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And they call it puppy love

Our secret single male foster carer shares the second in a series of blog posts about his experience of fostering -- the highs, the lows and everything in between. 

Love - what better subject to discuss in this season of goodwill and love to all? 
And what more compelling, if alarming, subject than the emotional maelstrom that is teenage love as experienced by children in care?

And their foster carers.

Fraught with drama, pain and tears, first love is both beautiful to watch and heart-rending to witness. When it’s going well, the sun is shining in a glorious heaven and all is right with the world; when it crashes, it is a dark and burning hell. 

Take Tim, a 15-year-old boy blessed with smiling blue eyes, a flick of brown hair, an infectious sense of humour and a cheeky grin that, it turns out, made the local girls go weak at the knees.

He’d only been here a few days before he was telling me, somewhat chuffed, that he had just been walking down the high street with a girl on each arm. How little he understood the dangers of alpha-male posturing.

Within another day he had chosen the one he wanted – we’ll call her Sandy, nearly 15, who exhausted the credit on his mobile phone on the first day and the battery on my house phone within the week. 

The upside is that young love is a joy to behold, and to see a child who has suffered such awful emotional deprivation enjoying the burbling, rambling chatter of his first love, warms the very cockles.

The downside is the pain, and it came from, and was mainly suffered by, the other girl on his arm, Charmaine. 

Slighted and burning with all the fury of a woman scorned, Charmaine kept calling him up, what Tim referred to as ‘stalking’. Not yet equipped to deal with such emotional angst, Tim confided it was making him angry:

‘I keep telling her that I don’t want to go out with her. She won’t leave me alone.’
‘Perhaps you need to let her down gently,’ I advised. ‘Say something nice to her but explain you have another girlfriend.’
‘She’d go mental if I said that.’

Which makes me wonder what he had told her so far. Had there been a promise? An ‘I love you?’, the three most powerful words in the world that are tossed around the playground and the teenage internet like cheap baubles, or, perhaps more apt, like grenades.

One day, when he finally got off the phone to Sandy, I asked him. ‘What’s happening with Charmaine?’
‘Oh I’ve dealt with that.’
‘Well done. What did you say?’
Here he looked wise and experienced, as he proudly told me of his considered turn of phrase:
‘I said, ‘Charmaine, look, would you go out with a boy you didn’t like?’

Pow.

‘I’m not sure that was the most gentle –’
‘No, right, I couldn’t believe it. I thought she’d understand. But she said, “you make me feel like killing myself”. I said, “don’t say rubbish like that, that’s terrible!”’
‘Ah.’

I gently explained that Charmaine was now in the most awful pain and that he must be gentle with her. That perhaps saying he didn’t like her wasn’t the best way. ‘But I do like her!’ he replied. ‘Exactly,’ I said. ‘Got to be careful with those words.’

I know from my own teenage experience how unbearable such rejection can be. I habitually fell in love, a searing, tearing, all-consuming passion that was met with initial interest, then indifference, and then unthinking, casual cruelty. 

What I hadn’t learnt was the Dance of Venus and Mars, the need to play the game, the requirement by The Dance that you intrigue before you declare, that you show no weakness except when it is the right time to do so, and to never, ever, be too keen too quickly. 

I was putting these girls off by my ardent passion - I just didn’t understand how they could like me but not love me, how they preferred the company of the most ungenerous, cruel, nasty, selfish boys in the area. I could not fathom it. 

I didn’t realise that I was my own worst enemy – busily putting them off with too much, too soon. It took me many years to learn to Dance.

Don’t let anyone tell you that Puppy Love is not real love. It is, as Donny Osmond pointed out all those decades ago, every bit as real as adult love: ‘I cry each night, My tears for you...’

In many ways young love is harder than adult love, because the feelings are so new, so extreme, so scary. Young teenagers have no idea how to deal with it, how to control it, having yet to develop the scar-tissue and experience we need to protect ourselves from the terrible, all-consuming agony of unrequited love.

I gave him the script for such moments, some words to help him hurt people less: ‘I’m so sorry, Charmaine. I like you as a friend but I do have a girlfriend. It’s not you, it’s me,’ words that gave her something to blame him with, rather than the abrupt declaration that he didn’t like her, by which he meant, he didn’t love her. He had thought his response clever and reasonable. In a way it was – in another way it was quite the worst thing he could have said.

I think he took this on board. But the truth is that young teens, even when they are generous people, are often slow to put their feet into other people’s shoes. They say the most crushing things without realising the impact, just as they do the most stupid things without considering the consequences.

There is another upside to all this. When it isn’t breaking your heart or delighting you with its naïve purity, watching young lovers can be pretty funny. 

I was amused, I must confess, to see Tim’s shocked surprise after some moments of enthusiastic indiscretion. 

The thing for Tim was that he had been away from the area for some years. So when he returned to live with me, he happened to make quite an impact. He heard, to his delight, girls saying, ‘yeah, all the girls are saying “how come Tim suddenly got so fit?”’

Like Mowgli at the waterhole, he was hooked. But not just by Sandy. Suddenly a whole host of girls were available, and, enthralled by new opportunities, he succumbed to the temptation to kiss two other girls in one day. Within seconds of the second kiss his phone bleeped. Message from Sandy: ‘Do you want to explain yourself?’ 

I told him he had to choose either the pleasure of kissing all the girls, or just one, and that if he chose the former, he might lose them all. But it was like telling a boy given the run of a sweetshop that he could only take from one jar. He looked seriously disappointed.

But such moments are ephemeral, and his defence to Sandy effective: ‘I can’t help it if suddenly everyone thinks I’m fit’. By the late evening the short, angry calls had turned into a long conversation, full of laughter and jokes, and, I divined, the promise to save all his kisses for Sandy…

Such is young love. Full of sound and fury, signifying everything, but not always for very long.

Day by day, and moment by moment, the dance develops between the sexes, and the boys learn the girl’s codes – two alien species learning to communicate.

As I said to Tim, after yet another frosty patch between him and Sandy, ‘girls and boys are wired differently - not all of them, but most of them. They are Venus and Mars, each marching to a different tune. So, mate, and this is a perfect example, if she says she doesn’t want a Christmas present, even if she says it three times, the chances are she DOESN’T MEAN IT!’

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