The sins of the mother

18th August 2000 at 01:00
Continuing our summer series on adolescence, Kate Figes worries her teenage daughters will be just like she was.

FOR the best part of the last two years I have been researching and writing a book on adolescence.

I launched into this new book hopeful that I would find myself better prepared for the inevitable fights and the inexorable separations of living with two teenage daughters. What I wasn't prepared for was the way that my own adolescence would come back to haunt me.

Memories of childhood are episodic and haphazard, linked perhaps to the more extreme emotions triggered by specific events rather than the humdrum routine of life.

But my memories of adolescence are still vivid, largely, I now realise, because of the monumental leaps the mind makes at this age, allowing children to develop more adult powers of critical thinking, perception and a firmer sense of self.

It was a time when the black-and-white, stultifying world of an unhappy childhood erupted into glorious Technicolor.

I found greater freedom to live my own life: travelling around London on my own; earning my own money through babysitting; under-age drinking; and the supreme satisfaction that came from being part of a strong gang of girls - adolescent friendships are as passionate as first love affairs.

Children begin to break free from their parents at puberty. They need to spend time alone in their bedrooms, listening to music or staring at themselves for hours in the mirror, to come to terms with who they are becoming. Reading about this deep psychological need took me straight back to my own bedroom: to the tiny box record player that repeatedly played Dylan and the Stones and the extreme emotions lived out in that small, square room.

Hampstead, north London, in the early 1970s was hardly a quiet, suburban backwater. I did all those things that parents today fear their growing children will do.

I smoked copious amounts of dope. I got hold of the pill at the age of 15 and approached sex as an interesting experience, rather than the romantic consequence that older peopl still maintain it should be for the young and uninitiated.

I drifted, uncertain of what to do in life, and failed French A-level twice. I argued vehemently with my mother, left home after a row at 17 and moved in with my father.

First love is, according to the psychologist Erikson, essentially narcissistic. Teenagers fall in love with an image that reflects well on themselves, rather than with the real person within. With textbook precision, I fell in love with a beautiful young man, flattered perhaps by the fact that he wanted me at all. Crucially, he was someone both my parents considered unsuitable.

I survived and was shaped irrevocably, and sometimes negatively, by all of these experiences but wasn't destroyed. Children grow up in the real world, rather than the halcyon, protected playground of parental fantasy, and that world is rife with danger. They have to learn how to live with danger around every corner and take risks in order to be able to muddle through alongside the rest of adult society.

The trouble is that now I am a mother, and new emotions have entered the frame. I need above all to know that my children are safe, healthy and happy.

Trusting them to take care of themselves, knowing that they may do everything I did and worse, may be more than I can bear.

My eldest child is sliding into early adolescence and all my research is coming to life in my own home.

I feel more able to deal with it as a result, simply because I understand the reasons why she says or does things.

She is still too young to dabble with danger. But the outside world excites her and she wants to be older and more independent than she is. Sooner or later she will go out there and I will have to swallow my emotions in order to accomplish the most difficult aspect of being a parent: accepting adolescents' separateness, their difference, their need to do things their own way and to discover their limits for themselves.

Next week: poet John

Hegley on his first suit

Kate Figes's book, "Adolescence" will be published next year by Viking

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