Writing her own story…

Child 2 starts a new school tomorrow – her junior school. She’s not a great lover of change, so the road to this beginning has been a little pitted with holes – she has been, by turns, nervous, excited, frightened, enthusiastic, and downright obstructive. But with the help of a couple of trips to Smiggle (brightly coloured stationery hell to the uninitiated), a fluffy rucksack and pencil case, and a unicorn lunchbox, she’s arrived at enthusiasm. And while that enthusiasm is delightful and a relief, it’s also frightening. Because I don’t want it to be crushed or destroyed. She’s easily hurt, my sweet girl, and I don’t want to see it. I want to see her run out of those gates tomorrow afternoon bubbling over with excitement about her first day and all the amazing things they did and all the wonders of a new school. 

Before I was a parent, I thought the hardest part would be the discipline, or the neediness, or all the work. It isn’t any of these things. It’s the ability to let them go, and to know that you can’t control what happens to them after that. I want to get hold of her teacher and beg them to see her, my beautiful, kind, scatty, generous, loving, day dreaming little girl – really see her. I want to gather up all her friends and tell them to be nice, to be kind, to love her.  I want her to be confident, to work hard, to be encouraged. I want nothing terrible to happen to her. I want no one to be unkind to her or to hurt her. I want her to love and be loved, to learn and to be encouraged, to find only the joy in school. I look at her excited little face as she sorts through her new stationery and pencil case for the thousandth time, and I wish her only brightness and wonder. 

But, in this life and any life, this isn’t possible. I can’t protect her from everything. If I did I would be doing her a great disservice. She needs to strong, to be confident, to be sure. Never experiencing adversity will give her none of this. My looking after her and smoothing her path and solving her problems would be wrong. She needs to learn to live for herself. Even on the days I don’t want her to. 

So I will watch her walk away tomorrow, ponytail bouncing, the fluffy  multi coloured rucksack that she is so proud of on her back, her face shining with excitement and youth and hope. I will not acknowledge the part of me that, in letting her go, feels flayed and raw and vulnerable and fearful. I will instead think only of her joy and enthusiasm and a whole new book opening in front of her, its pages as yet clear and untouched and unmarked, ready for her to write her own story. 

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The hell of holiday bedtimes.

Bed time has gone to hell. We’re on holiday. In a caravan. I like caravans and this one is actually nicer than my house, so it isn’t the caravan that’s the problem, mind. I’m by myself with three children (the husband has fewer holidays than I do so I often take the children away with friends. He said he’d miss us but waved us goodbye very cheerily and shut the door at great speed) and the caravan only has two bedrooms. That’s the problem. 

Bedtime goes something like this: 

8pm: miss the optimum bedtime for the baby due to dinner with friends/ pretending to yourself that the baby will be fine (they’re so flexible!)/ vodka. The baby cries as you race, too late, through the rain to your caravan, trailing bags and bottles and bumbos and children on scooters. You hurl yourself and the baby into your room, terrified you will miss the bedtime moment altogether and the baby will tip over into the abyss of overtiredness that will write off your whole night. You issue a stream of instructions to older children as you go, involving teeth and pyjamas and bringing scooters in and shutting the caravan door. 

8.15pm: you tiptoe silently, ninja like, from the bedroom, inwardly triumphant that you’ve missed the overtiredness and the baby is asleep. Bring scooters in. Shut the caravan door. Find child 1 and child 2, pyjama-less and wih uncleaned teeth, talking earnestly about Minecraft in the living room. Issue instructions again. There is some good humour at this stage. You even manage a little joke about the lack of any kind of listening. You admire your own mothering skills and indulgently think about how lovely it is that the children are on holiday and enjoying it so much. It’s so nice they are getting on so well. A late bedtime here or there won’t hurt anyone. 

8.30pm: the children are in bed listening to an audiobook in their tiny coffin like room. The baby is still asleep. The bottles are washed and in the steriliser. The caravan’s a tip, but you can’t have everything. You congratulate yourself and sit down to eat the crisps and nice biscuits you’ve hidden from the children in this little hidden oasis of alone time. 

8.40pm: Child 1 appears and demands to know why you’re eating the chocolate chip cookies he picked out himself in the supermarket. 

8.45pm: you switch off the audiobook. There is silence from the tiny room. You get a drink and peruse the TV listings. You won’t watch anything because it’s almost 9pm and the last time you saw 9.15pm was eight years ago before child 1 was born, but you like the pretence that you might. 

8.50pm: Child 2 erupts, screamingly indignant, from the tiny room. ‘He HIT me, Mummy!’ She hiccups/shrieks through floods of tears. You establish, calmly, because you are still calm and earth motherly, that he hit her because she kept poking him. You think this is quite reasonable actually, because she can be so bloody annoying, what with her hysteria and her poking, but you dish out empty threats about the removal of screen time anyway. Child 1 is unbothered, because he is aware that on holiday is the only time you are not mental about screen time and its Terribleness. 

9pm: the shrieking has woken the baby. You think murderous thoughts about how this is your crisp and biscuit eating time, and go and persuade him back to sleep. Because you always love doing that twice in an hour. 

9.30pm: back on the sofa, you open the crisps. All is silent. You congratulate yourself. Holidays with three children are totally manageable. You haven’t shouted once. You’re magnificent, really. 

9.35pm: Child 2 appears, raging about something to do with child 1. You don’t know what, because you aren’t listening. Your earth mother calm deserts you and you hiss pointlessly about how you have spent the ENTIRE DAY fulfilling their every wish and need and how you wouldn’t actually choose to spend the day on Camber Sands with a four month old baby and all that sand, and how you spent a fortune on bloody parking and sweets and those swingboat rides because an entire beach full of sea and sand wasn’t enough entertainment, and how you are TIRED and SO DONE and all you want is five minutes’ peace. This isn’t all you want; you want a full night’s sleep too, but anyway. Child 2 slinks back to bed but you’re over it so you force child 1 out of his bed and onto the sofa. He begs to sleep with you but you say no, you aren’t rewarding him for poor behaviour. Righteously, you fetch his duvet and pillow and mutter reassuringly to yourself about the importance of Following Through. You don’t really care any more but you know it’s important. Every book you’ve ever read about child behaviour tells you so. 

9.45pm: you return to find child 1 in tears. He misses home. He misses Daddy. Can we go home? Now, tonight, this minute? His lip trembles and big tears fall from his beseeching eyes. He rarely cries so you find yourself a bit undone by it all. (You haven’t known real maternal guilt until you’ve shouted at your perfectly innocent older children for waking the baby) You let him sleep in your bed (while warning him of the Direst of All Consequences if he wakes the baby) 

10pm: child 1 is nearly asleep. You are reading and have managed to calm down, but only just, because you are bitter about the lack of crisps and biscuits. Child 2 materialises out of the darkness. There are more tears. She’s lonely. She’s scared of the dark. She can’t be by herself. Rather than erupting from the bed and screaming terrible things, which is what you want to do but it will wake the baby, you grit your teeth, count to ten, and bribe child 1 with extra Minecraft time to go back in the room with child 2. 

10.15pm: you are precisely where you began two hours ago. You have eaten no crisps or biscuits and you haven’t watched any telly. Child 1 has actually gained Minecraft time. Only one child is asleep. 

You go in search of the vodka. 

How to win at sleep regression

First of all, get your baby sleeping through the night. This is very important. Sleep regression is hell with any baby, but it’s a particular kind of hell when your baby has been sleeping through the night and you’ve been smugly congratulating yourself on his wonderfulness, and, consequently, your own amazing parenting. ‘Oh yeah, he can be a bit of a nightmare during the day but he’s so good at night!’ You say breezily. Even better if he’s been such a good sleeper since the beginning that you’ve never felt that sleep deprived at all. This ensures that when sleep regression hits, you’ll feel every hour of it. Every long drawn out, floor pacing, frustrating, rocking, crying, hour. At the end of week 1, you’ll be crying. By week 2, you’ll be homicidal. If it lasts into week 3, you might need to be committed. 

Once you’ve established that it’s not a horrible, unwelcome fluke that he doesn’t sleep through the night any more, you hit the Internet with a vengeance and discover that 3-4 month sleep regression is an actual thing. Google tells you, as is google’s wont with any type of motherhood question, that it’s your fault. You’re feeding him too much. You’re not feeding him enough. You’re comforting him to sleep too much. You’ve broken his trust because you let him cry that once for 35 seconds while you fled downstairs screeching at your husband that you needed more milk and what the hell is he doing, not providing it instantly, the very second that you needed it? You need to rock him to sleep or co-sleep, because that’s what animals do in the animal kindgdom and humans are very neglectful, putting their own selfish needs for sleep and worries about cot death and suffocation ahead of that.  You need to teach him to self soothe. You’re not cuddling him enough. You’re cuddling him too much and spoiling him. You leave the internet feeling a wrung out husk of your former self and with no solutions. To make yourself feel better, you turn to your birth group Internet forum (yes, these are actual things. They’re a whole blog post in themselves) You discover that the forum is full of despairing parents ready to throw themselves off bridges over the lack of sleep/ the broken sleep/ the fact that their babies have NEVER slept and are now sleeping even LESS and they didn’t even know that was possible/ the fact that they were a perfect sleeper and now they…well…aren’t. You instantly feel better, because misery loves company and also you don’t want to feel like it’s just your baby because that would be a whole new world of worry. 

You resolve that this sleep regression will not beat you. You decide, in the middle of the night out of desperation, to sleep train, because it’s definitely best to sleep train right in the middle of the baby’s worst patch of sleeping ever, at 2am, and during a growth spurt when they need food. You give up on sleep training somewhere around the third cry, because he’s just too little, and the way his face crumples and he stares up at you beseechingly through the darkness breaks your heat. You’ve never been good at sleep training. You google some gentler methods. You pick the baby up and put him down approximately  one hundred and seventeen times. You keep your hand on his chest, because every baby loves a hand on its chest instead of being snuggled into its mother’s arms. It’s practically the same thing. The baby has no truck with this. He cries. And cries some more. You eventually feed him to sleep like always, because food is the answer to everything (except when Calpol is the answer) and you’re exhausted and he falls asleep perfectly contentedly and you feel validated. Look, you’re practically an attachment parent. You’ve learned from the animal kingdom and he’s a happier baby for it. Until he wakes up again two hours later. You have only just gone back to sleep because: google. And also the fact that you got yourself unwittingly and somewhat foolishly embroiled in a particularly vitriolic anti-vaccinations thread which seemed of paramount importance at 2am. 

You curse google and sleep regression and babies and everything else in the world.  You look at his cot resentfully through the darkness and think dark thoughts about your husband, sleeping peacefully and obliviously. You stumble to the cot, longing for sleep, and he smiles up at you in the dim light and your heart melts. 

Your daughter arrives, and cheerfully announces she’s been woken by his crying and can she help? She speaks exactly as if it’s 8am and not 4am and sadly in her head it obviously is because then she lies beside you in the bed for the next two hours, not sleeping. You are not especially pleased to see her because right now you wish someone else was entirely responsible for all of your children and you were in a dark bed in a dark room by yourself anywhere apart from here.  You feed the baby and then also lie awake for the next two hours, worrying about the lack of sleep you’re having and cot death and the packed lunches you haven’t made for the morning and that bill you still need to pay and how you will cope if this continues when you go back to work and how you’re probably creating bad sleep habits FOR LIFE (look at the other child, bloody lying awake at 4am) and that girl who didn’t get the B you wanted her to get in 2007.

 Around 6am, precisely one hour before the other child will be up for the day, full of the joys of his ten hours of uninterrupted sleep, you fall into the depths of a dreamless sleep, congratulating yourself on the way. You’ve survived. You’ll be a zombie by 1pm, but right now, you’ll take it. 

Disclaimer: the child is now back to his lovely sleeping self so it turns out Google was wrong. But I’m saying that in a very un-smug, non tempting fate, whisper. 

All ‘that’…

We were out for dinner with some friends this evening, and, as is usual in the evenings or when he gets tired, I was standing holding the baby, endlessly swaying (which I now also do even when I don’t have a baby) and waiting for him to go to sleep. ‘I don’t think I could do that again,’ my friend said, watching me sway from her comfortable position of being the parent to two seven year olds who were sitting with our older two, talking like grown ups, being wholly un-needy, and doing some colouring. By ‘that’ I knew she didn’t just mean the standing up and swaying while everyone else had nothing more to worry about than their pizza and their drinks. She meant all of ‘that’ with a baby – the walking the floor in the evenings instead of lying on the sofa watching the telly, the waking up in the night to feed instead of knowing you’ll sleep the whole night through, the trying to persuade a baby back to sleep in the early mornings instead of a lie in while your older children get their own breakfast, the reading of Where’s bloody Spot on a weekend afternoon instead of reading a nice new Lisa Jewell with a cup of tea. And I know exactly how she feels, because when I was baby-less, I also used to look with faint horror at those newer parents, who were rocking, walking, entertaining, pacifying, chasing, comforting, holding, instead of sitting in solitary splendour and watching their children order their own dinner. We had reached a stage where the children were pretty independent – and at heart perhaps I’m pretty lazy, because I loved that. I loved turning over in the morning and going back to sleep. I loved not having to do up car seat belts. I loved not having to force little limbs into clothing, and not having to change nappies or get a high chair or persuade the baby to stay in a high chair or follow them around the house while they relentlessly try to thrown themselves down the stairs. I loved all of it. 

But now he’s here, here’s the thing. I didn’t love any of it as much I love him. It was nice, all that independence and me-time and Friday nights on the vodka and Saturday mornings at gymnastics reading my book and meals out where all I had to do was decide what food I wanted – but it didn’t, not even a tiny bit, compare to having him. Nothing compares to having him. 

 I didn’t know I would feel this way. I didn’t know that a third child could creep up on you and steal your heart as completely, as wholly, as overwhelmingly, as the others. I didn’t know that just as each of them changed me, shaped me, transformed me, he would too. I am obsessed by him, by the wondrous perfection of his innocent, brand new smile, by the softness of his perfectly round head tucked beneath my chin, by his tiny, finely shaped fat little hands. I am besotted by the way his face lights up with his huge, gummy grin when he sees me. I am captivated by how he hangs on to me grimly while he his in the sling, as though his ineffectual little finger hold could anchor him.  I could cry just looking at him sometimes, this little boy who is so ordinary to the outside world and so dazzling to us. I lie in bed with him in the evenings, tucked into the crook of my arm while I wait for him to fall asleep, and my heart swells thinking how lucky I am to have this brand new tiny little human, with his soft skin and his pursed mouth and his little bald head. I live my days sparkling in the brightness of his existence, this little gift that I did not expect. 

And all ‘that’ is nothing beside this – the wonder of a new little being who has, like his sister and brother before him, taken my heart in his hands and made it new. 

A baby at the beach….

It’s entirely possible that I have been baby-less for so long that I’ve blocked out the memories of taking any of them to the beach. This is the only explanation I can come up with as to why I have booked two separate seaside holidays this summer – either that or I just forgot I would have a baby. This happened often during the pregnancy. I found myself either forgetting it would somehow actually happen and a baby would emerge and then I’d have to do stuff with the baby and, you know, take his existence into consideration. Along with the possibility of forgetting either the difficulties of having a baby or having a baby altogether, I possibly had a distinctly rose tinted view of life with a baby. A bit like that one you have before your first baby, when you don’t realise that they are actually quite a lot of work. 

This weekend is a trial run for my two summer holidays – both of which are husband-less. Fortunately this weekend he was with us, and I feel like making a spreadsheet of all the many, many ways I may not cope that well without him on our two weeks in the summer. 

Our time at the beach went like this: 

I’m excited! Everyone’s excited! We’re at the seaside for the weekend, the sun is shining brightly in a distinctly unBritish fashion, and the buckets and spades have been bought. The baby will love the beach! How can he not? All that sand….and sea….and sand. Babies love that! Let’s go! 

I start getting together all the things that we’ll need. This takes approximately four hours. I’m interrupted continually by the older two screeching about how the other one won’t play the game they want/ has stepped on their toe/ isn’t obeying the pretend rules of their pretend game, and by the baby wanting food/ company/ sleep. (He doesn’t fall asleep by himself. He didn’t read that chapter in the baby manual) Foolishly and optimistically, I have allowed the husband to go for a run. ‘Of course you can go for a run,’ I had trilled cheerily. ‘I’ll just get everything ready for the beach.’ Thinking dark thoughts about the running, and my own stupid use of the word ‘just’, I achieve almost nothing. 

The husband returns, mediates and soothes. I have a cup of tea on the decking to recover – it being a little early for vodka – while looking sadly at the clouds that have gathered in the intervening period. 

We pack the car. This takes some time. It’s as full as it was when we drove down, with a weekend’s worth of crap that babies seem to accumulate. I worry briefly about how we will get it all onto the beach and push that thought aside. These are just details. 

We drive to the beach, trying not to look at the black clouds, and pay the equivalent of a second mortgage for parking. But that’s OK, because we’re working on holiday money, which everyone knows doesn’t count. 

Even with the marvellous invention of what the Americans call a ‘sand cart’, it takes three trips to get everything we need onto the sand. The older two, temporarily friends again with the appearance of some sand and sea, disappear into the sand dunes before we’ve left the car park and are no help whatsoever. Other holiday makers assume we have made this trip just for an oblivious sleeping baby and give us indulgent oh-you’ll-soon-learn-and-spend-your-holiday-in-the-pub type looks. 

The older two return and ask for an ice cream, seemingly oblivious to the fact that WE HAVE PROVIDED THEM WITH AN ENTIRE BEACH TO PLAY WITH. I foolishly make vague promises about later, which guarantees they will return approximately every three minutes to find out if it’s ‘later’ yet. 

The baby wakes up and, unsurprisingly, finding himself in the middle of gusting wind and bright sunshine, neither of which are particularly favourable conditions for a baby, screams. Dark memories of the older two’s first trips to the beach are starting to creep in over my consciousness, but I briskly banish them. We feed the baby, attempting to keep sand out of his eyes, mouth, and the bottle, and the sun off any uncovered patches of skin. This is equally as difficult as it sounds. He is not impressed. 

We set up the baby tent, bought at vast expense for just such an auspicious first-trip-to-the-beach occasion, and put him in it. The wind threatens to blow it and its precious cargo away. We frantically read the instructions and hurl sand into the side pockets while shouting at each other. A sizeable percentage of it blows into the tent and into his face. The older children appear and ask if it’s later yet. 

He doesn’t seem to mind the sand still blowing over himand lies in the tent cooing happily at the patterns the sun is making on the inside. The other two are throwing themselves off sand dunes. All is calm. We sit back down in our chairs and congratulate ourselves. The worst is over. We love each other again. Now we will reap the rewards of our hard work and can scroll through Facebook and not talk to each other unimpeded by needy children. I take a picture of child 2 doing gymnastics in front of a sunlit sea and post it on Facebook with appropriate #soblissful type hashtag. To be fair, for those thirty seconds, it was.  

The baby starts to cry. I can’t blame him really. So far he’s had sand thrown over him, a rushed and wholly covered up feed, and almost been carried off by the wind in his little tent. I feel like crying too. We tell the other kids we’re going home. There’s hysteria over the lack of ice cream. 

We send them for ice cream and attempt to cram the baby tent back into its unfeasibly tiny bag. I understand precisely none of what seem to me to be overly complicated instructions. The tent refuses to collapse. The baby screams. We hiss at each other over his outraged head. The tent is no closer to collapsing. 

The husband, who is good at these things, finally manages to stuff it into the bag. I have no idea how I’m going to do this by myself in August. We trudge off the beach, trailed by children with ice creams dripping down their legs, carrying the eight million bags and the still-screaming baby. As soon as he is in the car seat and off the terribleness of the beach, he reverts to his smiling, charming self. 

We go home and sit on the decking in the sun. With vodka. The day takes on a much rosier hue. (Alcohol does that I’ve found) 

Say it after me, I say to myself – beaches and babies do not mix. Don’t let this be like birth – time needs to not dull this. Beaches. And. Babies. Do. Not. Mix. 

Cheers. 

In the afternoons….

Some days I’m tired. Some days I’ve been up in the night and had a stressful school run and he hasn’t slept enough, snatched as his naps often are in the car or the sling, sandwiched between two school runs, both of which begin after he’s got so tired he doesn’t know what to do with himself (except sleep; he doesn’t do that in the day unless persuaded and there’s no time for persuasion at 8am when neither of the others have their teeth cleaned or their shoes on.) Some days the hours disappear and I don’t know where they slid away to, swallowed by hours of feeding and trying to get him to sleep. Some days I’m irritable, snappy, and long for sleep or an hour in which I am not responsible for a tiny human being who can do nothing for himself. Some days I remember when I thought pregnancy was hard work and think now how ridiculous that was. Some days he’s grizzly, tired, irritable and I long for the night and a few hours of oblivion. 

But every afternoon I get into bed and lie him in the crook of my arm to get him to sleep for his afternoon nap. He gazes up at me, his blue eyes dark in the dim light, and his look is so trusting, so adoring, that I can feel my heart swell. Sometimes he’ll smile up at me because he can’t resist, even though he’s tired, and that smile of his, so perfect, so wondrous, so new, can bring tears to my eyes. And then he’ll gradually close his eyes and drift off to sleep (thanks to the white noise app that has changed our whole lives) and I lie here in the dim light of a curtained afternoon, trying to persuade myself to put him in his cot and sleep myself, but unable to tear myself away from the warmth of his small sleeping form. And I remember that one day soon I won’t have this. One day soon he’ll be crawling, walking, running away from me, and I will remember these afternoons, and the tiny perfection of him snuggled against me, and the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest, and his small, fat hand flexed on my skin. And I will remember that in those moments in these afternoons, I had everything. 

As I watch the Manchester tribute concert….

I tucked the children into bed tonight and stood for a moment, looking down at each of them. Child 3 was sound asleep, and I leaned down and kissed him, gently, on his warm, soft skin. He didn’t stir, sunk in the depths of his baby sleep. Child 2, as is her usual delaying tactic, reached out her hand and asked to hold mine, ‘just for a minute, Mummy.’ Child 1 wanted to tell me many, many facts about some space probe or something he is reading about. Usually I can’t get away fast enough, especially since the birth of child 3, because I’m tired and we’re at the end of a long day in which I have already heard far too much about the space probe, and in which child 2 has already crawled all over me too many times. But tonight – tonight I waited, and I held my daughter’s hand and watched as her innocent, pure little face smoothed itself into sleep. And I waited and I listened to my son tell me all about this probe that he is so fascinated by, and I gazed at his face, lit up by his fascination for it, and I felt lucky. I felt so lucky. 

Because two weeks ago some parents, who felt exactly as I do about their children, waved them goodbye as they walked away from them into a pop concert. They probably drove home, or watched them walk down the street, thinking fondly of what a good time they’d have. They had probably listened to them talk about the concert for months, years even, and had felt happiness that their children, the most precious objects on their earth, would soon be experiencing such excitement and joy. They probably watched them walk away, those children who were everything to them, and maybe they wanted, just for a moment, to run and grasp them back, to freeze these moments in the way you do as a parent – take the perfection of these creatures you made, each miraculous inch and each miraculous bone – to kiss their hair and hold their hands. Perhaps they didn’t want them to go – perhaps they felt sadness that they were growing up too fast – perhaps they saw in those moments the years ahead in which they moved gradually further away. But they let them go, those parents, and thought of the experience they would have and how they would see them later.

But they didn’t see them later. For those parents, their lives were destroyed in a single moment. I think of them all the time, those parents who are just like me, and they didn’t know. They didn’t think that they needed to snatch every moment with their children, to hold them more tightly when they said good night, to watch them sleep and imprint on their memories the slight curve of a cheek, the silkiness of some strands of hair, the shadows cast by a fan of dark eyelashes. They didn’t know that only a few hours later, that would be all they would have. That it would always be all that they would have, in this unimaginably bleak and awful new existence. 

It is too trite to say that my heart breaks for them. It is too trivial to say, as I sit here with all three of my beautiful children safely asleep upstairs, that I cannot imagine how they will go on, with just those memories. It is too superficial to cry tears for those people who dropped their children off at a concert or a train station and never imagined for a moment that their lives would, only a few hours later, be bleakly, horrifically, irretrievably changed. So instead I will stand by my children’s beds for those moments longer. I will hold my daughter’s hand for as long as she wants me to. I will listen to all those tedious details about the space probe and then give my son an extra kiss goodnight. And I will hold the baby those moments longer in the middle of the night, feeling unutterably fortunate, and think with fathomless dark horror and hopeless, futile tears, of those parents whose children never came home.