I’ve moved out of my home. No, Caroline and I haven’t broken up. It’s just that we’re having the house rewired, which means we have to be out of our bedroom by 8 a.m. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t matter but about eight months ago I started a blog about lockdown and I’m usually up until 4 a.m. working on it. We have almost 7,000 subscribers to our daily newsletter and I want it to be waiting for them when they wake up. And superhuman though I am, I can’t survive on four hours’ sleep a night.
I haven’t gone very far. I’ve stuck a blow-up mattress in the garden shed that doubles as my office. But, weirdly, the children seem to think this is a prelude to divorce. Given how many of their friends’ parents have separated — the divorce rate in England and Wales is 42 percent — they’ve become experts in the telltale signs, and apparently Mum and Dad sleeping in different bedrooms is one of them. My efforts to reassure them have been in vain. Earlier this week, I explained to 13-year-old Freddie that it was only a temporary measure, but he just stared at me anxiously. ‘Don’t you and Mum love each other any more?’ he asked.
Perhaps the children can sense that I’m secretly rather enjoying this arrangement. Living with three teenagers and a 12-year-old — and with the bathroom across the hall from the main bedroom — I rarely experience a night of uninterrupted sleep. Teenage boys, in particular, seem to be incapable of treading lightly when they get up in the night. That part of the brain which tells you how your behavior is affecting others hasn’t been activated in their case, and no amount of shouting and screaming on my part will switch it on. It’s like living with a pack of ravenous, high-spirited, impossible-to-train dogs. I can’t force them to sleep in a shed at the bottom of the garden, but there’s nothing to stop me from doing so.
In the house, I’m always involved in territorial skirmishes with them, whether over wifi use or what to watch on Netflix. In my new pied-à-terre, by contrast, I have a dedicated broadband line and I’ve invested in a projector, a screen and an Apple TV so I can watch whatever I want. My current favorite is Baron Noir, a French political drama about a corrupt mayor trying to shinny up the greasy pole of the Socialist party. The upshot is that I now only ever appear in the house at mealtimes, which may be another reason my children are sure Caroline and I are heading for the divorce courts.
Even my mother-in-law has become a bit suspicious. She came to lunch last Saturday — she’s in our support bubble — and because she’s an expert on everything to do with home improvement I asked her if she thought it would be possible to add an extension to my shed and get a lavatory plumbed in. The idea would be to create a separate bedroom with an en suite bathroom. ‘That way, we could Airbnb it,’ I said, rather unconvincingly. She arched her eyebrows and adopted an ironic tone: ‘I thought it was supposed to be a man cave, not a self-contained flat?’
Needless to say, Caroline has no objections to my sleeping in the shed — she says she sleeps better because I don’t disturb her when I come to bed in the middle of the night — but is slightly irritated that after supper, when the children are refusing to do their homework or are fighting with each other, I just slip out of the back door clutching a bottle of wine and a bowl of nuts. In the past, Caroline has complained that I’m more like a fifth child than a parent, but at least I would occasionally play the role of a more experienced older sibling — helping the others with their ties, walking them to the bus stop, telling them what to do if they got into a fight: ‘Hit first, hit hard and hit often.’ But now I’ve been transformed into a kind of lodger. I smile at the children across the kitchen table, flirt with their mother a little and then retire to my room for the evening.
The electricians will be gone by the end of next week — they’ve been here for more than a month — at which point my winter break will come to an end. I daresay it’s for the best. When teenagers start to throw their weight around, it’s the job of parents to push back, letting them know there are still rules they’re expected to observe. In this way, you ensure they’re not completely feral when they leave home. Tempting though it is to get out of their way, I cannot leave all the parenting to Caroline. The solution to the night-time interruptions is to drink heavily and invest in some earplugs.