By Melanie Reid in THE TIMES, 27 October 2018
Every time I have the notion to contact my son, an alert sounds in my head. A kind of recorded safety procedure, like on ferries and planes, telling you about lifebelts and muster stations. My drill goes like this: when did he and I last speak? Is it at least five days?
Anything more than seven days, green light. Less than four days, and nothing important to say, according to rules I’ve laid down for myself, is out of bounds. Less than three constitutes stalking.
Then I check the time and what day it is, and try to remember anything about his schedule from the last time we spoke. Will he be at work, or out of the country, or fast asleep ready for a 3.30am start? For that reason I never phone; I WhatsApp. “Are you around for a quick chat?” Pretending to be casual.
But before I hit send, there’s the final tough, catch-all question: do I have a reason or am I just being needy? Is there any news to impart, anything at all, apart from the fact the dog made us laugh yesterday, and Dave had a flat tyre, and I’m juggling three deadlines but would much rather talk to him. Oh, and had he heard that someone that he was at primary school with is getting married.
If Doug’s really busy (he always is) and I’m messaging for my sake, to piggyback on his life, then I’m conscious I risk taking us into that red-flagged territory called Oh God I Have to Phone My Mother. Where, if we’re honest, we’ve all been with our own parents.
For every age and stage of parenting, we have new etiquette to learn. For mothers and sons, perhaps, there’s always fresh ground to cover. As little girls, we don’t learn this relationship by living it: our role model is mother-daughter, which is completely different. We may observe father-son, which tends to be gnarlier, and, if we have a brother, we observe mother-son. But unless or until we have a son of our own, we cannot rehearse the role or understand the emotion.
As sons grow up, the challenge – the necessity – is for mothers to back off, even as we’d love to cling on. Release them, give them freedom to leave and find the partners who will replace us. This is a chapter in the etiquette book you never need if you have only daughters.
I know mothers who helicopter-parented their sons when they were little boys, devotion unchecked. When the boys went to university, they’d phone or text every night. Just to be sure they were all right. But it’s not good for anyone. For such women, distancing themselves from their sons’ lives can be traumatic. As will be the shocking day when he falls in love and she’s demoted to number two in the pecking order.
I guess my self-discipline was honed on the rugby touchlines, when even if Doug was obviously dead after a collision, I would bring eternal shame upon him if I ran onto the pitch. My main job as a mother was to have self-control.
Since then, disability has created another layer of complexity. He knows I’m extra vulnerable, but this only makes me strive doubly hard not to appear so. So I never stalk; I always stand back and let him choose the best time to call. Just occasionally, though, and spectacularly, I lose it. Irrationality blows my brains out. As happened a few Sundays ago, when he didn’t answer a quick query about something. WhatsApp indicated he’d last been online in the early hours, three days previously. I panicked. Ran onto the metaphorical pitch, wailing. Heart racing. Began leaving voicemails. Texting. Nothing.
I messaged his girlfriend. Had she heard from him? Don’t worry, she replied, kindly. We’re at a music festival in Germany. He’s lying snoring beside me. He left his phone in London.
What twits mothers with sons can be.
Melanie Reid is tetraplegic after breaking her neck and back in a riding accident in April 2010