Chapter Seven: In Which I Try To Sound Neither Moany Nor Smug

Ha! So starting a blog when my baby was less than three months old, and imagining I’d write in it every day, was a little ambitious, no?!

The truth is, I’m up to my neck in baby-caring, child-rearing and all that stuff. Asher’s virus passed, and we were not doomed, but then he decided to stop being the World’s Sleepiest Baby. It’s full on, and with the baby not consistently getting the ‘evening is for sleeping’ memo I keep sending him, I am brimful of Asher (and Leila) from first thing in the morning until my eyes close as soon as after 10pm as Sire will allow. I keep thinking of blog posts, then having no time to write them. This evening, he sleeps! So I write. Quickly, before I am summoned from above.

It is hard work, right now. There I said it. But I almost didn’t post that, because when I complain about my insanely fortunate lot, I feel uncomfortable, and this article is brought to mind. It was written, oh, ages ago, and I have totally missed the firestorm/boat in writing about it. But since I read it, I’ve turned it over and over in my mind.

If you don’t have time to read (though I recommend you do), in a nutshell it is a writer launching a wincingly frank attack- I think it’s fair to say ‘attack’- on mothers who moan about motherhood, how hard it is, how tired they are, etc etc. The writer has never had children herself- it just never happened for her, and now in her late forties, she feels it is too late. Her message to mums is to bloody well stop complaining and appreciate what they’ve got. It’s angry and, by her own admittance, bitter. She feels that the problems of motherhood are ‘finite and surmountable’, and fizzle away to nothing compared to the joy and privelege of having kids.

As an argument, it’s deeply flawed, as many commenters on the piece pointed out. And I’d agree with them on many levels.

First, some problems experienced by mothers are far from finite and surmountable. Childhood illness, behavioural difficulties, an adult drug-addicted child, a child who self-harms. All of these problems cut as deep as it is possible to go. Not least because your love for your child- and the pain you feel when they are in pain- is so powerful that it scoops out your insides and leaves it all out there, quivering and vulnerable.

But I don’t think the writer is really referring to these sorts of problems. She’s referring, I think, to me close to tears late yesterday night, whisper-shouting to G ‘I don’t know what to DO, he just won’t SLEEP!’ and despairing that, once the baby finally did sleep, he’d be up in a few hours to feed. She’s talking about me feeling frantic as I try to dress both children, both of them crying for reasons rational (baby: hungry) and mad (toddler: doesn’t want to wear pants as Angelina Ballerina does not wear pants). And she’s also referring to me, eyeing the clock at 6.30pm, hoping that Asher’s bedtime will follow soon after Leila’s, and that the baby monitor will stay blissfully quiet, so I can dirnk some wine and watch goddam Call The Midwife in peace already.

Yes this stuff is easy-peasy, in the grand scheme of things. These moments are finite. These ‘problems’ are surmountable. And I certainly don’t buy the ‘motherhood is the hardest job in the world’ line that is so often trotted out. Loads of jobs are harder. Mine, for a start, sometimes. Toddlers/TV presenters… they are fairly interchangeable. And the hours aren’t much better.

But the thing is, lots  of (all?) mothers and parents DO find parenthood hard at times. And, therefore, it IS hard. To deny people- and specifically, women- a voice, to tell them that their experience is not valid, and to get back in their box and speak only of unicorns and rainbows, is a dangerously regressive step, I think. That way lies a return to the days of ‘Mother’s Little Helper’, a dismal road to isolation and a place where mothers are crushed by post-natal depression (an issue which the writer dismisses as, basically, no worse than ‘normal’ depression. Which it isn’t- but that doesn’t mean it’s not terrible and that women suffering from it should ‘stop moaning’ any more than any other sufferer). And this kind of thinking takes us back to a place where women just keep quiet and get on with being mothers, without making a fuss, as is their role, thankyouverymuch.

No, whatever our blessings, we are all entitled to find life hard. Even to find our blessings hard. Children are people too- and they are people who shout in your face and wee on the floor. Dealing with people can be tough. And then there’s the physics: people need sleep. Some of the time, as a mother/parent, you can’t get no sleep. And that is hard, mentally and phsyically. It just is. No amount of deliciously-scented-baby-head makes it not so at 1am, 3am, 5am…

BUT

But… I think the real reason the ariticle disquiets me so is because- despite the obvious flaws if you try to pick apart the argument rationally- essentially, I think the writer has a point.

The piece is not a reasoned, rational argument. It’s basically a howl of pain (disclaimer: I think I may have pinched that description from one of the comments on the article, but it fits), and it’s a pain I’m pretty sure I would feel if I were in the same position. I really don’t mean that to sound smug (‘but luckily for me, I’m NOT in the same position, tra la la!’), just honest. I always wanted children, I assumed I’d have them- just like this writer- and if I had reached a point where I didn’t have them, and never would, I would feel a very deep grief. I totally understand why people don’t want children, can see the benefits of not having them, in fact (hello, freedom/money/travel/sleep/culture/romance/etc!). But I did- still do, luckily for them- want them.  For me, personally, since having my two I see the phrase ’embarassment of riches’ in a new light. I’m embarassed by how lucky I feel, by how lucky I have been to have them.

And I’m slightly embarassed by how I can get entrenched in a negative whinge-bog. I reserve my right to moan- and moan I shall!- but it must, must be tempered by stopping to feel the almost painful perfection of their tiny silky heads under my palm, to listen to the trusting in-out of their breath as they sleep, instead of hurriedly closing the bedroom doors and dashing off to iplayer. To say to myself: I have her, and I have him. And that, for me, is not just enough, it’s everything.

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Chapter Six: Doomed! We’re Doomed Forever!

‘Learning curve’ is an understatement when it comes to describing having your first child. Someone once compared it to being hit by a train, then dragged along for several miles, and in terms of the sheer mind-blowingness (totally a word) of learning how to look after a whole new person, I’d go along with that.

Second time around I’m taking forward many lessons learned from the first time. Things like, don’t mistake worms for sibling anxiety; and don’t bother with that baby-led weaning nonsense. In that sense it is so much easier (though it still remains largely a mystery why the newborn stage is so much easier with your second, when it is SO HARD with your first).

But there are some lessons that I never learn. One in particular: that whatever new madness is happening is not forever. It applies to sleep regressions, colic (thankfully we’ve escaped that particular brand of madness with our children to date), tantrumy patches. But it’s a concept I’ve failed to grasp.  Instead I am overcome with Panic and Woe with each new hurdle, convinced that it will never change. When actually, the only guarantee about life with a baby is that it changes. All the time.

The past couple of days have been classic Me, in that sense. Asher has been ill, and very upset with it. Now, Asher is, on the whole, the human equivalent of comfort food. He’s a big dollop of sticky toffee pudding with custard. He’s a hot bath with lots of bubbles. He’s buttery toast and blankets. He is generally- and I never thought this was possible- quite a relaxing baby. Large, solid, sleepy and cuddly, with a silly dozy smile and fat drumstick thighs. That’s not to say he doen’t have his days where only mummy’s arms will do for a nap, or nights which he has mistaken for a five course all-you-can-eat buffet. He is a baby after all. But largely speaking he is Mr Chillington.

But with this virus (now on the wane, thankfully) he has been a wailing, roaring, grunting picture of misery. When I tried to feed him it was as though I was torturing him. Cuddles? Yuck! Rocking? Rarrr! Singing Lullaby of Birdland, his favourite jam? Why are you doing this to me, woman?!

But instead of thinking this was something that we’d just need to tough out before Asher got back to cheery form, I was of course stricken. That’s it! Our peaceful days and evenings are gone, gone I tell you! Our baby has had a personality transplant! He’s going to screech forever! When will it end? When will my poor baby be happy? And more selfishly, when will I ever be able to watch television and drink wine in peace again? When?! *rends garments*

I even scrolled through pictures like this on my phone, to remind myself of what we once had, now that Screamy Baby had moved in:

In happier times
In happier times

It took both G and my Mum to talk me down from the doom-laden ledge I was teetering on. The words ‘drama queen’ may have been used (by Mum- G wouldn’t dare). Mum also reminded me that being ill is horrible for adults who know what’s going on; for a baby who knows nothing about anything, it’s the worst thing to happen to him in his 11 weeks of life. And it won’t be like this forever. Repeat: won’t.

He’s fairly perky today, but we all know that can change when the witching hour falls. So I’m crossing my fingers and attempting to stay serene, clinging to that great parental mantra ‘this too shall pass’. Unless it doesn’t, in which case we are indeed doomed! Doomed forever!

Chapter Five: Miss Independent

Even as a baby she didn’t want to curl into us- she preferred to be held facing outwards, where she could watch the world, make her own connections with it, and show off to whoever happened to be around.

When she started childcare I expected tears but can count on one hand the number of times she wailed at my departure, and each time as I stood guilt-frozen at the front door of the childminder’s house, I could hear her already merrily playing.

Once when she was just walking, I let her toddle off in the park, testing the theory that a small child will only stray so far. But her invisible elastic was either very long, or non-existent. In fact it was my elastic which sent me in pursuit of her.

‘My do it, MY DO IT!’ was her determined shout from the time she could string words together.

Yes, she’s independent, is our Leila. It certainly makes life less complicated to not have to deal with separation anxiety. But it can, frankly, be a bit of a kick in the parental teeth at times.

Like last week, when I hurried through the door of my Mum’s house to pick her up from her very first sleepover, and she snapped the living room door shut in my face with a firm ‘no’. Granny’s house was much more fun than boring old home.

Or last night, when she cried out in terror, in the clutches of a bad dream. ‘No, I don’t want to go here! I want to go back!’ she shouted. G hurried in to comfort her as I lay with bleeding heart wondering what horrible nightmare had troubled our girl. What child-snatching dragon, what dark unfamiliar forest? But no- she informed G that the horrible nightmare was that she had been watching DVDs at her childminder’s house, and I had arrived to pick her up.

I’m all faux-huffy about this, but I don’t mind it at all really. She’s strong and single-minded and she wants to do all the things, all by herself. Independence can only benefit a girl and woman as she goes- or in her case, charges- through life.

And also, she’s not really independent, is she? Not yet. She’s still barely hatched. Though it feels like I’m always the one reaching for her, grappling for a cuddle, needing her, in fact she still needs us for every single thing. Not least, she needs us as the foil for her independence. For the times when the bad dream IS about a dragon; for the times when she gets to a party, all guns blazing, to find unfamiliar faces and her confidence deserts her; for when she wants to get dressed ALL BY HERSELF but suddenly finds herself tangled in a panic of sleeves and her head jammed inside a roll-neck; when there’s a dog, any dog, nearby.

However far across the park she makes it, it’s never further than a pair of watchful eyes can follow, never further than the calculation of how quickly we could reach her before she reaches the gate. And though she might hold us at arm’s length sometimes , we know, and she knows- though she doesn’t know she knows- that we’ll always be there when she does look back from her determined trot forwards, however brief her glance.

Chapter Four: Do As I Say, Not As I Do

I’m sure any parent of young children would agree that discipline is one of the trickiest challenges to navigate. In the attempt to raise a polite and pleasant human, at times it seems there is no need to have the power of thought and a wide-ranging vocabulary at your disposal; these could be replaced with a series of buttons which when pressed repeat the same phrases over and over and over again. ‘Say please’/ ‘get dressed’/ ‘stop it’/ ‘now please’ and a huge red one, used hundreds of times a day, marked ‘no’. God we must sound boring, it’s no wonder toddlers ignore their parents.

Discipline can feel like (and is, really), a series of complex mind games, in which tactics are key.
Here’s how you don’t do it. You don’t, when your toddler is refusing to get in the bath, deposit her on the naughty step then march upstairs, take all your clothes off, and get in the bath yourself. I can only imagine- as it would never happen in this house- that the toddler would not feel suitably disciplined by this but would instead stand in the bathroom asking with a mixture of delight and disgust ‘what are you DOING’, while you blathered with mad eyes ‘oh what a lovely bath, I’m so glad I am having this bath, I can’t hear you I am washing my hair’.

I would imagine that’s not the right way to do discipline.

Leading by example would seem a better approach (though in a sense the above incident IS leading by example- give a parenting award to that excellent mother!). But it occurred to me today that this isn’t as easy as it seems. We had fish and chips for lunch, and Leila was shovelling them in with her fingers. Just as I was about to press the ‘use your fork’ button, I realised that G was also eating with his hands. Apparently this is acceptable for f&c, and for curry. Doesn’t taste as good with cutlery, according to Stig of the Dump, sorry, my beloved.
We could hardly enforce one rule for us and another for her.

And, oh, she will notice and she will pull us up on it if we do. In the last few days I have been reprimanded for putting food in my drink (it was a biscuit and I was dunking it in my tea, but how to explain to Leila that it’s different from spooning mashed potato into her apple juice?), and for throwing a snowball at her (‘say sorry for throwing’).

In both cases, I said ‘whoops silly mummy’, and she crowed gleefully ‘you FORGOT’ and may have called me a silly sausage.

As with all things in parenting and life, it’s a case of muddling through and making it up as you go along (and worrying about it endlessly). At least that’s how it is for me. And then one day your child says ‘I want- PLEASE may I have some more ketchup’, and a gospel choir appears at the dining table singing Oh Happy Day.

Chapter Three: Big Sister

The moment they met
The moment they met

One of the main things parents worry about before the birth of a second child is how their precious first born will react to sharing the stage with an imposter. As I like to adopt any and all neuroses available to me as a parent, I threw myself into this one with vigour.

Shortly before Asher was born, Leila (2 years 9 months at the time) was acting up terribly, waking in the night, tantrumming like a world class diva, and seemed generally miserable. I was torn apart with guilt at her obvious distress at the impending new arrival.

Turns out she had worms.

With the parasites banished just days before Asher’s birth, she cheered up completely. And since then her transition to big sister has been largely smooth sailing. With some moments of angst, like the time when she sharply knocked his head backwards when he was feeding, barking ‘I want him OFF your nipple’ (nipples AND worms in the space of two paragraphs? I am really spoiling you!).

In fact, our only issue is that she is so entranced and intrigued by her little brother, that her affection borders on aggressive. She will advance towards him with her jaw clenched, making a strange little primitive kissy sound and saying through her gritted teeth ‘ohhhh my little Budge! My little budgie budgie budgie’ (Leila’s nickname for Asher, which she coined herself, is Budge *mama faints from the cuteness*), and some nonsense words she seems to have come up with as her ‘I’m about to terrorise my brother with love’ language. ‘Oh shimmy shoomy’, she will chirp, ‘sheemy sheemy, Budgie’. And then she will grip his cheeks so hard that he yells, or poke her finger into his eye sockets, or, her favourite manoevre, simply place her entire body weight on top of him and press her face into his.

Once I thought it would be fine to run- literally run- upstairs to get a nappy, leaving Budge on the floor. When I hurried downstairs, madame was sitting on her brother, singing merrily ‘this is the way I sit on my brother, sit on my brother, sit on my brother’ and bouncing lightly up and down.

We seem to spend half our lives saying ‘gentle, gentle Leila… LEILA, GENTLE!’ or physically holding her back from throwing herself on him (though her recent response to this has been to fall dramatically on the floor and bellow ‘you HURT me!’, which is patently not true and yet might not stop someone calling the social). It seems rough on her, when everyone else gets to hold and squish and (pretend to) eat him. So now I work on the basis that, if he’s not crying, it’s fine.

He’s just started to watch her and smile at her antics, which is lovely. Though I’m not sure he appreciates it when, just as he’s waking up in the morning and feeling rather grumpy about it (takes after his Mum), Leila- who has already been up for a good hour- careers into the side of his moses basket shouting ‘don’t worry I’m here I’m here I’m here! Your big sister is here to look after you!’ and perhaps eases him into the morning by pressing her fingers into his forehead or playing her xylophone very loudly next to his head.

I have also heard her reprimand someone who made a jokey comment about him crying (‘oh, naughty baby’ or something inane like that)- ‘he is NOT BAD. He is just cries because he doesn’t know how to talk yet’.

I suppose having someone to defend and adore you, even if that adoration is a little fierce, is worth a few pokes in the eye and some full-body squashing.

Chapter Two: Chapter Two*

When out and about with the children, the odd old lady/shopkeeper/drunk will chuckle ‘you’ve got your hands full’. Admittedly,  with Leila in the buggy and Asher in the sling, I do look a bit child-laden.

Depending on the day I have two (internal; outwardly I just mumble agreement awkwardly) responses.

The first is to scoff, hey it’s no big deal actually, having two children. Almost everyone who has one, has  another. Some birth two AT THE SAME TIME. Some have three, four children- more! THEY have their hands full, not I. I have two hands. I have two eyes with which to shoot dagger-like glares of wrath at errant toddlers. Two is a breeze. Two schmoo.

Alternatively it makes me want to cry, to blurt a shoutily sarcastic ‘you don’t say!’ because, yes, I do have my hands full actually, thanks for pointing it out!’  and run to the loo, slightly encumbered by baby in sling, to weep. On these days, two is hard.

There is no middle ground, it seems. I am either bossing it, loving it, drinking in every blissful moment. Or, all three of us are crying, and I’m listening keenly for G’s key in the lock like some valium-sodden 50s housewife. So if I tell you it’s hard one day, and you hear me saying it’s a doddle the next, I’m not lying on either day. It is both of these things. It’s s the Good, the Bad and the Crazy round here.

The Good is when me and Leila are sitting on the sofa feeding our babies (well, she is ‘feeding’ her ‘baby’) and she turns to me and says ‘oh, Other-Woman, this big baby is giving me grief! Shall we have a cup of tea?’ and then busies around with her tiny teaset while Asher grins up at me; the Good is when, both of them pink from a shared bath, she kisses a fat cheek and says spontaneously  ‘night night, Asher, I love you’. And, actually, dozens of moments each day.

The Bad is any time we try to leave the house, basically. It’s a mess. A mess of scarves and hats and a baby who is ROARING and a toddler who is alternately stiff as a plank and floppy as jelly in her efforts to prevent me putting her coat on. Or when we all need feeding, and two of us are shouting about it, and I know that the third one of us probably isn’t going to eat. Guess which one.

The Crazy is the rear passenger door of the car freezing shut so I have to virtually fling Asher’s car seat from the front seat into the back, while Leila sheds her mittens and chirps ‘ooh, ice’,’ as she runs her fingers over a dirty frozen puddle. The Crazy is Leila marching up and down the living room unravelling a roll of kitchen roll as she goes, knowing full well that I am pinned to the sofa by Mr. Greedy Guzzleton and only have the questionable power of the dagger-like glares of wrath at my disposal.

Thankfully, the Good dominates, the Bad is fleeting, and the Crazy makes for some good stories. And the Good, oh, it is so very very good, that I want to urge everyone who has a toddler to go ahead and have a newborn too. At least, I do today. Ask me again tomorrow and who knows what my response will be.

 

*See what I did there?

Chapter One: Mumboots

[Disclaimer: I am going to write about my kids a lot on this blog. Like, alotalot.]

There was this moment, when my eldest, Leila, was younger. I’d just been to the chemist for some calpol, and was heading back to the car when I caught sight of myself in a window: slightly frazzled expression; North Face-style bulky anorak; skinny jeans tucked into brown, riding-esque knee high boots; calpol in one hand, carseat in the other; about to get into my VW estate.

Let us deconstruct some elements of this ‘look’. The jacket I had bought for work (filming) only but had ended up wearing all the time, what with it being waterproof (good for the daily nap walks, and if you’ve ever had a baby you know what I’m talking about). The car: not sexy. But reliable and spacious! The calpol: well, as delicious as it is, it wasn’t for me and spoke of sleepless nights and squalling. Hence the frazzled expression.

I was, I realised, a Mum. I still felt like a girl who had thus far managed to trick the world into entrusting her with the care of a real human child; but I looked like (and perhaps… actually was?) a capital-letter Mum. A full-blown, grown-up, ordered-in-from-Central-Casting, Mum. I was the woman politicians try to woo with their talk of ‘hard working families’ (blech), the one who some pity, some envy, and some just find intensely boring. The one who talks about sleep (oh, endlessly) and sick. Closer inspection would probably have revealed some actual sick somewhere on my clothes; and a toy sheep and a few smashed breadsticks in my handbag.

Shit. When did THAT happen? Not the breadsticks. The Mum thing.

Crucial to this picture were the boots. They were, they are- it cannot be denied- Mum Boots. Heeled enough to avoid clompiness, not so heeled that I will tumble into the road whilst carrying a squirming toddler. Classic rather than high-fashion, because what with childcare costs and working part-time and having to buy things for the kid (now kids), I’ll only cough up for boots I can wear for many winters to come- and something tells me the snakeskin-bondage style I saw in Grazia won’t endure the fickle tides of fashion. From Clarks (nuff said).

Yes, cast your eyes downward at the playgroup or school gates and you’ll see a swarm, a veritable stampede, of similar boots.

And this is, so I gather, A Bad Thing.

Whilst checking if this blog name was already in use, I unearthed several threads on-yes- Mumsnet, posted by women concerned that their new boots were Mum Boots. Woe betide the woman who wears Mum Boots. And, worse, apparently the tucking in of the jeans into the boots is intensely Mum-ish (me, I labour under the idea that it makes my legs look thinner ; maybe that’s why it’s Mum-ish).

Because another defining feature of the ‘Mum’ of today is a cringing self-consciousness, a horror of being put into a pigeon hole- which inevitably she will be (just read the Daily Mail: old mums, teen mums, working mums, breastfeeding mums, mums who drink…  In they go, into their boxes, come along dears), a desire to not be defined as that which, probably/hopefully she once longed to be and which brings her immense joy.

But why this aversion to defining ourselves as mothers? Yes, I do want to be seen as myself, as well as a mother. But to me,  the two aren’t separate. I don’t get the widely held viewpoint that when you have kids, you lose your identity. I no more buy into that than I buy into the idea of your job, or your hair, or your hobbies, or your cat, defining who you are. Having Leila and (since two months ago) my boy Asher, has enriched who I am. And I’d rather define that myself, than keep quiet and let the Daily Mail do it.

So, maybe my boots are not the coolest. But I love my mum boots. I am reclaiming the Mumboots. They are fine boots and I enjoy wearing them, and actually if you look at them without the calpol and the cagoul and the carseat, they are just boots. I’ve worn them to make TV programmes, meet friends, even- on occasion- to go to a bar (kapow!). They are not just Mumboots.

And that, now that I have squeezed every last drop from the metaphor, is why  this blog is called Mumboots. Because this blog is largely (but not totally) about the ‘Mum’ part of me, which is, in fact, just me.

Here is where I click the heels of my Mumboots with abandon, where I write about being a parent and parenting and my toddler and my baby and goodbye 50% of potential readers who have now just clicked away.

I’ll write about this quirky little creature, Leila:

Leila swing

And this chunky little beast, Asher:

Image

And a life that veers from ear-splitting shrieky chaos (in which I’m often the one shrieking), to happiness that explodes my heart daily, but is never-to me- boring.

[insert carefully chosen photo of my Mumboots, cleverly taken to make my legs look thinner than they really are].