'It's not about the tattoo. It's about my son growing up.'

What bad news have you ever broken to your parents?


Seeing the stud in my nose, people have often asked me how painful it is to get your nose pierced. My answer is always the same: “Painful. But not quite as painful as having to explain it to your dad.”

When I got it done, I thought my nose piercing made me look urban, edgy, cool.

My father thought it made me look – what’s the word? – oh yes, disgraceful.

But I was 27. And I’d thought about it for months and months and when my best friend Katie (who had pierced her nose years earlier) put hand on heart and assured me that it didn’t hurt and simply felt like being pinged in the nose with a rubber band, I was in.

(For what it’s worth, getting your nose pierced does feel like being pinged in the nose with a rubberband … assuming the rubberband is attached to a BIG, F*CKING HYPODERMIC NEEDLE. Thank you, Katie Greenwood.)


Through my teens and early 20s, I’ve broken bad news to my parents countless times:

– I tried to wash those marks off your car with some steel wool! (I was 16, stop rolling your eyes. Okay I was 19.)

– You know when I was puppy-sitting? I forgot to actually watch the puppy and he’s pulled up a one metre squared section of your new carpet!

– Surprise! I got married in Vegas!

– Surprise! I’m getting divorced!

– I love you guys so much and PS I’m close to failing two subjects at uni!

– Is now a good time to tell you I ran up at $180 phone bill to England!

But when I read this post from Tess Morgan about the day her son came home with a tattoo, it made me think about things from a parents’ point of view for the first time. Her writing is magic. But it’s the grief she feels over the forever changed relationship with her son that is captivating …

Put out the bunting, crack open the beers, stand there in the kitchen smiling from ear to ear, because he’s home – our student son is home and the family is together again. And after supper, after the washing up is done, the others – his younger siblings – drift off to watch television, and he says: “Would you like to see my tattoo?”

I say, “You’re joking.”

He says, “No, I’m not.”

But still I wait. Any minute he’s going to laugh and say, “You should see your faces” because this has been a running joke for years, this idea of getting a tattoo – the hard man act, iron muscles, shaved head, Jason Statham, Ross Kemp. He’s a clever boy. Maybe during his school years he thought a tattoo would balance the geeky glory of academic achievement.

His father says, “Where?”

“On my arm,” he says, and touches his bicep through his shirt.

His lovely shoulder.

In the silence, he says, “I didn’t think you’d be this upset.”

After a while, he says, “It wasn’t just a drunken whim. I thought about it. I went to a professional. It cost £150.”

“It’s just a tattoo,” he says, when the silence goes on so long that we have nearly fallen over the edge of it into a pit of black nothingness. “It’s not as if I came home and said I’d got someone pregnant.”

It seems to me, unhinged by shock, that this might have been the better option.

His father asks, “Does it hurt?”

“Yes,” I say, cutting across this male bonding. “It does. Very much.”

For three days, I can’t speak to my son. I can hardly bear to look at him. I decide this is rational. The last thing we need, I think, is an explosion of white-hot words that everyone carries around for the rest of their lives, engraved on their hearts. In any case, I’m not even sure what it is I want to say. In my mind’s eye I stand there, a bitter old woman with pursed lips wringing my black-gloved hands. He’s done the one thing that I’ve said for years, please don’t do this. It would really upset me if you did this. And now it’s happened. So there’s nothing left to say.

I know you can’t control what your children do. Why would you want to, anyway? If you controlled what they did, you’d just pass on your own rubbish tip of imperfections. You hope the next generation will be better, stronger, more generous. I know all you can do as a parent is to pack their bags and wave as you watch them go.

After three days, Tessa sits down to speak with her son …

We sit down with cups of coffee. I open my mouth to speak and end up crying instead. I say, “You couldn’t have done anything to hurt me more.”

He is cool and detached. He says, “I think you need to re-examine your prejudices.”

I think, but I have! I’ve done nothing else for three days! But I don’t say that because we aren’t really talking to each other. These are rehearsed lines, clever insults flung across the dispatch box. (This is what comes of not exploding in anger in the heat of the moment.)

I say, “Why couldn’t you have waited until you’d left home? Why now when you’re living here half the year?”

“It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. There didn’t seem any reason to wait.”

Which makes it worse.

“I’m an adult,” he says. “I paid for it with my own money. Money I earned.”

He says, “I’m upset that you’re upset. But I’m not going to apologise.”

“I don’t want you to apologise,” I say. (A lie. Grovelling self-abasement might help.)

He says, “I’m still the same person.”

You can read Tess’s whole post here.

So. Have you ever done something your parents reacted badly to? If you have kids, has there been a moment when you realised with a pang that they’re growing up?