When I was a teenager, one of my biggest concerns was being allowed out. Parties, sleepovers, trips to shopping centres we somehow found fascinating, going to the dance machines at the old arcades in the Trocadero (if you know, you know) – all of it was vital and urgent. Ensuring I never missed out on any of this – alongside acquiring a Nokia 3310 – was an issue of life and death for teenage me.
The problem was, I had strict parents, who wanted to know a detailed who, what, where about any elaborate social scheme I concocted with friends on scraps of paper we passed around during science class. How would I get there, was it safe, would there be any alcohol or boys?
Like any teenager, my answers involved a complex web of negotiation, imagination and a smattering of relatively innocent white lies. No, no boys; no we definitely won’t stand outside the off licence and ask grown-ups to buy us bottles of Lambrini. That sort of thing.
I’ve been reminiscing about this period in my life a lot recently. Because, at 31, I feel as though I am right back in it.
Moving back home
Two years ago, our hard-fought campaign for a flat deposit led my boyfriend and I to the rent-free idyll of my parent’s North London house.
I had heard that moving in with your parents (or pseudo in-laws) can induce a regression. You may suddenly find yourself slipping back into the mindset of a stroppy teenager; slamming doors, leaving the sink full of dishes, becoming idle and dependent and resentful of the parental jailors who are unequivocally ruining your life. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that none of the above happened. Instead, we acquiesced into a relatively frictionless living arrangement that soon settled into the patter of an inter-generational double date.
Then lockdown happened and, for a while, Covid-19 created a fascinating power dynamic shift. It was my parents who became the stroppy teenagers. At 70, and therefore in a high-risk category, they were shielding. We became the ones running any-and-all outdoor errands, the ones keeping them in lockdown. We became the jailors unequivocally ruining their lives.
But post-lockdown life – from Eat Out to Help Out to Rule of Six – has flipped the dynamic. As normality begins to gradually shift back into place, I feel as though that scrap of paper is being passed around science class again by my friends, plans are being made to meet up and I am back asking myself that familiar question from teenagedom: how will I get this past my parents?
A picnic in a park, drinks in someone’s garden, a – gasp! – actual pub garden. These are all scenarios that I discussed with my parents this summer with the discomfort of a teenager. This is where we are going, this is how much anti-bac we are bringing, how do you feel about this?
An invitation to a party during our brief escape from lockdown filled me with equal parts glee and terror. How should I present this situation to my parents, how do I manage their safety while attempting to return to my life? Will I actually be able to go? The keys I momentarily held during lockdown have been passed over and now I was the one asking for a jail break.
It has become even more complex in the latest stage of our rapidly shifting social landscape. Now that socialising has been capped at six people, I have a whole new roster of anxieties. Any hope of socialising at home has been severely dampened by the fact we may only now invite two extra people. Gone are the audacious garden soirées – for way fewer than 30 but far more than two extra pals – I was planning to throw in the overpriced gazebo I bought from Amazon. Gone is any hope of my parents actually having their own friends over, thanks to our presence dramatically reducing their own social hopes. Should we schedule social engagements? Run around the park until their four friends leave?
Of course, we could just go to the pub, but with that, new questions abound from my parents – about not just where, what and how safe, but a rundown of the exact numbers we are seeing, with the added caveat that we may be not only endangering them, but actually breaking the law.
The fear of illicit behaviour
With the Rule of Six returns the nervous realisation of illegality – underage drinking, helping friends buying cigarettes – that flooded my teens. My social life has once again been tainted with an uncomfortable underpinning of naughtiness, of illicit behaviour. Except this time, it’s more likely to be a dinner party of eight than a pack of Marlboros stolen from someone’s dad.
There is also another facet of my teenage emotional makeup that has returned thanks to these new social restrictions. What if I am the unlucky seventh member? What if I don’t make the cut for someone’s dinner, drinks or picnic? The whispers of FOMO that dominated my teen years are once again rising to a shout.
My boyfriend, I’m sure, was taken aback by my reaction to all of this, having only known my parents in the context of my adult relationship with them. I suppose he wasn’t expecting me to be having a miniature breakdown with the horrible familiarity of returning to my teenage angst. Suddenly he too has to navigate his life around my parents, from whether he can return to the office to if he can make his friend’s upcoming wedding in October. Having not experienced the nervous trepidation with which I had to approach my own social life as a teen, I fear he is sorely unprepared for the weeks ahead, but is – I must note – coping marvellously well.
We’ve been trying to approach the situation with the same imaginative zeal I did in my own teens. “Can my friend come to play in the garden?” – a question I haven’t asked since I was about 15 – is suddenly something I was suggesting on a weekly basis during summer, as we are lucky enough to have outside space my parents are comfortable with us entertaining in, as they tragically remain indoors and watch from the window.
My boyfriend and I also thought that borrowing a spare car from a generous friend in the countryside might help matters; allowing us to travel across London without the additional terror the tube presents to my understandably cautious parents.
However, I forgot to inform them we were getting a cab to collect the car. When we returned, my terrified parents asked us to strip off all our clothes, throw them in the wash and jump in the shower before we came anywhere near them. I felt like a kid caught out with a bottle of Bacardi Breezer in the park.
A friend’s engagement party in July proved another tricky prospect. I asked two friends to pick me up in their car and drive me there and back. My mother watched from the window to check everyone was wearing masks; something I had stipulated to my friends beforehand, with a rather infantile “my mum will check, don’t forget.”
When there was a momentary panic that they had forgotten said masks (thankfully they found them) our flustered text exchange ran like something I would have written on the Nokia 3310 I eventually did get: “Just park further down the road – I’ll run out before she sees. We’ll crank the windows down in the car.” I read it back and felt ashamed of myself. Why was I running around my parents in my thirties?
But of course, this is not the case of being grounded, losing pocket money or being scolded. The fear that underpins this new yet familiar dynamic is not unfounded. If I were to catch Covid-19, there’s a reliable chance that I would survive, but my 70-year-old parents do not have that luxury, which means I do not have the luxury of a smooth return to socialisation. I have to be careful.
So, while I am filled with an overwhelming sense of a teenage resentment I am well-acquainted with, I realise that I am not angry at my parents at all, but merely terrified for them. The unease I feel at social engagements now is not the after-effect of a 15-year-old’s white lie, but the very real fear of a 31-year-old woman torn between seeing her beloved friends and protecting her beloved parents.
The irritation may seem adolescent, but the fear and responsibility I feel is unnervingly adult. Just like so many things in 2020, my second go at teenage life is almost unrecognisable. There aren’t even any bottles of Lambrini.