My daughter's heartbreak is my heartache

Suddenly, now our two daughters have started dating, we have boys in the house.

Funny though, for a dude who has more than once moaned about being surrounded by women - "even the cats are girls!" - my husband seems positively ambivalent about the change in his fortunes.

As for me, I have acquired the habit of mentally checking the contents in my fridge when I hear that so-and-so is coming by. I've gone from tweaking meals to suit a plethora of dietary requirements to worrying - happily - about whether I have enough food for the hungry hordes.

It is true what they say about how much boys can eat.

When you are the parent of daughters, people will joke that dad must keep a shotgun by his side, as though it were our bounden duty to fend off the foxes.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

I would smile, but never quite feel the frisson of fear about the chicken coop being raided.

This lack of reaction intrigued me and made me wonder how I would really feel once my daughters started bringing boyfriends home (or not bringing them home but staying out till all hours with them).

Would I be disapproving? Would it make me feel old and irrelevant?

My reaction so far has been unexpectedly uncomplicated: I love seeing them in love and I feel for them when their hearts have been broken.

It's all so new. At their age, I never would have brought a boy home.

Back in the Victorian era of the 1980s, boys were bad news, girls who had boyfriends were not good girls and relationships were a treacherous minefield much better left untrodden until one was an adult.

It was a message telegraphed from all directions: Boys will only distract you from your schoolbooks. So with my studious crowd of secondary school friends, it just wasn't on our radar to be dating. If you did have a boyfriend, there would be a whiff of danger about you. People might even say you were wild.

To my children, I never said "don't", only "wait as long as you can". In this I differed from quite a few of my friends, who were very strict with their daughters - they read all their texts and did not trust them one iota.

Predictably, these were friends who had smoked, drunk and partied without their parents' knowledge in their teen years.

They obviously knew something I didn't, but I had neither the energy nor the inclination to follow their lead, even when the boyfriend thing started in middle school, which is the equivalent of Primary 6 and lower secondary.

Luckily, "dating" then consisted mainly of incessant texting and perhaps holding hands in school. We didn't have to ponder the possibility of their actually hanging out beyond chaperoned movie dates.

I was aware that I could be judged as permissive and had to question if my actions weren't in fact neglect.

The jury is still out on that, but in the end, I felt strongly it was more important for my teenager to grow a strong internal core than for me to set too much store by societal norms.

Furthermore, I was conscious of not shutting the door by my disapproval. I knew they probably wouldn't, but I encouraged them to tell me about their friends and boyfriends.

Well, we survived adolescence and I marvelled that we had expended so much bandwidth wringing our hands over the dangers of boy-girl relationships (BGR, as those well-attended workshops at church camps called it) that we had forgotten how wonderfully transformative it is to fall in love for the first time.

Suddenly, there is less binge-watching Netflix and more interest in, say, going to the library to study together. A child who stayed in her room for whole days at a stretch might come downstairs and rummage in the kitchen to cook a meal with the boyfriend. Amazingly, sullenness disappears - almost.

I remembered my first love and how incredulous I was that reality had finally bested all the imaginary worlds of books and films that had held me in thrall till then. The real world is better, can you believe it?

But sadly, as with all loves, the first flush of romance must subside and then the real work begins of making a relationship last. Many teenagers, hell, many grown-ups, are not up to the task.

I held out hope that heartbreak would not come for a long, long time.

And for a long time, it didn't. But a week ago, while I was out at dinner with friends, I received a text from one child telling me the other had just had a break-up and could I call her?

I called. "Can you come home?" she sobbed.

We went home, hugged her and let her sleep in our bed. Over the next few days, we offered tasty morsels of food and drink and other distractions, most of which she spurned.

Our hearts ached to see her in pain and not for the first time, I wished there was a manual to get us through this.

But there isn't and my bet is on life getting harder and messier, even as the real world becomes brighter and better. As it has always been, since there were boys and girls, she will have to find her own strength and my job is to keep the door open.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 27, 2016, with the headline 'My daughter's heartbreak is my heartache'. Print Edition | Subscribe