My So-called Life: Why mums can't win the phoney war


I have a son who started secondary school last September, and this is what I believe to be true about all boys who started secondary school last September:

I have a son who started secondary school last September, and this is what I believe to be true about all boys who started secondary school last September:

The boy will plead, constantly and without mercy, for a mobile phone, while the mother resists, not only because there is every chance he will be duffed up and "jacked" by older boys on the bus, but because his telephone skills have yet to prove especially deserving. The phone will ring at home. "It's for you," the mother will say. The boy will pick up. "Yeah, bye," he will say. He will then hang up.

"Who was that?" the mother will ask.

"Freddie," the boy will say.

"What did he want?"

"He wanted to know if I was busy this afternoon."

The mother is reassured that, should she acquiesce on the mobile front - as she will inevitably do as there is only so much a mother can take - the bill is guaranteed to be on the smallish side.

The boy will lose everything. Already, he will be on his third locker key, fourth set of house keys and sixth lunch card. There is still, as far as the mother knows, an entire PE kit, seven jumpers, two coats and a tennis racket circling north London on the top deck of the W7. The loss of these items will not be the boy's fault because, as he will say, with an air of being wronged: "It's not my fault." When the mother has to go down the Tube station to get him his 35th London Transport photocard of the term, the nice woman in the office, whom mother now greets by name, laughs when she fills in the "2008" expiry date. The mother will laugh too, but her laugh will be a hollow one.

The boy will come home from school, tie hanging out of pocket, shirt untucked, PE kit left on the bus, kick off a shoe, peel off a sock - better to get at whatever fungal infection he happens to have on the go - and sprawl on the sofa in the hope of an undisturbed tellyfest and toe-scratch until the middle of the following week. The mother, who knows better but simply cannot help herself, will annoy him a great deal by attacking him with foot powder while enquiring about his day. "What did you do at school?" she will ask. "Nuffin'," he will say. "Any homework?" she will ask. "Any homework?" she will repeat, trying to make herself heard above My Parents are Aliens. "Nah," he will say, turning up the volume on the telly. The next morning, at 7.10am, the boy will be spotted writing furiously in an exercise book. The mother will ask if this is the homework he doesn't have. He will say: "Go away. It's just stuff."

This will be the general pattern until, one evening, he will suddenly announce that the project on Nelson Mandela he was given a month ago is due in tomorrow. If the mother is a good mother she will know all there is to know about Nelson Mandela by 4am and will be hoping for an A. She will be pleased with her illustrations, painstakingly sourced on the internet and cut out with an impressively steady hand. If the mother is a bad mother, and a drinker, the Nelson Mandela project will make no sense whatsoever, be riddled with non-judicious spelling mistakes and the pictures will all be skew-whiff. This mother will get a D3 and will never be relied upon to do the boys' homework again. This mother will find it hard to feel heartbroken.

The boy will no longer consider girls as bad as they once were, even though the mother may be able to recall the country dancing episode at primary school when he pulled his jumper over his hands so he didn't actually have to touch a Lauren or a Robyn. The girls' shifting friendships with each other are now so extreme that the boy may well be likened to a big silly Labrador padding through a nest of vipers. This boy will now receive the occasional phone call from a girl. However, the boy's telephone manner being what it is, he will only be capable of barking one or both of the following:

"How did you get my number?" and:

"What do you want?"

Mother feels the contraception talk can wait, but is aware of dark mutterings about boys who are "going out" with girls. "Where do they go?" the mother will want to know. "You don't go out when you're going out," the boy will say. "So how are we defining going-out?" the mother will ask. If the boy thinks that obliging with a certain amount of information will help him in his mobile phone campaign, he will say: "If a boy asks a girl out and she says 'yes', then they are going out."

"So they sort of hang out in school and stuff?"


"I don't think I understand."

"If a boy asks a girl out and she says 'yes' they are going out, but then they're too embarrassed to speak to each other."

"So, really, going out means avoiding one another?"

"Yeah, until one dumps the other, then they can be friends again."

The mother is glad to get this sorted.

The boy will now have transferred all his affection to his father. He will do this without a backward glance, even though the mother has, over the years, proved herself an accomplished bottom-wiper, Father Christmas, party organiser, nit picker, foot powderer, laundress, chauffeur, cook and expert lost-property forager. This will now count for nothing. The boy will see the mother only as a dental appointment Nazi and bedtime fascist. The father, who has never nit-picked, foot-powdered or party-organised, but is lax about dental hygiene and does let the boy fall asleep in front of soft porn on the telly, will now be seen as God.

The mother will find this hurtful until she realises that as the boy no longer cares about her, she no longer has to care about his sporting fixtures. The mother realises she is thus freed from watching football on freezing Sunday mornings and shouting "good tackle" at random intervals just to appear interested. The mother realises there is a lot to be said for now being The Parent That Does Not Matter. The mother has even been known to shout "yippee" as they go out the door on a Sunday morning.

So this is what I know about boys who started secondary school last September. I believe it to be true, and that they will leave something on the bus today. This mother hopes it's the fungal infection.

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