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


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. 

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

New favourites: yours and my own

For, on a table drawn beside his head,
He had put, within his reach,
A box of counters and a red-vein’d stone,
A piece of glass abraded by the beach
And six or seven shells,
A bottle with bluebells
And two French copper coins, ranged there with careful art,
To comfort his sad heart.

(from The Toys, Coventry Patmore)

We are in what feels to me like a year of transition, between age 1 and 2: where the markers at the opening and close of the year are clear, but the path between them is not. The changes are rapid, and nothing is fixed forever yet. 

At the beginning of the calendar year, I wanted to commit to making a log of the little things, month by month, for as long as I could manage. We’ve made it now to six months – albeit with some flagging towards the end. This is a record of how my daughter is discovering for herself her favourite things, before casting them away and finding something new. But it is also a reflection from us as her parents on our own favourite things about her: on what she does and how she does it.

I hope this has some relevance even if your attention is not taken up much of the time with little people. On some level I am also trying to explore what it is to be in the world, and to be in love.


i) There has been a succession of three favourite books this month: Not So Silent Night, its solid pages given over to the noisy animals of the nativity, Car Car Truck Jeep, sung to the tune of Baa Baa Black Sheep, and Who’s That Scratching at My Door, about a boy who has plenty of toys but wants a real playmate. Each book must have had a reign of about a couple of weeks, during which time you would have it read again at any opportunity. It’s lovely to see how you will often sit back content once you’ve got one of us to start reading, letting the story simply unfold before your eyes (and ears). 

ii) One of your favourite pastimes is to pursue the cat who is a long-time resident at grandmother’s house. But your interest in dogs – of any shape, size or colour – is not far behind either. At first I thought this was to do with coming across creatures who seem to be on your own level (closer to eye-level, and harbouring similar kinds of energy), but now I wonder if it is the other way round, and more that you feel able to speak their language? ‘Woof woof!’ you call, in a gentle whisper.

iii) It’s funny how the ‘firsts’ that count aren’t always the ones you had expected. One of our favourite discoveries over several weeks has been that you are now ready to give us a hug. You lean in and extend your arms around us, knowing now exactly what a hug is for. And it comes in the most casual of moments, and not necessarily for long, but it is certainly deliberate, chosen. There is something to understand here about intimacy: it has a slow build, but once it is established, it emerges freely and easily – not through the big, significant gestures but more often in the day to day postures of living.


i) You have taken to studying things en masse, to see if you can pick out individual things: the array of different birds spread across the inside cover of A Busy Day for Birds, the pattern of little pictures on one of your old hats, or the woodland creatures on your wallpaper. It is so easy for me to gloss past things but you remind me to take a second look:
Yet take another look and you may bring
From the dull mass each separate splendour out. 
(from ‘Dream and Thing’, Edwin Muir)
Incredible, really, that you can transform something from ‘dull’ to a ‘splendour’ just by looking, isn’t it?

ii) Your affections are shifting and now there are occasions when a toy will receive a big cuddle: as you hold it tight against your chest and rock slightly from side to side. For those few seconds, your award of attention is total. 

iii) It is so exciting to hear you verbalise a new word for the first time. It feels as though you pick your moment, when suddenly the word sounds like a thing to you. It happened the other day when you were marshalling together the unlit tealights. Grandpa offered to help you count them, but when you got to ‘two’, you stuck on it, and for a while afterwards everything was ‘two’. It must have felt great in your mouth as you kept repeating it with that long drawn out “ooh?”


i) You’re much, much more choosy about your books now and quite a few of the old ones don’t get a look-in. But the board book version of The Gruffalo is having its moment. We wander in a rather pedestrian way through the pages meeting various animals who fail to make much of an impression. But when we reach the last page a smile slowly spreads over your face as we come to a picture of that creature about whom we know much less. Is he friendly? Should we be scared?

ii) You’ve been practising your wave for a little while now, but I think the gesture is starting to take on even more meaning for you. Often you don’t wave until the person has gone, or hung up the phone, but then you will call out ‘byee’ with great fervour, as if you’ve caught just the right moment. It seems less about communication and more as if we’re playing a game and this is the pose you strike when the music stops. 

iii) You must recognize many words now, but it’s a thrill to get an insight into just what those are. Often you will point to an object and make a sort of generic noise for ‘that’ or ‘there’, but if we ask you to point to something first we can find out if you already know what it is / if you know the name for it. I normally start with “can you see a …” but I’ve been amazed at some of the things you’ve identified for me in response. The world is coming alive again as you assign each thing its place. 


i) You know the names of the things you love, and bunnies in all shapes and sizes are generally greeted with an exclamation: “booies!”  “bweez!” – or something akin to that. I wonder if it’s anything to do with the fact that the cuddly bunnies we have look much more person-like than some of the other animals on all fours. Certainly today you were keen to waggle some of your chopped apple in the face of your favourite bunny, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he/she was soon to be offered tea.

ii) You use your fingers creatively: to tickle our backs, which is apparently where we are most ticklish, or to feed us whatever you have suddenly decided to turn into food. It must be such a delight to be in command of reality in these moments. It is your turn to be the rule-maker, except that here, for now, there is no judgement.

iii) Never mind learning a language, sometimes you’re content just to tell us what you think in your own. Your chatter has all the intonation of matters that are at once serious, engaging and not to be refuted. Not for the first time I have the sense that you know it all before we’ve even attempted to teach you.


i) These two new words have changed everything. Now that you’ve started to say ‘story’, there is not a time of day that doesn’t offer itself to be filled with a reading. And it starts as soon as you’re up. But of course it makes sense that the other word you’ve taken on is ‘again’. The ending invites the beginning.

ii) Your hands have acquired another new skill, as Daddy provided you first with a pen, and then a set of crayons to draw with. But when you decide it’s time for “drawing”, the paper often cannot be provided quickly enough, as you seize your chosen colour and make ready. Then, just as quickly, it is over and complete, and I find myself rather envying you your ability to be satisfied with your work in a matter of moments. 


Our drawers of odds and ends have to be emptied out time and again as you sort through the random cluster of things. For once, the euros and dollars that may never recover their purpose as currency have a use, as you gather up all the coins into a box, and tip them out again. Perhaps when you tire of this we will need to make a new musical instrument …

Some final bitesize thoughts on what I am learning:

  • life adds up to something; though it can feel like we have done “nothing”, this is never the whole truth
  • paying attention is worth it, and is its own reward
  • though as adults/parents we are forced to question this day by day, the world you inhabit is enough. You are making something of it with every step. 

Image by Pezibear from Pixabay

All of a sudden

written Jan ’18

Lying in bed, the image that starts to come to mind is that of tenpin bowling. In my own personal version of not incredibly proficient bowling, the ball drops and rolls slowly towards the end of the aisle: there’s some suspense as we watch it roll. When it finally hits the pins there is a loud clatter, as a number of them fall into each other and hit the floor, and this feels sudden, even though it was expected, even somewhat planned for. The contrast of the predictable rolling and the crash of pins in different directions is immediate, and stark.

I didn’t go in search of this image, but it came to me in relation to how I have felt about having our first baby. Life had been rolling on in its rather ordinary way for some time, with much of our energies going into the demands of our respective jobs and the renovation of our new house – both being projects that never quite come to an end. Once I became pregnant, we knew we were moving towards a big change, but much of this felt unknowable and difficult to imagine until it happened.

I was struck during this time by an awareness that however I felt, and whatever lay ahead, there was no turning back. In an era that celebrates and encourages self-determination, one can change one’s mind about most things. There can be opportunities to retrain, to have a second career, to move to another part of the world or even to find another partner and try again at establishing a mutually satisfying relationship. But my body told me I was now committed: as if I was entering into a new kind of commitment, with a new person who would exist beyond me and my wavering thoughts, even whilst she was inside of me.

This was only confirmed when our little girl was born. What I had expected was a rush of ecstatic joy, the kind that you read about, the kind of feeling that denotes a mother. But what I found myself thinking in those first few weeks was that perhaps I was learning a new definition of love. For me, before I could have that emotional connection, I needed to focus on doing those things that help a person to know they are loved. To begin with, it was all about doing. Getting out of bed, lifting, feeding, cleaning, washing, holding, soothing and singing to her. And it was only by staying close to her while we did all these things that gradually I began to feel something, and could at the same time allow our little girl to get to know who I was. Now, as she lets her little hand rest on my chest as she is feeding, I feel that we have started to get somewhere, that she has begun to trust.

Another Valentine’s Day is approaching, and I wonder what all of this means for my understanding of ‘love’. What am I looking for, now, in this new stage?

There is a thrill in looking forward to days like these which help to mark our shared experiences and relationships. It is a treat to be surprised. But what I am going through at the moment is teaching me, rather than longing for some sign or gesture, to recognise how much I have already been shown love: before I could reciprocate or know what was being done for me. I want to be able to honour these exchanges, which are taking place all around us more frequently than we know.

Birth is a shock, and it takes a while to recover, for everyone involved. But as soon as it happens a new path appears, one that I could never have found on my own. It is impossible to tell where it will lead. But this is where I am reminded of a Sheenagh Pugh poem:

What if this road, that has held no surprises
these many years, decided not to go
home after all;
… What if its tarry skin
were like a long, supple bolt of cloth,
that is shaken and rolled out, and takes
a new shape from the contours beneath?
…. across hills you must climb without knowing
what’s on the other side; who would not hanker
to be going, at all risks? Who wants to know
a story’s end, or where a road will go?