My husband and I were just minding our own business the other evening when our 12-year-old son appeared in front of us with an announcement. “I,” he said – in gentle, not stentorian tones – “am not A Books Person.”
His father and I mentally gathered our resources and looked to our reserves, but not at each other. It is always my job to take the lead in familial, emotional and parenting catastrophes, and this seemed to straddle all possible sectors of my remit.
“I see,” I said carefully. “And how long have you felt like this?”
“I’ve always been Not a Books Person” – the capitalisation seemed to be expanding – “But I always liked reading. But now I like computers more and only want to do them. Goodbye.”
And with that he disappeared back to his bedroom where – yes, now that I think about it, now that my inner tortoise has poked its head out of the shell of denial it has built over the last few years (and that’s not a metaphor that really works, but I’m reeling here), there are more technological gadgets, wires, unidentifiable bits of electronic kit and flickering screens strewn about than there are beloved dog-eared tomes.
“And what,” said my husband after a moment’s silence, “are we supposed to do with that?”
“Do you mean the child or the news?” I said.
“Oh, I’m sending the child back,” he said. “The warranty’s for 18 years, right? And this is clearly a duff model.”
It’s certainly an unexpected turn of events. Our son comes from solid bookworm stock. His father has, as far as I can tell, read every piece of classic literature and every piece of non-fiction (naval history, the Suez Crisis and other things that make me glaze are specialities).
I err more towards fiction but we are both voracious consumers. Our house is lined with books, read, re-read and as yet unread. I’ve written a few myself and one of them is even called Bookworm, and its subtitle is “A memoir of childhood reading”.
I was born a bookworm and have leant ever more heavily and willingly into the role ever since. Buying books and reading books – two separate but related hobbies – will remain my greatest joys in life, although gardening is making a valiant bid for attention as I get older.
But what do I do with this news? Of course in the grand scheme of things, it hardly registers. Amongst all the possible announcements your child can make to you from puberty onwards, this is not one to flip out about. Still, I can’t pretend it hasn’t perturbed me. There is nothing like being confronted with your own prejudices, of having your own expectations rattled and upended.
Because I did expect him to be a reader, A Books Person. That he is not, despite his being surrounded by the things and read to every night since birth, despite growing up in a book-loving household that nevertheless was careful never to foist the activity on him, suggests that we have much less influence over him than I thought.
Which in turn suggests we have much less power to guide and protect him than I am altogether comfortable with knowing.
Also, and excuse me for pointing this out, but it’s an outrageous display of ingratitude. I mean – I made him, didn’t I? I bore him (and it took AGES and it REALLY hurt), raised him (not half-arsedly either – I’ve really put the hours in), kept him safe and fed and watered and provided for. The least he can do is reflect the best parts of me and provide me with a new way of experiencing old delights, right?
And then you realise, about halfway through this train of thought, that a large part of parenting is narcissism and you screech to an unwelcome halt, juddering like Road Runner just before an anvil lands. Imagine having the gall to think they would automatically follow in your footsteps. That despite all your apparent efforts to foster independence in them, realise their unique gifts and potential, what your little lizard brain really hankered after all along was a replicant. You awful human being.
Then there is the fact that I think reading is a fundamental good. Almost a moral virtue. And if he’s not interested in it – well, what does that mean? Have I failed him in some way? Has he failed me (“Us,” says my husband. “And yes, completely”)? What will we talk about in the future? Will we end up just waving forlornly at each other from the far distant shores of tech and Eng Lit?
At which point of course, I realised that not only am I, like every other parent, a raging narcissist, I am a selfish, emotionally inadequate one too. My panic and my fear are not really about books or reading (“Mine is,” says his father. “Because he’s going to be a pillock”). It is about this asseveration as his first real assertion of self, this first peeling away, the beginning of the separation that must of course, rightly, naturally, else-what-are-we-all-here-for, come to all mothers. (And maybe fathers – I will have to cast my net more widely than the current sample of one, who is still looking into the warranty idea, that I have to hand).
How do we begin to make peace with this new development and all its attendant unwanted self-knowledge? I don’t yet know.
I will say this, however. In the weeks since The Announcement, we have started passing him our tech issues (of which, as two freelance journalists who can’t recognise one end of a Wi-Fi from another, there are many), and watching in awe as he solves them in seconds and hands us back working devices, without us having to find helpline numbers or hand suitcases of cash over phone repair counters. It’s like having our own IT department. We are, as a family, better equipped for life.
There is an argument, it turns out, that the last thing in world we needed was Another Books Person.