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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Barbara Ellen

Is ‘teen-ternity’ leave just a new way to make mothers feel guilty?

Illustration of a mother catching her child, surrounded by essay and exam scripts, phone and laptop.
Cherie Blair said: ‘I think they need you more as they get older’. Illustration: Dominic McKenzie/The Observer

One of the big parenting secrets is out: teenagers can be just as difficult as babies and small children, if not more so. But, if it comes to it, could you afford to help them? It appears that “teen-ternity” is increasingly a “thing”.

Teen-ternity leave is when parents, usually mothers, take career breaks to be physically, mentally and emotionally present for older progeny as they make their way through adolescent traumas, peer pressures, exam stresses, et al.

Maybe, right now, you’re rolling your eyes: “Teenagers a little challenging: who knew?”. Certainly, there’s been talk, including discussions on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, and awareness long before the phrase was coined. Years ago, when I interviewed then-prime minister’s wife and high-achieving barrister Cherie Blair, I was struck by her parenting observation: “I think they need you more as they get older.” TV presenter Ellie Harrison may agree, having recently quit BBC’s Countryfile to focus on her children, aged seven, 11 and 13. Last year, Jo Whitfield, chief executive of Co-op Food, announced she was stepping away to help her two teenage sons study for their exams.

Countryfile presenter Ellie Harrison.
TV presenter Ellie Harrison quit Countryfile to focus on her children. Photograph: Pete Dadds/BBC Studios

Elsewhere on the ever-churning parent-teen spectrum, there’s everything from fleeting spats to full-on conflict. It recently emerged that Brad Pitt’s adoptive son, Pax (now aged 19) trashed him to friends in a private 2020 Instagram post: “Happy Father’s Day to this world-class asshole.” Moving swiftly along (Pitt’s divorce from Angelina Jolie is famously fraught), one only pauses to note that teenagers, like deadly hormonal stormtroopers, can bring down a parent like no other.

Is this the triumph and the tragedy of parenting teenagers? That, as much as they’re vivid, hilarious, and life-affirming, they can also be (whisper it) gobby and mortifying. And, unlike biddable tots, they’re wise to your pathetic bribes and desperate distraction techniques. Gone are the days when you could buy them off with a Mini Milk or a fidget spinner.

The crucial thing to remember is that, personal responsibility aside, it’s truly not their fault. Research has shown that teen-brains are wired differently. Moreover, it’s part of the self-actualisation deal for them to clash and rebel, in order to establish themselves as separate entities. Along with traditional pressures (peer groups; body image; hedonistic experimentation), there are new ones: social media; unprecedented exposure to porn; climate change and more. And these are the children of Covid, whose vulnerable, malleable brains took a socio-educational nuking from the pandemic.

Still, online groups aside, it’s odd how IRL parent-support all but vanishes in the teen years. There appear to be no nannies specialising in teen-ternity, as there are for, say, newborns. No Mary Poppins types to melodically scold your teen about melting their brains by gaming online into the early hours. As for other parents, suddenly, there’s a gaping disconnect between what’s happening and what’s being acknowledged. To paraphrase Björk, if teenage troubles are so commonplace, why does it go, oh so quiet?

Co-op Food’s chief executive Jo Whitfield.
Co-op Food’s boss Jo Whitfield took a break for her teenage sons. Photograph: Co-op/PA

Hello, parental shame, our old friend. As arduous as the early years are, society is geared to celebrating, bewailing (and commercialising) every pastel-hued, cracked-nippled millisecond of it. By contrast, there’s a huge social stigma attached to out of control or struggling teenagers. So, talk all day and night about colic or potty training. But your teenager’s vile mouth, terrifying food disorder, or escalating weed habit? Perhaps not so much.

Unless you’re blessed (and some are), parental camaraderie can disintegrate, ranks close, and your own “bad parent” paranoia sets in. After all, baby issues can happen to anyone, they’re practically acts of God, but older kids happen on your watch. There’s a strong feeling of: “I had one job.” A sense of compound isolation: from your child, from other parents, from everyone. All of which, with lousy timing, coincides with exams (GCSEs, A-levels), to get them to university, or wherever they wish to go. Here, then, is the full teen-parenting shopping list of doom: Get them “launched”; pray they don’t drop out; pray harder they’re safe (disorders, drugs, mental health, anything); keep them physically and emotionally well; perhaps give unplanned pregnancy a swerve … and so it lurches on.

Brad Pitt.
Brad Pitt was trashed by one of his sons on Instagram. Photograph: Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

Not all parenting trajectories are so traumatising or dramatic. Still, is it any wonder some parents become perversely nostalgic for the relative simplicity of nappies and sleepless nights? Or, indeed, opt to take teen-ternity leave. But why does it so often seem to be women taking these breaks; enduring disruptions that could gravely affect what could be high-flying careers, even permanently derail them? Mothers, who sacrifice themselves, so that problems don’t multiply further down the road. With teen-ternity, as with so much else, does the maternal guilt-trip never end?

Even then, the final plot twist: surely only seriously financially secure parents could afford to take it? As ever with parenting, there’s a major class/money divide to being able to step in and help your children at key crisis points.

Is this the unlovely truth of teen-ternity leave? That it’s not about who needs it, or deserves it, but who can afford it. In the meantime, parents and teenagers deserve a break. It’s all normal. It’s all kicked off before. It will all keep happening for ever. Recite it as a mantra, embroider it on a sampler: this too shall pass.

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