Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Split seconds

A lot can happen in a second.

So the phone rings, when I am in my office. 'Is that Spider-boy's mother?' says a voice I don't know. She has used his full name and her tone is neutral. I pause. Just for a second. Catching a bit of breath in the back of my throat. I can feel in that shift of air uncertainty in my voice.

My arms begin to goose up. This all happens very fast, but also, very slowly. I take that second and stretch it out. Twist and turn it, bend it through force of will. Now it stretches out for ever to the horizon and over, like Route 66, or an enormous ocean. It spreads around and keeps everything still, inhabiting a space between one movement and another, spilling into the gaps between ordered time. I cling to it.

Why do I do this? It is at once involuntary, and I realize, a very deliberate last line of defence. That catch of uncertainty is actually hesitation. Not because I don't know I'm his mother, or even because I don't know who I'm talking to. It is something more complex but simple. As my mind plays with time, I find I'm actually trying to barter for it. To stall, to hold on, to keep the 'now' in all its complacent bob-bob-bobbing-along-ness alive.

Because even though it is usually nursery with a minor bump, or the doctor's surgery confirming an appointment, or the play scheme people or the health visitor, there's always a chance that it could be something else. Something properly, unthinkably bad and terrible like all this Godawful news at the moment. A situation where my life would be forever changed.

I feel oddly haunted by Amy Winehouse's death, partly because as a friend noted she was still a baby herself. 27. Who knows exactly what they want or how to do things at 27? Not many of us. But also because of her Dad, floating above the clouds as the world discussed his daughter's death on social network sites hungry for gossip, devouring speculative tit-bits including the fact that he didn't know yet. And it seemed so wrong and indecent, that we should know before him. But at the same time? He had those hours. Just a couple, but all those minutes and seconds where, for him, she was still alive, where his life wasn't ruined, where he understood the parameters of his stress and his life without his heart being broken to crumbs.

And so, in my office, I cling to my second, to the world as it was 'the last time I checked'. To a world where my lovely boys were safe enough, and my husband too for that matter.

I think about the one whom I only got to kiss this morning while he was still asleep, hair glossy, face relaxed, cheeks warm and befuzzled like a peach, and who I think might have gone to nursery without a cardigan as I didn't leave one out. And the other, smaller one, who woke early enough to have a feed and a cuddle just after my alarm call, all coy morning smiles and neck rubs and kisses before giving his father a hard time when I left. And I hope, with the sick through my stomach, metal tasting slightly dizzy hope, that when I've been apart from them, nothing has changed, nothing has happened.

I think how much we trust in others and the world when we let them out of our sight. I remember that we have to let them roam outside our eye-line, and that if we didn't, we'd do them a huge disservice.

I think it is such a rotten cliché, being called up at work, like the dreaded phone call in the middle of the night, but I am cowed by its potency. I understand why my Dad prefers it when we're all asleep under one roof, when his girls, who have long moved out of home, are back where they should be, all together.

And then I summon my courage as I'm just out of time, no more can be bought or played for.

'Yes' I say. 'I'm Spider-boy's mother'

'He has a place in his after school club,' says a secretary from his new school. 'Starting in September. Call in to the office to confirm it at the start of term.'

What can I say, but 'Thank you'?

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Shared (un) conciousness

This morning Spider-boy is indignant. Indignant, and confused, and beginning, I think, to get a bit upset. I've emerged downstairs after a catch-up lie in at 8.45 am. Both boys are in the playroom immersed in a reacreation of Cars 2 in which the smallest is crawling around, puking in the cracks in the floorboards, and remaining hopeful that one day be may be allowed to touch the key players Lightning McQueen and a spy car whose name we can't remember.

Spider-boy and Daddy have been chatting and even though I've had no coffee it is becoming clear I am supposed to have a response, possibly to something to do with The BFG which we've started to read at bedtime. We're reading it at Spider-boy's request although he's not quite old enough to understand there's a third person narrator commenting occasionally on the action. 'Who said that?' he demands when Dahl interjects with a direct challenge to the reader. He can cope with Sophie, good old inquisitive and darling, straight-talking Sophie. And he's putting the effort in for the titular giant and his glorious befuddlement of muddlifried words. But the author? Him too? This all knowing God voice is just too much.

But no. We aren't in (big friendly) giant country now. We are in the playroom. And Spider-boy is expecting me to join in. The trouble is, for once, I don't understand what he wants me to say. He isn't angry, but he's beginning to twitch.

'Do you remember my dream last night Mummy?' he asks for the third time.

Still a quarter asleep, I imagine he is muddling his verbs and personal pronouns. I say:

'Ooh, you remember your dream, what happened?'

He sighs, black button morning eyes a mixture of disappointment and borderline concern. 'You remember' he says, quite encouragingly. 'You remember, it was at the swimming pool.'

Blank faces. 'You remember Mummy. YOU WERE THERE.'

The penny cascades, as ever too late to salvage any respect. 'I was in the dream?' I ask.

'Yes, and we were late, we couldn't go swimming, Arthur and Timothy were there. The water went down a plug hole. Can you remember?'

He eyes me expectantly. He's egging me on, wanting me to share in the recall. So used is he to the idea that I know (almost) everything, so accepting of the new phase where we expect him to retain memories, discuss them, explain actions past and present, that this, his first readily recalled dream, is couched in the same terms. The logic is infallible. I was in the dream, of course I should remember what happened being as I was there in the dream with him too.

And as we piece together the dream, a slightly alarming dream in which the main problem at the swimming pool was we were late (reason unspecified) which ruined the fun, I realize that this is another area in which I can't protect him. In dreams.

We've been through nightmares and night terrors. They were characterized by a lack of coherent recall, at the time and in the morning. Screams and shakes, rigid bodies, terrified clinging, shouting out - and then come 6 am a lolloping saucer eyed toddler slightly fuzzy round the edges and oblivious to our concerns about the midnight hour madness.

His little brother is trying this out for himself too. His latest 'phase' is crawling and sitting and trying to stand in his sleep, squishing back onto the mattress and hollering through the chasm between sleep and wakefulness in an endless lunge for me. Like Kato screaming from the shadows, in his black babygrow with a squeal and a leap, he dives into my nightie too afraid of his brain and body and the freedom of movement which unsettles his rest.

Maybe Dahl has it right, then, with his talk of a pale, windy Land of Dreams, accessible only to runty giants and brave orphans who know the way. For they are another country, dreams. Another place where my little ones can wander unassisted, with only themselves, their hopes and daemons as company. Another area where I can't protect them, either of mine. And more pressingly, today, a place where I loom large and range around, apparently, letting them down and buggering up playdates at the local municipal baths. I am both there, and not there, sharing the experience but never able to remember.

Wow. What an insight I could get from this dream Mummy. What a window into Spider-boy's thoughts. I think about asking as I stand in the playroom (looking like a dick for forgetting what happened when the monster turned up, which it did, after swimming was ruined). But it feels too strangely like prying, and I realize that it is probably too much of a question for me, or him, on a Sunday morning.

It still niggles me tonight, though. Who is she, their dream Mummy? Is she anything like the me I see in my dreams? And I hope she is, not least so she's recognisably me, but better dressed and with less smudgy make up, even in the heat...

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

First Person

Spider-boy has just turned four. FOUR. Well done him - eating all that time, straddling two decades already, forging ahead and becoming him and him and then him again. Squeezing off see-through skins like a never ending edemame bean, perfect moulds of him shedded day by day to reveal brighter, firmer, more solid seed kernels of himself. My baby, my tiny thing, doing the big boy Birthday walk full of swagger and excitement. Bright, hilarious, wondersomely greatastic, and, as ever, showing me who's boss.

Get this: He's so great I try not to get my knickers too knotty about him too often. I hope I'm not unnecessarily needy or worrisome about milestones. I worry a bit, of course, but not loads. Usually, after a few evenings of panic, I manage to find my inner cajoling voice which reminds me important things like:
  • spider-boy isn't me, and can be himself at whatever speed he likes
  • spider-boy may not be able to do x, but he can do y and z and is concentrating on that and
  • spider-boy isn't worried so why should I be.
Failing that I call my Mum and let her remind me of these things instead.

My latest fear was magnified by his shift to school aged lad, and boy was it a corker. It crept and edged along the shadows by the skirting board, like a rogue North London mouse, grey tail flickering in the corner of my eyes. I wasn't even sure about the worry at first, it was the sort of worry I couldn't quite remember when I tried to think about it. Then it began to dawn on me. Spider-boy doesn't draw. Lovely though his few paintings are, not much has changed in the last year.

Now, I know I posted about my love affair with chalk and dusty scrawls, but I'm quite paranoid about my artistic and creative lacking and my inability to draw very nicely very often seems to sum that up in my head. I see mums around in homemade dresses, kids with handknits, look online at amazing feats by arty parents who create and create, whose houses and clothes and kid's stuff is so beautiful and unique.

I try, of course. For my Birthday my ever encouraging and stoically kind and good husband bought me a painting set and a book by Quentin Blake so I can start again with scribbling. But I can't shake the feeling I lack the nutty lump of talent deep down to do more than imitate and frustrate myself. I sometimes reckon I hit my stride with baking and decorating cakes, I enjoy my rustic efforts even if the results are a scrappy not a suave sugar rush.

Give me some buttons, I can at least make a hash of a hedgehog on a Victoria sponge, but a pencil? Nope. I'm back to being shit in the art room at school. And this sort of insecurity bleeds out, worse than my poorly applied watercolour washes, infecting my sense of the mother I could be and whether I can offer a creative enough backdrop for my lads to find and feel comfortable with the own creativity.

I'd like Spider-boy to at least enjoy drawing now, while he's a kid, and later who knows, at worst not feel wibbly about what he can do. I'd like him to have a non-complex relationship with his creative side, and let youthful experiment and fun form a template for how he wants to attack life's blank pages, rather than a weight stopping him from daring to pick up the pencil.

But he won't draw. He says it is 'boring', casually dismisses painting and tracing and colouring as what he will do at school. The art shelf in the playroom cupboard sits well stocked but sniffed at. The 'thank you' and Birthday cards we make together are no-go for chit chat, at best he'll slam about with stickers or stamps and finish off fast.

I know, know, know as parents we shouldn't compare, but we started gazing around. Facebook pages, walls and fridges - his peers really were drawing amazing things. People and flowers and animals. Figures, legs, faces, long spidery fingers. Stuff which had started to look like, well, stuff. After a conflab we dared ourselves. And we looked up figurative drawing in the little red book. On the milestones page. He was running out of time to be a 'normal'.

We tried more championing of his pictures but he smelled the agenda. He humoured me by offering to do magic painting, pictures appearing after aggressive bursts and slaps with water on an old brush. Then he stopped looking at the paper. If he was holding a pen, crushed nibs down to snubs, tore the background.

We decide to leave it and speak to his key worker after the Birthday festivities died down. I shh-ed my neurotic neurons which were boggling over whether he was over-pressured, needed glasses, had been deprived of art on the walls at home, needed more or less input from me.

I was working on his Birthday but nursery had a small tea and made paper hats. Nothing grand, but I made a cake for him to take in a satisfyingly Nigella-ish moment of managing home and work life. At his request it was a square cake with apples in it and jungle animals which I made by smashing Smarties (you can see them in their cracked up glory above).

And Spider-boy had a lovely day. My husband said he skipped home for our family tea date with his best friend. He said the nursery cake wasn't appley enough, but next time he hoped I'd do better, and couldn't deny the crispy, chocolate animals were good enough for me to make more on his cake that night. He burst into the kitchen to check up on my butter icing and at the offer of a spoon we fell in love with each other again in naughty licks. I dropped my worries to the floor and decided to leave them there along with his nursery card, crown, and bag. Which contained this (the nursery bag, that is):

Monday, 11 July 2011

Private lives

What a world we live in. I've been astonished by recent events. By the revelations about News International. So much has happened in less than a week. The newstand is forever changed, although a passing glance still reveals what look suspiciously like tawdry comics are still on sale, to adults with their combination of gossipmongering and tits. Thundering indignation is everywhere, and splattered at walls along with quite a lot of shit. A couple of days ago I felt I knew what to think. I had my theories, anyway, which were a combination of 24 style baddies plotting out moves.

Now I think they may come down to a funny combination of the most complex and simple motives there are - love, power, protection. People ask what Murdoch feels for Brook, why he wants to protect her. They speculate on her hold over him. I know nothing of the bond, but suspect it is as complicated and as dreadfully, primal and simple, as love. Not sexual love, parental love for her and for his son whom she can perhaps (who knows?) protect. This pseudo protection is deep and strong and unknownable and simple. I think we inherit it from older mammals and carry with us. A touch of wolf, a bit of mother chetah, some lionish pride.

This blog is rarely political, apart from when I get a bit ranty pants and tribal - resorting or reverting to the values and beliefs I've had, in many cases, since I started wearing shoes in grown up sizes.

And I find myself speechless about the stories I've heard this week. I shudder behind my eyeballs about the false hope to Milly's kin. I am appalled to learn of service personnel's family tracked down and spied on. I can barely believe that the friends, parents, brothers, sisters of those dying in my city and others at the hands of terrorist were ambushed for the sake of quotes which must have barely moved beyond cliché. (Not because they were not heartfelt, but because I am of the view that in moments of dreadful unreality clichés are often a lifeline which cut to the simple heart of the matter and offer the reused love of many at moments where words barely do). Richard Madeley had it right: what did they expect to find?

I have no idea at all about the ins and outs of phone hacking and editorial policy. It is hard to feel actions could become so widespread and callous if the practices weren't endemic. And I find myself imaging that, like with all bad behaviour, once the fear and bravura of the first 'successful' attempt (when they 'got away with it'), the buzz must have died quite soon and given way to malaise and a new lower bar to judge themselves.

I am guilty of so much vanity in expression. I'm self-consciously ironic, I like to be witty. I think about what I say, feel pride when I carve something out and express thoughts in a way I think others will nod along with, or at least recognise as their own too. I like playing with clichés and expectation. I have a friend whose wit should be world renown who often quotes that human interest moral indignation phrase 'as a mother'. It is a joke we share (me piggybacking on her original idea, of course). As a mother, I hate paedophiles. As a mother, I think this that and the other is outrageous/awful/terrifying/hateful.

I wish I were clever and smart and cool enough to move beyond that a bit. See the world broadly and not only through my own parenting goggles. But I must confess this news story, for all its fervour and interest to my previous selves - journalist, TV bod, meejah girl - rocks me as a mother. Although, it also rocks me as a thinking person too.

Today saw the news that details of Gordon and Sarah Brown's child and his medical condition were perhaps gleaned from nefarious and illegal snooping.

We live in a complex world - from facebook and twitter and google+ to instagram and the endless hunt for discount voucher codes, we sell our information so we can gossip and swap pictures, chat to each other and the world, get 'name' products for less. Those pictures are often us, the comments purely individual and egocentric, but they often involve others too - pride about achievements, birth announcements, gorgeous shots of loved ones, party pictures, whines and celebrations. I blog, about motherhood and my children. I try to draw a line between musing and reflecting on them and revealing too much about them. I use simple pseudonyms but hope I would never release information which could alter the world's view of them; labels which could define them, the complexities of their private lives. After all, they already have private lives, albeit small ones confined to the charm of their existence, and every crawl or step or new word or attitude is carving sliver by sliver their mark on the world.

I type this as Newborn sleeps in a travel cot in our lounge. Our ludicrous hunt for sleep taking new turns. I can hear his rasp and gurgle and watch his lips quiver a mm or two as his glossy eyelashes rest on his cheek. I am choked by his beauty but thinking too of Sarah and Gordon and their lad who I think had so much taken from them in that callous act of intrusion. Their poor son who, in the name of common or garden gossip, has had one aspect of his life stolen and made public on the timing and say so of people other than his parents. By doing this, having his health forever scattered across the intertubes, echoing through soundbites, lodging in memories as a matter of trivia, the 'paper in question created a storm which will probably never dispel. The genie is out of the bottle. It is what so many people will always know, and perhaps, now his father is no longer PM, the only thing they will know. How cruel. How fucking cruel. Not that he should be ashamed, but because like all of us who have doctor's appointments in private, he deserves his world to be his.

My son has medications, I wouldn't talk in detail about those. You who read my blog are mostly friends, but even so there are huge swathes of my children's life I keep to myself. Even those which would make hilarious anecdotes or beautiful stories: these stories, after all, are theirs as much or more than mine. I said in my last post, the genius trick of being born is to change the world in one wriggle and demonstrate your difference and independent potential as the cord still throbs awaiting cutting.

Sarah and Gordon's son had that moment. He has a world and a life and a right to that, independent of other people's views on his father or interest in challenging his parents in anyway at all. I have seen Brown questioned on prescriptions by someone citing his child's condition. In retrospect this becomes more insidious. That baby, now a thriving lad I'm sure, who I hope they are watching now at bedtime snoring softly in his dreamworld, happily oblivious to the shit storm circulating with his name in it, has had something stolen from him. Something which should be special and important: his right to be just himself. That something, his himness, has been partially taken from him. It is less tainted but as directly complicated and simple as the love I noted earlier. And it should have been simply his.

I'm not religious, and I resent implications I have heard that those without religious views lack a moral compass for their journey. But I often find myself succumbing to words and phrases and ideas which come from religious literature and liturgy. And at the risk of becoming a cliché tart, I am beginning to wonder what is left that is sacred.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Separation anxiety, loving and cord cutting

I went out last night, and saw many of my colleagues for a leaving party. It was nice to see that nothing had changed, and to feel once again part of a group. Sad to say goodbye, nice to say hello.

I'm nervous about my return to work. Wobbly, even. Not least because the logistics of childcare remain a mystery to me even as my return date creeps ever closer. I can't quite work out how it will work, and can't find many other women with experience of working full time without a nanny or a partner working part time. But I'm sure I will, find more similar voices that is, and also suspect we, my husband and I along with our robust and adaptable lovely boys, will find a way to muddle on through.

Aside from the fear of the new phase, though, I got talking to some other parents about children, parenting, the loves and joys and fears and frustrations. Several parents of now adult children declared this was the very best bit. The most exhausting and tough but the most enjoyable and exhilarating too. I certainly believe it. I've mentioned before the strange sensation that envelops me when I realise these might be the best days of my life. But is life what I thought it was?

Parenting is so strange, and I can feel there is heartbreak around the corner. I type this as my youngest 'settles in'. I partly hanker for him to hanker after me, but mostly want him to find his way even if he is so small in the baby room that I could weep for an eternity at how much I am missing even in these first few hours apart. I know that separation anxiety is a child development phrase, but fuck me I am sure I will never be used to how much I miss my babies when they aren't in the room.

Being a mother is rife with instant nostalgia. I am a sap so very prone to this. I am always chasing, always falling behind, as they storm on growing and learning and laughing and lurching, pulling away from my ankles and heading off for new adventures. It seems to me in this oft declared 'flying by time' I am almost bereft in the moment my children hit their milestones because my mind clicks back to what feels like seconds ago, their arrival and birth.

There's something astonishing about the cutting of the cord. It is so easily imbued with symbolic meaning - a child cut free, released, unleashed. And it is easy to read parenting as a never ending series of cord slashes as they tear away from us bit by bit becoming themselves. I was aware of the simple, everyday miraculous poetry of this well before I had children. But it never occurred to me that the moment, the cutting of the cord is powerful for other reasons.

I felt quite profoundly that the slice through the blue rendered me somehow irrelevant. Not completely surplus to requirements yet, but clear that I'd been given a sound reminder that my children, any child born, is themselves first and foremost. Unutterably and uncontrollably them from the start, even if they feel part of you for their first few months. It is both a slap in the face and an oddly reassuring release, to realise that you are half way gone, already the template for a memory mother, a person with the incredible fortune to have an imprint of yourself to hopefully tread the earth when you are no longer there to do it for yourself.

One friend I spoke to asked how on earth I could find space for two children to love. How the love for one can be separated and shared. I don't have an easy answer. I open my mouth and flex my fingers and little which makes sense comes out: the most profound of questions expose my lack of skill in explaining. The best I could come up with is this - the first time a child was delivered to me, for all the fear and loathing and my sense that we both may die, for all the blood on the walls and panic, all the looming instruments and torn flesh, he changed the room.

That old magic trick of being born. Another person alive and kicking, another person there, so definitely there, and the solidity of that fact, his physical presence in and of itself, so real and palpable changed the world. Mostly, of course, for us. But actually, for everyone. Way to go newborn babies. Your very first squawk creates history.

You don't even have to have seen them as they animated all waxy and wrinkly and small and big at the same time - I know mums and dads who for whatever reason didn't witness this. But they, the baby, are enough evidence of this incredible moment for the world even in those circumstances. The symbolism exists: this is their moment.

I love Roberta Flack (or Johnny Cash) singing The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. It reminds me of my scans, those tricks of the ultrasound light, all shadows and illumination which kid you into a narrative about the child you've created. Falsely suggesting they, this baby on a screen with your name on, are all yours. You have to feel like that when you have a baby inside you, it would be too terrifying and too alien to remember they are essentially both you and absolutely nothing to do with you at the same time. So you forget their themselvesness and imagine a world where you are in control of them and they are part of your story. And then bam, they are born, and over those early mind-numbing, cow-like, sleep deprived weeks it hits you. They have their own fish to fry, they are not you, not you at all, even the ones which look just like you.

The second time, the same unbelievable naked true Earth change happens too and you, more experienced as a parent, having been there before have the temerity again to forget the truth and imagine that this person, will be like the first one you made, and is following a narrative of others.

It is hard to avoid this, but you are a wiser parent than me if you weren't hoodwinked all over again just the same, into forgetting that another child will be just as much themselves. The good news is this doesn't mean sharing or duplicating or finding space in you to offer them love. Just as they fill the world with themselves as they take breaths unattached to you, so too you see a whole new world with them in it and are guided into that world to love them.