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The misery of the always-switched-on parent

It was 2am and the Uber was trundling across London. Not that I was in it. I was merely watching it on a phone screen as I lay in bed tracking the girl’s progress home from a late-night work shift. I had not intended to do this. The girl, as I shall doubtless always think of her, is a 20-year-old woman who, for much of the year, lives in another town. But I had quite clearly not intended not to do it since I had put the mobile phone next to my bed, which is not my normal habit.

I had turned off the ringer but, as agreed, she had texted the link to her Uber ride, the sole safety provision one can make as a lone taxi passenger and, unusually, I had woken with the buzz.

Then it buzzed again as, inevitably, the driver cancelled and then a third time, with a new driver. Having checked the messages and link, I naturally managed not to get back to sleep, and so spent 35 minutes intermittently checking the car’s progress from east London till I heard the front door.

What madness is this? What would I have done if the car had veered off-course? I suppose I could have called either the girl or the driver. Perhaps I could have contacted the police, but I’m not sure if abduction is one of those crimes the Met still prioritises. A sane parent would either have left their phone downstairs or at least rolled over and gone back to sleep. Theoretically, the pooch might have woken us when she came in, but she’s an old dog and doesn’t like to work nights.

We do not routinely wait up for the spawn. They seem fairly sensible, and we have no idea of their movements when they are not living with us. But, for not entirely rational reasons, a very-late-night Uber somehow seems more perilous for the girl than a night bus and walk through deserted streets.

No parent ever stops worrying entirely, although it would be nice if we could limit ourselves to major concerns. But at the risk of conforming to a tedious stereotype, it turns out we are not at the nerveless end of this spectrum.

Last month, the boy, also known as a 23-year-old about to start work, jetted off to a surfing holiday in Morocco. Since he was new to the sport, we first worried about accidents. Then we realised it was possible England would face Morocco in a World Cup semi-final while he was there. Happily, we had a chap in the team to take care of that problem for us.

My wife had also made the schoolgirl error of checking the Foreign Office website for travel advice after he’d gone, which proved dispiriting. The guidance seemed to be that you were fine as long as you stayed away from rural or urban areas and avoided crowded areas or empty streets. This was not reassuring to us or helpful to the boy. But maybe the FO is taking a more risk-averse approach.

The only solution to the broader issue is to blame mobile phones. It has become commonplace to pin the shocking growth in anxiety and other mental health conditions among the young on social media and the permanently switched-on culture. Is it possible that the same is somehow true for parents?

Back when there were no mobiles, no tracker software (though mercifully we restrained ourselves from ever using that) and no chat apps, there was no way to stay in constant touch, and no expectation that we would. In that era, the most you could do was ensure your children had change for the phone. If they were abroad or away, all one could hope for was a rushed and single call or maybe a postcard, sent on the final day of their holiday and which dropped on to the doormat a week after their return.

Now you can look out for Instagram posts. You can see when they were last on WhatsApp, and you could even, theoretically, follow them on Snap Maps if they are foolish enough to allow you to do so. Above all, they have no reason not to check in occasionally. Was our experience a superior existence? I don’t know. But it probably made for less interrupted sleep.

Follow Robert on Twitter @robertshrimsley and email him at

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