Friday, 16 December 2011

Traditions, Traditions

When I was pregnant with Spider-boy I spent a lot of time thinking about Christmas even though he was a summer baby and I had barely been scanned in December. The thing was I rather felt that festive traditions could sum up your parenting techniques, aims and hopes. I still do, a bit, though in my case realise they reek of good intentions, chaos, compromise and a few too many critical thoughts and chocolate buttons.

I read India Knight's Comfort And Joy and totally understand that desire for the holidays to be mythically jolly, smelling of pine, full of love and good wishes and cinnamon scented perfect. I've seen a lot of sadness and worry this year and now am clutching a wind-up rudolph for luck as I hope that if it isn't, you know, magical, at least NO-ONE WILL BE IN HOSPITAL which would be a start.

But way back, before real life had ever really bitten my bum I became a catcher and thief of ideas to make family Christmases special, pooling resources and happy memories with my husband, plaguing friends with questions about whether, for example, Father Christmas bought all presents, some presents, stocking presents, whether he was FC or Santa, whether presents should be opened on Christmas morning, spread over the day, saved until boxing day (yes, I met someone who's parents did that). There was so much to learn and re-evaluate.

We selected our favourites and have tried to stick to them, adapting of course once we stepped out of the mass mirage - what it will be like to have a baby/toddler/child - and found out what it is like to have your specific baby/toddler/child/children.

We have tried though, especially as the eldest is now properly into the whole festive thang, to instigate more of the annual ideas we heard about and thunk up.

In our house Santa fills stockings and mummy and daddy lay out other gifts. I earmark a new decoration each year for the boys in case they ever want their own Christmas tree box, and we have hot chocolate before bedtime and the same poem every year as a story on the 24th.

The boys have new pyjamas on Christmas Eve, a snuggly idea loveable and revolting as the temptation to tweely play match up in identical pjs is too strong for me to resist. I stole another idea this November, and we made an advent calendar of books about yuletide, second hand (Mr Christmas, The Nativity Play, A Bush Nativity) and new (the National Gallery collection First Christmas), ones from our childhoods (Father Christmas, The Snowman) ones from theirs (That's Not My Penguin, The Gruffalo's Child), ones from the shelves which we'd forgotten were Christmassy (Stick Man, Cops & Robbers) and, not yet opened, waiting for Christmas Eve the tattered copy of 'Twas The Night Before Christmas which my mum used to read me and my sisters every year.

Today I bought my son's annuals, to stand proud by their stockings and entertain them (ha!) when the eldest wakes. The youngest will presumably slap his and fashion it into a teether/come weapon, as his brother will no doubt deem it a favourite present. He, the lucky so and so, is finally going to get the armoury of knowledge he needs to play Ben 10 in the playground (in my terrible middleclass-worry-too-much-about-everything-mum way, I've not let him see it but feel I should at least give him something which will mean he doesn't get so bemused about aliens and magic watches and then get left out because he doesn't have the lingo).

There are of course other modern traditions which I am grappling with too. Those created by our culture of consumption and panic shopping - I am trying to organise our present tally which convert the poor spare bed like a sorry for itself broken sleigh but I am overwhelmed by the task. Once again I've tried to stagger shopping and now found myself in the land of is it too much or not enough? I am channelling Eric and Ernie this year - I seem to have all the right presents, just not necessarily for the right people. Next year everyone is getting a jumper.

Then there are 'new' traditions imposed on us, or at least me as I am a chump and a try-hard, by the salted-caramel sticky tide of Nigella-ness around. Should I make a baked Alaska? I should, shouldn't I? And my own minced meat, and a full turkey for the two meat eaters, and my own crackers. And bread sauce must be as easy as it sounds for the I Don't Know How She Does It working mum to fit in around work parties, deadlines and school holiday childcare, mustn't it?

And there are other new ones to get my head round with a schoolboy in the house. The Early Years / Reception Christmas Play, for example. Here's a lesson. If it says arrive 2pm for a 2.30 start get there at 1.30. If you arrive at 2.00 there will be no seats and you will be condemned to watching your son via the screen of some swine in the front row's ipad2 held aloft and in the way of any unmediated viewing. Similarly, do check your child's book bag very thoroughly, lest you find yourself on the last day of term trying to winkle out 30 spare cards to dole out after being under the impression he was just happily hanging with one or two kids every day, or even worse having to snaffle a costume out of the washing bin one sleety Tuesday morning.

Mainly though, I cast my eyes around and note that our family take on xmas is possibly best summed up by our ever growing box of homemade shit decorations and the mild panic I feel that I don't have some cheap plastic Santa and fake holly to position on my cake when I get round to making them. I am the worst sort of hypocrite, I have a subscription from my mum for Living Etc which I avidly read, but must confess I'm a shameful fan of glittery kitch and home-made (rustic?) cardboard crepe paper creations - 'is that a mouse? a reindeer? oh, a Gruffalo!' and hanker for the bygone days when schools used pasta to make things (though I understand why they don't any more).

We put our tree up early, and I enjoy catching my hair on the string of trees pegged up lovingly though they were made 2 years ago with 'toddler' enthusiasm and style for glue and stickers. And as I pull dusty glitter from my fringe I sometimes wonder if back when I weed on a First Response and got that life-changing Etcha Sketch, when I was also buying presents, whether the desire for a Christmas box and a cluttered mantle piece of felt and glitter wasn't the one most realistic, and now most properly satisfied idea I had about what being a parent was.

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The cattle are lonely

I am trying to make sure my son knows the nativity. If nothing else, in this secular world, for pub quiz reasons as it is the sort of thing he should know. Also, it is a story I love very much, although as I've noted before I don't believe in it. I like the sense of social spirit, the (realistic only just generous) kindness, the warmth and simplicity of what is said, and the underscoring of birth as an outdoorsy, animalistic occurrence. I also feel touched and kicked into touch about my furious indignation at the horrors of the postnatal ward. However horrific feeling you might die on dirty sheets, presumably similar sensations on a bed of itchy straw surrounded by rats and men coming for a gander in the starlight must be worse. Especially as neither Luke nor Matthew say anything about gas and air.

I've noted before that I wish the innkeeper's wife had been more prominent though. Indeed every time I hear of that famous delivery I wish that some women, any women were in the story. Women with strong hands and scrubbed faces, old and wise and used to lifting others to standing to make the task of catching the baby seem easy. Women with cool water and bitter herbs, holding Mary's hand, perhaps even demonstrate the wherewithal to sing happy birthday to her son while she panted through those first mothering moments. I, of course, have not sired immortals, but I feel kinship with any woman in that moment of realisation, the first sight of your child and the thundershock of change that occurs before even the love hits you. A friend once remarked to me the first thing she said on seeing her firstborn was 'Oh SHIT. What have we done?'. I can empathise.

We have a playmobil nativity set. It is a beautiful thing, a plastic wonder bought on a whim for a Christmas party at a flat we rented moons ago in Willesden Green. At said party, which must have been good as I woke up to two guests on the sofa and the spaghetti tongs in the large empty sticky vat which had held brandy filled mulled wine, some bad stuff went down in the cardboard stable.

I remember my wise best friend giving me a talking to. 'I don't believe in God,' she said 'but what you are letting them do to that nativity scene, you're going to hell for that'. I glanced over to see Gabriel doing the rude with a wobbly plastic sheep as Mary was getting a filthy kind of adoration from one of the wise old men. Merry Christmas indeed.

Spider-boy sees no parallels with his life and the stable as we unpack it along with the strings of cardboard Christmas tree and growing collection of unfashionable 'rustic' Christmas tat that I love. He listens, as usual, with patience and only occasional sighs as I recount the story placing out the smiling figurines with zig-zag haircuts. He doesn't understand why you would need to go on a donkey to write your name down. I think he's secretly pleased, however, that no-one has told the story to his school teacher, as he finds her 'demands' that he goes inside to practice his letters on the craft and writing table annoying enough. And he actually rolls his eyes and exhales at the idea that a baby's birth would herald, or be heralded by, a new star in the sky. He likes the bit about the mummy and daddy though, and has a smile of satisfaction when the story ends without a sibling being born.

As I conclude too early for the story to have proper resonance, preferring my Jesus small and squawking in the straw, not nailed to some wood with his mother weeping at his feet, he senses a need to comment. 'I know that story already' he says and I realise that though his class performed in a version of The Grinch rather than a traditional nativity, and there was no God-ness in the script or jazz standards, he's picked up enough of the tale from the carols he's heard out shopping all week. 'But it would be better if it was like that song and it started with a lonely ox'.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Deep Breaths – Part Two – Four Days

I like institutions. As a rule they play to my sense of natural justice and speedy sense of injustice when systems go wrong. They have a comforting intractability and strangeness, even when you are a clear outsider fumbling to understand the rules. The weirdness of our hospital stay was enhanced by being in an isolated room with barrier nursing – a danger to others and possibly ourselves if allowed to roam freely on children’s ward. Even if this hadn’t been the case, Newborn was restricted by his oxygen pipes – tethered to the wall much to his fury whenever he had a burst of energy.

But hospitals are strange places. They leave you prone to magical thinking (last time I stroked his legs, his oxygen saturation didn’t dip below 90 percent; when he was in his blue pyjamas he tried to walk; if I hold him then he improves etc). They play on fantastical reckoning that becomes increasingly deranged – if I never, ever bitch or complain or moan about him or his brother then he will be okay; if I’m nice to everyone then he will get better; if I make a pledge about my life to come and promise to do things differently and better, we’ll all get a second chance; if I stay awake and never stop looking, I can will him to not get worse with the force of my eyes.

And they feast on guilt: if I had done one of many things differently, would it have come to this? Was I right all along? I wasn’t supposed to have a second baby, the Gods were clear about me as a mother, I didn’t deserve this chance, this baby. There were barriers to it, they should have been warnings. I’ve ruined the world by defying what I knew was true, and now, because I did that and because HE IS SO FUCKING PERFECTLY UNBELIEVABLY BEAUTIFUL AND AMAZING they are going to take him away from me and everyone else. He will be punished for my moral impertinence and moments of faith and hope.

They also drive you quickly feral and primal. Scared if I left for too long he would deflate and die, I only showered once, when his father could hold him for me. I was ripe for the picking by the time we got back.

When is food? Is there food (no, not if you are a breastfeeding mother but your child’s only source of food is not breastmilk)? How do you get food? (You can go to a cafĂ© but it is only open for odd hours each day, and to go you have to scrub down and leave the baby). Neither of these are rants, not at all, and I hesitate to mention the immense realistic kindness of the people who did help me get food and drink when I wasn’t allowed to leave as I’m scared some of them would be in trouble.

They are bewildering too, even if the play specialist does bring you some wiped down mega blocks and a car which can be thrown from the cot right over to the door. In what order do things happen here in this strange new world of squeaky floors and beds that move? Who is in charge? Does anyone know the answer? Am I allowed to talk when they are examining him? When is ‘rounds’? Who is *our* nurse? Who comes when I hit the button?

There’s so much more that happened, over those long days, just me and the kid for much of the time outside visiting hours. We were somewhere we shouldn’t be, where we didn’t belong, but we felt checked out of real life, in a movie somehow. And my, was I struck by what a privilege those hours were even when they seemed so interminably boring and scary and lonely I thought my voice would disappear in the hot hospital air forever. Boring and scary, by the way, like many hours of labour for some women, are the worst combination of any two ‘states’ in my view.

If I want to find meaning in my search for self and happiness though, I’d say three things. Texts, tweets, hugs, chats – those things help so much more than I could have imagined, and somehow more than last time as I think this time I really thought our number for happiness was up. I don’t think any doctors thought Newborn wouldn’t make it, but I did. And it is hard to articulate that even now.

More brightly, it was astonishing though to have been offered that window into only childness again. To have that one on one with a baby who has always been part of a differently enriched family landscape. It is amazing what a second child can do in intensive solo parental company. So, for all its awfulness we had quite a bit of fun - throwing toys, playing peep-bo, rallying so beautifully.

And, Newborn started talking. No, really, perhaps to drown out the infernal beep alarms when his monitors detached and it sounded all US medical drama. He built on his Beyonce ‘Uh oh’ refrain and seemed to use it to refer to the monitor machine. He started saying ‘HIYA’, with a loose commitment to the opening ‘h’ in the manner of a loud gregarious stereotype in a play about women of a certain age from the North of England, and he perfected his ‘bye bye’ with accompanying wave, playing with the meaning to gesture contempt for the faces who brought nebulisers and monitoring wires to him. ‘Bye’ he’d wave as they walked in. Awesome passive aggression my lad.

Of course he was happiest of all when his brother came a-visiting. For all that mum time and natural resistance – he kicked a radiographer with the force of a bear, and headbutted a quite junior doctor who loosened her grip whilst pinning him down - and all the chocolate buttons he snaffled from nice visitors, one thing truly cheered him and made him relax. Spider-boy’s arrival would see his brother perking up, laughing his head off, looking well enough to leave before wilting at bedtime, and seeming for the only time in his stay in that room on that ward like he belonged somewhere.

When we left, finally, with bags of washing, greasy hair and faintly shocked relief, he smiled again in his bear suit coat, an older version of the one he wore home from hospital the first time. That time my sister drove us home, this time another carried our nappies, Lucozade and general detritus and he was big enough to make his own farewell. He glanced back at the monitors on the wall and said with satisfaction ‘bye bye uh oh’.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Deep Breaths – Part One – Day Four

After our ride in an ambulance and decorating disaster we were seen, soothed and sent home under doctor's orders to return to hospital if he got any worse, or if we were worried.

I feel for paediatricians, all doctors actually, because I think they have to tread a fine line between dismissing concerns and scaring the shit out of parents. We returned to the hospital that week, and to our GP on ‘Day Four’ which is the bit of the bronchiolitis timeline which is often the tipping point. Indeed, it was around day four of being poorly with bronchiolitis the first time, when he was just a few weeks old, that Newborn was admitted to hospital last year.

I won’t say those days were easy. It is hard to sleep when you are supposed to be ever alert to the speed of someone small and fairly quiet breathing, and looking for subtle physical signs (like air sucking in somewhere under their chin that is always obscured by shadow) in the dark. In the end I ‘slept’ with clothes on, and Thathusband and I held our phones all night, our bed rearranged so our heads were at the foot end and our faces close to his.

We took temperatures and had a conversation every two or three hours about whether he was improving, or getting worse, or significantly more sick seeming then he had been when the ambulance came.

On the fourth day though, he was fairly chirpy. Sleepy, breathing a bit fast, bunged up. His temperature had dipped and was no longer giving the sort of results which make you take a deep breath and then do them a gain in case you’ve gone nuts. The GP was happy, though again suggested vigilance.

We decided to head for family, to go back to my parents where the boys could be spoiled and looked after, where there were kind hearts and safe hands for them and us. We took the journey slowly, Newborn was fine, breathing normally, his brother fell asleep after a long, half dazed monologue not unlike Baz Luhrmann’s Sunscreen – wise words and snatches of insight from a booster seat in the back. ‘The thing with girls, mummy’ for example, ‘is they just don’t get boys’. And ‘do you know, there are people who we haven’t met who probably don’t like us’.

We arrived late-ish but to cuddles and tea, and Newborn remained peaceful and oblivious, pulling that cutesy trick they do where everyone says ‘You would NEVER KNOW he’d been sick for a day in his life’. The relief was palpable, as I pinched salami from the fridge like a teenager. Sadly though, it wasn’t to be. When he woke up he started groaning and grunting and breathing fast and, well, struggling. Nasty word that, struggling, when you can see it in front of you in the body of a toddler who is arching to get the air in.

We went to my parents’ local hospital and again were observed. Another phrase I kept hearing was ‘he’s working too hard’. My poor soldier, body braving it to be greeted with a description you’d expect about an overstretched employee. His sats and obs were okay (get me with the lingo) and we waited around in the bright light of children’s A&E, with nice nurses and friendly young doctors. Me, my son and my mum, rugged musketeers. I felt sorry for my mum then, I had mine with me and newborn had his, she was the last line of mothering defence in a nothing land of waiting for him to get better from his ‘stable’ position.

There are signs when being poorly and finding things like breathing a bit strained morph into more dangerous battles. Rapid breathing, nostrils flaring, under the rib cage pulling in, intercostal recession, greyish lips, rasps and wheezes and pauses. I’d add the slight shuddery strangeness of a small body myself, the pull and fight which is increasingly ragged and limp at the edges.

When they come, they come. I’m no two-time loser, it only took a few moments to consider the escalation and then march out of our cubicle and push the fuck in to a conversation between two nurses. Here’s a scary thing: even more than paramedics, paediatric nurses are fucking ace at smiling and gliding around, chatting to you and your child, entwining simple baby descriptions with medical instructions and smiles as they push an emergency button and organise for you to be taken to a ward and treated. Like a Disney princess on ice, she slid around attaching tubes:

‘Well Newborn, we’ll be seeing a bit of you now I should think. Mum could you hold him, that’s right, his head as well. Tighter, I don’t want him to wriggle. You are a strong boy. Are you Grandma? Could you just hold his arms down too, and mum can put her arm across his shoulders so he stays still. He won’t like this. They never do. Yes, you are very strong Newborn. Come on, nearly there. All finished.’

He was admitted, for four days. Once in, you aren’t allowed out until they can breathe unassisted for 24 hours. It can, strangely, feel like an imposition even though the prospect of your child, any child, not being able to breathe without help is, in reality, unthinkable.

Time stood still. And we waited for the monitor screen to show consistent 100 percent oxygen saturation. For four days.

Monday, 5 December 2011

What do you look like? Reflections

Spider-boy has another way of seeing the world which, like all childish wisdom, tells you everything you need to know about our family life and deepens the mysteries of existence forever.

While his brother was in hospital last week, with me, stuck in an isolation ward, Spider-boy had other engagements. As a bonafide schoolboy he had, of course, to go to school. Legal and everything, innit. This threw into chaos our carefully calibrated, one false move and everything falls apart, childcare 'arrangement'. We are lucky, in the kindly friends who were prepared to step up and step in to help out.

One took Spider-boy back to her house after school. In the short walk to her flat he asked repeatedly if she had a mirror. She said she did, though she pointed out, so did he. He clarified 'It's just, I don't know what I REALLY look like'.

It was as if he felt he would see himself most clearly reflected in mirrors away from his usual habitat, the uncharted territory offering a clarity of vision.

I thought about it, and walked around our house. Roald Dahl once wrote a wonderful leaflet for the then national railways about safety on the tracks. He said to truly understand a child, a grown adult should start by getting down on his/her hands and knees and crawling around, to look at the world from their point of view. Wise words. I walk around my house and note, all the wall mounted mirrors are at my height not his. All the handheld ones are in my handbag (cosmetic compacts), or on dressing tables/chests of drawers, again out of reach, things to be passed to him and thus only used when with us, his parents. He had baby mirrors, sure, those crackly plastic safe things, but the best they give is a smudgy impression, and the mirror in the bathroom he only looks in when his hair is sticking up with bubbles or shampoo

Perhaps his sense of uncertainty, his inability to be clear about his own image comes from this - as he has to be lifted to see into the mirrors they only come when he's held by either me or thathusband, and as such exist only with our commentary in which we endlessly commend him and shower him in kisses.

His first word was baby, and I remember our delight, lifting him to the mirror above the mantle, or lifting down the hand mirror on a shelf in his room, smiling and encouraging and thrilled each time he declared who and what he was. How strange and poignant then, that that first proper word, the first clear transaction of meaning, that special moment in any human being's life: the start of understandable communication with another, that beautiful baby in the mirror, is something he remains slightly sceptical of. We all wonder who we see in the looking glass, of course, but I love his desire to know if the 'real' him is the same when he's outside the view of the him projected and created by us.

There are alternative interpretations of course. He was being precocious, telling a joke, aping a remark he'd heard somewhere else, they'd been talking about what mirrors are for at school. But I love the transparent murkiness of the conundrum all the same.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Calpol on the ceiling

It is funny how the minor problems we have to face in life can reflect the biggest changes we've encountered. If I was blogging this time five years ago, I'd probably be pondering how to remove red wine from the polished wood floorboards. Today, I'm wondering to how exactly one removes Calpol from one's ceiling. And wondering, too, how exactly it got there...

Where to begin? As this blog is a record, after a fashion, as well as a place to muse, my silence of the last two weeks should be explained. There is an element of deja vu about the entire story, for which I apologise, and an element of trauma that I can only cope with a) via the medium of caustic wit and b) in two instalments. Just know, however, that all is well now and Newborn has managed to build on the great birthday cake snaffling of 2011 with a fine line in stealing chocolate buttons too. He's also snuggled happily in his buggy.

Within hours of his birthday, Newborn began to snuffle. Sneeze and cough (only a little). He looked and sounded like a baby (well, toddler now) with a normal, plain old, common cold. As ever, in life, it is the danger in the ordinary for which we are unprepared.

He developed bronchiolitis, manifest in a crackly chest, mild recession, a temperature and (mostly) rapid breathing. It is an interesting thing, quick breathing; hypnotic and weird in someone you love. The faster the breath, the slower the world around seems and the harder it is to judge exactly what to do. The phrase 'rapid breathing' is weird too. I mean, what is rapid? Faster than a grown-up, sure. But what is fast for one so young? 40/50/60/80 breaths a minute? And you know all those things they always ask on the phone for NHS Direct and the GP about chest pains, and floppy and unresponsive babies, the ones which make you think 'what sort of a dick would be on the phone with a baby like that?' I can only say now, that it is harder than you might think to recognise an emergency when you are in the midst of it.

His quick chest produced one of those parenting moments where, like the modern mother I am, I was engaged in a google search with a panting boy on my lap and several websites including forums where mums like me were asking strangers how quick was too quick, before I realised that I should be more proactive. Not because the answers were helpful or indicated danger, but because I realised I was feeling in danger and wanted help. I tried again, and rang NHS Direct. Get an expert to tell me how many breaths, exactly, per minute counted as too fast, I thought. Midway through the conversation, I realised that my instinct to get help was right, but being played out in the wrong place. They called an ambulance.

Have you ever been in an ambulance? I haven't, well not as a patient, maybe on a Brownie Guide trip or similar. It is awful. Although, at the same time, it was also a bit of a laugh. A paramedic friend tells me it is common for regular crew members to develop a patter, and my two certainly had theirs. A sweet and gently jocular air which never belittled my worry, but also somehow allowed me to feel unrushed and like we had all the time in the world. They even veered briefly into slapstick with a syringe of Calpol which, bashed out of the way by son's clamp shut teeth, fired into the dusty crevices of one of our only 'original features', the house's coving.

I must say I felt a right cock for ringing NHS Direct when I should probably have rung 999. Not least as I was that woman, one I've been warned about but I always thought I wouldn't be, the one who couldn't find her son's inhaler or, as I was so panicked to my marrow, remember for the life of me what it is called. My mother always warned me to write EVERYTHING medical down, no matter how insignificant seeming; as she sagely put it: 'You don't want to be standing in front of a paediatrician saying 'well, one of them has had chickenpox''. So as an early Christmas gift I pass that advice on to you, because as she rightly predicted it is a terrible humiliation, only tempered by the abject fear created by the kindly calm of doctors, nurses and paramedics when your child is really sick.

I often joke with a friend that our predilection for japes, scrapes and comic injury makes our lives somehow a sitcom existence. As my son got worse and worse, and they were talking about admission last week, I was briefly concerned we'd taken a dire turn, into the landscape as life as soap opera, or even worse, medical drama. I don't want to be the slightly chipper woman with the small child in a Grey's Anatomy or Casualty tear jerker with a moral message about, God knows, parental worrying, second guessing and the weakness of children. My worries about what a terrible mother I was were made worse when his face went red so it looked to everyone like he had really bad untreated eczema, rather than sensitive skin which only occasionally, rarely even,flares to anything. Another big red mark against my mothering.

We veered back into sitcom, of course, as he suddenly improved after 2 hours practically sitting up, smiling and gesturing to leave (waving at the nurses and saying 'bye bye'). I prepared my armoury of jokes, about the magic power of the waiting room, the way our kids, shucks, embarrass us by getting better and making us liars in front of anyone in a uniform, and we set off back into the night having been told to come back if he got worse or we were worried at all.

And as we stood, in our pink and sticky hall, a night of 'watching' in front of us, several parenting ideas swam about in my head. A phrase I often hear, for example, when things are tough - I didn't sign up for this. Well, thatwoman, I thought - you did. You did sign up for this. All of this, from the ruined medicine-spattered architecture, to the pale hotbod you must sit next to all night hoping he won't struggle too much. You became a mother. You wanted a child and (all my life lessons are paraphrased from popular culture) with that great power and privilege comes an awful lot of shit you couldn't have properly imagined (however much you thought you could) and responsibilities, chief of all the simplest and the scariest: keeping them alive.

Sunday, 20 November 2011


Depression can make you do some bloody barking things. Even afterwards, when you aren't in the abyss. I've written about black dogs, and howling madness, but I find sometimes the most aggravating of all things related to mental health are the niggles, the things you can't trust, the draw of magical thinking and other delusions, the mind games your brain can play on you.

I'm an okay baker, if not a great cook or a prospective contestant for GBBO, but I like making them, stirring, watching them rise. I like playing with icing and making things to go on top, I enjoy the moment where butter-icing goes glossy then fluffs back up. Mostly though, I enjoy doing something soothing, which I've learned by rote and can do, if not with my eyes exactly closed then without the a recipe book open or having to double check what I'm doing.

Since I learned to bake a cake, and got good enough to do it so it was raised and bouncy, and usually nice enough for compliments I've taken it on as a feather in my cap and something to rely on. A standby skill. An easy cooking target. An open goal for my self-esteem and sense of self, especially when things are hairy. I've also noticed that though whipping up (well, folding carefully) a lemon drizzle which rises like a Madeira sponge can be a real boon if I'm feeling a bit shit and want to cheer myself up, when the shit really hits the fan for me, so too does any hope for my cooking.

When I had pnd I lost my ability to bake. I still get the shudders when I think of one disaster, I still had some skills, the sponge was bouncy and nice enough for the back of a WI table, but the icing? It was melted almost to a glaze. Except it wasn't a glaze, it was a pool of sludge dripping over the lip of the plate.

I made one cake without butter. I forgot it, although in a completest way - I never even got it out. This isn't to mention the two cakes I dropped - only one of which was at least fixable in a stick-together-with-jam-and-hope-no-one-notices way.

A fiendishly clever foodblogger I know once told me she couldn't make mayonnaise after a terrible heartbreak. I wonder how common it is? And whether it is just food? Certainly I know other by rote actions, learned and almost automatic can falter in the face of depression and great sadness (sex, reading, puzzles, playing music), although it is hard to know whether apathy is overriding the learned-so-well-you-can-do-it-with-your-eyes-closed-ness, or somehow you are sabotaging anything which might be fun or instigate any sense of self worth.

For Spider-boy's first birthday we made him bread. And my husband had to handhold me through a caramel cake which disguised any imperfections with thick, thick chocolaty silky sauce for the grown ups. Those were dark days, it took pretty much up to his 2nd birthday for me to be confident of getting it right and even then I needed help with the icing.

For Newborn's first birthday I was quietly confident with my cocky idea for icing, and hadn't even bothered thinking, let alone worrying, about the vanilla sponge base. I wasn't even perturbed by knowing I was only getting back from a business trip midevening the night before so I'd have to throw it together after the boys' bedtime and stick it in the oven at 10pm.

I got mine. It fell in, and shrank, and collapsed. A metaphor for a melting mind, a sign of bad stuff to come, a reflection on modern life often being rubbish? Were the ingredients wrong, had I been too quick or over confident, were the eggs not room temperature, was it the new greaseproof paper? Whatever it was, the cake (see above) was a bloody mess, like me I'd say, sweet enough but saggy in the middle, insubstantial, and not appropriate for public display.

Obviously a cake's a cake, and a mistake is a mistake, and it is possible for anyone to funk up a bake. And I know both this and that almost certainly there was something about the eggs being too cold or some such. But I had to make sure. So I baked the cake again, on the brink of midnight, in exactly the same way, just to check. And thus in my attempt to prove to myself I hadn't gone crackers, behaved as if I was completely half-baked.

I just told my husband about this post, explaining it was about the disastrous cake and saying I found writing a conclusion tough. 'Well,' he said, 'Endings are always hard. I suppose it is all about learning things can't be perfect all the time.'  A wiser man than me.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Reckless truthes: Blogging & therapy

Blake Morrison, one of my literary idols, wrote a wonderful memoir called And When Did You Last See Your Father? It isn't my favourite of his books, I prefer the engaging enraging force of exploration behind As If, his account of covering the trial of the two children accused and convicted of murdering James Bulger, which ranges around almost unmanageable into the unimaginable, and probes and pushes and licks the truth to see what it might taste like. But I do love AWDYLSYF, as an elegant and intricate search for the reality of a relationship (Blake's with his father), and indeed a person (who was his father, does Blake know him? when did he last see him? what does his death mean?). The thundering intent Morrison displays in his search through memory, significant and banal, and his meticulous intrusion on his own thoughts has sifted around in my own self-conscious ponderings since I read it a decade ago.

I'm thinking about it now though because I was looking at some classics of family literature, and I discovered it was described, by Roy Hattersley in The Guardian, as a 'near-masterpiece' in which Morrison writes with 'a reckless respect for the truth'. Such a wonderful phrase, worthy indeed of Morrison himself.

People often ask how much I censor from this blog, how much I tell and whether I check myself. I do, of course, check myself. Both out of personal vanity, and respect for my children, husband, wider friends and families and their own private lives.

I'm interested though, in this dance of show and tell, and the degree to which telling the whole truth, hand on Bible style, and telling part of it with a spin pan out. Which is better for me, as a person, and for those who chose to read what I write? I'm reminded particularly of therapeutic relationships of which I have now had many - some searched out with force and determination others thrust upon me by institutions bigger than myself.

I always thought therapy, and the talking cure was about saying EVERYTHING and holding it out laid bare. Revealing for all to see the mad woman in the attic. But just as when I started using facebook, or twitter, I was briefly overcome by a lack of anything to say so too I am made mute even in a therapy room sitting by a bunch of tissues, or worse, for me at least and my sense of overriding parental failure, kneeling on the floor with one of my sons. I find myself lost in a sea of thoughts unable to find the beginning, to know where to start my story - did post-natal depression begin in the labour ward, the first nights of motherhood, in my pregnancy, in my dreams and expectations as a child playing with dollies (playing mummy even when I was probably a little too old)?

I have to see a psychologist at the moment, as part of a programme for supporting parents with very difficult non-sleepers, but also I fantasise and suspect, partly because I am being checked up upon this time after floundering around a lot last time. I say have to, of course I could not engage but I feel I should because I don't want to appear someone not interested in getting help for their baby and because it is starting to give me hope that we may be able to calm him down one day and all get enough sleep to not be thatfamily, all wobbly and sleepy and at the end of our collective tethers.

In talking about my son's lack of sleep many things come up, things which may or may not have a lot to do with why he screams and rails all night and behaves like he is new, just born and desperate to feed and responds with fury when he isn't being held all night (all at almost a year old).

Ideas about whether my behaviour is reflecting anxieties about my poor abilities at a mother, my fears of depression returning and the possibly terrible effects of my previous depression on Spider-boy. Thoughts about whether Newborn is still traumatised by being so very ill when he was tiny, unable to breath, fed through a tube, stuck in a cot because of his tubes and monitors unable to be cuddled by me? Interest in why I feel resistant to help (both in terms of sabotaging it and like a flame retardent blanket, repelling help). Talk of why still, I'm so shamefully, furious and easily rocked by my first labour, why I feel hatred and anger about my treatment, what it was about that night which still makes me, if I'm feeling sad or vulnerable enough, throw up with the force of my rage (and then just feel like I am lying in the cool thickness of the diving pool about to exhale and plunge down).

And more curiously, how the woman I was before I was crazy might have something fundamental to do with how I became the woman I was when I was crazy. What it is about me, not in a catastrophizing or narcissistic way, that lead me to that point, and what I might do to stop it all being so easily stirred up, and move to new ways of thinking so I have the courage to hold my own at night time and try and find a new pattern.

These are hypotheses, talking points, suggestions. Others may simply think I should let my baby cry or put up and shut up that he doesn't sleep. In the therapy room it is all incredibly calm and increasingly helpful, but Holy fuck is it depressing too. And like all therapy it is more helpful but sometimes tougher when you have to get down to brass tacks and give straight answers about yourself, thoughts which have been niggling around all along. I use this blog sometimes as a sounding out board, a place to muse and think and reflect and often come back to the ideas which prompt me to post when I'm in a therapy setting.

But blogging and therapy are similar for me, in the powerful pull they have towards wanting to TELL EVERYTHING ABOUT YOURSELF and, of course, the desire, sometimes too strong, others not strong enough, to protect yourself from thinking about things you don't want to, or portraying yourself in a particular way or offering a window for insight you don't want to hear or know will be wrong.

I hate pat theories - x is like this because y happened to him/her, and hate having to rehash the history of me to sift for reasons and answers in memories good and bad. For all my naval gazing I prefer to stick to my current existence, the me now and fairly recent me. But I wonder sometimes if in my fear of overstepping by telling too much, and my vanity, I underplay by not telling crucial bits of the puzzle.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Repeat to fade

All I want is a good night's sleep
I love Newborn dearly but I don't want to hear a peep
So he'd better learn to count some sheep
'Cos a good night's sleep would be loverly LOV-ER-LY

You have more than a room somewhere
A lovely cot built with swearing and care
Monkey, giraffe, your book and a bear
So why, won't you sleep, my loverly? LOV-ER-LY

Your face is as perfect as a face could be
You're like a tyrant sweetheart, can't you see?
I know like you the fault lies with me
But some sleep (you know sleep?) would be loverly. LOV-ER-LY

I love you more than I ever could say
And I almost love our midnight play
But I really do long for the day
When you sleep for a night my loverly. LOV-ER-LY

On saturday you turn will one
A baby no more, you're a toddler my son
A year? Surely you know the battle is won...
So please let me sleep my little one. LITTLE ONE

I want you happy and loved you know
And safe and warm 'til the morning glow
But I'd cut off a finger or a toe
For just one full sleep my lover-ly. LOV-ER-LY

I know this isn't a traditional song
Writing it down seems a little bit wrong
But by God I really do long
For a good night's sleep my lover-ly.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011


Spider-boy has been shorn. A quick trim to curtail the curls tickling his eyes became a short back and sides. In a sitcom moment I both showered him in compliments and kisses whilst mouthing to thathusband: 'What have you done to my baby?'.

He looks sweet. And grown up (therein lies perhaps part of my instinctive mock-horror response, I am increasingly perturbed by the ease with which he assumes older and older guises, my fears rooted in those expressed in the post Tick Tock).

Also, however, he looks cheeky. All school boy crooked smile and sticky out ears. He looks like an extra in Just William, like if he were in short trousers and an untucked shirt (rather than the jersey and polyester of his more modern school uniform) he'd be scaling walls to go scrumping and playing practical jokes on sweet shop owners alongside a young Roald Dahl in Boy.

It is funny how a haircut can do that. It doesn't affect his behaviour, he's exactly as exuberant, occasionally over the top, socially confident, slightly cheeky, caring of his little friends, fun to be with, testing of boundaries, physically charged and desperate to explore as he ever was. But gets chastised more even in the few days since the chop.

I've noticed the snarl, rather than the benevolent smile on buses. He looks older than his years (well a crucial 18 months older, so is expected to behave like he's in Y1 or Y2 by strangers), and combining the grown up cut with his height it is easy to make a snapshot judgement that he's behaving exactly as young four-year-olds behave at 5/6 so ergo must be a naughty bad boy who needs admonishments and raised voices. I've also noticed how this makes him briefly withdrawn, confused at the less kind interpretation of his behaviour which hasn't changed. The emphasis, happily, is on 'briefly' though.

He'll cope, though, mostly as like all four-year-olds he has a brief attention span (rather than a dastardly wish to disobey), an inquisitive mind (so he tests out 'rules' and wants to try out things he learns but sort of understands why he's sometimes told off for it), and is fairly water off a duck's back with bollockings, in public at least.

I'm an eldest child and have been the oldest runner in groups, been tall and looked older than I was. I still have a 'haircut', or as much as can be done with a mound of untameable curls, which affects the way people treat me. Twice recently I've been asked about being new to my job (a field I've been in for nearly 8 years), treated like someone not particularly senior, by people who have merely seen the hair as I've arrived early, after a long journey across the country, fully equipped and ready to be professional. I am guessing it is the hair, mainly as these are the same people who haven't made such judgements on email or the phone, but only when they've met me and see an overflowing barnet over a smart blue coat. Perhaps I need to start wearing a badge which says 'I do use serum, I'm 34, I can (mostly) control my life and these are my qualifications:...'.

It doesn't really harm, this hair judgement, annoying though it can sometimes be. And for Spider-boy I'm hopeful he'll wind up merely a bit over sensitive to it like me, although I'm wondering if that will even be a problem. His ears may stick out more now, but he can still be selective in his hearing, an aggravation but sometimes a charm. Take Monday night, for example, when I had invoked some wrath. He paused to deliver his ultimate threat, rolling it round in his mouth and thinking over recent days at what would hurt me most before his eyes lit up. Saturday's kiss shower echoed in his words as he shouted:

'You know Mummy, that is it. I am not going to let you look at my new haircut ANY MORE!'

With which he stomped off into the playroom to hide the new himself from my sight.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Giving and receiving (what's missing)

Newborn has started to walk, at the moment it is towards me, my husband, his brother, anyone who is holding something he wants. Walking has been an interesting difference between my lads, the first wanted to stand and jump and walk. Many hours were spent holding him up my thumb encircled by fat fingers, my lap a trampoline and launch pad. My husband and I used to compare aching arms after days spent holding him on our knees, looking like an old-school acrobat in a babygro learning to control his knees, desperate to get going.

Newborn is different. He's super speedy with crawling and a nightmarishly adept and fearless climber. Walking? Meh. He's just as happy to crawl, watch, think. He doesn't mind walking, and enjoys the sensation and novelty of me holding his hands and guiding him through the house as he combines heavy footfalls with his feather-light frame to both stomp and tiptoe at the same time. But he doesn't demand that. Doesn't seek it out as his brother did. And though he will walk to something we are holding out as a temptation, if we misjudge the distance, expect three steps not two, he will smile and slide down, and make up the ground between us far faster on all fours. But I can wait. Not least because it makes my heart go funny and my eyes go hot to think of the moment when his lightweight lumbering will reach the real destination - the moment when he realises he can walk away from me, just as he can lurch towards me.

I can't decide how much of the difference between Newborn and his brother is just his personality, his physical aptitude, his desire, his will, and how much is my attitude to mothering now. I find myself far less keen to leap from milestone to milestone with Newborn, or at least far less concerned if we see shifts and changes stop and start.

With Spider-boy I think I craved the momentum, his forward motion part of the great appeal and celebration of life that was him and our relationship. I wanted to see him fly, move on, do new stuff, learn, enjoy - like a forever skimming stone picking up skills (clapping, waving, crawling, kissing, walking, laughing, jumping, smiling, talking, counting, chatting, bossing). Not competitive with his peers, but eager to find the new chapter and see a positive in the momentum.

Perhaps it was  because that time in my life was so terrifying, and stuck. I felt paralysed and furious and desolate because I could never catch up and restart, reboot (and therefore get birth, recovery, early days 'right'). And I felt so guilty for that, for not having gotten anything 'right' for Spider-boy, both by being depressed and upset and not-good-enough, but also by being trapped and haunted and unable to 'move on'. I wonder if it is one of my many moments of incredible luck, that in a fogged up brain there was a chink of light which allowed me, if confused and confounded by my own experience of time not working in my favour, to at least embrace the speeding time exemplified by him as being a journey worth engaging with. And so I ran with it, and the changes.

With his brother I find it slightly different. The last few weeks have been so captivating with him. I feel awful typing this, but it is like having the most gorgeous baby-puppy following me around. He responds to simple commands and entreaties. It is all about physical love, about sharing and forging connections. He laps at my feet and grabs my ankles, climbs to my lap, nips at my food. He gives and fetches, brings me 'gifts' - a sock, an old ball, a shoe, (usually) an over-sucked biscuit. (The gifts are brief, of course, he wants the biscuit back so he can offer it to someone else, share his soggy treasure, but the simple basic exchange, the offer, the connexion, they are a treasure far greater than diamonds or even apple rice cakes). He's always at my heels, a huge comfort and an obstacle; this stage is not without a perilous edge, I trip over him several times most mornings.

I say 'always', he's at my heels when I'm not away or at work. And I miss him, how I miss him on those days when I can stride and stomp unimpeded, when my socks are nice and dry and my dress and tights aren't snotty or snagged. When I look down and can see my work boots not my on all fours shadow, pooled at my feet like the train on my wedding dress, curled like a kitten, sucking my socks. What I would give then for a snotty rice cake.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Testing times: Do you remember the first?

Today I sat in a coffee bar which seemed full of bulging bellies. Large, proud, clad in horizontal stripes as their owners (producers?) ranged around. I feel odd not being pregnant any more, though it was a distressing time which I don't think I could bear to retread and I felt buoyed by their laughter and enthusiasm. Most of what I've written about pregnancy I've written about carrying Newborn.

But these women, they must have been first timers. They looked so shiny and taught-skinned and excited, a sight that always makes me feel glad. And hopeful. Hopeful that they can cherish the brilliant lack of knowingness of the things which can happen, bad things, dark days, which can make being pregnant, getting pregnant, deciding to try and get pregnant even, one of the hardest bravest things the more knowing woman can do.
And yet suddenly, watching them waddle to the loo in a trio, hearing their laugh and snippets of chat about going home to chill on the last days of maternity leave I remember the thrill, of the first time I was pregnant and when I was truly and simply excited at the momentous ordinary thing which was occurring inside me.
That moment began when I had a sudden urge to buy Christmas presents after an enduring three day hangover which still hadn't abated, as I was walking down Wood Green High Street in November my tits aching in the wind. A week after we’d decided to cool the trying for a baby thing as it was so disheartening, take a breath, get drunk at Christmas then regroup, start properly charting and speak to a doctor. The moment when I though: ‘hang on…’.

I had the day off work. I had bought so many tests, wasted so much money, even the trip to Boots was a trial. Waste £10-£15 on a digital one? Be enticed by an offer, a multi-pack (would the latter be giving in, to more needling)? Buy cheap? Go own brand? All these labels and none which would could sell itself on what I really wanted, a test which would tell me what I wanted to know. Finally, exasperated, I chose one which promised 'first' results. Despite trying and wanting a baby, and being able to read and understand enough about numbers to look in books and online I was never exactly sure where I was supposed to be in my cycle.

I casually dropped my test in the shopping bags and forced myself to be slow on the walk home. No excitement, no tempting fate. The testing wasn’t a new thing. I can remember the first time I did a pregnancy test, at university, fearful of a yes, and praying fervently I wouldn't get one. And the hundreds of tests I took at a hint of an imaginary symptom each doleful, saddening maddening month when we hadn’t hit the dual line jackpot.

All those empty windows, all that admonishing for lost time (which hadn’t happened yet), and wasted strands of a story of me that were not to be but which still strangled my heart if I let them. All those Summer and Spring and Winter and Autumn pregnancies that never happened because I wasn't bloody pregnant. Such a crock. And yet that time, that November morning, as I went upstairs, not even with my first morning urine, weeing and waited, I knew my luck was in. I had a funny feeling, a sense I might be pregnant.
Of course I’d had that sense every single fucking month of trying so it wasn’t new. Although this time as I gazed at the stick ignoring the hygiene issue there was a knock at the door.

A man stood, cold in his suit jacket, holding a clipboard with an NHS survey on it which was incidentally spattered with rain spittle.

‘Are you busy?’ he asked. Noting my dishevelled dress and slightly manic eyes, perhaps even my hands behind my back. ‘Did I interrupt something?’

I glanced across at the test which I’d brought downstairs and then placed on the radiator cover in the hall remembering on my descent I was supposed to leave it somewhere horizontal rather than hold it like a lucky Olympic baton. I looked down at the window which had, bugger me, a cross appearing.

‘Actually’ I said, ‘I think you did’.

So many details are with me still. I still have the test, so I know she was sentimental. And I still have the dress, so I know she was a size 14. Until recently I still had the text she sent to her husband, which shows she was impatient, and his (typically understated) reply: 'tee hee', which tells us she was in a conspiracy of love with him.

But that woman, so excited she had to practically put both hands over her mouth not to immediately tell survey guy, so giddy she had couldn't wait for her husband to come back from work, that woman enthralled by the magic of it all, who used a ruler with a colleague to check the size of the foetus every week and planned on making the pregnancy book measurements real in a woolen package of fruit and veg corresponding to developments week by week (called 'In Fruit A Row'), who eagerly sported a 'bump' before the intruder was visible. She, I don't always remember, but I'm glad today I did.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Not in the mood to be mental (milking it)

I am travelling back from Edinburgh to London after a three days away for work. I don't often blog on the go, so this is a new experience for me. Nevertheless I'm tired and grumpy and missing my boys. I'm totally in a snark, even though the trip in many ways feels like a success, (I very much enjoyed the work over the last couple of days and think it was almost worth the distance travelled and time away from family).

The grumpiness comes in part from the glorious indignity(?) undignity(?) dearth-of-dignity (?) that is being a lactating woman with nothing (and no-one) to lactate into. I came armed with my weary old breast pump but the lid cracked. So I was left with a ballooning bosom, or a train toilet. Nice choice.

But it isn't just the whole maintaining breastfeeding supply in an East Coast Line bog which leaves me struggling to express myself. I'm once again torn. Part of me thinks I really must write something in support of World Mental Health Day. I'm just not entirely sure how to do it or what to write: I find I'm just not in the mood. Not in the mood to be mental, or not mental. Not in the mood to discuss or analyse or share or over share. Not tempted to work out whether I'm tired, or upset, or depressed, or just a little bit meh because I have a headache and I'm on a train and I just had to MILK MYSELF over a toilet bowl.

I know I should do it though, not because I have a narcissistic sense that the world, charities who do amazing work for mental health in the UK (like @MindCharity), or anyone really * really * needs me to, but because actually some readers have contacted me over the last few months. I've never mentioned it because I couldn't think how, but perhaps today is the day. I've had a few emails from readers, some I know, some whom I have never met, who have talked about their own depression (postnatal and otherwise). Who have read my stories and felt moved to confide in me, to share this blog and space as a dialogue in which, in the half-light of cyberspace they could be open without being exposed. The correspondence was electronic, but the bravery, and relief at briefly unburdening, was clear.

Today people everywhere are tweeting and discussing, dedicating funds and campaigning publicly, talking all over the internet and the media about mental health and the importance of access to help and the ending of stigma and discrimination.

I applaud this. In my own experience I had mostly marvellous care. But I do know about the hesitating looks and the clear palpable difficulties some people have with understanding or responding to mental health issues and crisis points, and can only imagine how hard it is to function when surrounded by people who find helping, understanding, or responding to a friend, parent, child, employee with a mental health issue hard, for whatever reason.

But I want to reiterate something I mused on a while back, which is that I understand the stigma has to be beaten out, publicly overturned and renounced. And I understand the need for public discussion with no cowing to stigma, and the need to talk about depression and anxiety and all the rest in the same way as we talk about a broken wrist or cancer. And I know, especially as people who have read my blog have written and said reading my experiences has helped them, that it is a fight which must continue.

But I am still not in the mood today. I am not in the mood to explore or confess (and it feels like a confession, though it shouldn't of course). I, someone who has discussed in a (partially) public space the experience of being completely crackers, have a lot of sympathy for those not quite able to say anything. After all mental health is intensely private. I found when it went wrong, when my mental health teetered and trembled and collapsed, that one of the biggest shocks (and perhaps the most profoundly distressing elements, after the research I read about how a parent with mental health issues may affect their children) was the sense that this crumbling and dissociation, this misaligning and confusion of me was public. I was completely and utterly humiliated by that idea. And still am, I realise, shocked to burning cheeks and nausea even as my train pulls in to London.

I won't delete this post to save my blushes, but I will say today, that I am supporting and will support all initiatives I find which are working towards a place where mental health is viewed without prejudice. And I have applied to Mind to become a Mind Campaigner, to help as much as I can in what I see as a policy fight I have a duty to engage in. Not least as having been that weary soldier with mud and blood on my boots and a referral letter to my local START team I am mindful of the help you need. And I owe something to those at the front, now that I'm just a little way back from the face to face fighting. Because I don't think the tension of the skirmish ever leaves, even if you're closer to the role of an older general; experienced and observing and offering (pitiful) help from behind the lines. But I am also offering a shout out to and a shhhh for those who for whatever reason don't want to talk about it just now: whether because they're are frightened, embarrassed, shocked, confused or just not in the bloody mood.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Comic Timing

Last week, in a mad dash to get to school on time (among many other pretentious goals I've set myself I'm now grappling with the task of being a new person, an 'on time' person, when it comes to school), we got our timings wrong. So wrong that we arrived to the unpopulated playground. I heard a quiver in my son's voice as we surveyed the empty tarmac.

'Are we late again Mummy?' he asked fearful of the inevitable. 'But we didn't want to be late, did we?'

And then I realised. We were early. A pair of Mirandas, or, more correctly, travellers to her strange new, brave new world. Trespassers in the zombie playground: empty, unscuffed and new. We were the first two people at school.

This was great, not only as part of the steep learning curve surrounding school days for both of us, an arrow in our school quiver and a tick on my internal spreadsheet of things the way I want them to be, but also because we had our pick of where to play. The painted out grid for 'What's the time Mr Wolf'? The slide with the tempting bar to roll over for a speedier decline? The relic from the 1990s a dangerous and thrilling twist of primary coloured metal for hanging from?

Son elected the pirate ship, so we set sail. He stood on the bow and stared over the safety play surface ocean and said:

'I've been driving ships for aboot twenty year, so Ah nooo what Ah-m talkin aboot. Wha-tch an learn bairns, wha-tch and learn' before throwing himself out of sight.

The pratfall was perfect and just before I my laughter rang out, he popped his head above the ship and added 'Champ-yun!'.

The reference, for those without four year olds, was Keith Fit, from Justin Fletcher's tour de force kids' TV show Gigglebiz. The show is simple and knowing, old-fashioned but not twee. It is a sketch show interspersed with 'your Giggles', or jokes from kids who often fluff their lines but enthusiastically share their cracker jokes and silliness with the jovial host.

Like a pickpocket on a tourbus through the history of TV comedy, Fletcher and his writers have snaffled and pinched, reinvented, refreshed and in some cases, dare I say it, improved on the laughter of the past. It is The Two Ronnies here, Morecambe and Wise there, snatches of Harry Enfield, the best and cleanest of Little Britain, with characters Paul Whitehouse would have killed for. And then, for good measure some classic joke ideas personified - Doctor Doctor, for example, who is chapters from the The Ha Ha Bonk Joke Book brought to life, or  Nanna Knickerbocker and The Lost Pirate, children's pantomime staples forced to navigate their way through mundane situations like eye tests, and changing light bulbs and getting lost in Brent Cross.

In our house we regularly have to list our favourites. After connoisseur's choice King Flannel, a bandy legged monarch who speaks in mumbles and is in a never ending quest to get one up on his bossy butler, my favourites (unsurprisingly) lie in the pun-makers. I heart Dina Lady, a cook who creates uneatable dinners by ignoring language nuance, rock cakes with rubble, yule logs with twigs and chocolate sauce, at her best a full size chocolate moose, all to the increasing despair of Tommy Tummy her sidekick who she publicly characterises as nice but silly. And look forward each evening to Arthur Sleep, a local newsman so perfect in look and cadence to the newsreaders of my youth, complete with brown telephone, twirly chair and mug of coffee by his papers, a line in self-congratulatory jokes and disparaging attitude to his roving reporter and weathergirl Gale Force, he has twice reduced me to tears.

And as a media studies type, the meta levels of Farm Dung, ostensibly a country man with an appreciation of good word play, astound me as much as they tickle my son. For the real joke is on the RP voice over, the city dwelling documentarian who is always asking stupid and inane questions and repeating his views back to him as if she knows better.  Like when he says he has something adorable in his farmyard.

'Are you going to show us something adorable Farmer Dung, something cute, like a rabbit?' she gushes, all condescension as sickly and thick as condensed milk.

'Yea' he says, fixed camera pose, smiling with discomfort. He looks behind at the barn. 'See?' he profers to confusion off screen. He stares, bemused and opens the top of the barn door to reveal a bull. 'SEE. A door. A bull.' And then, as she doesn't take it in, pisses himself laughing with his sidekick and best friend Reggie.

But Keith Fit, a fat and breathless Geordie PE teacher, an ever-expert, who's done everything for 'twenty year' and who cheats to show off to youngster has the winning streak when it comes to physical humour. His catchphrases are as good as anything the Fast Show ever managed, but his real charm is playing up to exactly what you want him to do - mess up his demonstration and get his for bragging - and then top it with an unstoppable, inevitable falling over gag approached with grim determination by the chameleon performer Justin (who seems genuinely endangered). Slapstick, after all, is at its funniest when it looks like it hurts. And his secret? Like Spider-boy's, the comedy is in the timing.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Tick Tock

I was going to write a letter to my son on starting school and Oh, my little one, there is so very much to say. About how wonderful you are and how my dreams for you reach high and wide (in that I know your strengths and gifts and delicious potential). And then how they, my expectations and hopes, swaddle themselves in a desperate desire that you will be nurtured and loved and cherished and challenged and cheered and accepted and enjoyed. That you will be true to yourself my darling oddball joker, who fittingly at this monumental shift in life gear chose a pencil and a pad bearing a clock as your present for starting reception.

But oddly (and coy as I find it) I realise this is a conversation I would like to have with you in private as you start a new phase of your life. A conversation which will happen now in (all the) words you understand and later, perhaps, in more depth. I find they are private words and think you might need some private time to be yourself, to get settled, set roots and then bloom.

I think this especially when I watch your confused and face puzzling over what you hear adults saying to you and me about your start at school. When I see you fathoming our exclamations that 'we can't believe' you are a schoolboy already. You, my sensible no-longer-toddler sage, are well aware that you are already at school. That it has begun, and that words like 'can't believe', with all their potential magic and strange confusion, should be preserved for especially hard to handle ideas. Like:

  • the routemaster bus (number 9) which still runs in the city like a red ghost laughing at her old master
  • the size of a blue whale and how small it is compared to mountains and planets
  • the luck that finds us when we happen on extraordinary sights in our daily trudge: a windfall of 'yonkers' on a pavement ready for picking or a group of deer hiding in a park in the middle of town

Though I can't explain the allure and beauty of a fallen conker, I can at least explain what some of this surprise is. And I think it is key to something, namely the attitudes people have to babies, children, pregnant women, which fascinate, hearten and appal me every day.

You see, in you, as in your brother (now standing, amusing, trying out words) or in a swelling pregnant belly, are writ large two opposing forces. Potent ideas, the stuff of midnight panics and midnight mass raptures:
  • there is hope and life and possibility for change and growth and the new everywhere
  • we are all going to die
Such simple thoughts but bloody hell, such tricky ones too. And you, in the spurting stage of youth, still growing and changing, you as you become physically coherent, dexterous, lithe, as you shed in turn the spindly limbs of newborns, the cushions of babyhood, the sturdy squareness of toddlerdom and become a boy stretched out with a triangle smooth body and the beginning of a frame, you represent these two things. In your body, pulling out and becoming whilst promising something even bigger (you will be a man one day my son) shows everyone, in every change, that time is marching on.

Death seems a melodramatic subject in a musing on school and time and beauty. Believe me, I don't take it lightly: I know talk of that unknown and merciless warrior, that robber of potential and other times of pain - that thief and pacifier - comes far cheaper than knowing him.

But I think that's why is is so easy for some to be ambivalent, threatened, dismissive or even furious at the next group coming out to bat (babies, kids, bumps). I've joked your very birth, and your amber eyed face-off as I saw you first, rendered me irrelevant. I think it did, but hope I can run alongside you, on the car side of the street for a little while longer.

Your newness (and by you I mean all children, actually) is a double bind: you are infuriatingly unable to do things or act grown up, your ideas are half-formed but fixed and everything is possibly fascinating or frightening. Sometimes it scares you too, as you zoom through existence. The fury rattles round, unknowable, as you learn the worst of things, like making insults hurt or making fun or being loud or cross or harsh or mean, as you also embrace the amazing offering before you too.

Yet also it offers a glittery half mirror for those of us older, a glass for us to fall through into a mirage of nostalgia and sentiment spiced with a memory of fresh new youth. Annoying and anointing. A reflection and a warning, a clear signal that time tick tocks along. And a public one at that. Your public existence, your very person becomes a compliment and a challenge and no more so than when you stand in the too long trousers, with a too big book bag and a miniature Big Ben pencil clutched in your tiny palms, marching on yourself into the face of time, unafraid of the future.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

No windows to see our London...

So as Spider-boy's first day of school approaches I have a lot planned. In my usual overdrive I am very keen to have some fun with him, to enjoy our last hurrah of Mummy and Spider-boy time. We hatched a plan: to go riding on an open-topped bus tour of London.

It's hard to tell who's more excited: him, with his lifelong passion for buses, or me with the shining window in his eye I get to surf off when he proudly tells our friends about what he's going to do with his mummy on the day before he starts school.

And for this precious day, this plan which started on a spur of the moment idea then was built on a promise and cooked up over a fortnight, he and I, getting more and more keen, I was so, so happy. Since I've been back to work, working full time, I find my life is stretched to see-through. There's so little time for anything, No time to focus and regroup, to plan, to think, to write. There is certainly no time for mistakes or things not going according to plan. And I'm not really one of life's planners. Those 'Organised Mum' things give me the willies and yet the compartmentalisation of my life, the splitting and slotting in of things I need to do, that must be done, the deadlines and the commitments is becoming more frenzied.

We do have fun, but I've noticed that I've started almost making windows for things I never thought I'd need to plan. Not quite a note in the diary for the bit of the week where we all have a good time, after the online shop and before setting up a direct debit for the council tax, but we're not far off.

The day before something shifts though. Spider-boy suddenly reneges on our deal. He declines, he fights, he derides and dismisses. Sleep does nothing to quell his grump - the next morning he's even more adamant. It is a boring idea, something he'd rather do with daddy, and failing that at the very least on a family day (which is what he calls a weekend). Bluntly he starts being horrible to me.

He is four. Four! He is deliberately (well, I'm pretty sure deliberately) saying and doing unkind things. He unleashes on the landing about the distinctions in his head. It is not that he doesn't like me, it is time with me just me which is not his 'favourite', he wishes I was at work, and doesn't want me to take him on a special treat for school. He is particularly scathing about the idea of 'Mummy & Spider-boy Days' pointing out he sees me every day and he doesn't need time with just me, no brother, no dad: it will be 'stupid'.

Before you think him a heartless wretch, believe me I know there was more going on. He was sabotaging fun things, as toddlers and young children often do, he was on a roll, and by God I know what it is like to be on a roll, and he was in a strange nowhere-land, having left nursery but not yet being at school.

He's wrong, about all our time together. I know, because I miss, miss, miss it. I know that if I calculate it properly today is the first day in about 12 months which has just been me and him (no baby brother, no relatives). I took him to the shops a few weeks ago but all our other time has been with someone else. He's forgotten, because he does get attention and games and fun and love and stories. Or rather, perhaps he hasn't, forgotten or forgiven me for being unable to walk and having to be helped to care from him and then topping that trick by having a baby, often clamped to my tit, and just generally around.

And I know he's confused by the stop/start nature of a very long settling in period for school, something I barely understand or can organise with my work and our life. He, like all of us, is unsettled.

I know all that but I still feel humiliated and hated. I know this is small fry but I don't know how I can stand it or cope with this mean and unloving version of my boy on a day I've been so excited about. I try ringing daddy and when that doesn't work I crack and cry. I tell him he is being unkind and I don't know what to do, that I wish he wasn't being so horrid and I love him very much.

I hear a petulant twang that reminds me of his. He cries too and we wind up on the stairs. It is almost 11 and we're both exhausted. I go upstairs to wash my face and say I am going to finish getting ready for the day. I hear a shuffling, and it sounds like ice cracking at the start of a thaw.

'Maybe we shouldn't tell daddy about the shouting' he says, 'if we go on the bus now'. And we are ready in 10 minutes. We get club sandwiches and a coffee, we go to a tourist shop to buy tickets, we wait at a stop and get on the wrong route because we can't bear to hang around at a bus stop when we could be at the top in the winning open top seats. The wind blows through our hair as a lady tells us about kings and queens, bastard royals, war memorials, palaces and gallows. We jump off on whims, take in a river tour, scoff our sandwiches in our seats, see the London Eye up close, learn facts, weather a storm or two. School and arguments and stressed out family life teetering on a (work life) balance are all forgotten as we delve into history and urban myth and rise victorious with a Big Ben pencil and a cake outside St Paul's.

We barely talk about school tomorrow, and I make a mental note to find some time to berate myself, and then learn a lesson, from having too much invested in having the sort of day to cherish with my little one. After all, the pressure I was creating for it to be meaningful and symbolic, for it being the kind of day that allows you to look to the ones you love in a world where horrid things happen, this was naive and destined for disaster from the off. It was almost as naive as his hope that by cancelling his before school treat he could cancel school too.

When we made it on to the open top bus, he nearly wet himself with thrilled excitement. I'll never forget his face in the sun as he jumped on his seat spotting the lions (he later built a model of London on the dining room table to commemorate our trip). Giddy to be with my first born, and trying to grab my sentimental moment, I said:

'Do you know who, of all the people in the world, I most like going on a bus with?'

He replied, with feeling: 'the Burrito Brothers?'

Thursday, 8 September 2011

The second coming

I just read @spudballoo's post on her second child's first day at school. I too am compiling my thoughts for when Spider-boy enters that arena, although until next Thursday when he is definitely going to be in a classroom, with his teacher, without me, I am firmly in denial.

I am very interested in what she, and some of the readers in comments below, describe as the 'good value' element of second children though. My second son too, is absolutely, all or nothing. When he was born the midwives christened us both '0-60' and he has always been like this. Perfectly charming, or complete crazed, happy or tragic, screaming or juddering with wheezy mirth. There is no middle ground with him. And really this fascinates me.

You see, as an eldest (with traits of single child as my siblings are far younger) myself I have always been slightly dismissive about second children. Maybe dismissive isn't quite right, but certainly I've not always understood their emotions, motivations. Their drive, their laughter in the face of authority, their 'come and have a go if you think you're hard enough'. I'm a firm believer that family place can have a huge affect on your personality. Now though is a time for taking on and talking out my attitude to second timers as, not only have I married one, but I have one too.

I am so fascinated by Newborn's second-man-up-to-bat-ness and these traits he has which he seems to share with many so of the second kids I have started to observe around me. Sadly, I can only marvel at his intrepid confidence, and his lack of taking anything quite so seriously, rather than recognise or empathise with it as chiming perfectly with my own world view. He takes things far less to heart than his brother (and me). Where we are worrywarts and self-deprecating clowns; he's the real deal.

And though snapshot for snapshot, taken year on year, month on month, my sons and their smiles are almost identical, my second son is beautiful in a very different way for me. Partly, as I've noted before, because he does, ever so slightly, look more like me, but also because I see something different in him. Not the heart-stopping life-changing craziness of a firstborn who transforms everything, but a shaft of light re-illuminating my world from a new-old vantage point.

There's more to it than my chronic big-sister-ness. There is definitely something about his arrival being somehow 'despite' loads of things. With my Spider-boy, as I was ignorant of the realities of birth and parenting, and also, I guess, hopeful that things wouldn't be quite so totally fucking dreadful, I had great expectations of motherhood which ended, pretty swiftly in brain-trashing body-wrecking humiliation when everything about his arrival (apart from him) was horrendous. For years. So bad I thought maybe it would be forever.

Newborn was desperately wanted, but carried and birthed amidst a mire of dire dread, following a pregnancy marked out by panic that was white noise loud. But despite this he was the marvellous surprise. As I've detailed before I somehow forgot to realise or imagine or anticipate that he would smash his way through the hardest barriers I'd built and be so, almost disarmingly, charmingly uninterested in the bleak past; unaware and uncaring about the turmoil his existence seemed a miraculous rebellion against. His presence became a metaphor made real by his attitude. He is so forward motion and all about him and look at the world and 'I AM ME: HELLO!' that he startled me out of my trepidation.

And that is what is so wonderful to me, the metaphor made real bit, about second children. They come along with all this baggage of expectation (tempered by the reality of having already a child) and yet, couldn't give a rat's ass about the naval gazing and the before, they look only ahead, usually at their older siblings. Which is why I love the swing shot above. You can see his smile, and the motion of his brother's swinging that he's responding to whilst he also creates his own arc. As they crossed paths in the unromantic safety swings, rubber squeaking, chains clinking, I could see him blazing along radiating his own laughing look at the world and basking only in that past glory of his brother as it was reflected back on his own newness. His brother, in fact, is the one looking back (and he, as the eldest, is enchanted).

Monday, 5 September 2011

Feeling Feisty

Standing outside my office last week, as the rain started again and large splotches threatened to soak me, I felt a bit like a victim of the world. Not a martyr to the summer that nearly but never was, but a twotime loser. I have curly hair, and a crutch (again). I looked to the heavens and speared it with a sarcastic thought; thanks God I though, slippy and frizzy had better be THE look for Autumn.

As I mulled this a van pulled past. A van with a window wide open which seemed to be proudly shouting out its owner's view of the world: The Scientist by Coldplay. 'Nobody said it was easy...' blasted through the drizzle.

'Hah', I continued to myself on a roll in my ranting at the skies. 'No, they didn't. The mythical 'they', the generation above mine, the 'nobody' of the title did something far bloody worse. They said we, the mythical our generation, had to spend our lives making it look easy. 'It', of course, being that even more mythical 'it all' of 'having it all' fame'.

I've drafted several posts, harrumphing like a madwoman from my laptop about this, rewriting and reposing the same arguments about what the hell 'it all' is, why it is impossible yet still so alluring and the Nigella trap that I feel so many women, myself barging through the throng desperate not be left out, have fallen into. (The Nigella trap is the desire to be so freaking effortless in everything in life that the un-hardness of things is a be-all-and-end-all of itself, consuming as much time and energy as the stuff you're so easily achieving).

It is as if for women now, the cardinal sin is finding anything, anything, hard. Whether that's pastry-making, childbirth, deciding on a career, choosing flattering sexy separates which straddle work meetings and the school gates whilst looking, crucially, casual and like you weren't trying. And God forbid your hair looks like you spent time wondering how to make it fall so carelessly, sexually, glossily down your back which is no doubt in something you just 'picked up' from a vintage store.

But I don't think I've ever quite nailed it, the proper 'Nobody Said It Was Easy - actually everyone said it should appear that way' post. And I certainly didn't as my straightened fringe (not my whole barnet, of course, in hair care I am predictably half-arsed) melted into unbecoming sponge, which meant when I finally got home, crutch slidey but pelvis still only slightly wobbly, I had to resort to the sort of tunes which always cheer me up, of which the link below is one. I hope you like it, Feist's charmful count-along. I think it totally transcends being used on that advert. And what is more it remains one of the many Thatwoman-dancing-with-herself-or-a-sleepless-baby-in-the-kitchen classics, where, even when I have a crutch, my moves are so great I make my life and living it look really fucking easy.

Oh Mammy has a fine blog with a regular feature where she asks for a song for Mondays. I'm touched she asked me to join in. This post is linked to hers and the other bloggers who also shared some songs.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

How much is too much?

There are so many things where excess is a temptation or a worry. Ice cream, daytime naps, E numbers, hours of TV.

I realise I am someone prone to excess. I've just made a batch of butter icing. It will take Herculean resolve not to thrust my head into the bowl and inhale the vanilla fluffiness. I am a born addict, or at least a born binger. I could never have smoked one fag, and very hard, too hard, for me, was drinking in moderation. I've learned to temper this temptation a bit, to try to ease my way through the sensible world of just enough and bit by bit. Tough going though, I find.

Not least because there are other excesses which seem so important. The excesses of love for example, which has two too sharp edges either side of its overwhelming need to envelop those we must cradle in our love. There's the danger of not loving enough, and the peril of smothering.

Child-centred, baby-led, child-focused: the world of parenting nowadays has moved to a frenzy of micromanagement for younger ones in which, under the guise of following their needs, we thrust onto them responsibility they are perhaps too young to take. Responsibility, like being totally in control of when and what they eat and how through breastfeeding on demand, which we must often then abruptly wrestle from them when real modern life kicks in and they need to stop eating at 3, 4 and 5 am and start having breakfast, like a normal, so other people around them can go to work/school/nursery, or at the very least get some sleep.

And it is hard to know where the need for full-on absolute 'I'd eat my heart while it was still beating and walk in rags for a century for you'-ness ends and the need for pulling back starts. The easing off is needed, not least so we don't spawn terrors, emperors walking amongst us in tiny shoes unaware for the need to share, both for social face and (a harder lesson) because a shared sense of grace, rather than entitlement, helps us all rub along so much better.

But we also need to pull back for other reasons. Yes, to allow our children to learn to fend for themselves, and protect themselves, and realise that you need to tie your laces or you'll trip. But also to help them monitor their own desires, whims and fancies.

They will have to, after all, negotiate that primrose path of consumption one day. Work out a footpath to tread somewhere inbetween attending to their own happiness and desires, and going nutzoid bananas in a frenzy of consumption of all sorts until they are stultified and spoiled by too much of all things good and bad.

I think, actually, they also need something which is a bit of a dirty (or at least misunderstood) word: indulgence. Indulgence is a tough one when you are trying to straddle the two domains of parenthood: Time-Out-Land and her sister Baby-Is-The-Centre-Of-The-Universe-Universe. But I've come to think toddlers and babies precisely need a bit of indulgence.

The temptation to correct and corral into the right combination of precocious and beautiful and hilarious and wonderful, to mould them into our image of the right sort of child, can be hampering them with our own projections. How sad, sad indeed, to have one side of your brain - say, the one learning to make jokes and connections and observations - bollocked because mid reverie you've forgotten not to lick your knife.

I think, along with our inherent pulsating desire to forge connections with the world around us, there is a desperate longing for all of us, even the shiest of toddler in the world, for attention. For our take on the world and expression of that to be attended to.

They need time especially. Time to be listened to, to stutter and whine and giggle too much before the jokes comes out. They need space to make mistakes, to be too boring or too loud or too annoying or too messy, to exaggerate and repeat themselves. To be something altogether more messy and irritating than the perfect cheeky toddler we can capture on our mobile phones and summarise pithily on Twitter. They need this to learn how to be social animals in their own right: the anti-social in them is a key to that. How can you eat nicely at the table without first eating atrociously? How do you actually find out that an evening spent moaning ruins the fun for you as well as everyone else? They have to be bad kids to be good, some days.