Fatherhood isn’t easy at any age. This is Eileen’s story about how her 18 year old son became a father and how she felt at becoming a grandmother at just forty years old.
Eileen glances from her son Paul’s bedroom window, watches him stride down the road. He’s gangly, long thin pole like legs. You know how teenage boys are. They eat like horses but where does it go? His rucksack is slung over his shoulder. Come middle age and fatherhood he’ll have filled out and carry a beer belly instead. He’s off to stay with his girlfriend in the Yorkshire Dales. He met her on holiday in Ibiza a year ago. They’ve been dating for a year. She’s a lovely girl and Eileen approves. At Paul’s age a year of dating is a big milestone, like the first anniversary after marriage. They’ll celebrate by announcing it on social media with selfies and fifty school friends posting congratulations in capital letters and a string of emojis.
It’s quite satisfying to tidy his bedroom, Eileen thinks, getting it back to how a bedroom should be. As she clears the screwed up crusty tissues from under his bed, the crisp packets, the sea of clothes strewn across the carpet she remonstrate with myself. ‘It’s your own fault. You should insist he clears his pit. You’re only making a rod for your own back.’ She finds a bumper box of condoms in the cupboard. At least he’s being careful she muses. She puts it on the shelf with his medications so that they are easy to locate.
She opens the windows welcoming in the change of air and adds a squirt of mountain freshness, Everglade. She doesn’t know what to do with the plethora of college notes. There’s a good chance he’ll need to return to college in the autumn to do retakes. He slept through most of his A level course, knuckling down at the end, thank God and so she can only hope he won’t do too badly. He’s a bright boy. He’s no idea about careers, his future, university. So many decisions to make and still so young. Careers advice isn’t so good these days and not all of us know at that age what we want to do.
She tidies his Harry Potter books, his Game of Throne computer games and tucked on the shelf are a few of his favourite books he loved as a toddler like ‘Ratty,’ by Mike Inkpen. She smiles to herself. It only seems like yesterday that he was bouncing on her knee laughing as she read those books. Where has time gone she wonders? He’s all grown up, in a relationship and he’s just started shaving. In the bathroom there are more tissues in the bin, skid marks and pee stains in the toilet. Boys. She wishes they’d clear up after themselves. Leaving mum to do everything!
In the kitchen he’s left me a mountain of washing up – a frying pan with bacon rind and burnt scrambled egg clings to a pan. He fries up huge breakfasts at two in the morning and several times a day. Hills of chips, pizzas, burgers, anything except sit and eat a ‘proper’ dinner, oozing with nutrition to build the lad up, with us, his family. He’s either having a growth spurt or he’s getting the ‘munchies’ after smoking a joint. She wishes to God he’d do himself a favour and quit. But all of his friends smoke it and it’s everywhere these days, she’s told. ‘You wont stop him,’ people tell me in a dismissive way. ‘They’ve got to learn for themselves.’
Eileen thinks a lot about politics a lot and reflects that nobody is fired up enough to raise the alarm, tell society, the government, the police, start a campaign and spread the word about what is happening to our youth; gender reassignment is the new fashionable hot issue of the day and we are all being brainwashed to change how we feel about labels such as ‘ladies’ and ‘gentlemen.’ Cannabis is part of our nostalgia for the 1960s. Flower power and free love. In any case the police are sinking under cuts. They can’t deal with it.
With the room tidy and putting the world to rights Eileen can focus on her elderly mum. His partner needs Eileen to drive up and help out. He’s been in hospital, has cancer, dementia and heart failure. They’re waiting for the social worker to organise a care package. In the meantime, Eileen and her brothers need to rally round and take it in turns to look after him.
As she drives up the M1 to her mum’s house in Leeds the sense of dread increases with each mile. She knows that she’s gone downhill. What will she be like? Will she even know who I am? Should we be thinking about care homes instead? But worst of all I will have to do her personal care. My own mum, for God’s sake. This shouldn’t be happening. It’s not right. For her sake and for Eileens! But little does she know at this point how bad things are going to be: that she will be inserting a suppository into her bottom and clearing up a bucket full of blood and excrement at three in the morning. And if she had been told all of this, would she have turned round and gone back home? But little does she know that actually when it all happens she will find it a great privilege to care for her sick mother who has, after all looked after her when she was young. It turns out to be the most natural thing in the world.
Within minutes of arriving at her mum’s house a text pings through from her son. He never texts. He’s a teenager. 18 year old sons don’t text their mothers or ring unless they want money or a lift. In fact they barely speak at all. They remove themselves to their bedroom where they sleep, watch films, sleep, wank, chat to friends on Facebook, wank again, sleep again; but they tell you when they’re skint, Eileen thinks. That’s pretty much the teenage boy package and she expects to be in it for the long haul.
‘Mother,’ the text reads, ‘this will come as a huge shock but Sarah was pregnant and she’s just had a baby yesterday. Mother you’re going to be a grandmother!’
Eileen screams. She thinks she’s going to faint. She rings him but he’s switched off his phone and the answer phone kicks in immediately. She sends a first message. She doesn’t’ know what to say. She doesn’t give herself time to think of an answer and so she types the most immediate thoughts. ‘You need to get a job. You need to quit cannabis.’
For two days Eileen tries to connect with him but his phone is off. He’s clearly embarrassed. She sends another text telling him that she loves him and will do anything to help and that life is full of surprises, joys and challenges and somehow we all muddle through. Then she breaks the news to his dad. It’s the first time they’ve spoken in a long time. They broke up years ago. He’s very shocked and keeps repeating ‘what a stupid boy, he’ll be paying for the kid for the next 18 years.’ There is a shared sense of grief between them. And a shared sense of doom. He’s their little boy and they’re now grieving for the loss of his childhood and his bright future that’s been cut off before it’s even begun.
Eileen rings her close friends and family, breaks the news and through a sea of words she only hears them say ‘but this is your first grandchild. You’re a grandmother.’ She wants to slam the phone down and if anybody else leaves a message saying ‘congratulations grandma,’ she vows to slap them. The G word is a forbidden word. Life’s trajectory has been skewed, everything is topsy turvy. She’s too young to have the G word foisted upon her. All three of her children are still finding their way in life, exploring, thinking about their careers, learning where their talents lie. Except that one of them has this huge extra responsibility now.
Eileen is in denial and needs to stay this way until she can be strong and do what she needs to do. she’s heartbroken if she’s perfectly honest and desperately worried about her son.
Just two days ago Eileen tidied her teenager’s room, rearranging his teddy bear on the bed, straightening his Harry Potter books, his Dr Who DVDs on the shelf and now he’s entered fatherhood. How on earth was this possible?
Eileen phones her 21 year old daughter, Lisa to tell her the news. She’s just achieved a first in Physics, saved up a pile of money despite her massive loan and is scouring the internet on ways to invest. Bizarrely they notice later on when her dad puts a post up on Facebook announcing that he’s a grandfather it gains twice as many likes as the post announcing her first in Physics. That saddens Eileen because it’s the way society is and can’t be changed and about our values, fundamentally and attitude to women. It’s as if no-one actually cares about real achievement. Life is a scam, people are phoney.
Lisa is in deep shock, more so than Eileen. He’s her kid brother. She still remembers his birth and wanting to pick his cradle cap. There’s a string of expletives. Eileen don’t chastise her, after all there’s been enough of them coming from my own mouth. ‘Holy shit,’ she screams down the phone. Woo, Eileen thinks, she never want to hear her say that again, but she’ll let it pass for now. ‘What the fuck is he going to do?’ ‘What a stupid boy.’ She makes the decision to cancel her work and come up on the train.
Eileen picks her up from the station and she’s still very emotional and teary but she clutches a small bag from Gap and shows me the cute dresses she’s bought and by way of a hint, possibly, she complains about how much she’s spent.Underneath her shock there is excitement that’s brewing. She’s an auntie and she knows that from the deep shock there will, eventually be joy that shines through.
They share a double bed in Eileen’s dad’s house and talk all night expressing every concern about Paul that we have. Eileen gets up several times to help her dad to the loo. At three she finds him dressed and sitting in the lounge with his dog Pippin resting her head on his knee. He asks her if they’ve all gone home. She doesn’t know who he’s talking about but goes along with it.
They set out on the hour long drive over to a touristy town in the Yorkshire Dales with cafes and ice cream stands and all the tat you generally buy on holiday but later sell at a boot fair, wending their way over bridges, through forestry, up more hills with grey stone walls either side until the views spread out below us. Clusters of hill walkers with poles, flocks of sheep, the odd B and B, until there are no houses left apart from one house on the very top of a hill, with a group of trees bent over like old ladies, sculptured by the wind. Eileen’s sense of anxiety is mounting and it’s the same for Lisa. ‘What has he done?’ ‘Will be be alright?’ We keep asking each other. I’m not religious but silently I turn to God in my hour of need. ‘Please Lord help me to understand what’s happening.’
‘I just hope I like her mother. If we don’t click it’s going to be the most difficult thing ever. I don’t know what I’ll do. In fact she’s the key to everything,’ Eileen tells Lisa. And she really is. They have to work together. They have to form a lasting bond, because after all, they are family now, of sorts.
They pull up outside the house. It’s somewhere between a farm and a modern house. They look up and see Paul peering down from a bedroom window. His face looks gaunt and Eileen gasps. He’s lost weight. She’s worried about him, wants to take him home and look after him. As he looks out at them it’s as if he’s being held captive and there are visible walls surrounding him and he can’t get out, locked away by early parenthood. But she reminds herself that he might not be feeling this way and she wonders if she will get to find out how he is feeling. She glances around at the magnificent view over rolling hills. She has no idea how he will cope out here in the middle of nowhere, miles from the friends he’s grown up with.
A side gate opens and Sarah’s mother Jilly greets us. Beyond her is a donkey, a settee with a dog sitting on it and a goat. Chicken and ducks waddle around. The garden merges into the field. It looks idyllic.
Eileen immediately likes Jilly. She’s absolutely lovely, the type of woman she could easily be friends with if they were local. She’s overweight in a wholesome way, homely looking and well fed on country air and simple living. Lisa goes straight into the small lounge to see Paul and the baby but Eileen hovers back, desperate to chat to Jilly, while she makes porridge for a gaggle of small girls, her nieces you have come down from Scotland with their mother, Jilly’s sister to see the baby and bring all the hand me downs they need – cot, pram, etc. She barrages her with question after question as well as ask for her bank details so that I can start sending her some money each month. What happened she asks? Eileen also needs to tell her about Paul’s smoking of cannabis to put her in the picture and we both agree he has to stop smoking it and cut down on smoking tobacco too. Eileen feels that she has a duty of care and there’s a baby involved. She doesn’t want Jilly to have any nasty surprises. Incredibly she’s worked with teenagers in the area of drug addiction and Eileen has every hope she could be the key to getting him sorted. After their chat they head into the sitting room where Sarah is feeding the baby on a stool by a wood burner. She looks happy, like a duck to water in the role of mother and yet she’s only 19, a year older than Paul and had planned to go to university in the Autumn. What a dreadful waste, but also a new beginning because this is new life. But Lisa tells her that all is not lost, she can get financial help and still go. When the baby’s fed she passes her to Paul and Eileen looks away. The sight of my 18 year old son holding a tiny baby is too much for her. Call me a snob but he looks like a chav. She feels heartless for thinking this, but can’t help it. It’s a natural default to think like this. This shouldn’t be happening at his age.
The conversation is easy and open and within minutes Eileen finds herself asking them if they’ve sorted a future form of contraception because the last thing they need is another baby. She see Paul flinch but is not deterred. She smiles trying to look warm and approachable and Sarah tells her she was on the pill and had been very ill. Her mother confirms this and tells Eileen ‘this is all as much of a surprise to me as it is to you.’ Paul and Sarah knew two months ago but Jilly didn’t know until Sarah was rushed to hospital three days ago and went into labour. Paul and Sarah confess that they knew two months ago but told Jilly that Sarah had a stomach ulcer. They tell Eileen that pregnancy tests were done throughout the pregnancy, the result always negative. Jilly and Eileen exchange frowns and upside down smiles. We’ve never heard this happen before.
And then the biggest shock comes and hits Eileen like a rock. They had planned to keep it a secret and pass it over for adoption, going back to their everyday life pretending it had never happened. But Sarah says ‘mum persuaded me to keep it and you can’t make plans to have a baby adopted until 3 days after the birth.’ Eileen puts her tea cup on the coffee table to steady her nerves while her stomach sinks to the floor. Her heart is breaking. To think they could have passed her to a couple desperate for a baby and got back on track with their lives – university, travel, going out to parties, having all the fun they should be having at that age. She’s too choked to speak for several minutes and can’t look at the baby.
‘By the three days we decided we wanted to keep it,’ Sarah continues. ‘We’ll live here for the time being until we can get somewhere to live.’ Eileen’s mind is on overdrive. What can she do to help she wonders? Maybe they could come to live with her. She thinks this a nice idea and they would be nearer shops, parks and other amenities. But Jilly’s mind is set. She wants them to live there, with her, which is perfectly reasonable because she needs to protect and help her daughter and that’s only natural. Eileen would do the same.
They say you miss your childhood, Eileen thinks, if you have babies too young. But is there hope that Paul and Sarah will catch up on stuff after they’ve grown up? Maybe she should be grateful, she muses, that he’s been given an escape route from the area they live in, in East London, with all of its bad influences.
It seems ridiculous, Eileen thinks, that mothers must keep their newborns until three days after the birth before they are allowed to make a decision on adoption. Poor Paul. She’s his mother and feels he’s been cheated into this except that he wasn’t. He had unprotected sex and must take responsibility. Eileen searches his face but doesn’t see regret of any kind. He’s happy to stick by her and is besotted by both mother and child. There’s no mistaking the paternal pride and love in his eyes. But surely deep down when it all starts to hit him he won’t be happy with this life changer. If only she can get him on his own, take him for a walk in the field outside and ask him if he really is certain about all this and shouldn’t he take a paternity test, just to be sure she’s his. She knows that’s not going to happen. He doesn’t talk to her and he’s muttering to Lisa who sits next to her on the settee, so that she feels excluded.
At some point in the last year the deed was performed and Eileen searches her mind trying to work out when that was. Was it under her roof? Her watch? Or did it happen at Jill’s house? She want to believe the latter because then she can worm her way out of being responsible in some way.
Mingled in with chat about their lives: work, relationships, family background Jilly and Eileen turn to Paul and tell him that he needs to learn to drive so that he can work. Paul agrees and Jilly suggests he can work in the bakery at the bottom of the hill or with her uncle attending to his flock of sheep. Again her heart takes a dive. Manual labour. He’s academic he could so easily go to university like his sister but the drive to achieve must come from him. Eilieen’s all knotted up with thoughts of a career that isn’t going to happen. How will he ever begin to turn his life around? But she tries to rise above her negativity and offers thoughts of going to college part time to do a work related course.
And then her thoughts turn to his mental health. If the relationship turns bitter and they break up (and let’s face it the odds of this happening are very high, statistically speaking.) What will it do to him she wonders? He’ll be paying for a child for the next 18 years and possibly not even seeing her.
The hours fly. Eileen gets to hold the baby, kiss her head, almost to make sure she’s real but she don’t, at this stage feel anything towards her. All she feels is a desperate urge to hug Paul. He’s her baby. Eventually they’re winding their way back down the hill and back to her dad’s house where she’s in for an eventful night. He’s been constipated for 10 days and is in a lot of pain. He passes a bucket full or more of heavily clotted blood and I call an ambulance. We sit in A and E for 15 hours and then a bed is available.
On the way home to London the following day they stop at Chobham service station for something to eat. Eileen has potato wedges and there are pots of barbecue sauce and a creamy chive sauce. Without thinking she instantly says ‘I’ll take these back for Paul, he can have them with his chips’ and then she realises her boy isn’t coming home and the floodgates open and she cries into her wedges. She’s lost her son; lost his childhood and he’s gone to live far away. Everything has happened at once and she’s about to lose her dad too on top of this. They might not speak very much but at least Paul was there. She’d listen out for him coming home at two in the morning, She’d smile at all the fry ups he made. She’d swap the situation if she could and give anything for him to be back, messy bedroom or no messy bedroom. But that’s not going to happen. He’s moved on and all she can do is decorate and make a room with a double bed and space for a cot just in case they come to stay or decide to come and live here. She has to keep a door open, just in case.
And then several weeks down the line the dust begins to settle. Emotions calm and change and Eileen begins to embrace the thought of grandma hood and how it might change her life and Paul’s life in a positive way. Life is full of surprises; some good, some bad, she reflects and this one, on balance is good.
Here are the links to my books: