The Magic Number?

two

I’ve never been a person who ‘just knows’ about things. Sure, I’ve been with the same man since I was 19, but there has been no ‘just knowing’ about it. There has been a lot of choosing, and working, and talking, and sometimes freaking out.

It’s the same with most things: houses, jobs, hairstyles. My approach is never to ‘just know’, and always to deliberate. Trust my gut? Nah. I prefer to trust many hours of tortured overthinking and introspection, and list-making. With tick-boxes.

But there was one thing I did just know about: I wanted a child. And then, when we’d been lucky enough to have her, I just knew I wanted another one. No overthinking required.

Two kids was a no-brainer. But THREE? Three is a possibility that I think I’ll always be on the fence about- at least until biology kicks me unceremoniously off the fence onto the side of ‘no can do’.

I have friends with three kids, and they just knew they wanted three (and they’re doing a damn good job of it). I’ve got friends with two kids, or one kid, and they just knew too. Sometimes it feels like I’m the only one having a constant internal bicker with myself about this subject, with one voice bleating ‘yes, a baby, now please’, and the other admonishing bossily: ‘hell to the no, woman’.

(Here come the lists…)

In the “yes, a baby, now please” corner:

  1. Babies are lovely. Children are lovely. Being a mum is lovely, a lot of the time.
  2. I always wanted lots of children. That was before I had any, obviously. But having been one of four, and knowing how fantastic growing up in a big family can be, I think I’ll always feel a pang for a tribe.
  3. Babies really are lovely.
  4. I’m going to say this, and I’m not proud of it, but… There’s a swotty part of me, the part that got straight As at GCSES, that wants three in order to score top marks at mumming. It’s quite aspirational, having three. Not wanting another would feel a bit like an admission that I wasn’t loving having two- like proclaiming a cake delicious, but then declining another one. (Note to self: not a reason to have baby).

In the “hell to the no” corner:

  1. While I’m sure I could manage, technically, with three, I suspect I’d be frazzled. I’m not a coper like my mum-of-three friends. When we’re in the park, I panic if I can’t see both the kids, my head swivelling constantly from one child to the other like an electronic toy that has been through the washing machine, and I come across as really, really rude to whoever I am talking to. I have a tendency to break into a sweat when both are yelling MUMMY from different parts of the house. My hands feel full, literally and figuratively.
  2. The bits where being a mum is not so lovely, and even some of the bits that are lovely, are, well, really hard. There seem to be so many scenarios in parenthood where you are stretched to capacity: having a newborn; having a newborn and a toddler OMFG. Let’s be honest, even with older kids, leaving the house is sometimes like a mad dream where everything plays in reverse (why do they stand in the doorway like that, when you are trying to shut the door?). But these days, now that they are 4 and 7, I can manage. I can manage to put them both to bed without nearing breakdown, on my own when need be. Weekends are somewhat relaxing. It’s doable, having two. I like doable. Could we go back into the breach, really?
  3. As someone who has known the dark side of love and loss, having lost my sister at a young age, I know only too well that love also invites pain. And we’ve been so lucky, so bloody lucky, to get the two that we knew we wanted to have. Choosing to stick, rather than twist, feels like a way to protect my heart somehow.
  4. I don’t ‘just know’, and when it comes to whether or not to have more children, I’m starting to think that ‘just knowing’ is the best barometer.

So maybe it really is time to hang up my uterus, and appreciate that I am, actually, hashtag blessed with two, and borrow other peoples’ babies for  squishing and surreptitious head-sniffing.

And if that fails to quell the broody beast within, well, we’re still in our mid-thirties- by the skin of our teeth- and I do warn G regularly that I may simply lose my mind in a couple of years and suddenly demand another one (assuming it’s possible, obviously).

I mean, babies. They are so very lovely.

 

 

 

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 Twenty: Nobody said it was easy/ Nobody said that it would be so hard

I haven’t posted lately, not because I don’t have time- no, I have approximately three hours between the kids’ bedtime and my bedtime in which I could try to string together a sentence or ten. Unless the baby is awake and making that gringey ‘mhmhmhmgmgggg, ehhhhhggh’ sound he has taken to of an evening.

I haven’t posted because I don’t have much to say right now other than ‘woah. This is hard work’, and that’s not exactly riveting reading. I never really got it before, the ‘parenting is the hardest job in the world’ line. And I still think it’s the wrong way to put it- because a) plainly there are harder jobs. I wouldn’t fancy Barack Obama’s job much, for example and 2) it’s just a really annoying condescending parent thing to say, up there with ‘you don’t know what tiredness is til you have kids’.

But it is HARD. At the moment, on maternity leave with a 7 month old and a 3 year old at home with me full time (Leila no longer goes to a childminder two days a week, and boy, you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone), I have to say that I have never worked so hard.

The sheer logistics and physical graft are pretty mind-boggling. From the moment G deposits them with me when he leaves for work at 7.30am, the needs and demands are rapid-fire and relentless. We have beautiful times as we go, laughs and some lulls when we meet with friends or go to a group. But soon enough it’s BAM changing him BAM-BAM feeding him, feeding her BAM cleaning up BAM settling him for a nap BAM calming her from a strop BAM resettling him from his stupidly short nap, BAM to infinity. For hours without let-up. It’s like trying to juggle jellies on a treadmill which is going faster and faster. Suffice to say, it’s a culture shock going from one to two kids, just as having my first baby was a culture shock. A good measure of this is how many cups of tea are left to go cold.

But the logistics aren’t the hardest thing. The hardest thing is how much it matters, how much they matter, and how much it matters to me that their memories of their mother from early childhood are warm and happy and light, and how they should be. That’s what I wrestle with, and would do whether I had one or two or six children, I think. I am desperate to do right by them- better than right.

And yet I have and do tut ‘whatever’ to her, and walk away when she is throwing a strop. And I have and do swear under my breath when he just. will. not. go. to. sleep. I get fed up and shouty, and once or twice have burst into tears in front of them, which I assume without having read the books is a huge no- no. If there were video cameras rigged up in my house, I know that at times I’d have to watch the footage through my fingers, because I’d cringe at what I saw.

Every day I say to myself, today is the day I do not shout at Leila at all, that I discipline calmly and firmly like Supernanny (‘this is unasseptable behaviour’). Today is the day that I think breezily ‘he can just nap later on’. Some days- the days when the children seem to have made a pact to break me- the effort to be this mother has me physically sweating and holding back tears. And most days, by the end of the day, I do shout at Leila. Then I feel awful and smother her in cuddles, and then I feel more awful that they might find me unpredictable and not know whether to expect Cross Mummy or Lovely Mummy from one day or moment to the next. When you’re one of two people on whom their happiness pretty much depends, and around whom their world revolves, and when you find them so precious that a dimple in the silken cushion of an elbow makes you cry, being the parent you want to be is a pretty high bar.

I’m not too worried by whether society thinks I am A Good Mother. I am, for example, at ease with my choices about going out to work, or putting the telly on for Leila (again). I’m not concerned about being seen as some all-singing, all-baking Super Mum. That’s just nonsense. The baking means nothing; I do the sodding baking. What means something is whether I get snappy and controlling over how much flour is staying in the bowl and how much is being sprayed over every single object in the kitchen.

No, I care what THEY think, what THEY feel, or will feel, when they think about their mum. I want that feeling to be magic. Trying to be the person that will conjure up those feelings, when right now they are so demanding in completely different ways, so totally unaware that I am a human being too- one who might also feel like doing the loose-limbed Tantrum Flop, or making the mmmmhgmhg noise, but can’t, because she has to be the adult- that’s the hardest work of all for me.

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 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 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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