lockdown Ginger” – as he understandably hates me calling him – rose to the occasion and put me in my place. The stark realisation that, for the time being, he was going to be stuck with his parents in a way teenagers haven’t been before actually brought out a mature, understanding and funnier side to him. One that I don’t think I’d have noticed if we weren’t forced together.

The virtual retreat that is House Party did offer my son a chance to connect with similarly lost souls and to share their woes about the evaporation of exams, the school ball, the binge or bake-off event they were to celebrate school’s ending with, and then the knockout punch – the Reading Festival being scrapped for 2020.

But as the novelty of online socialising wore off, and my own work became a little, well, lean, my son and I spent more and more time together. The horror of having to seemingly suffer several hundred Christmas Days together, back-to-back but without the presents, subsided.

Our relationship began to reform. At first it was just over meals, ones that we’d previously had at separate times or even in different rooms. Then on the odd walk as part of our mandatory exercise hour or a shopping expedition with the required additional queueing. Questions thrown up by the daily Covid briefings – which we started watching together the way we’d only usually do for The Inbetweeners – were debated over during bike rides and a mammoth shed clearance.

He’s been strong throughout. He’s not only lifted my spirits but also those of my in-laws. His grandparents are in their 80s and shielding at home. Each night he’s updating them – having introduced them to WhatsApp video calls – on all he’s done during the day, mindful of the fact that even in just walking to the shops we’re enjoying freedoms they’re not able to right now. And he finds the humour in routine: our once a week we deliver their shopping in a food drop has become the “black ops mission”.

The days, like his hair and even mine, have got longer. Home-schooling a 16-year-old who’s between non-existent exams and a sixth form college he’s never set foot in has been a challenge for us both. But then so has mixing and kneading dough for pizzas – and I’m not entirely sure which will serve him best in years to come.

Of course lockdown has been much, much tougher on many families around the world, kept apart or forced together. I know I’ve been lucky. As a former school governor I’m well aware that for many vulnerable young people forced indoors and away from friends, teachers, youth workers and relatives who could spot the signs of harm taking place, the scars of this lockdown may last a life time.

But now, just when it seems like we’ve reconnected, things have changed again. The restrictions are being lifted, the shackles loosened. He’s off out on his bike but I’m no longer in tow, puffing to keep up. He’s meeting up with his friends once more – one at a time and sat two metres adrift – or so he tells us. Back home the silence has returned. There’s no boom coming from the boxroom, the shed is gathering clutter once more and the sink is devoid of eyebrow hair. But I’m counting my blessings and cherishing some memories I never thought I’d have.

Rob Kemp is the author of ‘Dadding It – Landmark Moments in Your Life as a Father… and How to Survive Them’ (Green Tree/Bloomsbury)

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