Chapter Thirteen: Go with the carefully orchestrated flow

There is very little I miss about life pre-kids, but the freedom to be spontaneous is one of the few things I look back on slightly wistfully.
Before we had children, when it was a sunny evening, G and I might get back from work and decide on the spur of the moment to go for a pre-dinner drink in one of the bars near our house; which might turn into dinner; which might turn into texting our friends who lived on the same street and meeting up for some more fun. On a school night, no less.

Or there was that time when the two of us went for an afternoon coffee with my sister. A few bottles of wine, a pile of cheesy nachos and seven hours later, we literally fell through the door of our flat, me dripping chilli sauce from my kebab all the way down my coat and up the stairs.

(Am now having the uncomfortable realisation that ‘spontaneity’ for me seems to equate to ‘spontaneous drinking’… But bear with me)

Spontaneity doesn’t have to mean actually doing anything. It can be a spur of the moment decision to spend most of Saturday reading the papers; to sit under a blanket with a visiting friend and take literally four days to complete a cryptic crossword; to turn over and go back to sleep, all spontaneous-like.

Post-children, the end of a working day is a feat of logistics and child-ferrying and food-shovelling and dispatching to bed. And the weekends are times that I absolutely adore, but which now march to a strict and repetitive beat of two little people’s drums.

Now, I realise that some people are able and happy to throw the baby into a sling, pack some snacks (but still, you see: planning) and achieve that elusive goal of ‘going with the flow’. Children are not necessarily a barrier to last-minute adventures and decisions.

Except, my children sort of are; or maybe it’s the way we parent. Or both. There’s nothing Leila loves more than a party, but keep her up after 7.30pm, and sister gets a little crazy. She is the routine queen. When I was writing a ‘Leila Manual’ to give to my Dad, who was going to look after her when I went into hospital to have Asher, I realised the extent to which All The Things Must Be The Same, for my little girl. An extract:

‘Bedtime routine:

1. Bath

2. Into bedroom (note: she must put towel on the hall floor outside her bedroom BEFORE you enter the room)

3. Pyjamas

4. Story

5. Song

6. You kiss her

7. She kisses you

8. She squashes your face

9. Leave the room and shut the door

10. Open the door again

11. She says goodnight FIRST

12. You say goodnight’

And with that, she’d be out like a light, instantly. At any given time she has some variation on this bedtime routine (thankfully it is now a little less long-winded). If a stage is skipped, it pains her.

It’s a rider of demands that Beyonce would be proud of. As for Asher- being a tiny baby, it’s hard to tell whether he’ll be as fond of routine as his sister. But I’ve got to know him pretty well over the last 17 weeks, and I know that he’s a sweet and easy little butterbean, provided he is not awake for longer than 90 minutes or so. For real. He needs to sleep almost all of the time. And his favourite place to do this is in his pram in the porch or garden, wedged in with a thousand blankets, his face a fat pink thumbprint somewhere deep within the layers.

So you see, these two children aren’t really compatible with spur-of-the-moment meals out and road trips. And I don’t think any small child is compatible with a relaxing day reading the newspapers.

But you know, I think it is as much to do with me as it is with them. I am the woman who writes a list for everything, on dated pages in many notebooks. Sometimes I write an itinerary of how I am going to leave the house (‘10.15 Feed Baby 10.45 Have a cup of tea 11.00 Leave house’) . Going with the flow makes me anxious. So it’s either little wonder that my daughter is the same; or I have made her that way; or I have the mentality of a three-year-old child. One of the above.

Like most things on which one looks back nostalgically, all that spontaneity may not have been as good as I remember. And actually, having kids is itself perhaps the biggest (and for many, the last) act of madcap oh-sod-it decision making. For all that you can plan the perfect time, and how it’s going to be, and how you are going to ensure that they sleep twelve hours straight a night (ha. ha.), in the end, when you decide to procreate, you’re basically throwing caution, and your entire life, finances etc, to the wind. And for now, that’s enough spontaneity for me.

Now where’s my notebook?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter twelve: Don’t Look At Me, I’m Shy

I knew things had to change when I found myself crouching inside a miniature tent, texting. I’d crawled in there under the pretence of playing with my child, but she was now engaged in a game/fight with another little girl. The real reason I was in the rather over-crowded tent was to avoid talking to *shudder* other parents. All those confident, mum boot-wearing women wanging on about purees and childcare and cake. Far better to huddle in a play tent on my own and text my mate about how hideous playgroup was.

Like many people, although I can seem quite chatty and confident, I am by nature an introvert. And for many months after having Leila I found playgroups and other communal parental scenarios fairly horrifying. Beyond my NCT friends (who had surprised me by being funny and fun; but who I probably wouldn’t have managed to speak to, was this not the Law of NCT, that Thou Shalt Make Friends), I didn’t talk to anyone much, or if I did, stupid things would jump out of my mouth before my brain realised it, often thanks to the classic fat-kid reflex of cracking a joke, any joke, to prevent awkward silences. There was a lot of chat-avoidance I could achieve by breastfeeding intently in a corner, or feverishly scrolling through my phone.

It didn’t help that some of the tentative approaches I made did nothing to dismantle my own prejudices. Like the time I commented on how much a baby was enjoying his biscuit, and his mum tinkled ‘oh, he’s just DELIGHTED to have got his hands on a proper sugary biscuit, if we were at home he’d be having a home-made organic snack!’ (was she perhaps part of a secret camera show? I’m still not sure).

But in that moment in the tent, I wondered whether perhaps I could pluck up the courage to actually talk to the other mothers; and whether perhaps I could climb out of my arse for long enough to realise that the stuff they were talking about was the stuff I was thinking about too. And that, if I actually started to talk to them, we might soon enough talk about other things. And that maybe loads of them felt like their mouths were disconnected from their brains too, and were just fronting (the organic snacks woman, for example, maybe she was cringing inside… Actually I doubt it).

I came out of the tent, figuratively speaking. I gritted my teeth and got chatting, and- fancy this!- made friends. I’m still in shock about this. Good shock. But I still have my moments. Like at Leila’s second-ever dance class on Saturday. When the parents had to join their child in a circle at the end, I expected some quaint little goodbye ritual, maybe with waving and a short song. One where I could stand still and avoid looking into anybody’s eyes. I was finding it awkward enough that the leotard-clad teacher was, essentially, stood there in her pants. I did not expect to have to do a dance to Hawaii 5-0 in which we pretended to be on surfboards, with bottom-waggling and that dance move where you hold your nose with one hand and go diving with the other. It was especially excruciating given that Leila- who is proving to be something of a, shall we say, dance class renegade- was hanging from my hands like a sack of potatoes, refusing to join in. From the sound of the relaxed laughter, and even the odd spontaneous ‘woo!’, some of the other mums and dads were finding it bearable.

But as for me? Well, had a play tent been in the vicinity, you wouldn’t have seen me for dust.

Chapter eleven: glow in the dark

Midnight is creeping closer and I’m typing this out on my phone, reaching around the soft heft of his sleeping form in my arms.

This evening was punctuated by grating squawks over the baby monitor, me and G journeying up and down the stairs between forkfuls, and once I was in bed, poking my foot out from beneath the duvet to rock his cradle.

The last few nights have been a blur, lit by the glow of my phone’s screen as I feed the baby, rock the baby, and lose at Words With Friends. I lose track of the number of wakings and go past wondering why (teeth? Growth spurt? Trying to torture me?). The days are smudged too, not quite in focus. My face feels heavy and my pace is slow.

Midnight creeps closer and I’ll be up again within hours, but still I don’t put him down and dive gratefully into sleep myself. Because he’s three months, nearly four months old, and then he’ll be half a year, a year- and then three years old and asleep all night in a bed without bars, in a room where I can’t listen to the puff of his baby breath. He won’t lie flopped on my shoulder at 11.35pm, or try to grin at me through the dark at 3am. To wish for a time when my nights are unbroken again is to wish away his babyhood. And god knows it is spinning away from me too fast already.

Chapter Ten: Boys Will Be…

Boys will be fat, lazy, trouble, a nuisance, dim, slow and destructive.

That’s according to a variety of throwaway comments made since I was expecting, and then had, my own little boy.

This is a man’s world (though for the sake of my daughter AND my son I hope that continues to change)- but boys sure do come in for some shit. And while much is made of the pinkification of girls, I’m starting to think (as I watch my tutu-clad daughter playing with a toy truck) that some of this pink panic might be something of a red herring. There are more worrying and deeply-entrenched stereotypes at play, and many of them are around boys, not girls.

The latest remark came from a woman in a shop. We got chatting after she admired the patchwork quilt on Asher’s pram. I mentioned by way of an anecdote that my mum hadn’t finished it when Asher was born, as he surprised us by being a week early.

‘Huh’ she replied darkly ‘that’s boys for you’, her tone implying that boys are- what? Inconvenient? Selfish?

Of course, it was just chitchat, but she felt strongly enough to say as I left ‘get used to it… That’s boys for you’.

Meanwhile a midwife I know tells me that it’s also common to hear people complain of a ‘typical boy, keeping mum waiting’ when a baby boy is born late. So which is it?

Even when I was pregnant with Leila, a common response when we found out the gender was ‘oh you must be glad it’s a girl’; and then with Asher ‘it’s best you had a girl first, she can keep the boy in line.

It seems even as babies, even BEFORE BIRTH, it’s been decided how a girl or a boy should/will be. This isn’t news- but I’ve been surprised at the expectations levelled at girls (to be good, sweet, sensible), and the lack of them for boys.

This is no good for boys, and it’s no wonder they achieve less than girls at school, with these stereotypes ringing in their ears.

But it’s also no good for girls, because if they grow up believing that they must be sugar and spice and all things nice, whilst boys can apparently get away with being slugs and snails and lazy and naughty- and STILL bag all the power, money and places in the boardroom- well, what message does that give them?

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(Real boys wear tights)

Chapter Nine: Here Comes The Sun

My Leila is special. Oh, yes I know, bla bla subjective-biased-parent-cakes. But it’s true. She IS special. She has a glow, a spark… So many words she conjures up are to do with light.

My sister, Helen, was another of these luminescent, special people. After she died nearly nine years ago, I sobbed to my family that my life was over at only 23. I really believed this was true. How could I, how could we, ever be happy after the loss of our sweet Helen?

She had told her friends that if she died she would want Here Comes The Sun by The Beatles to be played at her funeral. So it was, and it was comforting, though I couldn’t imagine the sun shining for us again.

But as a family we all worked to rebuild our lives- and quickly learned that to carry on and to strive to be happy is not the easy route but the hard one. Sinking into the black hole would have been the easy option. But clawing our way out of the black hole, or at least building around it, meant that life was not over.

Slowly we came to experience happiness, whilst also carrying our loss. My surviving siblings found wonderful partners (I already had G), we had adventures, we travelled, we made homes. We lived.

But it wasn’t until three years ago tomorrow- February 9th, 2010- that I found myself awash in the most beautiful light of a happiness and contentment I never thought would be possible after losing Helen. The birth of Leila lit up the dark corners of my heart.

little darling, it feels like ice is slowly melting/ little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here

She made life golden. Not just because a baby brings joy and new life, but because of who she is: her openness, her sense of fun, her enthusiasm, her feist and her sparkle, which were evident even when she was a tiny baby.

Here comes the sun/ Here comes the sun/ And I say it’s alright

There have been moments since her birth when I’ve felt not just happy, but perfect happiness. She has made it possible, and has taught me that utter joy can exist alongside deep sadness.

little darling, the smiles returning to their faces/ little darling, it feels like years since it’s been clear

I’ll always grieve for Helen- and the pain of knowing that my two quirky, funny girls will never meet twists my insides regularly. But grief can’t overshadow how wonderful the past three years have been, and how bright the future feels with Leila (and now Asher) in it.

So if I’m a lot a little emotional about Leila’s third birthday tonight, it’s because, you see, she’s special.

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Chapter Eight: The S Word

Yes, I’m going there.

Sleep. Sleeeeeep. 

I adore it. I crave it. I wish I was having more of it. But also, I am sick of people making such a BIG DEAL of it. ‘Is he good?’ people ask, meaning ‘does he sleep?’.

And well, yes, he does. Some nights for delicious chunks of hours and hours. Some days for most of the day. And sometimes for grisly little snatches of sleep, punctuated with melodramatic fart-tantrums and an endless appetite for a midnight (and beyond) feast. 

And yet he IS good. He’s lovely, both on the days and nights when he sleeps like the proverbial ironic baby, and on the days and nights when his chocolate button eyes pop open in his currant bun face time after time. He’s utterly delicious, and I don’t consider his nocturnal patterns to be the most important thing about him.

But to listen to and read about the current obsession with babies’ sleep, it seems people have forgotten that waking up a lot is what babies do. To quote my own phrase, they’re famous for it. And, unless the situation is truly dire with your baby (in which case you probably want to reach through your computer screen and pinch my nose, really hard), I think we should all just stop stressing about it, obsessing about it, and even being (stealth) competitive about it. 

A case in point:

The week that Leila turned six months old, we went on holiday to Whitby. She learned to sit up, she tried her first baby rice, G built her a sandcastle to sit in, and we made her a turban out of Auntie’s scarf to keep the sun off. She bonded with Arnie the dog, ate a chip on the seafront, and was generally hilarious fun. 

She was also, as far as sleep was concerned, an absolute bloody nightmare. Between the sitting, the teething, the blasted seagulls, and being in a new place, the nights were a hellish blur. I’d be up and down feeding, then G would take the pram down to the sea and push it along the promenade in all weathers at 5am so that I- and Leila- could get some more kip.

But you know what? What I remember of that holiday is the adventures, Leila sitting in a sandcastle, G carrying her on a windswept beach on his shoulders, and the chip on the seafront. 

My memories are golden. The photos show us grinning like our faces will break, having all sorts of japes, and gazing at Leila with gooey love-eyes. 

I don’t look back at think ‘that holiday was awful, she slept really badly’. The crazy nights are just a footnote from the parental trenches, something to tease her about when she’s a teenager.

As a baby Leila was occasionaly a bad sleeper, sometimes an excellent sleeper, and probably just completely average. But never did I think she was less or more ‘good’ because of whatever she was doing at night. However I did feel pressure (from where? Books? The internet? People at playgroups? Strangers in supermarket queues? All of the above, really) to produce a magical sleeping baby, pressure for her to be doing the mythical 12-hour stretches, and the two hour naps in her cot. 

I bought the books, I spent the hours shushing and patting to enforce daytime cot naps, I downloaded the white noise and I jotted down her routine in a notebook. 

With Asher, I have cherry-picked the one sleep rule which I think all new parents should know about: to put them down awake but sleepy, whenever you can. Beyond that, I really can’t be arsed to intervene with his sleep. He’s three months old. Perhaps beyond the six-month mark, I’ll venture tentatively towards the baby books if his sleep is problematic, taking care to skim over the passages that make me feel like crap.

But until then, when he wakes up, I’ll feed him, basically. He’ll take most of his naps in the porch for now (he LOVES the porch); I’m not into co-sleeping but I’ll gratefully do some co-snoozing in the early mornings if it means a bit more sleep. I’ll do the night shifts, as I have the mammaries; and G can do the early mornings. We’ll bumble through, blearily but happily. And one day, he’ll sleep, as his sister mostly does, all night.

And I’ve decided to TRY not to care about how much sleep I am getting or not getting. Each morning I will attempt to draw a line under whatever the night has held, try not to wring my hands about Rods For Backs and Bad Habits etc, and just go to bed early to catch up. When people ask if he’s good, I’ll simply say ‘TERRIBLE! I’m thinking of returning him’ instead of blustering and making excuses for why my baby’s doing what comes naturally to them- being little buggers in the night. 

I’m aware that I may be reminded of this breezy resolution as I turn to G gnashing my teeth and sobbing at 3am. I’m aware that I may shriek to myself ‘why did I WRITE THAT? I MUST have been sleep-deprived!’. But even at those times, I hope to remember that sleep maketh not the baby, however haggard the lack of it maketh Mummy look. After all, that’s why make-up was invented.