New Year’s Thoughts for Tired Grown Ups

It’s not unusual for me to feel I have no thoughts about the future. Part of a depressive tendency I think. But when New Year’s Eve rolled round this year I was shocked out of the mode I had been in – staggering towards the end of the year – by the realisation that it was about to start all over again. I felt a pressing need to give some consideration to what was about to unfold, and to find within myself some orientation towards it, while also knowing that excitement and desire were not going to be my guides. But I also think this pressing need is amplified by the fact of having children. Their lives will go on whether or not I know what to do with my own, and if I don’t stop to try to give some space to thought, I will simply be pulled along by that force. 

But how to start? 

It has become common practice to use certain methods of processing where we find ourselves at the beginning of a new year. It makes sense that we would look back to review what has been, and use that to refresh our sense of what we would hope for from a new beginning. But I guess this approach relies on a formula of pluses and minuses, and this isn’t quite what I’m looking for. It also requires a certain amount of energy to go through and make the list. 

One other thing that has been on the horizon of my attention for a number of months is that we’re in the process of leaving the baby years behind. Our youngest will be two this January. So two years ago now we were on the threshold of a huge new change as a family, which we were to meet in the middle of the ongoing pandemic. The changes of the past few years have been creative ones: making space for the new, and finding ways to meet the often conflicting needs that have been thrown up as a result. But I can feel that things are just starting now to settle into a new stage. It makes me wonder: are we just into maintenance now? What is there left to create? 

Another thing that I have started to recognise since becoming a mother is a frequent awareness that my very existence might be succumbing to cliché, while also knowing that there is no way out of inhabiting a form of life which in itself is often viewed through that lens. “All mums go mad when they have children,” I remember my husband’s best friend saying. Hearing this, I felt on some level reassured that he got it, that it was not surprising to him. But it is also odd to fall into this groove where your experience is unremarkable, because so common.

Within the stereotype, there are various next steps one might take to fulfil that creative urge. The obvious – have another baby, or almost the opposite – pursue a career move. But I want to acknowledge two things: firstly, if I am needed less, I want to understand in what way that need has changed and where to go next with it. And I want to try to discover from within the life I have now the secrets that it has to share, rather than trying to escape too soon to another one.

This is where I come back to the tiredness. It’s not a case now of just making it to the point where the baby can walk, or feed themselves, or whatever it is that seems like it will make things that bit simpler. We are in this for the long haul. We are just at the beginning of whatever that means. 

As I think about where we have been, I wonder if there are two kinds of things that I will be glad of and might look for as we move through this new year. Two things which similarly give pause: milestones, and resting places. I’ll take the milestones first.

I’m not thinking here of the kind that you can look up in a chart or a list. I’m not thinking of those which come as an expected part of the process. Rather, I’m thinking of those which we create as we go, which become privately and personally meaningful, which give cause for quiet celebration. 

In the past month or so my husband and I have noticed ourselves arriving at one of these with some surprise. Essentially we’ve managed to flip our early evening routine so that instead of all four of us each eating a meal in staggered succession we have begun to sit down together daily at the same time and share the same meal. Although I know you’re supposed to do family meals from age one, I honestly think it has taken us about two and a half years to get to this point. Initially, there was what I remember as a long phase of screaming when we tried to get daughter 1 to eat anything at all for tea/dinner – even sitting down in the chair has often been hard to achieve. Then there was a weaning baby who needed to be introduced to new foods which others in the family probably wouldn’t eat, and who would be voraciously hungry before anyone else was ready. Finally, the general state of play at this point in the day would mean my husband and I would have to take turns to look after or hold one or both of the girls while the other quickly ate. And because the bedtime routine has always taken hours to get through, it would have been pointless to wait, as I know some couples do, to eat together when the kids had finally gone to bed. 

But the main thing is it has brought me such pleasure, quite deep pleasure really, to be able to sit now with my family around the table. It doesn’t matter that the youngest is usually reaching over to my plate, clambering over to sit on my knee, and will leave behind a scene of devastation when we go upstairs. I’m not bothered by having to pick out every last bit of vegetable that the eldest manages to spot, in order that she at least eats something. I’m simply happy that for a moment, here we are, together. 

So this is a milestone, and perhaps it is only one stage in the evolution of our mealtimes which we will end up going through as a family. For now, I am marking it for all its worth.

If it takes time though to arrive at a milestone, I know I’ll also be needing some resting places to stop at along the way. I’ve been thinking about what these look like and what makes them restful. This mainly involves getting to a space where the pressures which normally present themselves in visible ways all around me are for a time held out of sight. It’s a funny thing to think of but at the moment the house is in every sense of the word my workspace, and it is where my work can often mount up. Getting out of it is not just a nice thing to try and do – it’s often a very necessary means of relief. 

At the same time, I think I tend to feel most rested not by going to a particular place, but by finding that place in the presence of another person. As Kahlil Gibran writes in his letter to Mary Haskell: 

Each and every one of us, dear Mary, must have a resting place somewhere. The resting place of my soul is a beautiful grove where my knowledge of you lives. 

It is almost like a memory of something that you still have. 

Image by Eliza from Pixabay


The play of questions: A child’s view

The world is full of unexplained things, and it seems that as adults we can develop various different responses to this. One person might shrug it off, another might be perplexed by it, and still another might dedicate themselves to probing every last detail. Children, though, seem to come at this from a different place. They have not yet habituated themselves to such an awareness of reality. And this is startling really. They haven’t yet boxed off questions according to type: questions which might be asked in a philosophy class, and questions which would be better suited to a biology lab. The things children ask can come to mind at any moment, and be dropped just as easily as they have been taken up. for fear of losing the brilliance of a three-year-old’s questions, here is a small collection of them to share: 

On the deity:
“How does God hold the whole world in his hands? It’s so big and it’s too heavy. And what side is he on? Is he up or down?”

“Is God a rainbow?” 
“But is he made of different colours?”
“Because he’s dressed all in white.” 

On the natural world:
“It’s not sunny today. I wonder what the sun’s doing. Maybe he’s having his breakfast?”

Pointing to a picture of a flamingo standing on one leg:
“Why do they do that?” 
“I’ve never really been sure about that.” 
“They must be practising for the oki koki.”

On mathematical concepts: 
“Mummy, what shape is a person?” 
“Ah, that’s quite complicated isn’t it, a person isn’t really a defined shape.”
“I know! A person is nearly a triangle shape!” 

On how bodies are perceived:
Pointing to the hairs on my arm: “boys don’t like Mummies having those”. We talk about how people feel differently about hairs on arms as opposed to hairs on legs. Of hairs on legs, she asks: “why do they grow there, like weeds in a garden?”

On social institutions:
At three years one month: “am I going to be married soon?” 

On what happens afterwards:
“You’ll be carried everywhere in a big big box when you’re dead.”

On considering the lives of others:
At four years old, while having breakfast, nine months after Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine:
“Has the war finished yet?” 
“They must be tired mustn’t they.” 
“Have they been fighting all night?” 
“Some of them will have been, yes.” 

Image by Marna Buys from Pixabay 

A Place Called Home

I have been thinking about the things we search for in our lives, sometimes without even being aware of it. 

Before we got married, the decisions we made about where we would live were all based on one key factor: we wanted to choose somewhere where we were confident we could stay for the long term. I didn’t want to move any more. More on that later. 

But even five years on, I think I’m still in the process of trying to work out how to create and find that sense of home in the place we have chosen. Sometimes I think the periods of distress that we go through can be reminders of what we are still looking for. 

By the time I left home for university, my family and I had lived in six different houses, across four quite different cities. I had gone to two different primary schools, two secondary schools, and then a separate sixth form. We had been part of at least six churches at various times. And despite all of that, I still had a very strong notion of what home meant: it was wherever my family were. 

In that period of time between leaving home and getting married – about thirteen years – my experience became somewhat nomadic. Perhaps it always is when you’re trying to find your own way? I lived at ten different addresses. My books ended up living in boxes. The two churches that had most felt like home to me became not so. The church which had tried to reconvert me became impossible to keep up with. 

In the past five years we have thrown absolutely everything into starting a family and reclaiming a house which when we bought it required a complete overhaul after having suffered very serious neglect. We have spent a lot of time here, warming the place up and paying attention to the things that were broken or failing.

But in the process of trying to put down new roots, I find I keep coming up against old insecurities, as if these have surfaced now in a way that I was able to keep at bay previously. I remember in early adulthood glossing over this as quickly as possible in conversation: “we moved around a lot when I was younger” was my standard explanation for not being able to say very succinctly where I was from. For a while, I also adopted London as my home, having moved there for university, and in this place where anyone could move about essentially unchallenged, I remember an exhilarating feeling of being free. But it wasn’t practical to stay there forever, and though I longed to return for some while, I eventually came to a place of accepting that that time was over and behind me. So it is as though now that we have finally settled, the difficulty which I had carried around with me almost undiagnosed has had time to begin to manifest itself.

I’ve become aware of several things.

One is that escape is always an option, but this old way of coping makes things worse in the long run because it avoids the solutions that might eventually help. I remember reaching a point where I made a very definite decision not to keep reaching for activities to attend with my daughter with “safe” people who were outside our immediate locality. I needed to try, where I could, to allow myself to be present (i.e. also painfully exposed), to look around me, and seek just a little connection here and there. 

The second thing I’ve noticed is that this inner goal of finding a place that feels like home has made its way into other parts of my life too. I have felt a lot of distress in work this year, having to absorb the shock of finding that what had become familiar to me has been replaced by the unfamiliar. I had relied so deeply on that “familiar” feeling, having nursed it and watched over it for more than a decade. The familiar had represented family to me, and I had unconsciously attached to it as if it would last forever. 

The third thing I’ve been thinking about seems to contradict this discovery of family but really they are two sides of the same coin. I find wherever I go that I feel like the odd one out, the one who doesn’t fit, who hasn’t been party to the rest of what is going on. I used to think this was a personal quirk, something that I just needed to get better at overcoming. It’s fair to say there are probably all sorts of reasons for it. But recently I began to see how it might be part of this bigger picture of having suffered through those tricky early transitions in life. I can see, now, how big these transitions are as I think about what my eldest will go through as she moves through her schooling. I am overwhelmed at times by the sheer amount of change to be navigated through each and every stage and year of parenting. It never stops. 

So what, or where am I getting to? I think firstly I wanted to try to articulate my own story to myself: to know what it is, and to separate out its different parts. But I am also interested in how the theme of our personal stories is different for everyone, and I wonder how often we really know what our own theme is. It can take so long to come to the fore. 

Finally I am conscious that my story will be echoed in the experiences of many who have been far, far more adversely affected by having to leave behind homes, and families or family members for reasons that are outside of their control. It doesn’t feel right to try to compare experiences of which I have no real knowledge, but I wonder if the point to discover is that there isn’t necessarily a standard way of life that everyone around you is enjoying. It’s easy to categorise certain things as extreme; I am reminded of Lemn Sissay’s account of his experience as a looked after child in My Name is Why, but could also think of Ukrainian refugees who perhaps never imagined that they might be forced suddenly to leave their homeland. The sense of it being extreme or extraordinary can give a story definition, but I don’t think this helps us relate. What I imagine does help is to look at those around us as though their lives are as real and as multifaceted as our own. 

Image by annca from Pixabay

Perfectionism, judgement and the ultimate objective

Being a perfectionist, (yawn), I want to know that I’m doing the best I can at whatever it is I’m trying to do. In parenthood, although this is the thing I put most of my energies into, it sometimes feels a bit wrong to be interested in how well I’m doing. It’s not for me, or all about me. But the other thing is that I can sometimes end up confused as to what the aim is, as I navigate through each day and then come to the end of it. This is made more confusing by the amount of messaging that comes at parents (mostly I think mothers) about the things they could or should be providing for their children. So in response I thought I’d try and work through my own processing of it all, finding some questions that tease out the scale of what is involved in parenting but that also help me to look at it more closely.

1 – Is it that I am trying to make sure they have everything they need?

Yes, it is up to me to be continually updating and ticking things off the list. And with a host of ever-changing needs, I am never fully on top of it. I do fear that this will get picked up especially when one or both of the girls is in the care of someone else for a few hours. I am conscious of doing an extra check just to try and shore myself up against the risk of criticism, because when I do get this, it stings. I also think that when so much of parenting seems to go unseen, these bits where we become visible to others carry added weight. It’s as though having all the right things is supposed to be proof that you’re doing it right, when perhaps it can’t really tell you very much at all. 

2 – Is it that I am trying to protect them from harm?

Certainly this seems to be one of the basic reasons I am there: to look out for what’s happening around them, to assess the risks and dangers, and to relieve these wherever possible. But I do remember struggling to get used to the idea as a first-time mum that they would at some point get hurt anyway. That I couldn’t always stop it. I remember a particular afternoon when we had gone for a short walk up the road and back: myself, my husband and the toddler. She would often pull away from holding our hand at this stage and was trying to do short bursts of running along the (mostly empty) pavement, the ability to run being itself a fairly recent skill for her. We protested; she continued. We were anxious but didn’t know what else to do, aside from keeping her from the actual roadside. I remember her tripping up and falling, and then crying the rest of the way home as I carried her back. And I remember the guilt: I shouldn’t have allowed that to happen, it was my fault, and now the walk was spoilt. We’d needed that break away from the house, and now we were worse off than when we’d started. And I suppose on some level it would take time for me to get used to holding the emotional fallout from these situations. The everyday calamities where my delicate house of cards would be blown down by a passing gust of wind. I’m also aware now that though my role is to protect, I am constantly having to learn how to do that, what I have to put in place to create the right kind of buffer. 

3 – Is it that I am trying to teach them?

This must be the biggest and broadest aspect of what falls within our remit as parents. It certainly feels like the different kinds of things we might undertake to teach are endless. Teaching children how and when to do certain things, but also why. Teaching them about the world around them and how to make sense of it. In a way this whole project is massively exciting and adds a richness to life. We are invited into a partnership which is all about making the world anew; reinventing it for eyes and ears that are still processing it for the first time. 

But while teaching is something to enjoy and aspire to, I certainly won’t always get it right, and will often get it wrong. They will learn not just from what we say and point to, but also from the example we set, for better and for worse. It’s difficult to know now what they will in the end learn the most from. 

4 – Is it that I am trying to entertain them / give them a nice time?

Again this is confusing because on the one hand, children are built to play and this is what their young lives are all about. But on the other hand I sometimes feel as though there is an odd tipping of the balance into creating a world of entertainment exclusively for children, which bears little relation to anything outside of it. There’s a bit of a tell-tale sign I think sometimes when you see parents sitting around the edge of an event looking bored and resigned to waiting it out. It’s the opposite of what you get in William Blake’s poem ‘The Echoing Green’ as the sound of play rebounds from one generational group to another. I know this is idealistic but it is a lovely idea and we are poorer for pretending to do without it.

Still, I like planned activity, and sometimes I feel bad if we have days when there isn’t much of it. I guess the pressure to be constantly doing has fed into parenthood too; we have to have something to show for our days, and an argument has to be made for staying at home with the children not being the choice of the mother who has nothing better to do. 

One thing I do try to focus on is encouraging stimulation over entertainment. Sometimes I will remind myself to chat to the toddler as we drive along in the car with some minor chore to tick off the list. Chatting not only wakes the toddler up from her passive gaze out of the window; it also wakes me up. 

5 – Is it that I am trying to stick it out until bedtime?

Yes, yes, yes. Because the demand is intense, and I get worn down by the number of things we have to recover from, or rise above, in any given day. But I also feel troubled sometimes by this feeling, late in the day, of needing to stick it out. What is the point of what I am doing if that is all it has become? I’ve been thinking recently though that perhaps if I reach the end of the day feeling like I’ve been pummeled to the floor, it’s not necessarily a sign that I’ve done everything wrong or not given enough. It’s the opposite, and apologising for how I feel is the last thing I need to do.

6 – Is it that I am trying to treasure every moment?

One of the ways perfectionism affects me is that I want the emotion to be “right”. I suppose that ought to be a massive red flag in itself – they say we have to learn to accept whatever emotion comes up – but it takes a lot of awareness to start to let go of what we expect from ourselves and others, and simply to accept what is. I’ve had to negotiate this time after time – for example – in the most banal of settings, at mealtimes, when the food I had thought would bring pleasure is greeted with disgust or antipathy. This has happened so often now that it has swung the other way: I experience real joy when the food I’ve prepared does, unexpectedly, hit the sweet spot. And I also know enough not to expect the same reaction to it the next time.

7 – Is it that I am trying to be the person who makes everything better? 

Yes, and I think this started at the beginning with the purple crying – remember that? – when I couldn’t necessarily soothe the baby but I was possibly the one who could withstand the crying the longest at times. I felt I couldn’t surrender her out of my arms until I’d done absolutely all I could to make it better. So that meant only doing so when I was ready to crack.

Now we have two, and the girls are getting that little bit older and more independent, that instinct which both they and I have – to run to one another when they need comfort – has more to contend with. It is not always possible and not always helpful for me to immediately respond to that instinct, though it feels like I am acting against part of myself when I don’t, or can’t. As a perfectionist, this inability at times to do what feels on one level deeply necessary makes me feel pretty crap. 

Which makes me wonder: if none of these questions can encompass it all, then what am I actually trying to do? 

At the heart of it is the wish to build a relationship in which they feel confident and secure, and in which there is mutual pleasure and affection. But the thought that has probably helped me the most is that, given this is a relationship for life, it doesn’t all have to be judged on today. However the day has gone, and however brutal it may have felt in certain moments, this need not define the relationship either as it stands or as it will be. We’re learning, and growing, and we’re in it together. 

Image by Alexa from Pixabay

25 things we found in books in baby-toddlerhood

I realised when our eldest had reached two that we’d been on a journey with books, and wished, then, that I’d done something to track this along the way, even if I had had little sense at the time of where we were going. This is an attempt to recover some of those moments retrospectively, as a little sister begins her own, rather different journey with books. Because while the advice is clear: share books! Read with your child! I suspect that no two journeys are the same, even with this. And though we talk of journeys, there is no linear route to follow; this is not chronological, and sometimes there are pauses or even what might look like backtracking. So as we find our way along, it seems the journey of reading depends only on where the fancy takes you. 

Much of what we have found has been unexpected, just as in every turn of the page there is the chance of surprise: 

  1. Classical music at the push of a button (The Nutcracker, Usborne Musical Books). This series of books offers so much to the senses: colourful scenes crowded with detail, amongst which are hidden – in different places on each page – buttons to entice little fingers. I would never have thought to search out Tchaikovsky’s music to play to my little one, but the brief excerpts in the book are perfect and make for much fun and experimentation as she quickly takes over the button pushing.
  2. There doesn’t have to be any words (Mr. Wuffles! by David Wiesner). When the story is told only in pictures, we are given the chance to make up our own words for what we see. I love how we quickly decided that “the little green men” had arrived in the home of Mr. Wuffles (a cat) in a “flying pan”: a colander reimagined as a spaceship. This is a fab book, and unlike many others, I don’t think we’ll have exhausted it any time soon.
  3. The bit where the words are. In today’s picture books, the words usually don’t stay in the same place, as if they themselves are at play, dancing around from page to page. So it felt quite exciting when a little toddler first started to talk about the text on the page, pointing to it and telling me “this bit next,” or “have you done this bit?” Given that at other times she likes pointing to single letters to identify the sound, it felt quite significant that she was able to talk about the words and the block of text as a whole in relation to their meaning. 
  4. Moments of poetry (Time for Bed). Most of the time, the Night Garden (Cbeebies) seems to be a world of bright colours, lights and noises: I associate it with a sense of clatter, motion and activity. But this little moment feels different: there is a mini shift in tone. ‘Take the little sail down, light the little light.’ I am not sure whether the toddler notices, but I find the words wonderfully soothing. 
  5. A timeless zone. For a long time there was never just one bedtime story in our house: the reading had to continue for as long as it took for our little night owl to get sleepy. Eventually, though, I realised I had come to enjoy this time which must – to one of us at least – feel timeless, even if the clock is still ticking downstairs. Though it is a cliché, I was reminded of that different space that we enter together each evening, as we came to the end of the Magical Kingdom of Birds: The Sleepy Hummingbirds, by Anne Booth. Having fulfilled the role for which she has been summoned, Maya feels suddenly sad to have to leave the ‘magical world’ which she had entered through the book gifted to her by her mother. I have felt that so many times myself, wishing that we could stay in that precious space just a little while longer. 
  6. Cars that go to sleep at the end of the day (Car, Car, Truck, Jeep, by Katrina Charman & Nick Sharratt). There is an abundance of books in which things of all kinds helpfully go to sleep. Only on rare occasions have I known this to have any impact on the sleepiness of a little reader. (Thank you, Max at Night!) But in this colourful treat of a book, after so much noise and activity from a host of vehicles throughout the day, it has been a delight to note that the car, bus, train and house close their own eyes as night sets in. The exception here is the plane flying overhead, but we’ll try not to think about that one. 
  7. How ice lollies get eaten (Maisy Goes to the Cinema, by Lucy Cousins). Maisy does lots of everyday things in her books, but manages to make an event out of it in which nearly all of her friends are involved. In this one, we see a stack of ice lollies in the fridge as the friends select their snacks at the ticket kiosk. But this information only sank in when on the following pages, we noted that an ice lolly in Tallulah’s hand was getting smaller page by page. Needless to say we went back and forth tracing what had happened to that little pink shape.
  8. The one page where the ever-present owl isn’t there (Tree, by Britta Teekentrup). Initially I think I enjoyed the beauty of this book and its artwork a bit more than my daughter. But what she has loved about it is the presence of the owl, looking out from the tree, throughout every change and fluctuation in the seasons. That is, until everything goes completely still and quiet in the dead of winter. Where is he, we wonder. Maybe he’s gone to do the washing up? 
  9. The star loses his hat just when he loses the need for it (My Pet Star, by Corrinne Averiss & Rosalind Beardshaw). We never really noticed when the star, which had fallen to earth, acquired his hat. Looking back through the pages, it seems to be one of the administrations of care given by the little girl who finds the star and brings him home. On one page, he is being given a bath, and by the next page, he is wearing a hat. But what our little reader did point out, repeatedly, was the bit where the hat finally falls off, as the star, who has now reached the end of his convalescence on Earth, flies back happily into the night sky to rejoin the other stars. There is no sense of sorrow or loss in the pictures; only a rightful letting go. How wonderful! 
  10. Disasters happen and not everything can be repaired (Tiny and Teeny, by Chris Judge). The home of this little girl and her pet fox is no ordinary house. They live in a little red apple, beautifully divided into different rooms which we can view through the windows. So when, one starry night, a meteor crashes to earth and squashes the house, it is a huge shock. Tiny and Teeny avoid any injury, having been sat out in the garden, but are left staring at the rock that has replaced their home. We, too, had to pause for probably the longest time we ever have done with a book, asking the same questions over and over again until we could accept the answer. It’s an interesting one, because the book resolves the mini tragedy by having the community create a new house for the pair out of a watermelon, but this part of the story did not have nearly as much impact as the fact of the loss itself. Where’s the little red apple, we asked. How can it be present on one page, large as life, and then suddenly gone? It must have been the first time we had encountered such a phenomenon, and I am glad that we could do so through the pages of a big, encompassing book. 
  11. The world harbours inequalities (‘Grandma’s Pictures’, from Alfie: The Big Alfie and Annie Rose Storybook, by Shirley Hughes). Grandma tells a story about her brother Will’s successful attempt to get out of school for the day. He ‘only had one pair of good trousers’, she explains. “Why?” I was then asked. In that moment I realised that a child might take it for granted that everyone would have multiple pairs of trousers, and had to gently suggest that this is not always the case. 
  12. The world is full of characters, and often you can tell that from their names. When she starts using these names in her own stories, or making reference to them, it feels like they have truly gained an entrance into her world. And I don’t think the same thing happens as readily with characters from the television, as though they are not quite ‘hers’ in the same way. They exist ‘out there’, in the screen, not inside her. 
  13. Naughty little bunnies (The Adventures of Binkle and Flip, by Enid Blyton; Peter Rabbit, and a little random story in 365 Bedtime Stories and Rhymes, Cottage Door Press). There seems to be a veritable tradition of naughty little bunnies, made famous by the eponymous Peter Rabbit but existing elsewhere too. I guess bunnies remind us of children: they look and feel cuddly but can get up to all sorts of mischief. In Peter Rabbit’s case we take this to be relatively harmless mischief; Mr McGregor can look after himself! But the Binkle and Flip stories put a rather fun twist on this trope: stretching the bounds of what it might be acceptable for naughty bunnies to do. When the naughtiness gets too much for the residents of Oak Tree Town, Wily Weasel the policeman is called in to deal with them. When the naughtiness gets too much for us, we read Binkle and Flip.
  14. Chameleons: once you know what they are, they seem to crop up everywhere! Having first met one on the front cover of Wild and Wacky Animals, we spent quite a bit of time spotting her in her different guises within the pages of My Colourful Chameleon, by local author Leonie Roberts. In the kitchen … the garden … the living room … the hall. So by then we knew her name and could happily identify another one in Hello Oscar! (Zoe and Beans series by Chloe & Mick Inkpen). Regardless of their clever ability to change colour, the name itself is also a rather fun word to get your mouth and lips around. 
  15. Poems (101 Poems for Children, ed. Carol Ann Duffy). I hadn’t been sure, beforehand, where or when poems would come in. But it turns out that when there is a book of them hanging around, sooner or later it is picked up and there is no need to make it feel harder or stranger than any other book. 
  16. The dramatic pause (Previously, Allan Ahlberg & Bruce Ingman). This book offers a wonderfully playful take on several well known fairy stories, stringing them together as if a number of the main characters are somehow connected to one another. Each new character and story is introduced as the anticipated conclusion of a sentence, but the reader has to wait for the turn of the page to find out what this conclusion will be. It wasn’t until we started hearing these dramatic pauses echoed in the stories that our daughter tells herself during the day that we realised just what an impact this feature had had, and began to notice it more clearly in other places too (famously of course, in Dear Zoo, by Rod Campbell). 
  17. The use of ‘exclaimed’. Again it was only when she started using this word in the stories she narrates to herself that I realised she had picked it up. It is the kind of word one could only have got from a book and I was curious about which one it had been. It occurs towards the end of the first story in Binkle and Flip, titled ‘Swee-ee-eep’, in which they steal Brock Badger’s brushes in a bid to make some money of their own. When Brock finally arrives at his cousin Binnie’s house for his usual day’s work, she is no longer waiting for him: ‘ “Well, Brock Badger!” she exclaimed. “This is a fine time of the day to come!” ’
  18. The meaning of ‘scared’ (Thank you for being my friend, Parragon Books). It was a bit of a shock when she first started talking about being scared (somewhere between age 1-2) and I was worried she had been fed this idea too early, despite all the advice about teaching ‘emotion’ words. Initially her own use of the word didn’t seem to be about being scared by or about something so it felt almost unnecessary to be using it, and being scared was also probably the last thing I wanted her to have to feel. But much later I thought, perhaps this ought to be another reminder to me of the lesson in books: that there are no bad words, but instead each one adds to the stock of tools with which one might fight bad things in life. When Cleo is able to tell Daphne the duck about the (perceived) monsters, it gives her the opportunity to help him.
  19. Words that can be applied to babies (The Adventures of Binkle and Flip, by Enid Blyton). It’s fair to say I was mortified when a two year old started gleefully referring to her baby sister as a ‘little nuisance’, and of course the more I protested, the more gleefully she stuck to it. Well, it turns out that if you will insist on diving into books you have to take the good with the not so good, and so after several months we managed to pinpoint the line from which the word had been picked up. Flip, Binkle’s partner in crime, has taken on the utterly ill-fitted job of nursemaid to a set of fox cubs and quickly finds he has taken on more than he had bargained for. As he struggles to dress ‘the biggest baby’, she sets her teeth into him and, startled, he cries out “Ow! You little nuisance!” giving the cub ‘a cuff behind her little pointed ear’. I’m fascinated by how quickly our little reader translated this tiny moment into something she could use and apply to her own situation, the word dropping into her mind during a cosy reading session and then being pulled back out some time later. I was, as I say, mortified every time I heard it, and wished I could stop it; my husband did later censor it when reading the story again so as not to further reinforce it. But I also suspect that being able to reach for this word will have helped her during this time as her own world was being turned somewhat upside down by the new arrival. 
  20. Sentimentality is not for us! She doesn’t stick for long with books on a theme as blunt as “I love my mummy”. 
  21. The thought that things, and people, can change (The Paper Dolls, by Julia Donaldson and Rebecca Cobb). Most of the pages of this book follow the adventures of the paper dolls which a little girl and her mother have crafted together. But then the story shifts as, in the space of one page, the little girl grows and becomes a mother herself, prompting a little voice at my side to say: “can I grow into a mum?” This noticing of the possibility of things changing reminded me of how her favourite page in Hello Baby! (Lizzy Rockwell) had been the double page spread of ten images showing ‘how a baby grows’ from a tiny cell into a fully formed being ready to be born. 
  22. Stories by Jill Murphy that make Mummy feel a little less alone. Reading Peace at Last and a couple of the books about the Large family has felt like a revelation: as if someone else has lived in our house, endured the neverending bedtime sequences, and woken up to repeat the haphazardness and chaos for another day. These tales raise a smile, but with no edge to it of irony, bitterness or complaint: unlike the tone of many social media messages that perhaps aim to reassure by “telling it like it is”. Just One of Those Days gives another rendition on a similar theme, starting this time with the phase of getting up and getting Baby Bear ready for nursery. There is a tacit, shared understanding when we read that this ‘took even longer than usual’. 
  23. Tips for good mental health (Sugarlump and the Unicorn, by Julia Donaldson and Lydia Monks). Sugarlump is a rocking horse who undergoes a series of transformations, with the aid of the unicorn, in a bid to experience what he feels has been denied to him in comparison with other horses. But as he comes to the end of his quest, and realises the children who used to play with him are now all grown up, he is faced with almost a sense of despair. “I wish I had never been born!” he says to himself. And then comes the voice of the unicorn, who this time does more than simply respond to Sugarlump’s wishes: “But I have a better wish for you,” she says. I love this moment, which seems to illustrate the very best that we could hope for from a friend, when at our most fragile. That ‘better wish’ is often just what we need.
  24. It doesn’t have to be a “children’s” book. I have a set of big fat cake recipe books which our little reader will sometimes request I bring down for her. I don’t think it’s just about the allure of the pictures; I think she loves the idea that these, too, are heavyweight reads and that she is (of course) permitted to have a go at them.
  25. The puzzle of God, humankind and the universe. As I watch my daughter begin to grapple with questions that I haven’t yet answered for myself, it occurs to me that the answer isn’t to be found in any one single book, but that the continued retellings and new renditions of the story can help us to piece the picture together in some way, even if we then have to break it up and start the puzzle afresh. Rather wonderfully, this little reader’s preferred way to begin with the Ladybird Bible Story Book that she has inherited is to point to a place on the contents page and ask to start there, so at least we also have a map to help us navigate our way through. 

A Reflection for Valentine’s Day

I guess we spend quite a lot of our lives seeking love. But how do we know when we have found it? How do we know we are loved? And how do we keep on knowing that in a way that sustains us?

I am noting below little snatches of thought about those who, now, are wound into my life most closely. 

To my partner and spouse:

I have been trying to understand what it is we have together, this shared life. If we put aside all our hopes and desires, what is it we actually have, in the here and now? Where have we got to, from where we started? 

I want to try to appreciate the things that rarely pass between us in words:  

You go with me to the party (the life event, whatever it is), and you are there at the end, long after everyone else has gone home, and left the inessentials behind. 

You have all the reason to criticise (you are familiar with all my faults), but most often you choose not to. You make it possible for me to ‘be’ with you. 

There was a reason why we came together in the beginning, and remembering those times feels like a shared secret that holds the key to our present. 

As ever, to be continued… 

To my baby daughter: 

When I finally lay you down to sleep at night, I often have a sudden surge of wanting to say a prayer for you, almost as if I haven’t thought of it until then and now I want it to be just right. Until that moment, my attention is all caught up with ensuring sleep; it certainly isn’t assured until the very last second when I let go. But then when we have made it, what do I say; what to ask for? 

Recently in that long pre-sleep stage, as we waited in the dark and you wriggled around in my arms, there was a moment when suddenly you fell into a position where you were comfortable – and I felt like this was the prayer. This is what I want to communicate to you: that you can rest here, that this is where it will always be OK. 

To my little preschooler: 

I think loving you is about being a constant, the point that tries to remain still as your own brain catapults its way through the days. I think you’re not always sure if you want me to be there, but here I am, waiting for you. Love is like that. 

The first year with two

I find myself asking what I want to save from this year. And it feels harder to answer that question than one might think. Do I want to gather up all the things I have learned? Well no, that wouldn’t really capture what it has felt like to live my year this year, and it would probably all sound very boringly obvious in the abstract. Do I then want to link up the precious moments of connection that happen between siblings as they get to know each other, in different ways, for the first time? Well yes, but it’s happened and is happening, and I’m more interested in the continuation of it than in making sure I’ve got the perfect record, which doesn’t feel at all possible to attain. So what is left, then? Something about the change I have gone through, or that we have gone through as a family, or about what has made this year different from any other?

One thing that I have found hard, and which I think runs quite deep, is the responsibility that attaches to being conscious, in every moment, of not one but two little beings. I have noticed, to my distress at times, that it is only me as the mother / primary caregiver that has this. I cannot think of either girl, now, in isolation from the other, and I cannot “rest” from the thought of what one might need while concentrating on the other. Mostly I feel that when others are helping to look after the girls, they move quite straightforwardly from one to the other and back again. It is either or. But for me it is as though I can feel the tug of those parallel lines inside of me all of the time (the unsevered umbilical cord?), and at times of course I can feel how tangled those lines will get in moments of chaos and discord, as needs and wants clash.

This is something I began to notice in a previous post, and so perhaps I can treat the thoughts here as a follow up to ‘Mental adjustments and some self-talk’. In that previous post the things that I was noticing felt very stark. It was a kind of dramatic time, if only within the domestic sphere. But as time has gone on, this newly embedded consciousness and inner prompting has remained and grown with me. It affects me in ways that feel quite subtle or at least beneath the surface, but this is probably because they are little articulated or even known.

The tug manifests itself in different ways: some of them practical, some emotional. I need to stop D2 from trying to stand over the toilet while D1 finally agrees to do what she’s supposed to, climbing on to her stool and sitting on it. This takes some doing as D2 loves to see what is going on and is rather interested in the toilet. Another instance would be when D2 is desperate to be fed, and D1 is eagerly pursuing some other attention-raising activity (shouting, climbing up, strewing objects). The drive to respond to D2 is too strong for me to do anything else, but I do feel somewhat prevented from doing so by D1, and so I find myself again caught between the two. 

There are other kinds of moments in which I experience two emotions at once. When D2 offers (holding out her hand) a “toy” to D1 that D1 doesn’t take; I want to celebrate what D2 has done, but I also see how D1 can’t quite appreciate what she has been offered, even in being chosen by D2 to be the recipient. She doesn’t in that moment want the toy herself; neither does she see it as a toy. I understand D1’s reaction or lack of it, but I also feel a twinge of disappointment for D2. 

I think it is the accumulation of such moments that make the outbursts of togetherness that do spontaneously happen feel so special. There have been several times when D1’s bouncing, dancing and singing on the bed has been met with great hilarity from D2. D1, spurred on, takes even greater delight in knowing she is performing to an audience. And yet there are other times when she tries to replicate that, knowing it is something that D2 likes, and it doesn’t work; D2 simply isn’t tickled in the same way. I don’t know if D1 takes any learning from this, but I am sure it is important somehow in her development as a sister.

And thus life goes on.

One thought that helped me recently was that I haven’t wrecked one girl’s world, by bringing the other into it. Sooner or later, they would have had to have had these interactions with another little person. In playgroups, toys are “stolen” and children get in each other’s way. On playdates, hair is pulled and other people’s snacks are eyed jealously. I cannot stop life from happening. I can only be with them both as it does. 

Reflecting who we are

I have never been able to interest myself for very long in the need to keep up appearances. It seems to take me an enormous effort just to work out how to get things to look good, or at least better than usual, for a special occasion. But it has occurred to me that I am quite deeply affected by the images that I see around me, and that I do often internalise these in relation to what I feel motherhood is expected to look like. I might not be consciously measuring myself against such images, but I am aware of the pressure that they bring, especially when there is nothing else to offset it. 

I think beneath this there is a more basic question: “am I doing any good?” It is difficult to know and there are not many outside sources to give you an answer, or to regularly reinforce or acknowledge your efforts. But also the job itself is so all-encompassing that the answer can perhaps never be definitive. The effects of what we do or don’t do might not be seen for years to come, and even then they might take us by surprise. 

I guess if one was to ask: “what does good look like?” the answer could be as various as all mothers are in their own individual relationships with their children. But still I think there is a value in having some examples to go on, and in seeing others engaged in the same thing. It’s one thing we’ve really lost out on during the pandemic, I think: doing parenting alongside others as opposed to in our own little self-contained bubbles. 

I think what I am interested in is images of motherhood that tell a different story; that weren’t necessarily created to meet the requirements of a particular platform or medium. I want to be able to remind myself that there are sources of wisdom in the lives of those beyond me and my own experiences.

Dealing with birth

There are many recommendations around how we can try and prepare for giving birth, and yet in the aftermath there can be a bit of a void, once the immediate rush of the first few days has settled down. A couple of years ago, as I was waiting for my first baby to arrive, I was moved to watch a short clip from the BBC about how women from the Oromia region of Ethiopia help a new mother to begin to recover. Five days in, she is surrounded by the women of her community who gather to perform a special ritual. Prayers are said, there is singing and dancing by the older women, porridge and tea are shared, and a herbal medicine is prepared to help the mother recover her strength. It is a tradition which seems pitched just right: meeting the emotional vulnerability of the mother with notes of encouragement, cheeriness, and, above all, understanding. It is expected that she should need all these mothers and sisters around her, and so there they are, ready for her.

As I was preparing to welcome our second baby, I heard quite a different story from a woman in this country who is now in her nineties. She described how, when she had both of her babies, it had been customary to go into a kind of nursing home set up specifically for the purpose. After giving birth, she had to wait two weeks before returning home (despite having no serious medical issues), as it was thought best to allow the mother time to rest physically first. I was quite taken aback, thinking of the impact of this separation from the family at such a critical time, but it also made me realise how we can’t take for granted the way in which we do birth now. It makes me think that for so many women, and for so many different reasons, birth and what follows is not necessarily the empowering experience that it might have been.

The one difference that stands out to me in these two stories is that one can be made to feel either visible or invisible, in those early days. With both of my births, I found it very difficult to be observed in the first few hours and days, even by those who were trying to help, as I made attempts to breastfeed. I was very afraid of being told I was doing it wrong; afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it right. But being “seen” is I think a gift at this time, and perhaps the only way that you get to truly realise what is happening to you. 

How we are together

Though I wrote initially that I was looking for images, I was thinking of something that captures motherhood in action, as opposed to a still. But in this search I have found myself drawn in by the work of a photographer, Elinor Carucci, born in Israel but who is now bringing up her children in New York. Her collection Mother captures numerous moments from the first nine years (including pregnancy) of her life as a parent of twins. 

The images in this collection work to straddle the gap between art and life, and illustrate why sometimes we might need art to help communicate a truth about life. We don’t generally get to see ourselves in the act of mothering. But also, children change and time moves on so quickly. ‘I photograph moments because I don’t want to lose them’, Carucci said as she later presented her work to an audience. 

There is a picture that I like called ‘Bath’. The mother is sat behind her son in the bath, and holds him with one arm across his upper body as he tries to strain away. The look and emotion on the boy’s face is unrestrained; he is unhappy about having to have the bath. But the mother’s energy as she looks down is focused on trying to quieten him, whether this is possible or not. It speaks to me of that frequent need to do the quietening, whether or not you feel quiet yourself. And it also conveys powerfully to me that double task of allowing the child the space to feel everything and anything, whilst also offering to contain those feelings of distress which so quickly become too much.

It is not complicated. But it is complex, and there is never a day that does not offer up moments such as those that Carucci has chosen to share with the viewer in her carefully edited collection.

A mum’s work

You don’t really see the work that is involved in being a mum until you become one. Much of this takes place beyond view within the privacy of the home, and often in those out-of-hours spaces. I almost find it necessary because of this to imagine what it is like for other people, either in similar or very different circumstances.

In David Olusoga’s television series A House Through Time, he explores in the course of four episodes the history of a particular house (and its occupants) in Bristol: 10 Guinea Street. In the late nineteenth century, a baby was born to one of the couples occupying the house, but was to die at just ten weeks of what was then a very common infectious disease, in this case tubercular meningitis. The programme explores just how difficult it would have been for the whole family to keep clean: a huge priority especially for any parent of a newborn. There was no bathroom in the house at the time, so any water for washing would have had to have been carried up the stairs, in a house of multiple occupancy which was several storeys high. Each member of this family would therefore have shared the same water for their weekly bath, and the baby’s turn would probably have come last. 

There are times when, as a mum who has chosen mostly to use cloth nappies, the drudgery of constant washing – alongside everything else – can feel a bit pointless, or even silly. But at times like these it can help to imagine how others have borne the daily cost of living, without necessarily expecting that things should be any easier, or that this in itself will be enough to keep everyone safe and healthy. 

In a depiction from a similar time period, Hamlin Garland gives a very unsentimental idea of what motherhood could be like for a wife living on a farm set in the American plains. In the short story ‘A Day’s Pleasure’, Mrs Markham is introduced in the act of carrying out one of her many daily chores: ‘kneading a batch of dough with the dogged action of a tired and sullen woman’. It is interesting because this figure could easily come across as a kind of cliché; the response of the woman to her situation could have been predicted. But the writer with a kind of kindness makes us imagine and feel the burden of what this mother has on her plate. She is kneading the dough at the end of the day after putting the children to bed, and for her this is not a pastime but a necessity. She is physically worn down by it all, too: thin, stiff, with a ‘pam’ in her back, and even somewhat lame. But, again reaching beyond cliché, there is no easy claim in this story that being with the children makes it all worthwhile. It feels as though this woman has little time to enjoy such a thought. 

A reference point

Images carry the potential to be useful, or unhelpful. They can inspire, or they can fuel self-criticism and unhealthy comparison. I think we are increasingly aware of this tendency in how we use social media, for example. Social media gives us access to other people’s lives, and yet the world in our feeds can never be the whole world, however much it may feel like it. This is why I’ve felt the need here to be more active in selecting what to pay attention to: not simply going with what my eyes are drawn to first. Spending here a little time and attention, what I find moving in some of the instances above is the dignity that they lend to a task that can never be complete, nor perfectly achieved. It is dignifying, regardless of appearances.

Image by Hands off my tags! Michael Gaida from Pixabay

On not giving up

One way that getting older can help, it seems, is in enabling you to spot the patterns. One of my patterns is wanting to give up. But I noticed recently that this impulse or drive – it is always pretty strong – actually has a strong correlation to my commitment to whatever it is I’m doing. That sounds odd, but I guess it makes sense. The more I have given myself to something, wholeheartedly, putting all of my energies in, the more I can run into trouble when disappointments arise, when it feels like the goal will never be realised.

Nevertheless, spotting the patterns doesn’t necessarily solve anything, or make it easier. Often the impulse is just as intense when it comes around the next time, and because the feeling is familiar, that in itself can make me want to follow the message I think it is giving me. But last time I was aware of this happening, I did try to stop and think about what it is that has meant I have been able to get past the point of giving up in the past. Because while I’ve felt this with most of the things I’ve done, and I’ve gone through the motions of having the giving-up conversations, there are a fair few things that I haven’t in the end given up on. So I started to become curious about how that was the case. 

These are some things that I seem to have learned; or at least I think they’re the tips I need for myself. 

  1. Allow yourself to give up for the night, then see if you can do another day. This isn’t just because things look better in the morning, and it doesn’t mean that you see things wrongly at night. But the resolve or energy to keep going takes time to seep back in when it has all been exhausted. You can test it out: is it now trickling back, even a little?
  2. Let yourself feel the tiredness. This is probably something you’ve been fighting. But it is good to be able to give in to it, especially when you choose to do so, permitting yourself to let go. Sometimes, for me, this looks like sobbing it out until that day’s tasks, routines and plans fade into irrelevance. Sometimes I have to speak out the rage: the result of all the pent-up pressure, or disappointment. It’s messy, but for now, it’s necessary. Apparently it is Banksy who is quoted as saying: ‘if you get tired, learn to rest, not to quit’.
  3. Identify your ‘co-mates’ (Shakespeare’s word) or ‘comrades’. Wanting to give up can be tied into having taken on the burden of whatever it is you’re doing as if it is only your own. But often there are others who care about the same issues, or share the same beliefs; who do a similar job or have chosen a similar route. Whatever it is that is held in common with such people can make us ‘comrades’ (from the Spanish camarada, meaning ‘chamber mate’). It is good to be able to think of who these people are, even if they seem to be faring comparatively well at present. It is a reminder that the path you are on exists beyond your own experience of it, and will go on existing as a viable option.
  4. Recall your friends. You might need to reach out to people who you know will be on your side for no other reason than that they like you.
  5. Find someone who cares enough to listen. This doesn’t have to be someone to whom you are connected; the only thing that matters is that they can give you space to talk without the fear of repercussions. Admitting you want to give up can be the most painful step, and it can help to tell someone who isn’t themselves going to be affected.
  6. Remember what and why you’ve invested to get here. Granted, this may not be any help when you’re feeling the distress and could happily throw it all away. But it’s useful to remember that there was a beginning, and a good reason why you began. It is the counter argument to feeling you will never see the end.

Some caveats

This is not to say that there is anything wrong with leaving or stopping or walking away. But I’ve found that doing these things comes with a cost and you have to be ready for it. Most of the time when I am consumed with the thought of giving up, I don’t have it in me to make a clean break, or to take the necessary, sometimes complicated steps to make a change to another route. So I need to remind myself that there are ways to avoid the pain that, at other times, has come with the things that I have in fact given up on. 

Steadying thoughts

If I was prescribing some poets as companions to read at such a time, I might start with Robert Frost and his ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, and include at some point ‘The Arrow and the Song’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. But, though I don’t claim to be an expert, the poet who probably knows this terrain the best is Wordsworth. He also takes his own explorations to a deeper place: demonstrating that the course we take through life is not only to be described in terms of the things we do, but that we experience the world and our journeys through it as spiritual beings. The spirit itself needs to be addressed, especially when it has found itself in trouble. For me, I found these lines light up recently when I came across them:

– So build we up the Being that we are;
Thus deeply drinking – in the soul of things,
We shall be wise perforce; and, while inspired
By choice, and conscious that the Will is free,
Shall move unswerving, even as if impelled
By strict necessity, along the path
Of order and of good.

(from The Excursion, Book 4, ‘Despondency Corrected’)

These lines are spoken by the Wanderer in Wordsworth’s long poem, and addressed to the character named ‘the Solitary’, during the course of a conversation in which the two discuss various questions. The Wanderer is a thoughtful man who has discovered what wisdom he has through observing and travelling, and allowing Nature and the experiences of those he encounters to be his teacher. The pronouncements he makes come from someone who has, in a sense, come a long way. In the lines that precede this bit of the poem, he has been suggesting ways in which we become conscious of something beyond us that is more lasting than the mortal beings by which we are surrounded: something with which we are however connected. 

There is a kind of morality or right doing in this idea of ‘the path / Of order and of good’, but it is the way in which we get to it that seems important. Knowing what to do and how to do it comes from this deeper absorption ‘in the soul of things’: from acknowledging the soul and its enduring reality. This, Wordsworth is saying, becomes for us a true source of strength: ‘So build we up the Being that we are’. Not by trying harder, but simply by witnessing, and keeping our eyes and hearts open.

One final thought

As in Wordsworth’s example of the Wanderer and the Solitary, we need others to help us not to give up. And I feel too that this past year of dealing with the pandemic has highlighted how we have a collective task to support one another with this. I hope we don’t lose sight of this in the weeks and months to come.

Image by Mariusz Matuszewski from Pixabay

Mental adjustments and some self-talk

In ordinary times, many of the major adjustments we go through either come with plenty of time to prepare, or special kinds of support to help us through. Perhaps the biggest examples would be when someone gets married, or experiences the loss of a spouse or parent. There can be quite a few stages along the way in either case: weddings don’t just take a lot of time to organise, they are also the culmination of lots of decisions, for the short and the longer term. By the time a wedding arrives, we have given some thought to what we are getting into, and anticipated what that will involve.

But we are not living in ordinary times, and many of the adjustments we have had to make in recent months have come as a shock, even if the warning signs have previously been present. Personally I have found this shock or sudden disturbance almost the hardest part to deal with. The evening of the latest announcement of restrictions being put in place by the government has seen me filled with a state of disbelief – not wanting to believe this is happening – mixed with panic. By the morning, disbelief has been replaced by anger, yet the panic is also still there as I try to figure out the practical implications for us as a family, and what we will need to do as a result. The whole process has taken a huge toll emotionally, and I think this is in large part due to the way in which these necessary adjustments have been forced upon us: it is all beyond our control, there has been no time to prepare or discuss it with anyone, and the people with whom we might most want to connect – for support and reassurance at such a time – are themselves at a distance and equally under pressure.

This all occurred to me again as I reflected on the biggest and newest change to have affected me most recently: following the birth of our second baby. In a way this arrival does fit into the category of planned-for changes, and yet at the same time I don’t think we can approach anything of such significance in quite the way that we would were we not living through this pandemic. This global story has taken up so much of the available space in my brain, but also foreshortened the units of time in which I feel able to operate. We are operating day to day, and week to week, by necessity. A pregnancy doesn’t fit this pattern, and so it has been extra difficult to compute in advance what the arrival of a new baby would be like and what it would mean for us all. It has been like trying to put one’s mind in two different gears at once.

For this reason and others, I don’t think the pregnancy got me very far with the job of adjusting to what was to come, and so the first few weeks since the birth have thrust us into a very different place. There is something about what we have found both in dealing with the pandemic and welcoming this new baby that has to do with confronting a fresh reality. It is accentuated at the moment in the home, where you are essentially in it 24/7, so you really do only have what you can see in front of you. But its force comes from the sense that it is now required of you that you be something you have had no practice in being, and that there is no time to wait or press pause. 

This being said, it can be easy to fail to notice just how much we have adjusted: instead becoming overwhelmed by what we haven’t managed, either mentally or practically, rather than what we have. So this past week had left me feeling things had been a bit disastrous: I hadn’t got beyond clearing up messes and getting food on the table. But then I realised that it has only been four days that I have been doing this on my own, since my husband went back to work. That is four days to learn a whole new pattern of loving, caring, coaching and disciplining. Four days to work out how to prioritise a new and ever shifting set of demands. These four days in themselves marked a new period of adjustment, when we had already begun the work of adjusting as a family over the previous two weeks since the baby’s arrival. I realised that I couldn’t yet expect myself to be able to do all the things I needed to do, because I just hadn’t had enough practice yet. 

It helps when I can have a thought about what’s going on. So these are some of the thoughts I’ve caught myself with this week: 

  • Daughter 1’s bright eyes and sharp mind can be a bit misleading: despite the fact that you can hold a conversation together, she still only has the brain development of a two year old. In fact, although you spend most days together and she seems to know the ropes as well as anyone, she is not your peer. So you can’t expect her to fully comprehend that because her screaming will stop the baby from finally dropping off to sleep, it would be better if she stopped screaming. After the event, I realised how futile it had been to try to ‘make’ her understand simply through my voice and words. 
  • Daughter 1 is adjusting too. The job of adjusting is not just something for you to deal with on your own, but something that you are working on together and can look out for in her. 
  • It feels at times like my relationship with daughter 1 is lost. I have been alarmed by the strength of my feelings: wanting space instead of cherishing closeness. But now that her sister is here I understand that my emotions will take time to settle into a new formation. I feel protective over this little newborn, and so suddenly I can’t maintain that exclusive attachment that I had for and with my eldest. Still, these are early days. 
  • The things that feel like your shortcomings in this time don’t cancel out the work you’ve done with daughter 1 up until now. You have come a long way with her already in the two years you have shared.
  • Although their basic needs are the same, the way in which each child needs you to meet these needs are pretty different at present, so you are having to be two kinds of mummy. The one who holds and feeds, decodes cries and keeps a record of the last nappy change. And the one who chats about what we can see out of the window, guides her down the stairs, tries to make mealtimes happy, and to generally keep up on some level with a turbo-charged body and mind. Though it feels isolating in its intensity, it occurs to me that actually this doubling up is not too dissimilar from what has been asked of so many parents during this pandemic. It has been a time of wearing all one’s hats at once, along with a new one for all those who are now also homeschooling. There really is a lot of life going on behind our closed doors.
  • Though your mind is telling you “I have zero stress management skills!”, this is not true. It is simply the latest manifestation of a challenge you have been encountering in different forms since childhood. Perhaps the closest experience to this that you have had has been at work when you simply have to maintain some decorum, regardless of what you feel is being thrown at you. You’ll remember from this that you do have a choice in how you respond, and that you can also choose to do what you need to do to help you through. 

All this mental exercise is nonetheless fairly taxing, and so when we need a break from it all, I can recommend listening to a recording of Mary Oliver reading ‘Wild Geese’ for a post on Brain Pickings. The music of the poem is, I think, as helpful as the words. 

Image by Samuel F. Johanns from Pixabay