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It’s ‘Back to School’ Eve, and I’m waiting for the terror to set in.
Usually it does. For many years, my school holidays have consisted of several lovely days (although the BEST day is the FIRST one), followed by gradually escalating days of depression and woe, culminating in one last, mournful, ‘execution-eve’ Sunday.
But something has changed. I now have children of my own. And, as a teacher, although term time means I have to go back to school, it ALSO means my children have to go back to school.
I used to allow work to hang over me like Edgar Allan Poe’s lethal pendulum, but I made a liberating decision at the beginning of the holidays to spend some quality time with my family. That DOESN’T mean going to museums and picnics, with my own personal thunder cloud poised above my head. It means putting school and work in a box, locking it in a dark room, and leaving it there until I’m ready to deal with it.
Surprisingly, it worked rather well.
We did some lovely things – we sunbathed, went for long walks on a grassy common, had ice-cream, went to the cinema, received dear friends to stay, had a huge Easter lunch with family, ate out at pubs, visited friends who lived in a beautiful house right by the sea, went for long walks on the beach, jammed with friends, and made origami hats to celebrate Children’s Day which is fast approaching.
I also managed to go ‘OUT’ out, dance, and drink myself to illness with a pathetically small amount of alcohol. Not my finest hour, but interesting, in the way all new experiences are interesting! (Did I mention that Japanese people don’t deal with alcohol too well?)
With my son starting his last term in Y7 and my daughter fast approaching the end of primary school, I am aware of time speeding by with astonishing ease. It won’t be long before my children no longer want to spend much time with me during school holidays, and only a skip and a jump until they are exploring the world on their own. I don’t want to sit here feeling dazed and cheated, wondering why I didn’t spend more time with them when I had the chance.
So. That’s my excuse for postponing my work.
I’d be lying, however, if I said I wasn’t a teeny bit relieved to be going back to the routine. I like routines. I might push the boat out, and even suggest that term time is restful compared to holidays… My ridiculous need for control is thwarted when we lurch from day to day, blissfully unaware of the date or time, eating weird concoctions from the fridge, or calorific platefuls in restaurants and pubs.
I have done SO LITTLE exercise. The gibbering, rabbit-like fusspot that lives inside my head keeps trying to pop up, bemoaning the tightness of my jeans, drivelling about the muscle mass I must be losing, blubbering about the inefficiency of paying for gym membership and using it only twice this month. However, I’ve been getting quite adept at bopping that irritating creature on the head every time it starts yammering. I know the jeans-tightness is temporary. I’m not going to waste precious energy worrying about it.
The lunches are made, the uniforms are washed, the bags are packed.
Time to open that box, I reckon.
The other day, I saw a picture of a woman with a great hairstyle.
I had one of those visceral reactions I often get when I shop for clothes or shoes, and see something that I love – an instinctive gut feeling of approval and certainty.
I would ROCK a hairstyle like that! And it would reflect my character so much more accurately than the bland, mumsy, grown-out, daily ‘lack of effort’ that was my current hair.
But did I dare?
It would require a huge leap of faith – of shaved sides and back, of artistic patterns swirled in with clippers. It would be asymmetrical, anti-establishment, edgy… basically everything I’ve never been.
Being Japanese, obviously my hair is black. A deep, unrelenting, crow feather black. It’s also very straight. Straight and black. There’s almost nothing interesting I can do with it, apart from plait it, or put it in bunches, or have it lolling on my shoulders like tired lengths of string.
When I was much younger, I did have it cut very short (Hubby liked it that way), but Japanese hair is extremely unforgiving to an inexperienced stylist. After a horrendous experience where a young hairdresser gave me a haircut that left me looking like an electrocuted sea urchin with a bowl cut, and she had stormed out shouting, “I don’t cut Chinese ‘air!” I decided to let my hair grow out. It seemed safer that way.
I sported a bob for a few years. I went to Chinatown in London specially to get my hair cut by a nice Chinese lady, who was obviously used to the challenging nature of black, East Asian hair. This met with approval from family members because, apparently, I was the spitting image of my grandmother. However, when I look at old photos, I think that a bob, paired with my (then) round face, made me look childlike and simple.
Then, of course, I had children.
No one warned me that having children messed with your hair. I had lusciously thick locks while I was pregnant, but several months after giving birth, I was horrified to find my hair coming out in handfuls every time I washed it. Although some of it grew back in annoying baby-hair wisps on my forehead, I never regained the hair I had BC.
I don’t DO enhancement. I am so incredibly lazy that I hardly wear makeup, and I’m lucky if I remember to brush my hair in the morning before whipping it into a messy bun on top of my head. I just can’t be arsed with hair products, blow-drying, straightening, curling, spraying and primping – it bores me to death. AND I never look better for it anyway.
Just as well really. Once you’ve got kids, the amount of time (and money) you have to spend on yourself is absolutely minimal. There are so many other things that seem more important.
I think I’ve spent a good decade looking an absolute mess – wearing old, ill-fitting clothes, and going to public places with a scary, bare-naked face. However, my children are 12 and 9 now… and I’ve started taking a little more interest in myself.
I’m beginning to understand that denying myself attention, and belittling my importance is not helping anyone at all. My children need to understand that I am an individual with my own skills, personality and desires. It’s vital for their empathetic development that they see me, not just as ‘Mum’, but as a PERSON – a person with history, with talents, with faults, with opinions.
Especially as they grow into adolescence, really SEEING us as people, as well as parents, will help to smooth the bumps and dips in our communication.
Since I started writing this blog, I have a much better idea of who I am. And I LOVE the new sense of stability and confidence it brings.
I already knew that I was going to get this haircut. Why not?
I have a great shaped head (apart from the weird hollow at the top – which my family tease me is deep enough to hold water if I’m out in the rain), and nothing to lose. So what if people think it’s not ‘me’? I can tell them that the hairstyles in the previous 42 years of my life were not ‘me’ – and I should know. My image of myself was just a projection of how I THOUGHT I should look.
Anyway… I’ve gone and done it now. And I love it. A few people have exclaimed, “How BRAVE you are!” – but I didn’t need to be brave.
I just needed to be me. That me-ness needed an outlet, and so here it is. On my head.
My kids were not fazed by my new look. In fact, when my mother-in-law asked them what it was like to have a ‘cool’ mum, my daughter immediately replied, “She was cool before her haircut.”
FINALLY, after what has seemed like a very long term indeed, school has broken up for Easter holidays.
I am really looking forward to a couple of days without structure – where we don’t have to be someplace at a certain time. No doubt, after a week, I’ll be longing for the routine again because I’m contrary like that, but tonight the two weeks ahead stretch out invitingly.
I may even take some time off writing my blog. I’m sure people will be too busy going on holiday or visiting friends to read it anyway.
By the way, if anyone wants to tell me that teachers get too much holiday, or similar sentiments, please DO make your views clear to me – because that is one battle I am ALWAYS prepared to fight!
I know I shouldn’t let it bother me, but I read some stupid comments on Facebook last night, posted by a pedantic ignoramus, baldly stating that “teachers get way too much holiday.”
I always think it’s interesting how the sectors with the most demanding, responsible jobs receive the most criticism, and are subject to careless judgements by people who know NOTHING about the challenges of the job.
Every teacher and teaching assistant I know works incredibly hard. I think back over the years I have been in this profession, and I honestly can’t name a single colleague who didn’t work hard. In those years, I have seen the workload and demand on teachers grow to monstrous proportions – it is a never-ending job.
There will never be a minute when you suddenly think, “Oh. I’ve done absolutely EVERYTHING I can possibly do. I’ve completed every form, marked every book, planned every lesson, organised every trip, completed every target on my professional development plan, created every resource I will ever need, written every report, moderated all my class’s work in every subject… I might as well have a glass of wine.”
That’s not to say teachers don’t drink wine unless their job is complete, but you see my point. It’s just a demoralising situation when your constant battle to keep your head above water is a losing one.
When I was an NQT (newly qualified teacher), I arrived at school at 8am, used break and lunch times to work through my marking, and usually didn’t leave till 5 or 6pm. Then, back in my flat, I’d spend the rest of the evening planning my lessons for the next day, making resources for it (no internet resources then…), before falling into bed at gone midnight. And repeat. And repeat.
During that year, I remember visiting a colleague’s house straight from school. We picked up her two children from the child minder on the way home. They were cute as buttons and very talkative, but I was almost horror-struck to observe my friend’s routine when she got home. She ushered her kids through the front door, supervised their hand-washing, rushed straight into the kitchen to prepare them a meal…all accompanied by their incessant questions and demands for her attention.
I remember thinking, “There is NO WAY I’d ever manage to teach AND have kids.” It was hard enough keeping on top of my work when I was free and single. Not to mention the fact that I couldn’t imagine wanting to see another child once I’d left the workplace – even if they were my own!
Unlike many other professions, being a teacher DEFINES you. It’s not a job where you can turn up every day and go through the motions. Impossible. Each day is an unpredictable brewing pot, filled with surprises, adrenalin, thinking on your feet, and requires open access to every emotion and human sensitivity. Because we aren’t dealing with paper and figures here. Our raw materials aren’t planks, steel girders and plasterboard.
We are dealing with real children – each one someone’s little person; each one a member of a family; each one with their own strengths and insecurities. Each one is going through a process – their own personal experience of the world. Those experiences can range from positive to utterly horrific; supportive to heart-wrenchingly sad; and we teachers have to create an environment where every single one of those children feels safe and able to learn, regardless of their family history, ethnic background and academic ability.
It’s not for the fainthearted, and there are times when it can turn life inside-out and upside-down, but we do it because it’s our calling. We do it because it can also be the most rewarding job in the world. In any society, nurturing and educating the minds of the next generation is surely one of the most important. Important, but draining. Draining because each teacher draws on their own personal store of raw energy, empathy and passion in order to do the job well, and give those children the understanding they need.
So every teacher needs to recharge occasionally – especially after a long term like the one we’ve just had – without hearing snide remarks about our general laziness and over-indulgent holiday allowance.
Making negative presumptions that belittle the work that teachers do is totally unnecessary and a waste of breath. By all means, if those detractors have the energy spare to campaign for changes to a system that ill supports our teaching professionals, then they should apply themselves to that.
We don’t decide how much holiday we get. And anyway, if any teacher spends the next two weeks without doing a jot of school work, then I’m a monkey’s uncle.
Going to take a WELL-EARNED break for a bit. See you in a couple of weeks (unless I get bitten by the urge to say something before then)!
When my children were babies, I was so absorbed in their daily lives, that I couldn’t imagine them being any different age.
Memorably, when Son was about 6 months old, a zoo we used to visit almost every week announced that they were going to open a sister attraction in 2010. I quickly did the maths and marvelled – in 2010 my son would be 6 years old. SIX!
I looked at his chubby limbs, squashy adorable face, at the cute vests hanging on the washing line, and I simply couldn’t picture such a time ever arriving. What would he look like when he was 6 years old? How would that round face with the rosy cheeks and toothless grin have changed?
Nope. Impossible to envision.
The funny thing is, my son has hardly changed since he was a baby. Even at 12, you’d instantly recognise his face in baby photos – much to his chagrin… though he does now have teeth. Whereas my daughter’s face seems to change every couple of weeks. If I see pictures of her from Christmas, she looks so much younger, even though it was only 4 months ago. Sometimes, she turns her head, I catch a glimpse of her profile, and she looks so grown up that I catch my breath.
It’s terrifying, sobering but also magnificent.
Dealing with babies is hard. Absolutely no question about it. It’s like being plunged into a foggy chaotic maze – you have to grope your way out of the maze with your eyes closed, hefting 16 bags of awkwardly shaped bundles, accompanied by the constant sound of screaming. Oh, and there’s a lion chasing you. In a tornado.
Even so, I’m starting to sense that the hardest part of parenthood is yet to come… but stealthily approaching.
This bit is different. After spending a decade holding my little ones close, doing everything for them, helping them succeed and keeping them safe inside the circle of my arms, I think I’m going to turn everything on its head.
The next bit is about letting them go, giving them freedom and trust, making them do things independently, and watching from a distance as they fail. And I sense that I will find that excruciatingly difficult.
As a parent, watching your children fail will be one of the hardest things to witness. And yet, without learning HOW to fail, how will our children be equipped to deal with real life? How will they learn to pick themselves up, to find the positive in a disappointing situation, and above all… to keep trying?
In the same way that mother birds will not help their chicks as they hatch - for the chicks who haven’t needed to push and struggle through their shells to freedom will never be robust enough to survive – I will need to take a step back, even when my children fall from their heavily organised paths.
This is probably harder for some parents than others. I am definitely NOT a ‘tiger mom’, despite my genetic predisposition to ‘tiger’ characteristics. I have always tried to achieve a balance between giving my children guidance and the benefit of my experience, and encouraging their ownership and self-motivation regarding whatever activity they are involved in.
However, I AM controlling in my own way. You only have to look at my clenched fists while the kids decorate the Christmas tree to know that. I have steered them, and made decisions for them, and rescued them far too often for their own good.
One time I stood my ground, and I’m pleased now that I did.
I started teaching my son to play the piano a few years back. It seemed like the perfect thing to do – after all, he was musical, we had a piano, and I was a piano teacher. Ideal!
Generally my son and I have a great relationship – we are cut from the same cloth, enjoy the same things, and have a similar sense of humour. We can sit together in companionable silence for hours, reading a book, or work contentedly side by side on a lego project.
However, the instant he’d sit down on that piano stool, and I tried to put on my teacher’s hat, everything went t*ts up.
He would get frustrated and impatient with his mistakes. I would lose my cool the 32nd time I had to remind him how to finger a D major scale. His face would close up and a mutinous frown would cloud his brow whenever I suggested an improvement he could make. I would hear my voice turning shrewish and shrill when he crashed his fists down on his legs after making the same mistake for the umpteenth time.
He turned into a sulky, unreasonable, unrecognisable boy.
I turned into a tiger mom. Or is it a helicopter mom? Some such mom, anyway. An annoying one.
I threatened to stop teaching him. He accepted…then changed his mind, obviously conflicted inside.
It puzzled me, this transformation. Why was he so reluctant to do something that I was SO SURE he would enjoy?
I thought about it for a long, long time. Eventually I realised that playing the piano was the FIRST thing that he had tried to do which wasn’t instantly successful. Unlike all his other endeavours, playing the piano was going to require an unprecedented level of commitment. He would have to practise every day to strengthen his finger muscles – there was no other way; there are no short cuts to learning an instrument.
Understanding this helped me to deal with the problem. I explained my revelation to him, and I told him that it was absolutely imperative that he came up against these brick walls early in life. I reasoned that most children experienced them at a much younger age, because most children found every developmental stage challenging – eating, dressing, speaking, reading, writing, drawing, using scissors – and were therefore better equipped than he was at dealing with failure.
As always, when faced with logic and a sensible examination of the circumstances, he accepted the situation and agreed to keep trying. He moved through a couple of grades, passing with flying colours, and can now read music fluently – a skill that has unlocked all sorts of opportunities for him.
Failing is such a contentious issue for people with high expectations and ambitions. It is unbelievably terrifying for some, because it is UNKNOWN, and of course, fear of the unknown is paralysing and pervasive.
I spent most of my life scared of failing. Getting 99% in a test felt close to failure, because I could only see the 1% that I hadn’t managed to achieve. It changed my behaviour – made me cautious, anxious, stopped me from taking the risks that I needed to progress further.
It was only recently that I realised this wary attitude was hindering me from reaching my true potential… and was therefore causing me to fail EVERY DAY. That realisation was an epiphany. It suddenly freed up my thinking, allowed all the tension I’d been holding for decades to dissipate. I had nothing to lose if I’d already been failing myself.
So I started to try.
I would dearly love my children to reach this understanding much earlier in their lives – not in their forties, like me. If that means I have to chain my hands to my side when I want to help them, then that’s what it will take.
Learning to fail might possibly be one of the most useful and enlightening skills they will ever learn.
I am a proud mother this morning.
I have just returned from my daughter’s school, where a she sang a beautiful solo and had one of the prinicipal parts in a musical show.
Today, I was mostly fascinated by her ability to remember hundreds of lines (and I didn’t ONCE see her learning or practising them at home!) and her supreme confidence when faced with an audience, despite having to come in quietly singing a top D!
It reinforces my belief that taking part in drama, music and/or movement activities as a child is SO beneficial to their development as rounded, confident people.
Both of my children, being avid thespians, have been attending drama clubs or similar for a few years, and the changes I have noticed in them is considerable. Their speech is clearer, they project well, they make confident eye-contact, they have a diverse range of facial expressions and just seem better able to connect with that core of joy which is buried within each of us – some more deeply than others.
It is all about communication. I believe that people who have good communication skills are more likely to achieve their goals in life.
Daughter has always been skilled at communicating, but Son’s abilities in this sphere were erratic. Enough to cause us minor concern. Despite being fiercely bright and intelligent, his social skills were…um… limited, shall we say? His main objective at any point, was to OBSERVE, and no doubt, this has served him well in developing his intellect; however, during group activities at pre-school, for instance, he’d often be conspicuous by his frozen posture, blank face and half-open mouth. That was his ‘concentration face’.
One time, as we were leaving the dear, long-departed Woolworths, a young girl – also about 3 years old – skipped up to him and smiled into his face. Son looked thunderstruck.
She looked him up and down, then asked, “What’s your name?”
Son started to move away, with infinitesimal care – as if he’d just discovered an unexploded bomb.
Disregarding his stupefied expression, she closed the gap and repeated the question. “Hi. What’s your name?”
I watched him with half amusement, half exasperation, and was just about to step in, when he made the most extraordinary noise – a brief explosive sound, somewhere between ‘coughing out a fly that flew down your throat’ and a duck’s quack.
The little girl gave him a dirty look and skipped away.
I was reeling.
How could a little boy who could already read, recite large chunks of stories and poems, do hundred piece puzzles unaided, and draw so beautifully, be INCAPABLE of answering a simple question from a peer? He spoke to adults very articulately and, with his well-loved family, was lively and animated. How could a simple question from a stranger his own age, turn him into a petrified, gibbering fool?
I tried to explain to him that she was just a little girl, that she understood English, and that he should speak to other children in the same way he spoke to us. He just looked at me blankly.
Although we didn’t make a big thing of it, Hubby and I were both concerned about it, though we found it uncomfortably comical as well.
I watched my son carefully as he started school. He was never particularly communicative with other children, but the teachers assured me he was doing fine.
A few years on, when he started drama club, I wondered how he would manage – whether the task of speaking out loud and interacting with lots of other children would be overwhelming for him.
Then, one evening, at the drama club’s showcase – a medley of songs, acting and dancing – I watched my son singing a duet with an older boy. He’d been very nonchalant after each rehearsal, and hadn’t even told me that he had a solo!
I was absolutely floored by his performance. Not only was his voice pure and beautiful, he communicated the lyrics – he LIVED the words like a true actor. I was totally unprepared to see him succeeding so well in this context, and tears flowed from my eyes unchecked. I could no more help them than hold back the sea.
All I could think about was his quiet, solemn childhood; his careful risk assessment of every single activity that involved other children; his reluctance to throw himself into life… not to mention the bizarre response to the Woolworths girl.
When I saw him owning the stage, brimming with confidence, thrilling the audience, I finally realised how worried I had been for so many years. It was a huge relief.
And that is what the creative arts can do for a child. There is no bigger endorsement than that. Drama, music and community turned a child who couldn’t answer a simple question, into a child who could stand on stage in front of a hundred people… and SING. Communicate.
Who knows what doors music and drama will open for our children? Who knows how the reverberations from their childhood experiences will impact on their futures?
I don’t know. But it is worth considering, if you’ve ever called your child a ‘drama queen’ (and haven’t we all?!) giving them the opportunity to channel that drama into something positive and joyful.
The downsides of growing older are obvious – the thickening, the wrinkling, the slowing, and the burgeoning awareness of that implacable march forward… to what? We don’t know. We didn’t think about it as children and youngsters, but we become aware of it – maybe as the hiss of air whooshing past; the slipstream of time – as we leave youth behind.
To be perfectly honest, although I say all that, I’m still in denial. I feel that my school days were only a little while ago. My awkwardly sharp memory makes everything feel so close – childhood, university days, our wedding – I’ve stopped counting in years because it solidifies facts in a most disagreeable way.
I actually like being the age I am now.
I know. Weird. Why would anyone like being an age that requires you to scroll down for aaaages before you get to your birth year when filling in online forms??
Well, I believe there are some considerable ‘up’ sides to middle age.
1. You stop caring so much about the opinions of others. When you have a certain amount of experience, you begin to trust your own judgement.
2. You have a clearer sense of perspective. The flat tyre, the stolen wallet, the missed plane… in the big scheme of things, they are just small obstacles on our path, rather than events signifying the imminent end of the world.
3. You know who your true friends are. You spend less time trying to impress people, because you know that real friends don’t have expectations. You would also rather have a select few great friends, than hundreds of shallow acquaintances.
4. You stop being a fashion victim. You’re confident enough to wear what suits you, not what suits a size zero model on the front of ridiculous magazines crammed with adverts for ridiculously expensive crap. Basically, you stop being the morons from ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’.
5. You start hearing your own true voice.
To expand a little on the last one… Children hear their families speaking about all sorts of subjects, from thoughts on food, to favourite cars; from opinions on the neighbours’ shenanigans, to attitudes towards ethnic minorities. Some of those opinions stick to children, like wet tissue paper – and by adulthood, those bits of tissue have morphed into a weird papier mache structure encasing the person within.
I have caught myself over the years, hearing neat phrases coming out of my mouth, and realising that they aren’t MY words – they are my mother’s words, or my father’s words. I became aware of a voice in my head that isn’t my voice, but the voice emanating from that papier mache construction in the crude shape of my parents.
Quite recently, I realised that almost EVERYTHING about me had been manufactured by those false voices. Everything.
I realised that I chose clothes because my parents would approve of them, that I wore my hair in a certain style because it was ‘sensible’, that I listened to music that unconsciously I thought my Dad would like – EVERYTHING was a collection of vapours and imagined whims. There was nothing substantially real about ME. I was an astral projection of MY perception of how my parents saw me.
*brain blows up
I’m finally starting to hear my own true voice, and I’m quite surprised now that I’ve got to know myself a little better.
Here’s what I’ve discovered about me:
1. I love exercise. That self-conscious, defeatist girl is gone.
2. I’m opinionated. No more sitting meekly while others talk nonsense.
3. I can make people laugh.
4. I like listening to unsuitably profane music, especially in the car. (But not with the kids)
5. I am strong.
What I’d REALLY like to do, is go back and do my twenties again – as my true self. But it’s not that easy – shouldn’t be that easy. I guess we earn the ability to hear our authentic selves through living, learning, trying and failing – and no matter how hard we persevere, winning that privilege takes a long time.
Being middle-aged has brought considerable rewards, so I’m not one to bemoan the aging process.
However, I shall take stock in 10 years time, and let you know how I’m doing…
There’s something I’ve wanted to write about for a while now – maybe not consciously, but I’m aware of it sitting outside the door, waiting for an audience.
At first, I opened the door a crack, and said, “No. I’m afraid I can’t write about you. It’s out of the question. It’s too personal, and it’s probably not appropriate.”
But that seems painfully unfair. Sometimes, the most taboo or uncomfortable subjects are the ones we really should talk about – or at least make it acceptable to mention in public.
So, here’s one such subject.
Such an awful word – a word that almost seems to apportion blame or wrong-doing, like most words with the prefix ‘mis’ – mistake, miscalculate, misdemeanour… Miscarry.
When Hubby and I decided it was time to have children, I had no doubt whatsoever that I would fall pregnant immediately, have an uneventful pregnancy – in fact, I’d feel glowingly vital throughout - and then give birth on the exact due date. I realise this sounds more than uncommonly naïve, but that’s how both of my mother’s pregnancies panned out. I just assumed I had inherited her qualities as a First Class Gestating Machine.
I’m not exactly sure, thinking about it now, what convinced me that it was a good time to have kids. I was still suffering quite badly from depression, and I was in poor condition, physically. I was several stone overweight, unfit, fatigued and emotionally fragile. Nevertheless, we started trying.
Which is the most panic-inducing, bewildering, insidiously disturbing thing you can imagine, because that scenario wasn’t even remotely on the radar.
I have so much sympathy for couples who are trying to have a baby, with no success. It throws everything up in the air. Suddenly the ground beneath you ceases to be solid – ceases to support you in the way it always did. You can’t concentrate on anything except that one subject. Everything else fades into the distance. Your whole existence narrows to one intense point, revolving around calendar days – giving weeks, days, and hours a burdensome significance they never had before.
I think the worst thing is NOT KNOWING. Not knowing how long the situation will last; not knowing if there’s something wrong with one of you; not knowing whether you should pursue your hopes, scientifically, or whether you should read the messages from the universe, and change your plans.
I got utterly tangled up in all the above feelings, and that was after only a couple of months of trying. I cannot even imagine how prolonged YEARS of trying for a baby must impact on a person’s life, psyche and well-being.
But then, not long afterwards, the stick showed a blue line. I was probably more relieved than happy at first, but soon became absorbed and fascinated by the miracle that was happening in my body.
Everything was new and exciting. Once the GP had confirmed my pregnancy, I was ‘in the system’, and I received reading materials, questionnaires, forms, and appointments. I enjoyed it all.
I felt special. I felt privileged. Above all, I was aware of hugging a huge, fluffy secret to my chest - one I found so thrilling that it was difficult to suppress my joy.
I bought pregnancy and baby magazines – not just one, but every different publication I could lay my hands on. I read the Bounty booklet over and over. I pored over the pages of my diary to see how my baby would be developing week by week. I concocted delicious meals lovingly from scratch – determined to nurture every cell in my baby’s body from day 1.
I can’t remember why now, but I had a scan at 8 weeks. Everything was fine; I saw the pulsing little light on the ultrasound screen, which was my baby’s heart.
At 13 weeks, I went for my next scan. This was the exciting one. This was the one where, on hearing everything was fine, you could finally tell the world your news.
I was completely confident. I remember that. It never occurred to me at any point that there might be a problem, or that something I wanted so badly might not go to plan.
There was a long silence as the sonographer moved the transducer device on my gel-covered belly – too long. In that long, long silence, I first came face to face with the possibility that I might not meet my baby. The sonographer excused herself and came back with a colleague who, after more agonising minutes of grave, silent exploration, told me that she could not find a heartbeat, that the baby had not grown for several weeks, and had likely died very soon after the last scan.
In a state of miserable shock, we were ushered back to the waiting room and urged to see the consultant. Suddenly, the world looked different to me. I am ashamed to admit that I looked at the other women in the waiting room, and wondered if they had healthy babies, and hated them slightly for still being pregnant.
The consultant was barely able to speak English, and what little she managed was so heavily accented as to be incomprehensible.
I was floored with grief, my life had imploded in a split second, and I couldn’t even focus on the doctor’s face, let alone understand the options she was trying to give me. The doctor kept barking the same garbled sentence at me, followed by long periods of complete silence as she myopically gazed at her notes, and turned them over and upside down. In a moment of grotesque horror, I found myself on the edge of hysterical laughter.
I finally realised that she was telling me to book an appointment to have a D and C – the physiological equivalent of emptying the bins and giving them a quick spritz and scrub. At this, my numbed brain woke up a little, and I refused to have it done. I said I would go home, have a natural miscarriage, and go through the whole sorry experience. It would be sad and painful, but I wasn’t going to let someone anaesthetise me so I could wake up, as if from a bad dream… as if the baby had never existed.
Of course, what followed was one of the lowest periods of my life, but together we got through it – minute by minute. We went for long walks. We went for a weekend to a pleasant B & B in Devon. We concentrated on the minutiae of daily life to give our minds something comfortable and boring to focus on. I will never forget those few weeks.
I tried to turn a tragedy into a positive learning opportunity, and decided that I could more confidently attempt pregnancy again with a more appropriate BMI, a better diet, and increased tone and fitness. We didn’t rush into trying for another baby. I focused on myself – on feeling healthier, more energetic. And when I became pregnant over a year later, I was properly ready.
Although the sorrow has faded to a gentle blur, and I have made my peace with those events, what I DO find difficult to accept is how isolated I felt at the time.
Apart from Hubby and closest family, no one knew what I had been through – no one knew that my life had forever been changed by grief and desperate disappointment. I couldn’t talk to anyone, and it was such a heavy burden.
When I returned to work, a parent at the school gate said, “Sorry you’ve been ill. Glad you’re feeling better now.”
I looked at her, stricken. I haven’t been ILL, I wanted to cry. I’ve been PREGNANT – I’ve been trying to nurture a baby. But I failed, it all went wrong, and now I’ll never get to meet my baby… so I’m NOT feeling better now. And I feel as if I’ll never be better. Ever again.
But I didn’t say any of it. I couldn’t. It just isn’t something that people talk about.
Why not, though? If I’d broken my leg, the news would have been broadcast far and wide; I’d have had lots of sympathy, visitors and support. Moreover, people would have been patient and gentle with me, knowing that I’d suffered a physical and psychological trauma.
But no. I suffered one of the saddest things that can happen to a woman, and I had to gag myself, pull my socks up, and go back into the fray with a false smile pasted on my face.
And that is definitely not OK.
So I’ve opened the door, and let in a memory which deserved to be heard. Whatever shame I may have felt 14 years ago has dissipated because I’m older and wiser. I can distinguish between fault and misfortune.
By telling you about it, I’m trying to normalise discussion about something traumatic – an event that cuts deep and lingers forever - because women who go through this should never feel alone.
As the weather improves slowly, I occasionally surprise myself by thinking, “Ooh. I fancy a run.”
As I may have mentioned before, running is not something that comes naturally to me – my excuse: I’m not built for running. Running, when your legs are as short as mine, is rather a waste of energy. I run at the same pace Hubby walks – at a ratio of about 4 of my steps, to 1 of his.
I would much rather lift something, push something, pull something or turn myself upside down than run, and I spent the years between about 10 and 32 absolutely refusing to do any kind of exercise at all.
After having my second child, and losing a lot of weight (my daughter basically ate me up from the inside), I started to feel different about moving my body. I’d go for walks, and be overcome by a very strong urge to jog. I found this alarming rather than encouraging. I simply couldn’t get past the fact that I was IN PUBLIC, and people might see me running. That seems ridiculous to me now, but I really was THAT self-conscious.
I remember my first run very clearly. I’d been psyching myself up for weeks – telling myself that NO ONE CARED if they saw me jogging. I’m not exactly sure what I was worried about – maybe an altruistic desire to prevent complete strangers from having nightmares about my jiggling baby belly?
Eventually the day came. I didn’t have the ‘right’ equipment – just leggings and a T-shirt, some old trainers, and a bulky water bottle – but I was ready. I walked around the neighbourhood first, then sped up, then walked so fast that it looked pretty silly… so I broke into a jog. I was completely out of my comfort zone – I felt excruciatingly exposed, as if people were hanging out of their windows shouting, “Look at that girl trying to run! Ha!”
After about 20 seconds (no joke) I thought, ‘I can’t do this. My lungs are burning, I can’t breathe, and moving my body feels like stirring treacle.’
Hot on the heels of that thought came this one: ‘But I literally only just started running. If anyone sees me stop after 20 seconds, they’re going to think I’m pathetic.’
So I kept going, hating every second, convinced that our bodies weren’t meant to suffer this kind of punishing torture. How could it possibly be healthy?
Then something weird happened. The pain in my lungs and chest eased up. I could breathe quite normally again. I wasn’t having to think about my legs and arms; they just naturally fell into an steady, constant rhythm.
No one told me about the endorphin release that came with exercise. I had no idea what was happening, but suddenly I realised I was enjoying myself.
The beat of my feet was quite hypnotic, and I found my head clearing. I’d stopped caring what other people were thinking, and just floated through a peaceful zone in complete solitude. What started off as an exploratory 15 minute jog, turned into a 45 minute run – no rest.
I felt euphoric when I reached home, and also very proud of myself – my first run, and I managed nearly an hour!
However, in my ignorance, I hadn’t warmed up before I started; I didn’t stretch after I got back; and it was my first run. You can imagine the glassy and intense pain that gradually manifested itself in my hip joints and back as the day wore on. The next day, I could barely move. I felt weak, unhinged and brittle for well over a week.
However, I didn’t let that first experience put me off. After I’d recovered I started running a little more regularly. Not long afterwards, we relocated.
The house move was traumatic (aren’t they all?) and we had to live with Hubby’s parents for a few months while our new house was rewired, central heating installed, and several rooms were replastered.
It was a huge wrench to leave our well-established friends, and a city that we’d loved dearly since our paths crossed at university; it was unsettling to live in someone else’s house, even though we were catered for handsomely; it was a period of freefall and uncertainty.
During those months, running was a lifesaver. I’d bought running gear, a gimmicky bottle, an armband for my ipod, and proper sports earphones; but there was still such freedom in being able to shut the front door behind me and just… run. For a precious half hour, I could be alone. I could find that calming rhythm and clear my head of all the worrying, nagging and dithering. I found that sensation of stillness-within-movement compellingly addictive.
My running regime has tailed off steeply in the last couple of years – for a couple of reasons. For a start, there’s too much dog mess on the surrounding paths, thanks to lazy, selfish, irresponsible dog owners. I want to run, not slalom around dog poo, mincing like someone doing ‘high knees’ through hot coals.
But mainly, I get my endorphin fix from other forms of exercise these days, and running doesn’t seem as necessary.
Mind you, after today’s Crossfit disaster*, running seems like a very attractive option.
*This morning, for the first time, I failed a box jump – spectacularly. I jumped up, didn’t quite make it, caught my toe on the edge of the box, fell headlong into an ungainly dive over the other side of the box, and landed on my outstretched hands and head, doing a half-arsed karate roll to finish.
My morning has involved lots of ice. #ouch
We’ve been having a rather artistic weekend; two concerts on Saturday – one with (still slightly poorly) Daughter playing the trombone and singing, and one at Tewkesbury Abbey with Son playing all sorts of gloriously noisy percussion instruments in his wind band; and Daughter performing in a dancing showcase extravaganza on Sunday.
This is obviously exactly how I envisioned good parenting – giving our children opportunities to participate in creative activities, endeavours that will give them memorable experiences whilst also developing their brains, social skills and sense of community…not to mention keeping them off street corners and out of teenage gangs.
I hadn’t anticipated the toll it would take on US as parents though. It sounds whiny, I know, but the constant to-ing and fro-ing between rehearsals and concert venues, and the brain-bending need to remember their requisite costumes, uniforms, packed lunches, instruments, music stands and other equipment is draining the little energy I seem to have at the moment.
On Friday, Hubby and I had to forego our usual ‘couple time’ lunch, as Daughter was off school with a sore throat and slight temperature. We tried to make up for it by watching a film (Layer Cake) and eating popcorn later that evening, but Daughter burst into the lounge at 10.30pm, crying and saying she felt sick, just as a shifty drug dealer was getting viciously beaten up by another shifty drug dealer, accompanied by a colourful plethora of exquisitely profane swear words – necessitating a panicked lunge for the remote control and a temporary inability to find the pause or stop button. Hubby paused it eventually – an artistic still, depicting a huge booted foot approaching a bloody face. *facepalm
Properly slapstick hilarious, if you were a fly on the wall. For us, the parents, not so much.
It just embodied the constant struggle we have to keep a balance between our relationships with our kids, and the relationship we have with each other.
If any prospective parent asked for my advice – and of course, most prospective parents smilingly repel advice, which just bounces off their blissfully clueless, optimistic Force Field of Confidence – I would say that nurturing your relationship with each other needs to be at the top of your priorities list. It may not feel that way, when your first baby explodes on to the scene, but in retrospect, I would say it’s vital.
We had five years of married life before we had kids, and had been together for six before our wedding, so I’d say our relationship was firmly established before our son appeared.
In that time, we travelled together, went on countless cinema dates, meals out, day trips, city breaks…and took all that time completely for granted. Although some of that time was marred by my illness and depression, we still managed to have a cosy partnership and our lives revolved around each other. Possibly too much so.
Once our son arrived, EVERYTHING changed. I was completely and utterly absorbed in being a mother. It wasn’t necessarily easy, but it was something I felt I understood how to do, instinctively. Above all, I was thunderstruck by the realisation that babies were totally defenceless, completely trusting and terrifyingly fragile. They had no conscious intent – they were blameless and unable to communicate. Like animals. And that meant whether they were screaming, crying, flailing or not sleeping, NONE OF IT WAS THEIR FAULT.
This realisation made me a very patient mother, because I was never angry with him, no matter what he had to throw at me (and sometimes it was puke or other unmentionable bodily fluids) but it doesn’t mean I wasn’t frustrated.
It just meant my frustration and irritation had to find another outlet – and the only other person in the house was Hubby. And no doubt, he felt much the same.
So we showered all our love and attention on our miraculous new boy, and all the rest of it – the tired dejection, the helpless panic and the building resentment – just hovered between us like a black cloud.
In the crappy diagram below, I have attempted to portray the ‘Incomplete Triangle Syndrome’ from which our family suffered. Love and attention poured freely between each parent and our baby. But not much was happening between us.
Looking back, I’d say I didn’t have a single morsel of energy to spend on tending our relationship. I suppose I assumed things would calm down, and everything would go back to normal. However, we now know there’s no such thing as normal – and life had irrevocably changed anyway.
Days just became units of time that you bumbled through until the next day dawned – and often, we were awake to see that dawn. Time flew by, each minute thoroughly filled to the brim with action. Our daughter arrived, and the Incomplete Triangle Syndrome became more entrenched; now there was DOUBLE the amount of love traversing each side, but even fewer positive moments strengthening the point between Hubby and me.
When that crazy era starts to let up; when you are no longer running for your life on the Baby Treadmill; when the children start school and you suddenly have a few hours of stillness… that’s when you realise that the plant you seeded and grew between you, hasn’t been watered or fed or pruned for a very long time – that it is, in fact, in desperate need of attention if it isn’t to die.
Marriages/partnerships obviously need constant maintenance, whether you have kids or not, but marriages/partnerships, post-children, need even more commitment and dedication.
Making time to go out on dates, time to talk – not about the children – to each other, time committed to keeping up to date with each other’s career developments, is so so important.
Remembering that you chose to be together because you were best friends is important.
Remembering that, one day, the children will have lives of their own, and we will need corresponding lives of OUR own is important.
Reinforcing and strengthening the top line of that triangle is what makes children and parents into family.
I’ve been thinking for a while that, although I have written about my earliest memories and deepest thoughts, I’ve neglected to mention one large character trait of mine (or is it a medical condition?)
It may already be apparent, but I have a mild case of OCD.
OCD is a term that gets thrown around and misused – often referring to behaviours that are perfectly normal, like preferring to be not covered in mud, or finishing one bottle of milk before opening a new one. To make sure I wasn’t invoking its name in vain, I looked it up, and here’s the NHS definition:
Yep. That’s me.
I also read about the causes of OCD, which include genetics (having OCD sufferers in your family), traumatic life events like bereavements or difficult labour and childbirth, low levels of the chemical serotonin (the ‘happy’ chemical), a tendency towards anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, unattainably high standards and an overburdened sense of responsibility.
That’s a tick in every box then.
OCD is oddly selective though, isn’t it? I don’t have a big problem with being messy, although I would prefer my piles of papers to be perpendicular to the edge of the table. I often think that my obsession with laundry ‘do’s and ‘don’ts’ is merely common sense – doesn’t EVERYONE separate their washing into 5 or 6 different coloured piles? And while wet clothes are never going to look like a work of art, wouldn’t it be preferable for everything to be hanging up symmetrically, in size order?
I really struggle when Hubby does the washing and hangs it up. There’s nothing WRONG exactly with the way the clothes have been hung up, but they don’t balance perfectly, and aren’t grouped together in categories. Usually I smile and nod and wait… and then when he leaves the room, I jump up and rearrange it all.
If, on the rare occasion I forget about a load, the washing sits in the machine for more than an hour, I feel compelled to wash it again, because I’m actually phobic about the smell of stale wet washing – it gives me a stomach ache.
When the shopping trolley needs unloading on to the supermarket conveyor, I approach it like a military operation. The items have to be grouped together in home-storage categories – refrigerated food, unrefrigerated store cupboard items, vegetables, fruit, bathroom + kitchen cleaning products etc etc. But, not only that, they have to be arranged so that the heavy items are packed FIRST, once it’s been scanned, otherwise delicate or fragile items get squashed.
That’s normal too. Right? No?
I’m self-analysing here, but I suppose that needing to feel in control is a large part of my OCD.
As a confused, linguistically and socially challenged child, organising my pencil case provided me with some order in this crazy world, and might explain the extreme anxiety I would feel if a random child asked to borrow a rubber or pencil sharpener. I knew sharing was important, but I couldn’t stand for people to touch my things. A classmate once stole a rubber of mine, and while I was upset that the rubber had disappeared, I was even MORE upset when it turned up again – soiled, blunted with use, and covered in graphite marks and holes.
I realise most of this just sounds like I am unnaturally uptight, fussy and a real downer to live with, but all that is just peripheral… The REAL problem, is my issue with germs. I can almost see them. It sometimes makes life a misery.
This bit is the hereditary trait, passed on to me by my grandmother.
I’ve never liked getting dirty, but that’s nothing special. However, when I had my first child, suddenly I became hyper-aware of the teeming, filthy, bacteria-infested world that surrounded him.
And although both he and his sister have grown up strong and healthy with great immune systems, probably thanks to the handfuls of cat hair they must inadvertently ingest every year, my antipathy towards bacteria has not waned.
Working as a teacher probably isn’t ideal for someone who ‘SEES GERMS’. The little ones do like to hold hands, and I find it really hard to be OK with this. Children just don’t seem to be bothered by dirt and smells. I’ve been given lovingly draw, but slightly damp, cards that, after accepting, I hear fell in to the toilet; I’ve had tiny hands thrust in front of my face with the statement, “I fell into some poo when I was playing on the field. It’s still on my hands…”; and I once walked into the bathroom to find my little 3 year old daughter rescuing my TOOTHBRUSH from the bin – “Oops Mummy. It just fell in,” she said helpfully.
I know life is too short to mince around shuddering at unhygienic situations, suppressing gag reflexes, and avoiding public places… but I really can’t help it. I do have coping mechanisms – like the bottles of hand sanitiser I keep in my handbag so that we can touch interactive exhibitions in museums, or read library books, go dancing, or open restaurant toilet doors; I wear waterproof flip flops at the spa, so I don’t have to touch the floor with my bare feet.
Mind you, I have stopped going to the spa – the last few times I went, I observed such disgusting behaviour, I just couldn’t go back. People were full-on sneezing in the steam room; coming out of the sauna all sweaty and walking straight into the jacuzzi; and memorably, one woman exfoliated her feet all over the steam room floor. Much more of that, and I’d have required a Michael Jackson- type oxygen tent to exist in.
I am aware of the problem, and I’m trying to deal with it.
I find that being pro-active is surprisingly effective – undertaking challenges that help me to meet the world head on, rather than sitting back passively and letting the world and its bacteria seep into me. Like weight lifting. I never look at a barbell and think, “Ew. I wonder how many people have touched that today…?” There’s something oddly sterile about an activity that requires me to come out of my cave and makes my muscles roar in primitive confrontation.
I WILL start swimming again one day, when I can get past the idea of the thousands of mouths that have been dribbling saliva and snot into the water. I WILL keep dancing with strangers, and I WILL keep holding these little children’s hands if they want me to.
I refuse to let something so tiny dictate my life. Bacteria may be alive and well, but so am I.