Chapter Twenty-One: Turn

This weekend we reintroduced forgotten concepts, like jumpers and socks and closed-toe shoes. The thousandth season of X Factor started, which means it’s basically a speedy downhill sleigh-ride to Christmas, and there was a slight nip in the air. All of it gave me the sweet and salty sense of seasons turning, a mixture of nostalgia and optimism and uncertainty.

This summer’s transition to autumn is more bittersweet than usual for me, because this autumn there will be huge changes. Like, turn and face the strain Changes. I’ve been floating preserved in the slightly surreal time-out-of-time that is maternity leave for ten months now (preserved is perhaps the wrong metaphor, given how rapidly this two-kids business has aged me *pulls out another grey hair*), but pretty soon I’ll be back to work. A prospect I can’t really grasp right now so will put in a little box marked ‘la la la I’m not listening’ down here in the sand next to my head.

Leila, meanwhile, is due to start nursery school full time in around three weeks. Which, well. She was only just born the other day, wasn’t she? I feel confident that this is the right thing for her (perhaps her doleful bellows of ‘I’m bored! I want some friends to play with! Not you and Asher! Real friends!’ gave me a clue). But still! Where did this long-leggedy, long-haired girl, who draws angels and cats and whales’ tails rising from the sea, come from? This girl who walks around narrating her imaginary life out loud (‘the prime minister was having a very busy day, she had so much to do’). I know, I KNOW that this is how all parents feel, that their kids grow up mind-boggling quickly. Soon I’ll be urging people earnestly to ‘enjoy every minute’, I’m sure. But it’s a great conundrum of having children, that the two hours before bedtime can last for ten years, and yet in the space of a second, your child goes from a baby who can’t make basic consonant sounds, to telling you that they’re not picking their nose, their finger is next to their nose, so you can’t tell them off.

At least Asher is still a big, dribbly, cuddly, toothless little one, the very essence of Baby. But he is changing too, woah-so-fast. His repertoire of skills may be pretty limited to slithering on his stomach, wobbling round the edge of his cot, clapping, waving and being unbearably cute. But the very beginnings of language are starting to take form (G came in late from work while I was giving Asher his bedtime feed, and kissed his head. Asher looked up at me as G left and said, smiling, ‘dada’), and today he slithered hastily to his highchair when he saw dinner being served, and fixed us with an urgent and expectant stare. Soon he’ll be walking, and going to childcare some of the time, and sleeping through the night! Did you hear that, Asher? Sleeping through the night!. Before we know it, we’ll be wondering whether we can still call him a baby. Oh my heart.

We’ve had, all things considered, a great summer. That’s We, the British Public, what with all the beautiful sunshine; and also we, me and my family. Sure, there have been some extremely knackering and challenging moments- in fact, there probably hasn’t been a day without them. But to be able to spend a large chunk of my mat leave with the kids in such glorious weather has been amazing, especially as it came about just before Leila starts her school life. Hard moments feel less so when they’re bathed in sunshine, and great moments feel fantastic. We’ve had some times. Asher indulged a love of icecream that verges on sinister; Leila finally stopped insisting on wearing a tutu every day and embraced shorts. We had a lovely family holiday and I finally learned that going away with children doesn’t have to be stressful.

And soon we’ll embark on the next stage. Despite none of the changes being bad ones per se, I am me, so I’m partially wracked with a gnawing anxiety. But then, with kids, things are always changing, with or without major life transitions. You’re always leaving something behind, and starting something new, and you’re never quite sure if or how the new thing is going to work out.

Far beneath the constant change, there’s an ever-present tug somewhere inside my heart, that’s sweet and sad at the same time. I think I can sort of name it now. It’s the same feeling I get as the seasons change, only magnified hundreds of times. Leaves turn, and feet grow out of shoes, and the temperature drops, and words form. The world turns russet and gold, and little girls put on grey pinafores and red jumpers, and days get shorter, and kids get longer. There’s nothing you can do to slow any of it, and you can’t wait to see what’s next, but at the same time you still want to stay in this season, right now, for just a little longer.

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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 Fifteen: I’m Still Tiny

Leila seems to be having a bit of a delayed reaction to the arrival of her baby brother, or maybe it’s a timely reaction to the new, louder, more awake version of her baby brother, who takes up more of my time and attention.

Her discombobulation manifests itself in an added dose of threenager fierceness, and in an uncharacteristic clinginess to me. ‘I need you’ she says, ‘I want to be WITH you, be WITH me mummy’. And, this morning, as she clutched me so tightly, it’s like she wanted to be inside my skin again: ‘I’m still tiny. I’m still so small’.

It also manifests itself in the classic Leila (the original early bird) stunt of waking up before dawn, and bouncing in and out of her bedroom like a jack-in-the-box. Though she did have the courtesy to knock insistently on our door at 6am this morning, instead of appearing ghost-like by our bed breathing ‘Daddy’ into the darkness in alarming fashion, as she has done before.

So come 1pm today we knew, even if she didn’t agree, that she needed a nap. Leila’s afternoon nap has been undergoing a slow and tortured demise, like a fish on land that keeps flapping into life before giving up completely. Some days she will, many she won’t, some days she actually asks for one. Today she was not asking, and she was not napping. I bundled Asher into his pram in the porch and left him to squawk his way into sleep (poor second child) and went to relieve G who had been trying to get Leila to nap for longer than is good for anyone’s sanity.

Overcome with tiredness myself- before Asher, I had all but forgotten the crushing, bruising fatigue that comes with having a young baby- I did something that Leila and I have never done. I lay down with her for a nap. Unlike her brother, she has never been one for co-sleeping, even when we’ve tried it in desperation during dodgy sleep patches (one memorable night sticks out, near Christmas 2011, of Leila aged nearly two chirrupping ‘ingle bells, ingle bells’ at 1am, sitting bolt upright between us in bed). But today I squashed myself onto her toddler bed, and put my arms around her. I tried to emulate a relaxation session such as you do at the end of a yoga class or similar, as I know G has used this technique to help her nap before.

‘Feel your eyes get heavy…’, I murmured, feeling my eyes get heavy. ‘Let your face relax’, as I dribbled onto her forehead. At first she thrashed about and made irritating kissy sounds with her mouth. Then she turned onto her side facing me and said quietly ‘no talking, while we have our nap’ and within seconds she was asleep, my lips pressed to her head, her breath in warm gusts on my neck.

It was unfamiliar and lovely, to have my little livewire sleeping in my arms. Her face in repose looked just as it did when she was a baby. I started to drift off myself, but toddler beds are a bit cramped for grown-up legs, plus I am a terrible napper- worse than Leila- so after a while I started to extricate myself as silently as possible: unsmooshing my face from her forehead, gently lifting my arm from her body, unfolding myself from around her. It brought to mind those baby days with her, when after shushing her to sleep in her cot, I’d curse the pop of a kneecap as I stood up, or the deafening swish of denim as I crept from the room.

As I tried to lift my head from the pillow, something kept me there. As well as the sweet, grassy Leila-smell of her head, it was something more physical: her fingers curled into my hair, grasping. Just like her brother does. Just as she did as a baby. I couldn’t bear to uncurl her fingers just yet, so I watched her sleeping a little longer.

She’s still tiny. She’s still so small.

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She loves him really

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 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.