Books: Extract From Love In The Time Of Contempt By Joanne Fedler

April 20, 2015


So here’s my problem….

So here’s my problem: when it comes to generating writing material, teenagers are gold. Their world is a narcissist, anarchic, paranoid hell of anxieties and stresses about how they look, how popular they are or aren’t and how fast or slowly, big or small their private parts are growing. As an observer, it’s fantastic. Hilarious, at times. Poignant and heartbreaking. It is all the stuff of great human drama because before your own eyes, you get to witness character transformation. Boy grows into man. Girl grows into woman. Writers strain hard to make this s**t up.

But – and here’s the catch – we dare discuss any of this if we want our kids to trust us or ever talk to us again. And that’s because lifts and pocket money aside – teenagers crave privacy, which hatches both swiftly and silently while we’re sorting out the laundry. It’s as if they suddenly wake up one day creeped out by the vision of all those years we wiped their butts, and helped them on with undies and they go into lock-down. They smoke us out, put up walls, close their doors, shut down their stories and waft, ear-phoned through our homes in a shroud of hormones and appetite. Their lives – which, until recently we shared with them in TMI detail – suddenly become ‘none-of-our-business.’ So you’ll appreciate it was something of a start-up challenge to try write about things I’m not supposed to eventalk about.

On top of that, I’ve no desire to add to the oversaturated, over-analysed market of parenting books on how to tell if our kids are gifted; depressed; indigo; suicidal; special; different; dyslexic; catatonic, have ADHD, ADD, Asperger’s or anxiety. (Read enough of these books and you are sure to feel depressed, anxious, suicidal and catatonic yourself). I’m ambivalent about the theoretical inclination when it comes to parenting after having spent most of my first pregnancy studying the books as if I was expected to complete a dissertation between contractions.

Before childbirth, I fancied myself as something of an expert on the babyto-be. I can now confirm that there is no text that can prepare one for thirty-six hours of labour followed by a Caesarean. Or mastitis. Or colic. The books help pass the time in the ob-gyn’s waiting rooms but they’re useless at 3am when you have a screaming baby and a dried-up bosom. Likewise, what can anyone say to prepare us for parenting teenagers? All the psychology books insinuate that if we don’t get it right in the first two years of our kids’ lives, with the right amount of bonding and breastfeeding, we’ve buggered up the source code. By the time our kids are telling us to get a life, it may all just be too late. Continuing to self-flagellate with the whip of being a ‘better parent’ long into the teenage years, may in fact amount to nothing but a personal neurosis for self-improvement rather than offer any benefit to the offspring. So you’ll probably be relieved to hear that this is not another how-to book.

It is my ethical obligation to inform you right here on page 3 that I do not have a single qualification for writing a book about parenting teenagers. Other than a few legal ones, I have no university degrees that might give you a modicum of confidence that your money has been well-spent. I am confident that by the end of this book you will not know whether your teenager is secretly smoking, doing drugs or giving blowjobs behind the canteen at recess.I made the decision a while back to stop reading books about parenting and take up the guitar instead. At this point, my parenting aim is to simply get my kids through school and into their own lives so I can get back to mine. I’d prefer for them to be reasonably resilient, responsible and not idiotic with money. If my wishes have anything to do with who they turn out to be, I hope they believe in something, anything God- or spirit-like, that they take enough care of their bodies and they use protection when they start shagging, (eventually, way into the future). But what I know for sure, is that who they will become has very little to do with my desires.

There’s as much a chance my kids will turn out to be atheist capitalists as vegan animal rights activists. In fact, the teenage manoeuvre is precisely to position oneself in opposition to anything that whiffs of authority, rationality or reasonableness. So, as reverse psychology might have it, it may yield a better procreative result if one were to live one’s life as a philandering profligate rogue rather than a principled respectable Samaritan. This raises the dangerous question of whether attempts to be a good solid parent to a teenager are a waste of time and effort. We still cannot extract a perfect mathematical formula for working out to what degree we can apportion blame to Nature and nurture for our children’s imperfections and failures. It seems safest to assume they’re at least equally guilty and to offset any dodgy biological kinks by creating a civilizing environment around our children as they clink and bubble into adolescence. These are precisely some of the thorny questions that have arisen for me in the years of shepherding adolescents to what I can only hope will be the safe harbour of adulthood (though maturity can sometimes feel more ‘trenches’ than ‘oasis’ but our job is to keep this knowledge from our kids, lest, as Cormac McCarthy writes in All The Pretty Horses, they would haven’t the heart to begin at all).

This book is about this new territory we must cross as we scramble to find new ways of staying in their worlds while they keep trying to nudge us out. As a kid, my mother gave me the book What’s Happening To Me by Peter Mayle, filled with caricatures of erections, wet dreams, periods, breasts, pimples, and all the afflictions of the adolescent body. I guess the aim was to lull one through humour into a sense of ‘this is manageable’, though frankly some of those cartoons made me wish I could frog leap over the whole disfiguring transition into adulthood. The point is that change is scary, especially when you have no control. Especially when that change involves areas of your body you are still not quite sure how to use. Not to detract from the horrors for the victims of these adjustments, but there are no books which tackle how it feels being the parent of someone sprouting hair, tits and attitude all over the place. It is a tussled, frazzled and complex business to remain mature while supporting someone else to become an adult. At the very least, it raises the question whether we have in fact done enough growing up ourselves.

In a book about teenagers, there is a certain territory one must cross. There is no getting away from mentioning periods, pimples and pubic hair. I’m reminded at this point of the valiant Mr Davenport, the hapless Phys Ed teacher who was allocated to teach us sex education in year 5 – I’m guessing he picked the short straw at some staff party. A big burly fellow, he walked into class and said, ‘Okay, let’s get all the giggling done upfront: penis penis penis vagina vagina vagina testicles testicles testicles clitoris clitoris clitoris,’ as we all erupted like fizz balls into puerile cackling. In this spirit, I invite my teenagers not to take the mention of any unmentionable body parts personally.This book does not and is not meant cover the entire spectrum of experiences parents of teens confront. There are many books out there which do that. I can only speak from my own limited experience. This book is therefore merely a collection of snapshots of some of the issues that have loomed large for me in the past few years as I’ve tried to make sense of what is happening to me as my kids try to figure out what’s happening to them.

To protect the privacy of my kids, I’ve ‘fictionalized’ some of the interactions and drawn from conversations I’ve had with parents of other teenagers but I assure you, I have not made any of this up. When it comes to teenagers, truth is way scarier than fiction. To the extent that it helps you not to feel too alone in the maelstrom of it all, I hope you’ll be glad you picked it up.


Joanne Fedler’s Love In The Time Of Contempt: Consolations For Parents Of Teenagers is published by Jacana. This extract is published with the permission of the publisher.