Friday, 16 December 2011

Traditions, Traditions

When I was pregnant with Spider-boy I spent a lot of time thinking about Christmas even though he was a summer baby and I had barely been scanned in December. The thing was I rather felt that festive traditions could sum up your parenting techniques, aims and hopes. I still do, a bit, though in my case realise they reek of good intentions, chaos, compromise and a few too many critical thoughts and chocolate buttons.

I read India Knight's Comfort And Joy and totally understand that desire for the holidays to be mythically jolly, smelling of pine, full of love and good wishes and cinnamon scented perfect. I've seen a lot of sadness and worry this year and now am clutching a wind-up rudolph for luck as I hope that if it isn't, you know, magical, at least NO-ONE WILL BE IN HOSPITAL which would be a start.

But way back, before real life had ever really bitten my bum I became a catcher and thief of ideas to make family Christmases special, pooling resources and happy memories with my husband, plaguing friends with questions about whether, for example, Father Christmas bought all presents, some presents, stocking presents, whether he was FC or Santa, whether presents should be opened on Christmas morning, spread over the day, saved until boxing day (yes, I met someone who's parents did that). There was so much to learn and re-evaluate.

We selected our favourites and have tried to stick to them, adapting of course once we stepped out of the mass mirage - what it will be like to have a baby/toddler/child - and found out what it is like to have your specific baby/toddler/child/children.

We have tried though, especially as the eldest is now properly into the whole festive thang, to instigate more of the annual ideas we heard about and thunk up.

In our house Santa fills stockings and mummy and daddy lay out other gifts. I earmark a new decoration each year for the boys in case they ever want their own Christmas tree box, and we have hot chocolate before bedtime and the same poem every year as a story on the 24th.

The boys have new pyjamas on Christmas Eve, a snuggly idea loveable and revolting as the temptation to tweely play match up in identical pjs is too strong for me to resist. I stole another idea this November, and we made an advent calendar of books about yuletide, second hand (Mr Christmas, The Nativity Play, A Bush Nativity) and new (the National Gallery collection First Christmas), ones from our childhoods (Father Christmas, The Snowman) ones from theirs (That's Not My Penguin, The Gruffalo's Child), ones from the shelves which we'd forgotten were Christmassy (Stick Man, Cops & Robbers) and, not yet opened, waiting for Christmas Eve the tattered copy of 'Twas The Night Before Christmas which my mum used to read me and my sisters every year.

Today I bought my son's annuals, to stand proud by their stockings and entertain them (ha!) when the eldest wakes. The youngest will presumably slap his and fashion it into a teether/come weapon, as his brother will no doubt deem it a favourite present. He, the lucky so and so, is finally going to get the armoury of knowledge he needs to play Ben 10 in the playground (in my terrible middleclass-worry-too-much-about-everything-mum way, I've not let him see it but feel I should at least give him something which will mean he doesn't get so bemused about aliens and magic watches and then get left out because he doesn't have the lingo).

There are of course other modern traditions which I am grappling with too. Those created by our culture of consumption and panic shopping - I am trying to organise our present tally which convert the poor spare bed like a sorry for itself broken sleigh but I am overwhelmed by the task. Once again I've tried to stagger shopping and now found myself in the land of is it too much or not enough? I am channelling Eric and Ernie this year - I seem to have all the right presents, just not necessarily for the right people. Next year everyone is getting a jumper.

Then there are 'new' traditions imposed on us, or at least me as I am a chump and a try-hard, by the salted-caramel sticky tide of Nigella-ness around. Should I make a baked Alaska? I should, shouldn't I? And my own minced meat, and a full turkey for the two meat eaters, and my own crackers. And bread sauce must be as easy as it sounds for the I Don't Know How She Does It working mum to fit in around work parties, deadlines and school holiday childcare, mustn't it?

And there are other new ones to get my head round with a schoolboy in the house. The Early Years / Reception Christmas Play, for example. Here's a lesson. If it says arrive 2pm for a 2.30 start get there at 1.30. If you arrive at 2.00 there will be no seats and you will be condemned to watching your son via the screen of some swine in the front row's ipad2 held aloft and in the way of any unmediated viewing. Similarly, do check your child's book bag very thoroughly, lest you find yourself on the last day of term trying to winkle out 30 spare cards to dole out after being under the impression he was just happily hanging with one or two kids every day, or even worse having to snaffle a costume out of the washing bin one sleety Tuesday morning.

Mainly though, I cast my eyes around and note that our family take on xmas is possibly best summed up by our ever growing box of homemade shit decorations and the mild panic I feel that I don't have some cheap plastic Santa and fake holly to position on my cake when I get round to making them. I am the worst sort of hypocrite, I have a subscription from my mum for Living Etc which I avidly read, but must confess I'm a shameful fan of glittery kitch and home-made (rustic?) cardboard crepe paper creations - 'is that a mouse? a reindeer? oh, a Gruffalo!' and hanker for the bygone days when schools used pasta to make things (though I understand why they don't any more).

We put our tree up early, and I enjoy catching my hair on the string of trees pegged up lovingly though they were made 2 years ago with 'toddler' enthusiasm and style for glue and stickers. And as I pull dusty glitter from my fringe I sometimes wonder if back when I weed on a First Response and got that life-changing Etcha Sketch, when I was also buying presents, whether the desire for a Christmas box and a cluttered mantle piece of felt and glitter wasn't the one most realistic, and now most properly satisfied idea I had about what being a parent was.

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The cattle are lonely

I am trying to make sure my son knows the nativity. If nothing else, in this secular world, for pub quiz reasons as it is the sort of thing he should know. Also, it is a story I love very much, although as I've noted before I don't believe in it. I like the sense of social spirit, the (realistic only just generous) kindness, the warmth and simplicity of what is said, and the underscoring of birth as an outdoorsy, animalistic occurrence. I also feel touched and kicked into touch about my furious indignation at the horrors of the postnatal ward. However horrific feeling you might die on dirty sheets, presumably similar sensations on a bed of itchy straw surrounded by rats and men coming for a gander in the starlight must be worse. Especially as neither Luke nor Matthew say anything about gas and air.

I've noted before that I wish the innkeeper's wife had been more prominent though. Indeed every time I hear of that famous delivery I wish that some women, any women were in the story. Women with strong hands and scrubbed faces, old and wise and used to lifting others to standing to make the task of catching the baby seem easy. Women with cool water and bitter herbs, holding Mary's hand, perhaps even demonstrate the wherewithal to sing happy birthday to her son while she panted through those first mothering moments. I, of course, have not sired immortals, but I feel kinship with any woman in that moment of realisation, the first sight of your child and the thundershock of change that occurs before even the love hits you. A friend once remarked to me the first thing she said on seeing her firstborn was 'Oh SHIT. What have we done?'. I can empathise.

We have a playmobil nativity set. It is a beautiful thing, a plastic wonder bought on a whim for a Christmas party at a flat we rented moons ago in Willesden Green. At said party, which must have been good as I woke up to two guests on the sofa and the spaghetti tongs in the large empty sticky vat which had held brandy filled mulled wine, some bad stuff went down in the cardboard stable.

I remember my wise best friend giving me a talking to. 'I don't believe in God,' she said 'but what you are letting them do to that nativity scene, you're going to hell for that'. I glanced over to see Gabriel doing the rude with a wobbly plastic sheep as Mary was getting a filthy kind of adoration from one of the wise old men. Merry Christmas indeed.

Spider-boy sees no parallels with his life and the stable as we unpack it along with the strings of cardboard Christmas tree and growing collection of unfashionable 'rustic' Christmas tat that I love. He listens, as usual, with patience and only occasional sighs as I recount the story placing out the smiling figurines with zig-zag haircuts. He doesn't understand why you would need to go on a donkey to write your name down. I think he's secretly pleased, however, that no-one has told the story to his school teacher, as he finds her 'demands' that he goes inside to practice his letters on the craft and writing table annoying enough. And he actually rolls his eyes and exhales at the idea that a baby's birth would herald, or be heralded by, a new star in the sky. He likes the bit about the mummy and daddy though, and has a smile of satisfaction when the story ends without a sibling being born.

As I conclude too early for the story to have proper resonance, preferring my Jesus small and squawking in the straw, not nailed to some wood with his mother weeping at his feet, he senses a need to comment. 'I know that story already' he says and I realise that though his class performed in a version of The Grinch rather than a traditional nativity, and there was no God-ness in the script or jazz standards, he's picked up enough of the tale from the carols he's heard out shopping all week. 'But it would be better if it was like that song and it started with a lonely ox'.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Deep Breaths – Part Two – Four Days

I like institutions. As a rule they play to my sense of natural justice and speedy sense of injustice when systems go wrong. They have a comforting intractability and strangeness, even when you are a clear outsider fumbling to understand the rules. The weirdness of our hospital stay was enhanced by being in an isolated room with barrier nursing – a danger to others and possibly ourselves if allowed to roam freely on children’s ward. Even if this hadn’t been the case, Newborn was restricted by his oxygen pipes – tethered to the wall much to his fury whenever he had a burst of energy.

But hospitals are strange places. They leave you prone to magical thinking (last time I stroked his legs, his oxygen saturation didn’t dip below 90 percent; when he was in his blue pyjamas he tried to walk; if I hold him then he improves etc). They play on fantastical reckoning that becomes increasingly deranged – if I never, ever bitch or complain or moan about him or his brother then he will be okay; if I’m nice to everyone then he will get better; if I make a pledge about my life to come and promise to do things differently and better, we’ll all get a second chance; if I stay awake and never stop looking, I can will him to not get worse with the force of my eyes.

And they feast on guilt: if I had done one of many things differently, would it have come to this? Was I right all along? I wasn’t supposed to have a second baby, the Gods were clear about me as a mother, I didn’t deserve this chance, this baby. There were barriers to it, they should have been warnings. I’ve ruined the world by defying what I knew was true, and now, because I did that and because HE IS SO FUCKING PERFECTLY UNBELIEVABLY BEAUTIFUL AND AMAZING they are going to take him away from me and everyone else. He will be punished for my moral impertinence and moments of faith and hope.

They also drive you quickly feral and primal. Scared if I left for too long he would deflate and die, I only showered once, when his father could hold him for me. I was ripe for the picking by the time we got back.

When is food? Is there food (no, not if you are a breastfeeding mother but your child’s only source of food is not breastmilk)? How do you get food? (You can go to a cafĂ© but it is only open for odd hours each day, and to go you have to scrub down and leave the baby). Neither of these are rants, not at all, and I hesitate to mention the immense realistic kindness of the people who did help me get food and drink when I wasn’t allowed to leave as I’m scared some of them would be in trouble.

They are bewildering too, even if the play specialist does bring you some wiped down mega blocks and a car which can be thrown from the cot right over to the door. In what order do things happen here in this strange new world of squeaky floors and beds that move? Who is in charge? Does anyone know the answer? Am I allowed to talk when they are examining him? When is ‘rounds’? Who is *our* nurse? Who comes when I hit the button?

There’s so much more that happened, over those long days, just me and the kid for much of the time outside visiting hours. We were somewhere we shouldn’t be, where we didn’t belong, but we felt checked out of real life, in a movie somehow. And my, was I struck by what a privilege those hours were even when they seemed so interminably boring and scary and lonely I thought my voice would disappear in the hot hospital air forever. Boring and scary, by the way, like many hours of labour for some women, are the worst combination of any two ‘states’ in my view.

If I want to find meaning in my search for self and happiness though, I’d say three things. Texts, tweets, hugs, chats – those things help so much more than I could have imagined, and somehow more than last time as I think this time I really thought our number for happiness was up. I don’t think any doctors thought Newborn wouldn’t make it, but I did. And it is hard to articulate that even now.

More brightly, it was astonishing though to have been offered that window into only childness again. To have that one on one with a baby who has always been part of a differently enriched family landscape. It is amazing what a second child can do in intensive solo parental company. So, for all its awfulness we had quite a bit of fun - throwing toys, playing peep-bo, rallying so beautifully.

And, Newborn started talking. No, really, perhaps to drown out the infernal beep alarms when his monitors detached and it sounded all US medical drama. He built on his Beyonce ‘Uh oh’ refrain and seemed to use it to refer to the monitor machine. He started saying ‘HIYA’, with a loose commitment to the opening ‘h’ in the manner of a loud gregarious stereotype in a play about women of a certain age from the North of England, and he perfected his ‘bye bye’ with accompanying wave, playing with the meaning to gesture contempt for the faces who brought nebulisers and monitoring wires to him. ‘Bye’ he’d wave as they walked in. Awesome passive aggression my lad.

Of course he was happiest of all when his brother came a-visiting. For all that mum time and natural resistance – he kicked a radiographer with the force of a bear, and headbutted a quite junior doctor who loosened her grip whilst pinning him down - and all the chocolate buttons he snaffled from nice visitors, one thing truly cheered him and made him relax. Spider-boy’s arrival would see his brother perking up, laughing his head off, looking well enough to leave before wilting at bedtime, and seeming for the only time in his stay in that room on that ward like he belonged somewhere.

When we left, finally, with bags of washing, greasy hair and faintly shocked relief, he smiled again in his bear suit coat, an older version of the one he wore home from hospital the first time. That time my sister drove us home, this time another carried our nappies, Lucozade and general detritus and he was big enough to make his own farewell. He glanced back at the monitors on the wall and said with satisfaction ‘bye bye uh oh’.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Deep Breaths – Part One – Day Four

After our ride in an ambulance and decorating disaster we were seen, soothed and sent home under doctor's orders to return to hospital if he got any worse, or if we were worried.

I feel for paediatricians, all doctors actually, because I think they have to tread a fine line between dismissing concerns and scaring the shit out of parents. We returned to the hospital that week, and to our GP on ‘Day Four’ which is the bit of the bronchiolitis timeline which is often the tipping point. Indeed, it was around day four of being poorly with bronchiolitis the first time, when he was just a few weeks old, that Newborn was admitted to hospital last year.

I won’t say those days were easy. It is hard to sleep when you are supposed to be ever alert to the speed of someone small and fairly quiet breathing, and looking for subtle physical signs (like air sucking in somewhere under their chin that is always obscured by shadow) in the dark. In the end I ‘slept’ with clothes on, and Thathusband and I held our phones all night, our bed rearranged so our heads were at the foot end and our faces close to his.

We took temperatures and had a conversation every two or three hours about whether he was improving, or getting worse, or significantly more sick seeming then he had been when the ambulance came.

On the fourth day though, he was fairly chirpy. Sleepy, breathing a bit fast, bunged up. His temperature had dipped and was no longer giving the sort of results which make you take a deep breath and then do them a gain in case you’ve gone nuts. The GP was happy, though again suggested vigilance.

We decided to head for family, to go back to my parents where the boys could be spoiled and looked after, where there were kind hearts and safe hands for them and us. We took the journey slowly, Newborn was fine, breathing normally, his brother fell asleep after a long, half dazed monologue not unlike Baz Luhrmann’s Sunscreen – wise words and snatches of insight from a booster seat in the back. ‘The thing with girls, mummy’ for example, ‘is they just don’t get boys’. And ‘do you know, there are people who we haven’t met who probably don’t like us’.

We arrived late-ish but to cuddles and tea, and Newborn remained peaceful and oblivious, pulling that cutesy trick they do where everyone says ‘You would NEVER KNOW he’d been sick for a day in his life’. The relief was palpable, as I pinched salami from the fridge like a teenager. Sadly though, it wasn’t to be. When he woke up he started groaning and grunting and breathing fast and, well, struggling. Nasty word that, struggling, when you can see it in front of you in the body of a toddler who is arching to get the air in.

We went to my parents’ local hospital and again were observed. Another phrase I kept hearing was ‘he’s working too hard’. My poor soldier, body braving it to be greeted with a description you’d expect about an overstretched employee. His sats and obs were okay (get me with the lingo) and we waited around in the bright light of children’s A&E, with nice nurses and friendly young doctors. Me, my son and my mum, rugged musketeers. I felt sorry for my mum then, I had mine with me and newborn had his, she was the last line of mothering defence in a nothing land of waiting for him to get better from his ‘stable’ position.

There are signs when being poorly and finding things like breathing a bit strained morph into more dangerous battles. Rapid breathing, nostrils flaring, under the rib cage pulling in, intercostal recession, greyish lips, rasps and wheezes and pauses. I’d add the slight shuddery strangeness of a small body myself, the pull and fight which is increasingly ragged and limp at the edges.

When they come, they come. I’m no two-time loser, it only took a few moments to consider the escalation and then march out of our cubicle and push the fuck in to a conversation between two nurses. Here’s a scary thing: even more than paramedics, paediatric nurses are fucking ace at smiling and gliding around, chatting to you and your child, entwining simple baby descriptions with medical instructions and smiles as they push an emergency button and organise for you to be taken to a ward and treated. Like a Disney princess on ice, she slid around attaching tubes:

‘Well Newborn, we’ll be seeing a bit of you now I should think. Mum could you hold him, that’s right, his head as well. Tighter, I don’t want him to wriggle. You are a strong boy. Are you Grandma? Could you just hold his arms down too, and mum can put her arm across his shoulders so he stays still. He won’t like this. They never do. Yes, you are very strong Newborn. Come on, nearly there. All finished.’

He was admitted, for four days. Once in, you aren’t allowed out until they can breathe unassisted for 24 hours. It can, strangely, feel like an imposition even though the prospect of your child, any child, not being able to breathe without help is, in reality, unthinkable.

Time stood still. And we waited for the monitor screen to show consistent 100 percent oxygen saturation. For four days.

Monday, 5 December 2011

What do you look like? Reflections

Spider-boy has another way of seeing the world which, like all childish wisdom, tells you everything you need to know about our family life and deepens the mysteries of existence forever.

While his brother was in hospital last week, with me, stuck in an isolation ward, Spider-boy had other engagements. As a bonafide schoolboy he had, of course, to go to school. Legal and everything, innit. This threw into chaos our carefully calibrated, one false move and everything falls apart, childcare 'arrangement'. We are lucky, in the kindly friends who were prepared to step up and step in to help out.

One took Spider-boy back to her house after school. In the short walk to her flat he asked repeatedly if she had a mirror. She said she did, though she pointed out, so did he. He clarified 'It's just, I don't know what I REALLY look like'.

It was as if he felt he would see himself most clearly reflected in mirrors away from his usual habitat, the uncharted territory offering a clarity of vision.

I thought about it, and walked around our house. Roald Dahl once wrote a wonderful leaflet for the then national railways about safety on the tracks. He said to truly understand a child, a grown adult should start by getting down on his/her hands and knees and crawling around, to look at the world from their point of view. Wise words. I walk around my house and note, all the wall mounted mirrors are at my height not his. All the handheld ones are in my handbag (cosmetic compacts), or on dressing tables/chests of drawers, again out of reach, things to be passed to him and thus only used when with us, his parents. He had baby mirrors, sure, those crackly plastic safe things, but the best they give is a smudgy impression, and the mirror in the bathroom he only looks in when his hair is sticking up with bubbles or shampoo

Perhaps his sense of uncertainty, his inability to be clear about his own image comes from this - as he has to be lifted to see into the mirrors they only come when he's held by either me or thathusband, and as such exist only with our commentary in which we endlessly commend him and shower him in kisses.

His first word was baby, and I remember our delight, lifting him to the mirror above the mantle, or lifting down the hand mirror on a shelf in his room, smiling and encouraging and thrilled each time he declared who and what he was. How strange and poignant then, that that first proper word, the first clear transaction of meaning, that special moment in any human being's life: the start of understandable communication with another, that beautiful baby in the mirror, is something he remains slightly sceptical of. We all wonder who we see in the looking glass, of course, but I love his desire to know if the 'real' him is the same when he's outside the view of the him projected and created by us.

There are alternative interpretations of course. He was being precocious, telling a joke, aping a remark he'd heard somewhere else, they'd been talking about what mirrors are for at school. But I love the transparent murkiness of the conundrum all the same.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Calpol on the ceiling

It is funny how the minor problems we have to face in life can reflect the biggest changes we've encountered. If I was blogging this time five years ago, I'd probably be pondering how to remove red wine from the polished wood floorboards. Today, I'm wondering to how exactly one removes Calpol from one's ceiling. And wondering, too, how exactly it got there...

Where to begin? As this blog is a record, after a fashion, as well as a place to muse, my silence of the last two weeks should be explained. There is an element of deja vu about the entire story, for which I apologise, and an element of trauma that I can only cope with a) via the medium of caustic wit and b) in two instalments. Just know, however, that all is well now and Newborn has managed to build on the great birthday cake snaffling of 2011 with a fine line in stealing chocolate buttons too. He's also snuggled happily in his buggy.

Within hours of his birthday, Newborn began to snuffle. Sneeze and cough (only a little). He looked and sounded like a baby (well, toddler now) with a normal, plain old, common cold. As ever, in life, it is the danger in the ordinary for which we are unprepared.

He developed bronchiolitis, manifest in a crackly chest, mild recession, a temperature and (mostly) rapid breathing. It is an interesting thing, quick breathing; hypnotic and weird in someone you love. The faster the breath, the slower the world around seems and the harder it is to judge exactly what to do. The phrase 'rapid breathing' is weird too. I mean, what is rapid? Faster than a grown-up, sure. But what is fast for one so young? 40/50/60/80 breaths a minute? And you know all those things they always ask on the phone for NHS Direct and the GP about chest pains, and floppy and unresponsive babies, the ones which make you think 'what sort of a dick would be on the phone with a baby like that?' I can only say now, that it is harder than you might think to recognise an emergency when you are in the midst of it.

His quick chest produced one of those parenting moments where, like the modern mother I am, I was engaged in a google search with a panting boy on my lap and several websites including forums where mums like me were asking strangers how quick was too quick, before I realised that I should be more proactive. Not because the answers were helpful or indicated danger, but because I realised I was feeling in danger and wanted help. I tried again, and rang NHS Direct. Get an expert to tell me how many breaths, exactly, per minute counted as too fast, I thought. Midway through the conversation, I realised that my instinct to get help was right, but being played out in the wrong place. They called an ambulance.

Have you ever been in an ambulance? I haven't, well not as a patient, maybe on a Brownie Guide trip or similar. It is awful. Although, at the same time, it was also a bit of a laugh. A paramedic friend tells me it is common for regular crew members to develop a patter, and my two certainly had theirs. A sweet and gently jocular air which never belittled my worry, but also somehow allowed me to feel unrushed and like we had all the time in the world. They even veered briefly into slapstick with a syringe of Calpol which, bashed out of the way by son's clamp shut teeth, fired into the dusty crevices of one of our only 'original features', the house's coving.

I must say I felt a right cock for ringing NHS Direct when I should probably have rung 999. Not least as I was that woman, one I've been warned about but I always thought I wouldn't be, the one who couldn't find her son's inhaler or, as I was so panicked to my marrow, remember for the life of me what it is called. My mother always warned me to write EVERYTHING medical down, no matter how insignificant seeming; as she sagely put it: 'You don't want to be standing in front of a paediatrician saying 'well, one of them has had chickenpox''. So as an early Christmas gift I pass that advice on to you, because as she rightly predicted it is a terrible humiliation, only tempered by the abject fear created by the kindly calm of doctors, nurses and paramedics when your child is really sick.

I often joke with a friend that our predilection for japes, scrapes and comic injury makes our lives somehow a sitcom existence. As my son got worse and worse, and they were talking about admission last week, I was briefly concerned we'd taken a dire turn, into the landscape as life as soap opera, or even worse, medical drama. I don't want to be the slightly chipper woman with the small child in a Grey's Anatomy or Casualty tear jerker with a moral message about, God knows, parental worrying, second guessing and the weakness of children. My worries about what a terrible mother I was were made worse when his face went red so it looked to everyone like he had really bad untreated eczema, rather than sensitive skin which only occasionally, rarely even,flares to anything. Another big red mark against my mothering.

We veered back into sitcom, of course, as he suddenly improved after 2 hours practically sitting up, smiling and gesturing to leave (waving at the nurses and saying 'bye bye'). I prepared my armoury of jokes, about the magic power of the waiting room, the way our kids, shucks, embarrass us by getting better and making us liars in front of anyone in a uniform, and we set off back into the night having been told to come back if he got worse or we were worried at all.

And as we stood, in our pink and sticky hall, a night of 'watching' in front of us, several parenting ideas swam about in my head. A phrase I often hear, for example, when things are tough - I didn't sign up for this. Well, thatwoman, I thought - you did. You did sign up for this. All of this, from the ruined medicine-spattered architecture, to the pale hotbod you must sit next to all night hoping he won't struggle too much. You became a mother. You wanted a child and (all my life lessons are paraphrased from popular culture) with that great power and privilege comes an awful lot of shit you couldn't have properly imagined (however much you thought you could) and responsibilities, chief of all the simplest and the scariest: keeping them alive.