Chapter Nineteen: The Fear

Last Friday as I walked home from the shops, I had to jostle the buggy through a cluster of photographers and journalists lining the pavement outside our local church. Within the grounds, crowds of people stood, wearing dark clothes, the air heavy with what could only be grief.

A photographer confirmed, when I asked, that it was a funeral, for a teenage girl who died recently
in tragic circumstances and whose death has been in the news (incidentally, he sounded fairly disgusted with me for asking, which was a bit rich coming from the man waiting outside a funeral with a telephoto lens. Just saying).

The only other time I have seen the same church so busy, and have felt the same heaviness in the air, was for the funeral of my sister. She was a teenager too; she too died in tragic circumstances (though thankfully her death did not garner so much media interest). On that day in summer 2004, hundreds of people packed the church, sitting, standing, her classmates cross-legged on the floor.

I now attend the church, and each Sunday I still have a moment when I am stunned by the fact that we had to have that funeral, when I stare at the space at the front of the church where her casket stood. My sister, her casket. It still doesn’t compute. Some days I literally can’t believe that my worst fear- to lose one of my siblings- came to pass.

Now I am a parent I have a new worst fear to add to that one, of course. And I am fearful, every day. It feels like it will stop my own heart sometimes.

It struck me as I tried to stop the tears, and snapped at the cameraman whose tripod took up the whole pavement and forced me and the buggy onto the road, that one reason the media make so much of an untimely death is that it is comforting for it to seem unusual, foreign, the thing that happens to Other People. An everyday occurrence isn’t news. We want tragedy to be freakish.

And in a way, it is. Sixteen is nowhere within the realms of a normal life expectancy. But it does happen every day. It did happen to my sister. Maybe I am more afraid than others, for that reason. When people say that they can’t imagine losing a child, I can. I do imagine it, in spite of myself. For though I haven’t known that specific loss, I hope I’m not throwing a pity party when I say that the loss of Helen was devastating, and that I can’t imagine loving Helen more than I did, so while I may not know the particular pain of losing a child, the pain I do know provides more than a hint of that horror.

But maybe I’m not more afraid than any other parent. Maybe we are all, but for the most optimistic/blissfully ignorant/rational among us, gripped by The Fear. Maybe all of us feel somewhere deep down that we were reckless fools ever to have children, because now look what we’ve done. Our happiness and potential happiness and potential despair is poured into these vessels; we are hostages to fortune. It is, as Barack Obama put it in the wake of the Sandy Hook atrocity, ‘the equivalent of having your heart outside of your body all the time, walking around’.

And maybe I’m not any more afraid than I ever was. I have always worried about losing my loved ones, almost obsessively at times. When Helen died it felt like a confirmation: I was RIGHT to be fearful. But yet, totally wrong. Because it didn’t make any difference, did it?

How do I handle The Fear? Do I forbid my children from going into the sea? Then the sea won’t take them as it did Helen, but they’ll also never know the joy of jumping over waves and floating belly-up in the sun- or even that strange slow-motion thrill of being sucked under by a big wave and it taking just a second too long for comfort to spiral up to the water’s surface. And then where does it end? Do I keep them out of school? Keep them in the house? In a sterilised pod where nothing and nobody can do them any harm- no disease, no evil, no runaway train or roof falling in?

Giving in to The Fear is not compatible with the life my children deserve to live. They deserve to have adventures and make choices and walk to school without me keeping them on a lead. They don’t deserve to be the only kids at university whose mother installed a cctv camera in their halls of residence.

I got myself into this heart-outside-of-my-body business, so beyond the obvious safety measures, I have to just suck it up, keep loving and enjoying them, and be grateful for all the days I have with them, even the crappy ones (though if either of them ever gets into that extreme sport where you ‘fly’ down the side of a mountain with a bat-cloak as ‘wings’, I will stage an intervention, so help me God). And hope that when I eventually go, they are still around, and well and happy, to remember their silly old Mum who would scuttle away from the window when they arrived home, pretending she had not been stood watching for them.


Chapter Eighteen: Snowed In

When we booked a weekend in the Lakes with friends for the end of March, we imagined hosts of golden daffodils, walks in the crisp spring sunshine or at least the crisp spring rain, and lots of fresh air for the kids.

What we didn’t predict was driving up north through increasingly treacherous conditions, seeing lorries blown over on the other carriageway, the car in front of us suddenly sliding back and forth across the motorway, snow drifting across the country lanes and having to drive through said drifts to reach the cottage. All the while knowing we couldn’t turn back in case we got stranded. With a three year old and a not-yet-five month old. The older of which was wide awake and saying unbearably cute things like ‘look at my tiny hands! Me and Asher are so tiny!’, as if to remind us what foolhardy parents we were, ever to embark on this journey.

Once we reached the cottage, which belonged to my late great-aunt, and which I’ve been visiting almost all my life, the snow came down thicker and faster. Our friends couldn’t reach the cottage and had to turn around for home, so it was just us four, in a remote location, unable to travel anywhere by car, or, really by foot, unsure of when we’d be able to get home.

As crises go, it was totally bourgeois: trapped! But with home-made marmalade, plenty of teabags (normal and lady grey), enough food for five adults including a cheeseboard, an open fire and a fully-functioning aga. I know, the heart bleeds. But it was genuinely stressful for me and G, not least because in a situation where the natural instinct is ‘I want my Mum’, the realisation that you ARE Mum is uncomfortable. We were responsible for keeping two very small very precious people
(one of whom- Leila- had chicken pox starting to appear) safe, warm and happy as long as we were stuck there. And for getting them home safely when the roads opened- a prospect which filled us with dread.

There was no internet (by gads!) so we were kept informed by Radio Cumbria, which came to feel like a friend. We could only go outside for 20 minutes at a time a max, as it was so cold. So we slowed the pace down, piled on the thermals, and enjoyed the enforced family time, in between grinding our teeth with worry.

Spoiler alert: we made it home fine, and resolved never to take travel warnings lightly. These experiences become woven into the fabric of family history, and I’m happy to be making memories with these three, even if I’d prefer it if the memories were mostly less cold, with fewer feet of snow, and didn’t involve being stranded, trapped or anything else panicky like that.

Meanwhile I jotted down some notes on my iPhone (strange how one is compelled to fiddle with one’s iPhone somehow, anyhow, even when there is no internet), entitled Observations On Being Snowed In:

– It’s a good thing we all like each other

– Three-year-olds still behave like maniacs even when you really, really need them not to, like when you’re struggling through horizontal snow with her on a sledge (screaming) and he in a sling (looking cold and silent, which was somehow worse).

– Babies also have no regard for a crisis situation and continue to wake up all night, need feeding etc etc.

– The previous two points are oddly reassuring!

– Thank goodness for boobs. If we were running out of milk for the baby, things would be so much worse.

– As ever, the calming power of tea should not be underestimated. Also, wine.

– Mad threenager moments aside, Leila is a proper trouper.

– My G is a wonderful man (sorry, readers, for the schmaltz. But he OWNED this crisis)

– I am not as neurotic as I thought, and managed not to dwell for too long on how much like the plot of a horror movie this was (and whether those deep imprints in the snow outside the window were footprints. And whether, when I looked out of the window at night, there’d be a man standing in the deserted drive- wibble…). Yeah, didn’t dwell on it for TOO long.

– There’s no place like home



Chapter Seventeen: Fun, Fit and Funky

Much of our time is taken up playing what I call the Why-Lympics. Anyone with a three year old will be familiar with this sport. The child must master a steely determination to drill to the very bottom of any issue with a single word- ‘why?’ (or sometimes, ‘but why?’)- repeated over and over until the parent is stumped.

To win gold, the parent must never say ‘I don’t know’, ‘just because’ or ‘because I say so’. I make it my personal challenge always to provide an answer to the incessant Whys. Not because of any high-faluting ideals about always dignifying a child’s questions with a valid response (‘why is it my bottom?’ being an example of a question that doesn’t command much dignity); no, because I am as stubborn as my three year old and want to have the last word.

Sometimes I reply with something stupid, either because I don’t know the answer, or more likely, to amuse myself. I emerged from the bedroom at Leila’s bathtime the other evening wearing gym kit, and she of course said ‘why have you got changed?’

‘Because I’m going to an exercise class’ (incidentally, it was called Armegeddon, is a boot camp dreamed up by the devil’s minions, and yes I did say ‘Armageddon outta here’ at one point)

‘Why are you going to an exercise class?’

Here comes the stupid answer: ‘Because I want to be fun fit and funky’

This time I had won the Why-Lympics, because she did not ask why I want to be fun fit and funky. It was a hollow victory, however, as she did burst into floods of tears. She sat in the bath and roared ‘BUT I WANT YOU TO BE MUMMY!’

This ego-bruising response confirmed why I have decided to start exercising again. Not because I want to be fun fit and funky exactly; but, five months post partum, I’d love to feel less faded, flabby and frazzled. It’s time that the Why-Lympics ceased to be my only workout. I want to start feeling like I’m in my own skin again- as I recall, this does start to happen eventually, and I’d like that eventually to be now-ish. At the risk of sounding like A Mum, I don’t want Mummy to be the person who is so far from fun fit and funky that it reduces my child to tears (look I know she didn’t have a clue what I was on about, and was just crying because I was being weird… But it’s, like, the symbolism)It’s hard to explain to a three year old why that is- though she’ll certainly ask, given the chance- but I know that the results will benefit her and Asher as well as me.

Chapter Sixteen: Hello Darkness My Old Friend

So remember when I was all ‘oh I’ll just go with the flow wrt sleep, and so what if Asher doesn’t sleep, he’s a baby etc’? Well that was when Asher did sleep. That was before his sleep went tits up (often literally) and I was so tired I was on the floor (often literally), and if anyone told me how good their baby was at sleeping I would blast them with the hot furious breath of a thousand cups of life-saving, sanity-saving tea.

Back then I referred to the ‘S word’ on this blog, and that word was ‘sleep’. Shortly afterwards, the S word became ‘shit’, as in, ‘shit, my baby is one of those non-sleeping ones’.

I had forgotten how sleep deprivation can feel like actual torture; or maybe it wasn’t so bad last time; or maybe it wasn’t so bad when I didn’t have another child to look after when morning finally rolled around. In any case, one thing I’ve learned is that just as children, and being a parent, can change in a second and then change again, so do my views on children and being a parent. And suddenly, my beautiful little happy baby was kicking my ass brutally, night after night, and my laissez-faire attitude to sleep went the same way as my fresh complexion and my ability to construct a sentence.

And that, dear reader (because there’s probably only one left by now), is why I haven’t posted for a long time. The baby was trying to finish me, and I didn’t have the resources to do anything but look after the kids- just about- and google ‘four months old terrible sleeper’.

But here I am! The baby has been dispatched into his own cot in his own room, has started to eat some real food, and OH JOYOUS DAY has started to sleep better again (for now, touch wood).

So here I am again, emerging from the tunnel- I hope, I pray [ed note: since drafting this post, Asher has been stricken with chickenpox, so I’m back in the tunnel for now- there’s nothing like your baby hanging grimly off your hair to stop you putting him in his cot, to make you feel sorry for him…]. There will be posts about stuff, stuff that happened so long ago it might be a bit awkward. But hey , I’ve got to start somewhere.

Meantime I will be practising my one man band act, complete with crashing cymbals and kazoo, ready for Asher’s teenage years when he really loves sleep, to remind him what he did to me when he was this chobbly-faced little chap: