Tuesday, 30 October 2012

No shame...

Photo by lucebrett

I know, I know you must all be sitting at home thinking what on earth happened to thatwoman after she got all embarrassed at a urogynae appointment and spilled it all online. Why did she stop blogging? Is she dead? Or is she still scrabbling for her Oyster card and messing up her life?

She is, of course, still around AND still unable to function as a normal commuter. And just too stressed about too much, too scared, too worried, too too too too everything, including too self-conscious about being far too much information last time.

So how do we get her back on to the stigma saddle? Where to start? Depression? Smoking? Chaos? Parental angst? Actually with the second part of the piss poor poor piss story. With what happens after your initial assessment, when there are surgeons taking an interest in your bladder and wanting to check how dynamic all your urinary behaviours and faults are. Grab a cuppa, peer into the piss void, you know you want to…

I had my hospital appt the other afternoon. This time I managed to avoid actually pissing all over my clothes and took my husband with me. I can confirm it is a lot easier to cope with extensive incontinence testing when someone who loves you is waiting outside and you have babywipes and a nice jumper in your rucksack.

I would say I don't know why I was in such a state and wobble about going (this was the big assessment to check whether surgery would actually be an option for the appalling stress incontinence I’ve had since my first labour and delivery). And after so many years of physio it seemed weird that I would have a cataclysmic meltdown at the point help was on the table, especially when I’ve tried very hard to be a fanny feminist and to do, in my small way, for incontinence, and especially for those who are functioning but with pretty terrible incontinence, what Mind and others are trying to do for mental health.

But I do know why I got so upset I couldn’t write about it: because it is rank and depressing and really upsetting to be incontinent, and fucking lonely too. But that’s not the story today.

Usually I try to be grown up. I hate that I meet so many women who have nowhere to go with their distress and no idea whether there is help. But no-one, really no-one, can be the upbeat incontinent woman all the time, because it really does and can rule your life, which is why I pulled myself back to the doctors for the d-day public analysis of my broken twat.

The short of it is this: I went, pissed all over my feet in an x-ray room, and it was all good. The consultant was ace and offered to operate as soon as. It was the sort of vindication and reward, and completely odd mixture of euphoria and heartache, that I don’t have the skills to describe.

The test, however, the urodynamics test, that is the sort of ghoulish devilment a gore-whore like me can really sink her teeth into. Pretty grim, but something I wish I’d read or known about from the perspective of the pisser rather than the piss monitors. ie I really wish I’d heard about it in more than the very clear, kind, and 'sort of' accurate descriptions I found in the letters and leaflets and websites I trawled before I went. So here goes...

First off, I would do it again. I really was surrounded by destigmatising kindness. The very best treatment. The sort that is so kind and humane it is the reason you carry on and evangelise about help, even though it sometimes makes you die a bit inside.

Take the incontinence nurse. Let’s call her Carol, she had a Carol sort of face and her straight up kindness was so quietly but firmly reassuring that she made all the catheters and things just seem so normal. Honestly, she was fiddling with my ass and other holes and then using wires to attach me to a fucking machine with the air of a kindly school nurse giving you a pad when you started your period in PE. I burned, but that was my shame, not her projection.

‘That’s lovely,’ she says when I emerge from a changing room ready in my gown. ‘But you’d better take your socks off my love’.

Before that, before Carol shoved in a balloon of some sort, with some technically named straw attached to fill me up and feel the pressure, I entered a surreal nightmare of Jess Franco proportions. In the bowels of the hospital’s corridors of shame (my term, not theirs) are the special toilets. Toilets where you are asked to sit on the one with the silver seat not the normal one. Sit on the silver bog and wee on to a spinning propeller. A propeller! And this isn’t even the good bit.

I walk in and survey both loos. My bum is cold in my gown. I take a deep breath. I can wee on a propeller, I’m a grown up. I sit and try to ‘relax’. The wall moves, there is a hidden door. Though I’ve locked the main door, the room is actually attached to some others behind it. And there is Carol! She’s popped up, from behind me, to see how I’m doing.

She ushers me to be attached to the monitors and to lie on a big white wipe clean bed in a radiography room where some people are milling. It is not unlike the bit in Charlie and The Chocolate Factory where they enter the Wonka TV studio. Everything is white. The staff are in those anti radioactive anti X ray aprons. They look to me like they are in galoshes.

‘Don’t worry, Lucy, this is a wet room,’ says Carol.

‘You mustn’t be embarrassed if you leak on the floor or anywhere,’ the radiographer concurs. ‘This is why you are here.’

The scan set up is pretty weird. You have wires protruding and the whole thing made me go a bit queer and pale. They basically fill your bladder up bit by bit, after introducing the team. ‘This is Jim the scientist’ says Carol. (At least he looked like a Jim).

‘Awesome!’ I think.

‘And your consultant is just around the corner.’

I feel rude. I’d turn to acknowledge him but I don’t want to move on the bed in case I dislodge something.

Jim the scientist is very kind and manages to be discreet whilst talking loudly and clearly about a series of fictional scenarios which may or may not chime with how much I need a wee as they pump cold stuff through a straw up my snatch.

He keeps asking me, as he fills up my bladder, if I feel like I need or want to do a wee. The hilarious thing is, though I can see, with my eyes, that my bladder is growing, and though I feel really bloody strange and scared, I don’t know. I don’t know if I need a wee. Or want one, for that matter. For the first time in five years of being ruled by my bladder and hyperconscious of its failing I have no idea.

‘Would you pop to the toilet now?’ he asks. ‘Would you go in if you walked past a loo right now?’ ‘Are you beginning to feel any pressure?’ I have no idea. I don’t know why. Nerves? Worry? Shame? Yes, probably shame.

They assure me there is no right answer – I don’t manage to joke about how that isn’t the sort of test I like. I hate tests with no right answer, tests where I can’t get an A*.

Though I do crack them up when Carol asks if I’m allergic to anything and I say ‘cats’ (true answer).  

‘I left mine at home today’ says nice, nice Carol with a wink. ‘Good job,’ I say out loud in the way you never actually do: ‘NOBODY wants me to sneeze’. I can make the wet room work, I decide. This is all material.

And then they tip the bed. Tip it up until I am standing. I rise like Hannibal Lecter and see all the people (who are so nice), the people who have come to watch how and why and when and how much I pee.

The very nice radiologist, who is soothing throughout, warns I might feel faint, some people do apparently. I feel like I'm dying, again. But I hold my nerve and am shaken into reality when I realise I actually do really, really need the loo now my bladder is full and I am standing up. There are 5 or 6 people in the room. I can’t count or be that accurate because I feel like I’ve had four glasses of warm white wine and no dinner. I’m here for this, I read up, but I still nearly cry, nearly cry like a little girl in the supermarket who is about to wet her big girl pants.

Then next bit is awesome. You have to cough and move so they can see how and when and why you pee, what bits of you actually don’t work well at all. To help, because I am helpful, I agree to lift my gown so they can get all views. Still, I fathom, I get to watch it occurring on a luminous screen, all angle weeing as I pee on the floor. This is pretty cool, and almost convinces me this isn’t something I’ve made up completely and should shut up about. It was so surreal I'm letting it fly. Though I still wish I'd shaved my legs.

Then came the best bit of all. I’m standing, weeing and not weeing depending on what I’m asked to do, trying hard not to be nervous as I’ve read somewhere that could affect the test, when I’m asked if I would be able to empty my bladder completely, right there, in front of them all.

Time stopped a bit. I was like: Now? Here? Being watched? Is this the bit of the movie where I become a porn star despite my 70s grooming?

I emit a squeak.

‘Don’t worry’ say the nice radiographer and Carol. ‘You don’t have to, some women find it too embarrassing’.

‘It would help’ says the consultant, 'but there’s no pressure'. The room expects, though.

And I’m still thinking: ‘SOME? Only SOME of them find it too embarrassing? Not ALL? Jesus, I’m far less cool about this than I thought’.

They seemed a little surprised at how upset I look, though I possibly imagined that as my head is all buzzy and light. ‘Deep breaths,’ I think, 'If we’re being realistic TWO OF THE ADULTS IN THIS ROOM HAVE STUCK THEIR FINGERS UP MY BUM BEFORE. And be reasonable, thatwoman, the rest of them have been so reassuring and respectfully upbeat. And, bonus, they keep telling you you're doing really well when you tinkle all over your feet'. I conclude that I should probably woman up and just, well, stand and wee everywhere ignoring the fact that, again, it feels like a bit of me is dying. So I say, in a slightly scared little voice:

'Um, okay…'

I take a breath, with a shocked but defeated expression. The radiographer and Carol suddenly understand my abject misery. They fly over and save me from the most humiliating thing of all time.

‘No, no, my love’ says one. ‘You don't have to just wee on your feet!’ ‘He means will you wee into this machine here' confirms the other. I am saved.

They proffer me the bottle, useful for festivals I’m sure, attached to something from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or the TARDIS in the 80s. It is to measure my flow. I get top marks. Go me.

The outcome was really great. Thankfully they stopped the test before asking me to do star jumps or walk around as I’d heard mooted online.

We had a long meeting, a detailed discussion, another examination in which I urinated freely like a tacky European fountain. But I was high on humiliation by then. And Carol was there, and she helped me clear myself up. ‘He’s here to help you’ she said of the surgeon who is sprightly but assured now he isn’t in a weird lead suit. I love Carol and the surgeon now, they have a quiet but enthusiastic calm and confidence. Perhaps because they actually spend their days making life less shit for people and fixing stuff.

I still almost fuck it all up by wittering. In my defence I felt quite odd (the test is draining, because you are lying down and standing up at exactly the moments you wish you were doing the other and because, as a wise fanny warrior who had done it before soothed later, it is very tiring to drop your dignity completely for a whole afternoon). In the time it takes to put my clothes back on I convince myself the consultant is going to say 'No'. Say I’m too young, haven’t done enough pelvic floors, that I’m moaning, or whinging, or too fat, or… something.

He humours me for a bit and then pulls a face and describes my stress incontinence as ‘off the scale’. Good or bad? I want to know, but he beats me to it. He can tell it is awful. ‘What do you want to do?' he asks and boom, finally the fanny feminist thatwoman rises from the dead.

‘I want you to do an operation and stop this now, because I can’t bear it any more’ she says.

And that’s what he offers – to try and fix me whenever he can next fit me in, which was pretty nice of him given I had just pissed all over his arm and the wall of his office.

Monday, 20 August 2012


I loved the film Shame. I found it moving, and simple, and complicated, and dirty, and clean all at the same time. I was drawn in but horrified, not by the central character’s sex addiction but the easy decline of me into voyeur, and the extent of that voyeurism. I was as pulled into the film’s slippery unravelling of its characters. It was uncomfortable because the spotlight was as much on my willingness to look deep into the central brother and sister characters, their rotten past, their flaws and mistake and challenges to each other and the world, as on those things themselves.

And then there was the cock. Michael Fassbender’s majestic cock, and the endless raw, dispiriting confusion of sex and desire and need and want and eroticism and beauty and nastiness it embodied and touched. It is a strong film. A grown-up film for grown-ups and not everyone’s cup of tea.

It interests me though, the potency of everyone and everything, but especially the contradiction of the male lead’s nudity. His bareness is what is perhaps most shocking and high-end about the film, but it is also the film’s most crushing weapon, and Fassbender and McQueen’s masterful provocation. We see all, but we see nothing. And his desperate face on orgasm is more intimate and distressing to watch than his full body. The film is striking for its intimacy laid bare, but more so as that intimacy is false. Though we see all of him, we know nothing of Fassbender’s sexual behaviour, predilections, orientations or past.

I think this today in the tunnels of shame below UCLH when I go to meet a consultant. Of course I do. Because I can’t think in depth about being incontinent at 35 and I realise I’ve ‘coped’ with it merely by denial. Try as I might, for example, I’ve failed to write a simple list of my history to discuss with the big man who perhaps holds the key to a more normal life. Which is completely stupid and self-sabotaging, but the idea that he may be able to cure me contains two others:

The truth of it in all its pissy, shameful and embarrassing tedious unglory

And the fact that he may not, actually, be able to sort it

Perhaps, I panic, he will send me away. Tell me to shut up, buck up and cross my legs. Tell me I am making mountains (of Tena Ladies) from molehills of shame and should be endlessly appalled of myself for complaining. As ever, I can’t decide which is worse – being told there’s nothing wrong or revealing my physical inadequacies in public.

Despite being a regular and an old-hat old hand when it comes to urogynaecology and other humiliations, I have ducked into a tailspin, afraid I’m more of a tired twat. Partly I’m wigging out, of course, because I don’t want to fucking go. Mostly though, because the world of gynaecology and repair and physio, unlike some of my experiences of midwifery and obstetrics, is so surreal.

When you are there, in the belly of the beast, lying in your own piss and bearing down on someone’s hand, or god forbid, a speculum, it feels so normal. They act like it is okay, to uncontrollably wee on someone else’s hand. That OF COURSE when you are weeing all over the bendy bed someone else should be watching.

The humiliation is massive, despite their efforts. And their kindness and normalness brings a cost. It requires a detachment from the doctors - and catches them out in the destigmatising decency. They have to be detached from the reality, because they have to keep pretending that talking to someone who cannot control their urine or other functions and acting as if that is an okay, normal and not at all embarrassing thing is, in and of itself, okay and normal for everyone. It is a confidence trick leading to a strange complacency in the situation if not the people, that I’ve noticed in so many of these areas of embarrassing illnesses.

For example, in a discipline full of bells and whistles and thought and cleverness and kindness, I have yet to go anywhere where there was a normal place to put your pants and Tena Lady and trousers and shoes when you do the half strip. Never. I always end up clutching them and feeling like a prize twat. A total twat. A twat with no knickers on being asked to wee on a man’s hand after shoving a pile of my clothes on top of the bin for waste products.

They crack jokes, they ask questions to put you at ease, you know their names, who their kids are, when their wedding will be. And they know these things about you. No-one mentions that you are having these conversations as they are performing acts that would, in another scenario, be either erotic or abusive. At one point, when told to just ‘keep going’, I almost die. ‘I could charge good money for this in Amsterdam,’ I nearly quip, though I don’t have the heart and am too busy listening to my monologues of ‘sorry, sorry, SORRY, sorry’ on a loop.

Usually, I giddy along. I take a deep breath and pretend I think it is all normal and okay too. I talk candidly and joke. I display my embarrassment only with the weird quirk of being descriptive, detailed and unashamed to use Latin or Anglo Saxon in my c-word-talk, all the while unable to look anyone in the eye.

Today I managed that a little, but I couldn’t get my history out, I jumped around, I was so confused I felt the narrative of me might for ever be broken. It was poetry not reportage, a deranged conflation – medical terms and interjections, most of the right notes but none at all in the right order.

I’m putting it down to fear, but also to the insane mixture of being laid bare completely and utterly for strangers to see but trying to remember that I can and should be myself, that I exist outside of this, that I can be private. And that does make it hard to talk menstruation and sex and orgasm and sensation and toilet talk and tearing and stitching and trauma all at once, and show my snatch to someone, who is still actually a stranger. ‘Who are YOU?’ I want to ask at the obligatory ‘Do you have any questions?’ bit. ‘Would this be easier if we had a relationship?’

I don’t think it would be, and none of this is a complaint about the superb surgeon I spoke to, who was so very kind and hopeful and upfront with me. But that’s why I think of Fassbender, and those stars of 9 Songs too. And how well, and how little, we know them at all. And the trust they must have had in the director and the camera and the story they were telling. Which is the lightbulb moment for even me. Because the story I’m telling is mine, but horrible, and one I am still a bit too immature and cowardly to own. I pass it off as snippets of anecdote and rude jokes, and then write about it on the internet to pretend that by the chutzpah of self-publication I skip the bit where I think about it and process it properly.

I can’t even decide if that’s a shame, or just the only way to deal with it.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

July / Birthdays

This month was a well of nostalgia. July always is. I am thrust back to the past, however hard I cling to the present. However hard I work I'm hurled with my broken nails into maudlin reminders. A month of anticipation and worry, niggling silliness. A week, two days, 24 hours until the anniversary of Spiderboy’s birth. It is ironic how potent these days can be, given my often scatty, forgetful approach to birthdays and anniversaries.

If I were a better mother I'd see July as the month of Spiderboy’s birthday and focus my thoughts on how to realistically sculpt a sugar predator on top of a Victoria sponge. But my mind control, like my icing, is not quite good enough. I can no more escape the pull towards picking scabs and unleashing the ghosts of depression all over again, than I can get the jawline of a jaguar quite right.

Dreadful to see this day as anything else but his special day. He’s been obsessing about it for months, after all. Since his first weeks in reception it is all he’s spoken about, all the way home, every day. Every conversation an endless meditation on presents and parties and food and cakes. I can’t shake my preoccupation with it though – for five years I’ve tried - though this month fate had a new idea. On the morning of the 13th, the day before his birthday, after a night of brooding worry, I wake to a litany of time reminders. At exactly 10.45 my phone beeps, an alarm goes off, I catch the time on the TV. I tell the temp receptionist at work (because I can’t stop the words coming out of my mouth), that five years ago I called my husband and told him I was in labour. And I'm off.

On Twitter, I get involved in a conversation about gas & air. It was around the time, lunch time and early afternoon, where I was still giddy and excited. When I wasn’t broken yet, when it never occurred to me what could go wrong. A friend said she didn’t think much of that floaty puffing stuff; I note I was the other way, thoroughly enjoying it for a long good while, though conceding that, like most things, G&A is better experienced with a slice of cake and a glass of wine, than with an angry mammal climbing out of your vagina.

The evening spreads out before me like a brutal mistress. There is no escape: snatches of birth stories and birthdays jump out from TV, in books, on the radio. Even seeing old friends and building a playmobil zoo is merely a brief distraction.

Excited as I am by the thought of my big boy I don't want to see any clocks change tonight. I am afraid of his birthday. I may be dramatic and occasionally sentimental, but I’m not usually obsessed with dates. Yet by midnight? By then I am the worst kind of fool, staring at him asleep in his bed, transfixed by the time as if there’s still the chance, the second, the moment where I can stop the clocks and replay, rearrange, make better, mend, re-shape.

Silly woman, wasting time wanting to be Marty McFly. We know it never works out well fiddling with the past – so why can’t I stop replaying it and wishing (hoping even) for a way to change it. I once tried thinking of ways to obliterate it, but that only resulted in being given enough drugs to keep me from lying in a bus lane.

I wonder when it leaves? Speaking to other mothers, many find the build-up and the day itself, the anniversaries of giving birth, tough. Not just those who had a horrid time, or were left with reminders of birth through injuries and damage (mental and physical). Not even those whose children are not very young any more.

It is a monstrously earth changing moment, of course. And an epitome of the parental obsession with milestones and change we all link with children – from ‘hasn’t he grown?’ to ‘is he sleeping through?’, to ‘how’s school?’, ‘is he crawling yet?’, ‘can he read?’

Our noting and noticing feels like we want to capture the change as it happens, bottle the babies at each stage and understand them. We never can of course: once it has happened, there is rarely any going back. They only say Mama until the day they say Mumeeeee, we only recall the utter charm of their stilted early steps as they acquire poise and grace. But we do all this collecting of time, like charms on a bracelet, as our children stride through it showing us up and getting ahead as we scuttle behind savouring them as they no longer are. Forward momentum is theirs.

It is like we approach it dimensionally differently – children zooming along time in a great straight line, us scrabbling around at a standstill trying to understand that movement. I think we are unable, and scared, to properly view children on their pathways.

We are too busy looking back. It is as if our decedents are each some sort of Michaelangelo block in memory, our kids are things (hunks of potential?) from which we see each layer after each layer of youth chipped away by life. As if life is endlessly discarding bits of the picture, and our job is to scrabble around and sweep them up into albums, fashion the scraps, the redundant and the obsolete into anecdotes and stories to feel safe with a narrative. We look up hoping to see the next bit revealed, but rarely see it fitting our imagination or our plan.

We are peeling our children like onions! Hoping to see what? Them finally revealed? This wouldn’t be surprising; after all they are our biggest mysteries, so similar to ourselves and yet so very different. And so changeable that it is sometimes hard to imagine, especially when they no longer fit like soft pug dogs in the crook of our elbows, when they give proper barely moist kisses rather than huge mouthful sucky smackers, that they were ever attached to us. In some cases stuck inside us: part of us, joined together, acting like they didn’t even want to come out.

Birth is such a violence and mystery, even when it is strong and positive and beautiful too. It makes no sense, it seems absurd, the further I am from it the more ludicrous I find reproduction and delivery. How can one fuck produce all that creation and morphing and stretching and reforming? How can it result in giving birth, not just to the animals who have grown within us, but to the body they have ravaged and the people looking on?

I say that, though I appreciate it sounds syrupy and over emotional, but I think the act of any great moment of love, and the measure of that act, is a form of rebirth. You give so much of yourself away when you open up, just for a moment, to let someone in to your heart – whether that’s by letting them out of your body or by letting them in via any other means. Children are our great lovers, their shape carved into us somehow, built from us, riotous and righteous and brutal in their acts of tearing out of us to be themselves. No wonder I forget whose birthday tomorrow is.

Birth is becoming for both of parties, no matter how unbecoming the experience. It turns each player into a new animal, a new thing, and that should be celebrated, not least as it can never be reversed. We can only hope that the transition is positive, it usually is.

And I can only hope to atone by fine tuning the (big) cat cake, and praying the jaguar (not leopard, jaguar) costume we've ordered on Amazon turns up in time. Then at least someone will get to celebrate being a new animal for the day.

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Who is that? (Come on baby, the laugh’s on me...)

You sit around getting older. There’s a joke here somewhere and it’s on me…

It was my birthday last week. To celebrate I danced to Horrible Histories songs in the lounge and played Springsteen too loud for my own good. The quote above is, of course, Springsteen. It is from Dancing In The Dark which is less anthemic than some of his most famous songs, but remains perhaps his best known in running onto the dance floor terms, and was one of his most commercially successful hits. I love The Boss at the best of times but in the last few weeks this line, that song, with all its self-denial and impetus and charge and regret and love has been following me about in my depression.

Things have been hazy. That’s why I used the picture above, but also the one below.

I know it is rubbish and blurred; no filters or special instagram tricks can save it. My husband laughs at me for loving it so much, but perhaps the combination of the shuddery fuzz and those staring, staring, staring eyes is what makes me want to blow it up 8 foot square and stick it on our living room wall.

The reason I appreciate the stare and smile (mirthful? judging? anticipating? happy? confused? bossy? hungry? I don’t know) is this:

Sometimes I stare at my second child and I just have no idea who the fuck he is

I would say what the fuck he is, though that is too similar to my view of Moshi Monsters. His brother I understand so much more. I may not have the big cat/predator love or quite such an incessant interest in the minutiae of Birthday parties, but we share our over sensitivities, bellowing laughs, disinterest in wearing clothes, our big emotional rollercoaster view of the world. I can predict Spider-boy’s unpredictable mood swings. With his brother? I’ve no idea. And I find this is especially the case right now.

The blog’s been quiet because I’ve been overwhelmed. Suffocated by an inability to do much but hope (when not at work or involved in direct childcare) and sit around thinking sad thoughts. I’ve been praying too. Yup. Praying. Praying maudlin and morbid prayers to the ether (as I’m an atheist), but as fervently as when I did believe in God. I’ve been whispering under my breath, crossing my fingers, being sentimental and superstitious.

I know I’ve probably been no fun as I've been driven only by this groundswell distraction: but I’ve not known any other way to act when all I want is newborn (and some other babies I know) to stay well. To reach the mythical milestones. For newborn it is one month, two months, three (COME ON THREE), without a hospital admission or decline or giving us a fright. He’s made two months since he was last in a ward overnight. I’ve decided maybe that’s enough. Even if I can't halt the fear, I can ease it and try to move on from the headachey pressure to think about little else.

My chest aches from nervously smoking cigarettes (not near him or in the house or anything, obviously, but as I pound the streets of Soho after work). But I can’t keep everything on hold and stop talking and thinking and writing forever. A part of me believes that if I write anything good about him I’ll get mine (and a by product of that will be him unfairly getting his to punish me). But a part of me also secretly believes that by worrying strongly enough, being a worrier warrior mum, I will keep him alive. I can’t shake this thought, I just can’t. But I can’t sustain the fear either.

Three things dragged me out of it:
  1. Turning 35. Middle aged according to the stats I learned in primary school. MIDDLE AGED and still moping, for God’s sake
  2. Going to a rock concert, to which I travelled without children, and where I got drunk, and sunkissed and backstage, and shouted the words to Springsteen songs with my mum, my dad and my baby sisters
  3. And, thirdly, (vain, moi?) taking a photograph of myself at the top of this page with a mobile phone. The photo is hilarious as it is one in which I look about 15. I look nothing like myself, of course, I know this. But something in the fluidity of time behind the image, knowing myself and having no idea who I was, being me from now and some other world of DMs and drinking snakebite, shook me like the shaky hands blurred my baby in the second photo.
The thing is, my son has changed. He’s really changed. And so much, all whilst I’ve been too scared to think about the present. In just two months and he’s put on some much weight he’s back on the 51st centile line. ‘His’ line in the red book weight charts, the one he was born on. And this is after dropping off the grid completely on just the 1st of May. Those were sorry days. He looks so different now. He has pulled off that trick whereby we now see how awful he looked before with new eyes unclouded by our desire for it not to be that ill.

But now he’s fat(ter). He’s also tanned. Regardless of my attempts with sun-block he’s like his grandfather, not me, and goes for gold in even the patchiest Summer. Best of all he catches me off guard by not catching his breath. He needs his inhaler, sure, but I haven’t had to sleep on the floor in his room with my clothes on and a mobile phone for what seems like forever.

I find as fog of panic lifts a little I see my son afresh, and he is so strange to me it is like giving birth all over again. I’m thunderstruck. Bewildered I heard myself go straight to the horse’s mouth this week. I stared into my toddler’s darling little mullet framed face as he clutched an Iggle Piggle toy while dancing round the lounge singing the theme to Gigglebiz and I said, not unkindly, but with feeling:


He stared straight back into my face and shouted: "Mummeeeeeeeeeeee".

Then screamed with laughter.

He’s always been good at jokes, but I’m impressed with the devil in his eyes today. Like all toddler he would repeat the same joke for hours if I had the stamina, but he’s working on timing by the third repeat of this one. 19 months old and his eyes flame bright with anticipation. I ask again and he defers the inevitable, teases me with the possibility that he will change the game, perhaps say his own name for the first time. He starts snorting through his nose with anticipation, stifling a hoot of mirth and half laughs half shouts: "Daddeeeee". But only the once.

The Boss knows the truth, and so does newborn. Wallowing and fear is no good, if I can’t do anything else the joke’s on me.

In Memoriam - Part I

I'm interested, if not an expert, on how we use photography and social media and how it influences our lives and in my case both my experience of (and presentation to the world) of my parenting. Above is a picture I took a few months ago. I kept it on my phone despite feeling very strange and conflicted about how and why it existed and whether I should ever show anyone. I must state, clearly, and right now, that it is the foot of a baby, mine, who is very much alive and happy today. It is bloodied because he had some tests, for which the results were pretty good. I should also perhaps offer a warning that some of the reflections below are partly about death.

When the photo had been on my phone a little while I met a blogger called Violet, just briefly, at a conference called Cybher. I feel I should give a warning here that her work is not, as she puts it, everyone's cup of tea and many may dislike even the premise of her blogging. I was very touched by her presentation and her blog.

She has an amazing site if highly sensitive site in which she compiles post mortem photography, pictures of the dead, especially, but not exclusively, from the early days of photography at the end of the 19th century.

She says she envies the Victorians and their pragmatic approach to death, and her site seems to pay a tribute both to those whose images feature and to another time and experience. Many of the photographs, given the time, are of children. Both because child mortality was so high, but also because photography was so new and expensive that some images seep out a secondary sadness.

Beyond their thundering blow of bereavement, they suggest that perhaps this photograph was the only one parents could afford of their child. The only one they had. And one taken once their child slept forever. A world away from the cacophony of everyday snapping we take for granted. Often the children and adults are dressed up – if you’ve seen the haunting film ghost story The Others you’ll have seen a riff on these sorts of images.

I was struck by both her simple interest in compiling, restoring, displaying and responding to these pictures and by the notion which becomes apparent in the comments or with any research - that these photos are a commodity which hold so much interest. People collect them.

The site, The Skull Illusion (http://www.theskullillusion.com/) is interesting partly because it offers a prurient insight into a great taboo, the ultimate window into others' lives: the thrill of their trauma, the sense of their importance and the simultaneous shock that all that was them is mushed in a fadedness into 'history'. But also because both the blog itself and the fact that it exists poses so many questions.

Do the dead have no privacy? Perhaps not, once their living loved ones have also passed on. Or perhaps they should have? Or is that in and of itself a denial in all of us? An unwillingness to address what is behind the curtain (for all of us)?

Conversely, is it not a honourable thing to display and cherish these pictures, home them and love them somehow, allow more to see their strange beauty? This beauty in itself is intense. It is partly the starkness of the images (like most things which move intensely they are both banal and deeply shocking) but also the love and reverence with which they are taken, and their sense of posterity and simultaneous hope and defeat.

Mostly, ghoulishly, it is fascinating. Is the site's power as obvious as the thrill for readers of daring ourselves to stare at something we don’t want to see, or shouldn’t? The ultimate keyhole peeping without the fear of a pencil poked through it into our eye? Or is the threat of some nasty surprise for spying part of the appeal – do we have the balls to stare down death and will he jump out of us like a ghost girl in a Japanese movie?

The site’s author told me the most looked at photograph she has is one which has been widely printed the world over – a picture of Kurt Cobain. It isn’t gory, it isn’t detailed, it is of a door partly open with his foot and arm visible. If I remember correctly some detritus of life, a coffee cup for example, visible to the moment snatching paparrazo. Just a foot in a shoe, it could be a rockstar asleep, a teen languishing listening to headphones, but it isn’t. It is the dead limb of a man who has taken his own life in violence.

When people die we understandably struggle with the transition to the world without. There’s a beautiful eulogy written by a rocker to a friend, Terry, who toured and worked with him for years. It says:

They say you can’t take it with you
But I think that they’re wrong
All I know is I woke up this morning and something big had gone*

It most accurately distils every feeling and experience of grief I have ever had. The emptiness, the weirdness, the normalness, the everydayness, the bloody infernal ‘they’ telling us all what we should think and how we should react in good times and in shit ones.

I have never taken a photograph of a dead person. But I can understand the urge, not least as I am still a child in the face of death, coping with it mainly by simply pretending it doesn’t happen, and failing that pretending it doesn’t happen whenever I don’t have to address other people grieving and needing my support and sympathy, or sympathising with me in my grief when I have experienced it. Behind closed doors I pretend we’re all immortal.

I’m struck by the idea of Kurt Cobain’s foot (I saw the image when it was printed immediately after he died, I can’t look again, it would be too close to home). And curious about the many people finding it through google. Are they pleased or disappointed there’s no blood? I’ve seen dead bodies online and in films, I know the sensation of craning your neck, tilting your head to check if there is more to the picture, any grisly detail left unseen at first glance.

I'm mainly struck by the foot though, because of pale feet I too have seen. Once when my son really was very sick I found myself photographing him. I was appalled by the vagabond version of himself he was. Panting, stretched and strangled by wires, ribs pulling out of his chest, eyelids see-through, throat hoarse with trying, lying in a monstrous high raised infant hospital bed. It was the most frightened I have ever been as an adult, and all I wanted to do was take photographs. Endless snaps on my phone of his face, his feet, his nose, a profile and lips and teeth. Even though the very act was so intrusive on him, and unfair - he is beautiful when sick, but like all of us perhaps deserves the best of him, and his prettiest, to be on show.

I didn’t think at the time about why I was doing it, though I felt embarrassed later, ashamed even that people would think I had done something trivial at his time of need. I thought ‘they’ would think I had abdicated the proper mum's role of 'worrier warrior' merely to live up to the incessant over-sharing of the social media networking age.

Perhaps there was a touch of that (I wonder if I believed the situation was real more or less before I updated people online about his progress?) Mainly though I was torn between wanting to show people the images of him really sick, or edit them like holiday snaps and only show the ones where he looked beautiful or not upsetting, if occasionally covered in wires.

Now time has passed I think I know why I did it: because I felt like if I kept recording it I would keep hold of the moment/my son/my autonomy/my authorship of my life and hold the image of him somewhere somehow in time. And the moment wouldn’t end. And he would stay alive.

Violet, the author of The Skull Illustion cites becoming a parent as one of the reasons she developed her morbid curiosity. A desire to woman up to the big D in an attempt to cope with the horror that parenting brings, a clear and present sense of all the time danger of something going wrong with time and a child being lost. I think that is what I was doing too, and thankfully with a child who is now recovered, fat and well.

* from Terry's Song, by Bruce Springsteen

Sunday, 17 June 2012

The elephant in the room

Father's Day is here. And the season of summer birthdays. When thinking about the former I realise someone is often missing from my blog, which talks a lot about sons and mothers, husbands and brothers, sisters and friends. I think this can often be the way with the big things in your life.

Big things are great. Take cats. Spider-boy prefers jaguars, but the entire family is pretty keen on lions and tigers. Even the soggy tigers, majestically walking on water whilst sodden at the Isle of Wight Zoo a couple of weeks ago. And especially the black-maned lion Lucifer at London Zoo, which Spider-boy has adopted and which we also visited last month.

But despite our animal adventures Spider-boy feels hard done boy. He is, he declares with some considerable criticism of my parenting intended, the only boy in his whole school who has never seen an elephant. The only one. London Zoo no longer has them. And he's quite sure we have never taken him to Africa. (Or India. Or Whipsnade. These being the holy trinity of elephant-spotting).

He is impressed by elephants, as they are both vegetarian giants, but also fierce fighters (elephants, according to Steve on Deadly 60, are deadly). Especially the bulls with their huge tusks and clattering might. And though I am more sceptical than he of the apparent percentage of his class who have answered his question in the affirmative and claimed to have been on a safari, I understand the longing. Such magnificent beasts.

'I think you have seen an elephant!' I reassure thinking of a trip to a wildlife park when he was at the end of nappies, 'but it was a long time ago, when we went on holiday'.

His eyes narrow.

'How long ago?' he demands. 'Before or after we were all monkeys?'

I shouldn't be surprised at this. I think he has a good understanding of history, and his personal past. He can wax lyrical at length on his nostalgic views of nursery, can look at the big kids' room with a wistful sigh and declare his recent contemporaries as now 'cute' and 'the little boys'. But if being a mother has taught me anything it is to recognize the craziness of the world as we perceive it, and the strangeness of so much of the stuff that we adults feel is entirely logical, as revealed by little eyes.

Back in the bedroom he is sorting through some animal fact cards. This is something he does endlessly, though today I can see there is some frustration. I assume this is related to the elephants. 'I'm sure we can see an elephant one day soon' I soothe.

Nope. His mind has skipped on. He's cross now because he thinks elephants must be the oldest animals, (apart from blue whales) and something he's seen in his nature book has annoyed him - news that a giant tortoise can live for over a century.

I probe and am reminded to always listen carefully and to watch my assumptions that he's always following what I say. For today I find out this: my son (4, 106 cm) is convinced that age and height are directly related. There is little I can do to dissuade the conviction about this correlation. He offers he and his brother as proof, and then me and my husband. When questioned further he reveals the landscape of his imaginative understanding of the world, which is simultaneously charming and devastating.

His paternal grandmother, nanny, for example, who has told him she is shrinking with age, must be getting younger. He ponders whether she'll ever get to be five again or just stick where she is ('about seven? I'll definitely be older than her soon').

And looking around at grown ups in the street he reveals he is vexed by the complicated question of which age it would be best to stop at? Should he stop growing at 25? 35? 40? Which would be the better age to remain until he dies.

I note that many people have been similarly preoccupied with the retention of youth but then offer his great grandmother as living proof of 91 and just how old a person can get. This is greeted with a laugh. I think he's deriding the elderly, or girls, but he isn't. He just thinks it is hilarious I can misread the world.

'Who is the oldest person you know then?' I ask.

'You know him! Don't you remember? GRANDAD!' he snorts.

My father, six foot four plus hair, born 1956, not often in this blog.

'You remember your Daddy!' And now I will, always, noting he must be 'the oldest man that has ever been alive'.

Monday, 28 May 2012


I sometimes think about when I die. @MindCharity and others fill my twitter with discussions of depression and suicide and other nasties in the name of raising awareness. I like these, they are usually messages of hope. And there have been a couple of terrible news stories lately; the worst, probably, a father coming home to dead babies. Bad, bad, bad days for other people.

Having had depression I think it is easy to feel that death is very close. Partly because my depression has tapped into my inner melodrama and angry dog. But also because if you can fall into depression, if your path has been shown to be a complacent walkway, then you know that there is far more 'but-for-the-grace-of-God-ness' about bad news than it is comfortable to believe. A mind which has once played tricks on you, will never be entirely trustworthy. In short, you won't ever exactly be able to trust yourself. And how do you move on? Find the force for good? Get over it?

I find it hardest to remember my depression and do something useful with it when I am closest to happiness. And when I am crossing the road. At my worst I never looked for traffic because I secretly hoped to be mown down and stopped. For time to freeze and the days to end. Brown Owl should take my Road Safety badge back - sometimes I used to close my eyes and step out. These days, feeling less shaky, it is all 'quickly carefully / wave to the nice driver / wait for the green person'. But then, there was recklessness and the taste of angry exhausts. What a wicked girl I was, but at least this means the kerb is always there to remind me.

And morbid isn't always bad. It can offer us a chance for simple reflection. Take today. If sentimental posturing is to be believed when I die my life will track back and forward through my head in edited highlights, like the most glorious facebook stream. As we embark on the ballache of the school run I wonder fleetingly what snapshots I'll settle on as I lie dying? The sight of my husband on our wedding day? Warm words, silly jokes, easy silence with friends? Cold beer? The might of a jaguar? The thrill of a new book? Leaving the cinema after my first Scorcese film? The breeze in my hair and sun on my face near a gravelly beach? The lilac evening glow of new bluebells in our first garden? The sight of a boy in sandals eating an apple? (That is probably my favourite view in all the world, if not my favourite sort of moment).

I'm pretty sure when the show is done the final shot, my happiest moment, will be this. Walking down a warm pavement, little sweaty hand in mine dragging my back because we aren't quite the right size for comfy hand holding just yet, another scampering creature running ahead (or holding forth from his father's shoulders) shouting out a stream of consciousness: animals, predators, transport, friends, birthday parties, facts and, mostly, questions.

We may be late, like today when we were ushered into the playground to the tolling of the dreaded bell. We may be early, like last week, loping and stopping to look at what specimens and curios Haringey has offered us (a dead bird, some chewing gum, a pair of shoes, WHAT'S THAT MUMMY? A FRIDGE?.. on the pavement). We may see a bus in the distance and know we'll miss it, or be licking ice cream dribble from our sticky chins, or just moments from the shadow of home. But we will be walking forwards, together, in an everyday scruffy way, looking both ways as we cross the road. That, to me, will always be what happy is.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Age Appropriate

I've written before about Spider-boy's attachments and obsessions when it comes to TV, notably his hearty love for Fireman Sam and later Gigglebiz, which have now also been consigned to the scrap yard for all things too babyish. He is now, with typical four-year-old full immersion, hooked on Horrible Histories and Deadly 60.

I think both are a good thing, and mercifully, just like listening to more complicated stories at bedtime I feel they are giving him something I simply cannot - a sense of autonomy and mastery over his own taste. Like the best TV for anyone they entertain and challenge, inform and explain, provoke thought and reactions. Only Deadly 60's charming presenter Steve could get away with throwing down the gauntlet to kids armed with Top Trumps predator packs by wickedly suggesting the natural genius of a Praying Mantis or a Venus Flytrap could be considered on a par with the might of a tiger. Spider-boy loves these ratings and top tens, the enthusiasm Steve has for the natural world and the hint he like his idol, should spend time thinking carefully about whether a honey badger could take a wolverine in a fight (it so could).

And only Horrible Histories would have the balls to introduce the notion that history takes many forms, can be misunderstood and patronised, whilst also told from different perspectives, in a show which is instantly appealing and hilarious to preschoolers (not least for the focus on poo and all the uses made of it over time - dental cures, analysis of ability to rule through sniffingroyal stools, the houses build of pigshit).

The later is especially involving - go on any parenting forum and you are bound to find a thread talking about mum crushes on the guy who plays Charles II or the joy of rhyming 'imagine it' and 'I am the last Plantagenet' in Richard III's mournful lament for a reputation ruined by Shakespeare. You'll hear of grown women sniffling into the fish fingers at teatime when they think about the pathos and distress of Queen Victoria's anthem to lost love:

For 40 years I ruled alone 
Shed all those tears while on the throne 
What got me through the pain and hurt 
Was clinging to the memory of Albert 
Oh V and A 
Oh A and V 
Each way it spells L O V E 
Oh A and V 
Oh V and A 
They'll name a building after us one day

Try it yourself. Children or no, make your own day by looking up the hieroglyphics number (A-B-C re imagined as 'eye foot basket'). And hear a fizz of pleasure from any human being who appreciates life and wit, with the RAF Battle of Britain boy band song. A tale of 10 hours training, Czechs, Poles and Brits fighting together, the strangeness of become history's 'few' and the desire to be back for good (like Robbie).

And good TV, like all good art, does that - unites, appals, invigorates, prompts more. With all things parenting the temptation is to help our children skip the steps towards finding the good stuff in life: help them miss our mistakes, to avoid the rubbish on the way. Which leads me to Ben 10, which to be fair, isn't the worst TV show ever, just not especially inspiring in any area other than the endemic marketing to little boys.

For over a year the spectre of Ben 10 has hovered around our remote control, always a fascination, a temptation, eventually a Holy Grail. I didn't especially want to encourage it but had to marry that protective desire with the wider picture - how could he fit in at school if he wasn't armed with the lexicon of the playground? How could he join in games with big boys (and almost everyone in his school is a big boy compared to him with his summer birthday) if he didn't understand the mechanics of a shape shift enabling alien watch like Ben's? These are difficult questions, and ring true with my history - one of the reasons my parents bought their first television, if family lore is to be believed, was because I didn't understand what Fame was and my teacher thought I was fibbing.

Before it became a true fetish object we decided to relent. What would he make of it if we let him watch it for a treat, this Most Wanted cartoon about an alien boy? He thought it was okay. He's only asked for it once again, and that was because he knows how to spell it, speak the title as code as if his little brother might be interested. 'Perhaps tomorrow we can watch B-E-N-ONE-O?' he shouts conspiratorially at bath time. 'Newborn's not allowed because he isn't nearly five!'

Which underscores something about Newborn too - whatever rules we have for his brother, what ever gentle nudges we give him to watch TV which is good and fun and offers him a side of lasting knowledge and discernment with his entertainment, Newborn will always have seen more. He never gets to watch stuff which is purely age appropriate for him, he must filter for himself and fall back into his place in the wolfpack hierarchy of boy. No safe CBeebies island for him in his introduction to the popular arts, no haven of Iggle Piggle and quieter fare. He's seen the Tombliboo's once, on a day when I had him alone and put it on. He now takes a tie in book, discarded years ago by his brother, to bed saying proudly 'LOOK... lolliloo' to himself and laughing in genuine wonder. They are his special secret, I think he's still wondering if any other baby ever saw one.

Then today he saw an episode of Spot. Such simple, old school little kid TV that I remember my younger sister watching it. He ran to the TV, towards the simple line drawings and gentle, gentle voices, and had what I think was an epiphany: someone, somewhere is making TV for him. He held the screen, nose on the lights. And then he ran away. Perhaps it was too overwhelming, to feel so personally addressed by the magic box corner. After all he must associate it primarily with being told to move out of the way of the picture or being admonished for switching it off. Or perhaps he was just disappointed with the simplicity of Spot, and craves the episode of Horrible Histories where George IV explains his life long passion for actresses, duchesses and pies. I know I did.

If you are interested in Kids and TV my husband writes a blog on this subject.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Guest post: birth story

Here is the link to the birth story post I wrote for blogger The Mule. I discussed the emotions stirred up by recounting birth yesterday

Her blog is on my blog roll and can be found here. She has always been supportive and kind to me, whilst producing a provocative, poetic, thought provoking body of work herself including activism, musing, challenges, calls to arms, questions and genuine celebrations of women, mothering and birth.

Interestingly I realise it is the first time I've written out Newborn's birth in one go. For the record, it really did go that fast.

You get some brilliant TS Eliot too, for your trouble if you visit it - such a wonderful piece of work I feel quite ashamed of what's below!

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Birth stories...

Two weeks ago we were back with my second son in the hospital where my first was born. More hours to think, gazing at our London, which now of course, five years on from my start at mothering, has a great shard across it, cutting up through the skyline.

While there I was mulling. A few weeks ago, another blogger (http://www.the-mule.com/) asked me to write up a birth story for a week of guest posts she has been putting together. I have written about childbirth a great deal, of course, here but also on forums and in emails. I feel quite strange about 'my' birth stories, especially given I so easily refer to them as that, 'mine', when in fact they really belong to my sons. They are their stories, the beginning and end of our exclusive time together.

I don't know what I've encapsulated writing them out, or indeed editing them to fit the word count for the birth story season. Or that thinking too much about them and writing it out was even helpful or cathartic.

I feel I've bored people senseless with snatches from them: gory, funny, outrageous, warm and fuzzy. And yet I also found to my surprise that there wasn't any especially clear story of either birth which gave the full picture.

I went through my emails and my posts, I looked at the stories I've told, the narrative I've constructed about both births. It made me think a few things - any sense of narrative, any neatness to either story, was imposed by me. These were meandering, raging, boring, weird times: minutes crawled along majestically paced, hours zoomed, phrases stood out, entire conversations seemed to disappeared  even as they happened. Perhaps all labours are like that - and necessarily become flashes of full colour in a sea of sensation.

Even (especially?) my medical notes were not helpful. They were a fragmented skeleton which didn't help me iron it out either time as they are jotting books, lacking depth of detail, written by multiple authors and occasionally contradictory.

Is it important, to have either story complete? I'm not sure. I wrote them out, every single thing, the first birth so seared to me and so upsetting, the second so fleeting and confusing. Everything I could remember now, the details I recorded then. It took more than 5000 words and neither properly held things together. They missed the real joy: the warm sun on my face the first time and the birdsong we could hear as I hit 10cm, the jokes and hopes and the moment a friend delivered a sandwich to our labour room. There seemed no way to explain the intensity or meaning of my first memory of my second child which is a mixture of:

relief he was alive
recognition (as he looked so like his brother)
shock (as I hadn't really realised he was about to be born)
confusion (because the similarity I refer to was so acute, they were identical birth weights and length and as I stared at his fat cheeks and little face I couldn't understand if he was real or imaginary)

Perhaps there are no words for that kind of mirage of light joy and recognition, the old newness of an echoed face, the excitement of familiarity and its surprise.

They did fit a pattern though. The same pattern seen in @caitlinmoran's How To Be A Woman where she writes out both births: one shocking, leaving her speechless, the second leaving her asking why did no-one say it was so easy.

I could write mine like that - the horrid nasty damaging birth vs. the healing transformative birth. That is one reading, and the easiest to structure my life around. It doesn't tell all, not least as in my case it ignores the duplicity of birthing which I also find in parenting. I only just avoided calling this post A Tale of Two Births. A nice pun, an apt Dickensian allusion given that when in labour the first time, I felt trapped in a Victorian hospital in the dark, united with all those howling heroines in novels I read but never truly understood. It would have been an apt name for this post mostly though as they were the best of times and the worst of times for sure. Tonight my son asked what the best and worst day of my lives have been. It is hard to give him a truthful answer, not least because those days of delivery do sit there, side by side, but at the top of both lists.

I've written before about common phrases and things we hear - like how we should be grateful for a positive ending for birth and a healthy baby. This, of course, is true. A healthy baby is the holy grail and all we should hope for, though I've noted my annoyance. Just like descriptions of empowerment and rushes of love, I think it is unhelpful to generalise about childbirth, especially to people whose experience of labour and delivery is not a positive one. I think this sort of expectation of empowerment, for example, can create a terrible expectation of what birth 'should' be and suggestion of failure if it turns out to be something else.

As a feminist this makes me concerned - I do not want to scaremonger or upset, or to blemish or affect people's views of birth, to contribute to any school of thought which disempowers women in any way or encourages them to make choices based on fear rather than anything else. I know my experiences were deeply transformed by a model of birth which was positive, and yet didn't match mine. My pain, for example, did not feel positive once when I was giving birth the first time. Not once. I know for some it does; for me it didn't. I'm most empowered personally when I hear others too felt the same. But I also know that my experience throughout labour was not conducive to that model of birth anyway - too much was stressful, unexplained, and frightening, and that there is still much which transformed me for good and ill.

Yet I often feel in need of confirmation that it is okay to feel the visceral intensity of those memories, and their massive distance from me now, their beauty and their heartbreak, their difference from anything I've experienced and their drudge, their fear and their wonder. So I tried not to sugar the pill or make it too poisonous. I'm not sure if I succeeded but I will link to the post when it appears.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Technology baby: out of touch

All children I know and have ever met have been obsessed with technology. I suspect it is somehow linked to their connection with the future - they are, of course, closer to it than us. Kicking off the edge of the past, as represented by us, floating out further than we can reach to find new depths and mysteries and magic.

This is why their mortality is so heartbreaking. Children are not the future, they are only the now as we are; they are just better at looking beyond it.

The holy grail of all toys in our house has always been the mobile phone. Both of my babies would have happily killed me dead to get their hands on one and I often catch the youngest copping a feel in my handbag just in case it is there.

When Spider-boy, well under a year, first actually got one to himself the first thing he did was lift it high, hold it an arms length from his face and look between the display screen and the distance. He was giving us a perfect lesson in our defunct-ness. For him, this lump of metal/plastic/glass was not a device for aural or oral communication: it was a device for capturing images of now. His experience of the world had taught him I had a special camera for him which I kept on me at all times.

I marvelled at this easy analysis of the actual uses and relevances of technology from his tiny brain. As someone old enough to remember university halls with just one payphone, I have had to get used to smart phones and learn to avoid the perils of too fat fingers and cheeks which cut off calls in between whilst harking back to a simpler time. I'm so bad I insisted on retro dial phones at home, as I so miss the safety of a heavy cupped receiver. But it is thrilling too.

They are helped, toddlers and babies especially, by many things. Their energy and lack of things to bore and worry them. Also their limited grasp of linguistic device and their developmental stages which, whilst holding them back, also allow them to see things for what they 'really' are. Take early obsessions, for example. Things little ones get mad for when they are first learning to gesticulate and speak: to say a word, or better ask 'what's that?' Their awed cheeks every time they see a cat, say, or a car, or a train, or a dolly is brilliant. Unable (or unwilling?) to group things as we do, every cat is a new individual object to them. They are able and eager to fill their brains with new images and words and experiences for comparisons. This is how they learn. No wonder it is so exciting, and on occasion terrifying for them.

What grown ups gain in simplifying the world into known things grouped together, they lose in the simple spark of wonder that comes from being conscious of something they haven't seen before. So complacent are we in the too-much-to-know-ness of our exhilarating world that we miss out or even become annoyed.

I knew I'd reached my saturation point when it came to planets. I was taught nine: NINE. I was taught that as a fundamental of the vast universe, and grounded it made me too. I even learned the nattiest bloody mnemonic to remember them and was eager to pass it on (My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming Planets, in case you are interested). But now there are eight. EIGHT. I felt an electrical crackle and pfft as that part of my brain shut down when I heard this cataclysmic planetary reduction on the radio. I'm too old, too old for there to be eight planets. That synaptic hissy fit at least ignited a burst of empathy - for all the times I groaned inside when my parents and grandparents persisted in long dead names for countries and capitals.

We adults, inundated and drowning in new things and old things must emphasis the collective to keep the world manageable. And we must hanker after the old and recognisable even when it no longer fits - we still call our mobiles 'phones', even though for many of us they have different functionality (they are for writing, drafting, reading, emailing, recording, media centres holding music, video, radio, games, creating wireless networks, sat navs and on and on and on). 'Phones' relates to communication, which these objects allow, but they are a slither of battery life which offer something more complex: a rendering of ourselves externally (by creating our image, doctoring it with filters, defying geography, editorialising our social image and space, and making us chameleons in our multitasking).

My mobile is rarely for making and taking calls, it is for exchanging pictures, taking them, displaying them, for storing ideas and playing scrabble, condensing thoughts/instructions/itineraries/jokes into brief text messaging, sometimes in code, checking in on the million social media streams which filter a view of the world back to me dependent on what I've done in the past (who I've liked and followed, what I've bought) rather than who I could be. Ironically, given my reliance on googlemaps to get me to new places, it is also for defying time and space so I can work and 'interact' regardless of where I am. I can't work out how any of this works and at times must 'learn' to be 'intuitive' with my complex gizmos.

Newborn can. He is 3.5 years younger than his brother, but he rendered Spider-boy as archaic as me and my husband when he first fingered a phone. His mitts on my lowly BlackBerry and the first thing he did was hold it down in front of his chest, pause for a second then drag the second finger of his right hand across the screen with meaning. My little Smartie, he knows iPhones and iPads are the things to aspire to. Steve Jobs would be proud.

He then picked up my Kindle. He dragged his finger and the image didn't even flicker. He tipped the screen to see if the picture moved. Nothing. He tried again. Nada. He looked towards the window into the sun stream considered for a second and tossed aside an object 5mm thick which can hold every book we'd house in our home. To him a qwerty keyboard and a 3G enabled library in his pocket: too old and out of touch.

And what was I doing, as he made this analysis? Taking his photo of course. On my phone.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The Power of Chocolate 2: When good books go bad

Spider-boy has finally discovered the joy of a proper bedtime story. One that stretches out over a week or more, a longer narrative worming into your brain as you snuggle up to someone you love. It is one of the things about parenting I was most excited about. I am still. I don't even care that mostly daddy is the go to reading guy, my sentimental side swells anyway, our boy: curled on the sofa, listening, waiting, scoffing up words and tropes and brave new worlds.

But books at bedtime can bring many perils. I've noted before a pamphlet I adore by Roald Dahl, in which he explores the world of the child and dismisses the way many adults talk to children saying they have completely forgotten what being a kid is really like. I think this can be very true - most interestingly when we are trying to foist onto our offspring things we loved or enjoyed ourselves, the hallmarks of our own childhood passed on down.

There's a disconnect (often by a year or two), in my experience, in our recollection of age. We think we remember being four, but do we really? This is why, I think, people often tell toddlers off for whinging, bemoan three-year-olds for being boystrous and chastise four-year-olds for being physical and impatient and babyish. Hardly any of us truly remember those ages that well, we have fuzzy snap shots, but because of those pictures and the familiarity of our children (echoes of ourselves and siblings) we feel like we have the whole picture.

In our parental fervour to pass down the stuff we so cherish now, many of us jump too early. So keen are we to introduce our child to the things we enjoyed - films, books, toys, games, places to go - we often do it when the child is just a bit too young. This said, the opposite can be true. We can be too fearful of letting them learn life's lessons, of finding out there's more to everything than Guess How Much I Love You.

I have done this with books, books which I remember loving, and therefore were probably books I had when I was at least Spider-boy's age now, not when I bought them for him (when he was in my tummy!) And with reading aloud books, we tried to be careful. He bedded in for The Animals Of Farthing Wood, and prepared for the grim and gross by Horrible Histories and the like, had a rapturous rapport with The Twits. His imagination ballooned and his eyes jumped out when we told him about George and his crazy dad, marvellous medicine and grandma with a mouth that was puckered like a dog's bum.

And so we moved on to Charlie (he of the chocolate factory). I was reticent, Husband was terribly keen. Tantalising chapters of chocolate waterfalls and minty grass, snapping candy memories of words that fizzed your brain like Refreshers in CocaCola. But I was wrong. As things began, the fudge whippled magic took hold: Spiderboy was hooked. Charlie is so lovely. Grandpa Joe is such a treat and Wonka, so crazy and odd and mythical and, like Dahl, unpredictable. It was only once we were a couple of chapters in that I realised what was going to happen: I was going to watch hope die. I had to have faith it was worth it.

The great thing about hearing more complicated stories than you could manage to read on your own is being sworn in to the mysteries and magic of playing the long game. My son was being pushed on to revel in adjectives by Dahl's linguistic fiddling and made up words, and forced out of his comfort zone in terms of suspense, narrative, literary devices like metaphors, and the confusion of reliable and unreliable narrators. The relationship between author and reader (or in his case, the bit in daddy's normal voice and how that speaks directly to the little listener) was especially novel. Trust is on the line too. Spider-boy's books up until then are mostly short and no author has ever dared to disappoint him. Books for young children are usually sweet and quickly resolved.

The gratification is deferred, of course, but only really for a page or two, and that at most is a couple of paragraphs, if not only a couple of words. Bobo gets his mummy soon enough in Hug. If the suspense is longer, that isn't because something bad has happened - and the wait is rewarded with picture flaps as in Dear Zoo or humour, as in Pooh Is That You Bertie? or The Mole Who Knew It Was None Of His Business.

The trouble with Charlie And The Chocolate Factory is the build up is so confectionery sweet - Charlie's starving, he gets one chocolate bar a year, there are golden tickets to A CHOCOLATE FACTORY in chocolate bars, he's nice and sweet and deserving and hopeful. It is like anticipation for Christmas - we all know our mums are fibbing when they tell us about kids who really did get a stocking full of coal!

Spider-boy started to talk incessantly each breakfast time about whether 'tonight is the night Charlie gets his ticket'. He's enjoyed the build up, now it is time for Charlie's birthday when he can win his golden passport in to a building full of sweeties. Mr Thatwoman and my sister who was staying with us got excited too. But they had forgotten who they were dealing with. They had left Roald Dahl behind in childhood, to allow it to get a rosy glow and fudgey memory defined by the final satisfaction of his twists. They now only remembered the best bits of his books not the specifics: they were as naive as Spider-boy. (I had the foresight to write my dissertation at uni on Dahl. I knew he doesn't give you your sweetness straight away; he's not that stupid or that condescending, he's interested in toughening up his readers and is a pretty good judge of what they are tough enough to take - see also his descriptions of war and death in Boy and Going Solo).

As Charlie opened his chocolate bar, to find just chocolate I felt the room shift: Spider-boy's eyes flickering with all the stages of grief and back to anger. The sacred pact of spoon-feeding from all his other books and television and film was broken. He had been cruelly crushed in his expectation of happy endings (or in this case Charlie's happy beginning). He'd learned that things don't always work out as they should. See:


Husband and sister exchanged the 'eek' face. I mouthed 'told you'. Spider-boy dared to push on. I knew at this point I would have to leave the room. As I knew, again what was coming. Grandpa Joe made a plan. A plan to buy another bar, I could smell the (misguided) relief from the other adults. An old man, a starving child, one chance thwarted, the daus ex machina of a secret coin saved under the covers of a bed of dying pensioners: we all know how that should work out. Spider-boy latched on to the literary device of a gift from the Gods, and to his faith in goodies and baddies and who should triumph. And he, the foolish darling boy, he hoped. Bam: no ticket.

My heart was nearly torn in two. And it was gone 8pm. Time for bed.

The next day son woke with a slightly broken voice. 'I just don't know' he confessed, 'how Charlie will get a ticket!' It was as if he'd been thrown into confusion over what books would and could do: challenge, fib, upset us. It was a foundation stage version of John Fowles - had he been hoodwinked by a lying cover, was this book anything it promised to be?

Thank God for the next night and Dahl's final surrender. Not without another hiccup - even the luckiest bar bought with the luckiest find for a starving schoolboy: a coin in the snow, even that doesn't yield a ticket straight away. I have a theory that by making Charlie give in to baser instincts and buy two bars not one Dahl was underscoring punitive theories of surveillance - somebody somewhere notices when you aren't as good as you could be (Charlie after all should save the second bar's worth of money for his folks). But in practice the real lesson was for Spider-boy - he had to learn to be teased. A better life lesson that, even better than the bitter truth that sometimes people as nice like Charlie don't get the nice things that should come to them.

He learned that really good books might do more than just give you a happy ending straight away. He now knows that some bets are off in literature, that stories have twists in their tales. And he's experienced a writer prepared to toy with him a bit. Which is good because it has forced him to a point of being discerning. When he picks a book he has an inkling he had better be bloody sure he's in a safe pair of hands. He might not get what he wants or what he expects from Dahl, but for all the fear that you have to ride out with books which don't kowtow to sentiment on every page, the rewards (whether it is laughing out-loud at something ruder than you can believe a grown up would write, bubbling with mirth over a witty observation you can tie in with your life, reading out a long word like c-h-o-c-o-l-a-t-e, or good triumphing in the end) can be astonishing when it comes.

And I've learned that chocolate has a magic power for him, as it does for his brother, even when it is only a long word written down.

Friday, 13 April 2012

The power of chocolate - Part One

Easter. So much sweet stuff; so little time. My lads love chocolate, though Newborn has a faith of sorts in cocoa. He attacks eggs and bunnies, crams so much in his mouth. He's prepared to let a third dribble away to get the rest in, and he scoffs with suspicious eyes. They are live with triumph, and you can almost hear his mind: if I just keep eating it and don't say a word, *they* won't realise they've given me so MUCH.

Reading their mind is a fool's errand, but so tempting. Talking to a friend today, we speculated on what the hell *they* are thinking. I'd love to believe it was a fantastical dreamlike place, all precocious interpretation with a hallowed view of me; I fancy it is something far more brutal. That what goes on in a toddler's mind is probably even more punitive than my inner mummy critic.

Take this week. Post egg hunts we came home to London a baby light - Spider-boy was staying with Aunties for his school holiday. I was so sad, my walk from work devoid of endless questions. While he stayed away, the rest of us made an odd threesome. There have been times when I've been alone with Newborn, but they've usually been horrible times when he's been ill. And there have been fleeting moments between play dates, and the worst of times of all (hospital) when it has just been Mr Thatwoman, Newborn and I. I've tried to find the good in those situations (afterwards at least, I'm no Pollyanna) and enjoy the moments with this strange, beautiful other one. And I fret he's often relegated to ever-bridesmaid: trailing behind, looking cute, always getting sloppy seconds.

He's so fond of his brother right now, though, and I was convinced, so sure, that he would pine. Just like he pines for Mr Thatwoman on the nights that I collect from nursery (which he does with toddler subtlety, by standing at the front door sobbing till he hiccups and shouting 'Dada' with increasingly hysterical volume).

Newborn's capacity for novelty remained, however. He developed a strut. He surveyed his new command posts, seconded a kitchen stool, worked out how to drag it round and reach the saucepans and the Calpol. He honed new skills, hijacking the telephone, learned to step forwards, not back, down the stairs. By the second night, he'd climbed into his brother's bed.

He sat, smiling, all cheek and bedtime eyes, my Goldilocks. I thought: wow, usurping something as painfully symbolic as a bed in our house is pretty cool. But there was something else in his sleepy dimples: a question. When he's querying me or the world he pulls his chin down,and exaggerates the angle he has to look up. It was as if he was saying: have I done it?

I was minded of Spider-boy's assertive look when he asked: 'And who will be his mummy?' after grudgingly conceding he was going to have a sibling. And his later, semi-hopeful, probing in the last weeks of my maternity leave: 'Now you are going back to work, is he going back in your tummy?'

Next day: the same look. Newborn is especially keen to get his hands on the chocolate tin. And so proud he squeals when he realises the small chair can also be used mount the worktop though I've confiscated the stool. His sigh of pleasure and furtive glancing round while he snaffles a shard of egg makes me wonder if he has his own magical thinking. Perhaps, I think with slight horror and awe, he thinks the chocolate is a magic force, keeping his brother away?

Today after completing his round, touching every single thing his brother has ever owned, he finds the last bit of chocolate in the house. We're a household of instant gratification: the Friday after Easter is way past the stage where a smashed Lindt bunny might be hiding in the fridge. He points at my handbag for 10 minutes making a guttural, insistent groan. I fish out toys, and a travel card, my phone, a purse, a pen. He screams at kettle pitch. I pass the bag and say: 'OK. What do you want? You find it!' He discards the trove of tickets and loose pennies and unearths a Finger of Fudge which has been there so long, I'd forgotten it exists.

He crouches like a monk and eats, bowing his head and glancing up through his lashes: once more with feeling. He moans with pleasure, chuckles to himself and opens an eye. Maybe he imagines that if he eats even more chocolate his brother will come back, I hope.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Mother Tongue: Only connect...

This weekend I had a fleeting online chat with Michael Rosen , a massive hero of mine. We tweeted about the inner meanings of Roald Dahl's The Twits. It was one of my proudest moments when he retweeted my undergraduate analysis (that The Twits is all Foucault innit, a parable on internal flaws exposed). Or it would have been the proudest moment of my online career, had I not described the story as a tail. He graciously made a Freudian pun. The slipperiness of language, and my grasp on it, even in my 34th year, exposed. I know the spelling but my fingers and brains fudged up in their haste to record a thought and send it to someone whom I wanted to engage.

I love language. And I love the way having young people grappling, exploring, building, questioning, embracing it makes you re-think what a connection really means. I try to embrace my fortune in this role of introduction.

Take phonics. Sound blocks. Building each word, distilling a language. I don't know exactly what I think of phonics, though I've enjoyed the explosive introduction of them in a multilingual inner London classroom lead by a teacher with a Mancunian accent. I've seen my son soar with some of the ideas - hand signal a-a-ants, making rhymes with similar sounds, the general games, the confidence building at the beginning. Also, in a funny sort of way, I've seen him soar higher with the phonic frustrations - he glows white hot with creation when he hits up against the magpie (thanks @rykalski) nature of his mother tongue.

My son speaks English and is learning to read and write it. English is a language which absorbs and builds on others - pick your metaphor about how it has created and evolved: melting pot, scavenger, survivor, conqueror, patchwork quilt, evolutionary gene.

What I've always loved about this, the fact that English is such a mish mashed, congealed pile of delicious and often unguessable left overs from a pot luck linguistic dinner, is that I feel the evolutionary force of it empowers its users. It practically demands they create, reinvent, reinvigorate it themselves every day. This is why I don't like snobs or those immediately down on linguistic play and challenge (eg automatic txtspk haters). English is the language I live in and speak in and she invites me to play. Every day.

I see my son fathoming her unmappable depths, his assertions so bold and enticing. For example, as he bounds along at my side while we try to catch a train:

The thing about the word gate, Mummy, is it is very tricky. It has a naughty letter. A hiding letter. G-A-I-T, see, the I is there but you don't know it

His confidence is awesome: he's telling me. But his language has provided a double bluff. He's right and he's wrong. I tell him gait is a word, but it means the way we walk, illustrated as we gambol over a pelican crossing and then run to the station's ticket gate. I explain that gate does have a tricky bit, but that's the missing 'y'. He takes this, because he's moved beyond looking at me like a lunatic and started to expect his language, so easy and malleable but as hard to catch as the moon on a millpond, to surprise him. Every day, every hour we spend brings another surprise. My world is as much one of sticky chins and small warm hands in mine, as one of half rhymes: one part Clarks advert, three parts English Lit all Chaucer-style gobbling up of what we can see, chewing out the meaning.

I love hearing him sounding out words, and then producing for me his spittle lisped best guess as he takes a punt on how a word should or could be. It is invigorating watching him relabel the world all around, and the world of metaphor and feeling from the humming sounding out in his head as he concentrates on tearing apart a sound and remaking it with others- it reminds me of the bit in Hamlet:

He keeps them, like an ape, an apple, in the corner of his jaw, first mouthed to be last swallowed

My son the master and king, working out which working-outs are worth keeping and which should be quashed. These murmurs used to rebuild from scratch old sound signs - this is what buzzwords should mean.

Learning to read, write, speak, create in English (I'm guessing any language, but I only have this one to go on) doesn't start from ground zero, after all. Language has surrounded you forever; your task becomes to master it and develop a way of exchanging your bursts of meaning with others.

And you  hit it running in a sort of attack at precisely the developmental stage where you are craving and embracing rules (show me a four year-old, I'll show you the world's most accomplished and certain judge and jury) and trying to break them to work out whether you and those around you are as solid as you hope or as weak as you fear.

As this goes on, the other child, my one year-old word warrior, continues on his journey, forcing into the open his need to connect and his need to be encouraged. With him, my task is affirming his linguistic mastery. Showing him I understand (which can mean giving him the chocolates he's spied and pointed out) and letting him show he understands me. But how? He has already reached a level of irony and challenge which complicates things. His mimicry is loaded.

Take today, as he climbed up and stood on every obstacle in his path: every stool, chair, table, speaker, toy. On his third ascent of a picnic bench, twice thwarted and told off by me already, he reaches the plate.  He turns to check I'm running, again, to stop him. Before I can open my mouth to repeat my 'no', he addresses me and my friend from his mount:

'Yeah, yeah!' he shouts, eyeballs on me to be sure I get his meaning: 'NO'

And what I want to shout is YES.