Monday, 28 May 2012


I sometimes think about when I die. @MindCharity and others fill my twitter with discussions of depression and suicide and other nasties in the name of raising awareness. I like these, they are usually messages of hope. And there have been a couple of terrible news stories lately; the worst, probably, a father coming home to dead babies. Bad, bad, bad days for other people.

Having had depression I think it is easy to feel that death is very close. Partly because my depression has tapped into my inner melodrama and angry dog. But also because if you can fall into depression, if your path has been shown to be a complacent walkway, then you know that there is far more 'but-for-the-grace-of-God-ness' about bad news than it is comfortable to believe. A mind which has once played tricks on you, will never be entirely trustworthy. In short, you won't ever exactly be able to trust yourself. And how do you move on? Find the force for good? Get over it?

I find it hardest to remember my depression and do something useful with it when I am closest to happiness. And when I am crossing the road. At my worst I never looked for traffic because I secretly hoped to be mown down and stopped. For time to freeze and the days to end. Brown Owl should take my Road Safety badge back - sometimes I used to close my eyes and step out. These days, feeling less shaky, it is all 'quickly carefully / wave to the nice driver / wait for the green person'. But then, there was recklessness and the taste of angry exhausts. What a wicked girl I was, but at least this means the kerb is always there to remind me.

And morbid isn't always bad. It can offer us a chance for simple reflection. Take today. If sentimental posturing is to be believed when I die my life will track back and forward through my head in edited highlights, like the most glorious facebook stream. As we embark on the ballache of the school run I wonder fleetingly what snapshots I'll settle on as I lie dying? The sight of my husband on our wedding day? Warm words, silly jokes, easy silence with friends? Cold beer? The might of a jaguar? The thrill of a new book? Leaving the cinema after my first Scorcese film? The breeze in my hair and sun on my face near a gravelly beach? The lilac evening glow of new bluebells in our first garden? The sight of a boy in sandals eating an apple? (That is probably my favourite view in all the world, if not my favourite sort of moment).

I'm pretty sure when the show is done the final shot, my happiest moment, will be this. Walking down a warm pavement, little sweaty hand in mine dragging my back because we aren't quite the right size for comfy hand holding just yet, another scampering creature running ahead (or holding forth from his father's shoulders) shouting out a stream of consciousness: animals, predators, transport, friends, birthday parties, facts and, mostly, questions.

We may be late, like today when we were ushered into the playground to the tolling of the dreaded bell. We may be early, like last week, loping and stopping to look at what specimens and curios Haringey has offered us (a dead bird, some chewing gum, a pair of shoes, WHAT'S THAT MUMMY? A FRIDGE?.. on the pavement). We may see a bus in the distance and know we'll miss it, or be licking ice cream dribble from our sticky chins, or just moments from the shadow of home. But we will be walking forwards, together, in an everyday scruffy way, looking both ways as we cross the road. That, to me, will always be what happy is.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Age Appropriate

I've written before about Spider-boy's attachments and obsessions when it comes to TV, notably his hearty love for Fireman Sam and later Gigglebiz, which have now also been consigned to the scrap yard for all things too babyish. He is now, with typical four-year-old full immersion, hooked on Horrible Histories and Deadly 60.

I think both are a good thing, and mercifully, just like listening to more complicated stories at bedtime I feel they are giving him something I simply cannot - a sense of autonomy and mastery over his own taste. Like the best TV for anyone they entertain and challenge, inform and explain, provoke thought and reactions. Only Deadly 60's charming presenter Steve could get away with throwing down the gauntlet to kids armed with Top Trumps predator packs by wickedly suggesting the natural genius of a Praying Mantis or a Venus Flytrap could be considered on a par with the might of a tiger. Spider-boy loves these ratings and top tens, the enthusiasm Steve has for the natural world and the hint he like his idol, should spend time thinking carefully about whether a honey badger could take a wolverine in a fight (it so could).

And only Horrible Histories would have the balls to introduce the notion that history takes many forms, can be misunderstood and patronised, whilst also told from different perspectives, in a show which is instantly appealing and hilarious to preschoolers (not least for the focus on poo and all the uses made of it over time - dental cures, analysis of ability to rule through sniffingroyal stools, the houses build of pigshit).

The later is especially involving - go on any parenting forum and you are bound to find a thread talking about mum crushes on the guy who plays Charles II or the joy of rhyming 'imagine it' and 'I am the last Plantagenet' in Richard III's mournful lament for a reputation ruined by Shakespeare. You'll hear of grown women sniffling into the fish fingers at teatime when they think about the pathos and distress of Queen Victoria's anthem to lost love:

For 40 years I ruled alone 
Shed all those tears while on the throne 
What got me through the pain and hurt 
Was clinging to the memory of Albert 
Oh V and A 
Oh A and V 
Each way it spells L O V E 
Oh A and V 
Oh V and A 
They'll name a building after us one day

Try it yourself. Children or no, make your own day by looking up the hieroglyphics number (A-B-C re imagined as 'eye foot basket'). And hear a fizz of pleasure from any human being who appreciates life and wit, with the RAF Battle of Britain boy band song. A tale of 10 hours training, Czechs, Poles and Brits fighting together, the strangeness of become history's 'few' and the desire to be back for good (like Robbie).

And good TV, like all good art, does that - unites, appals, invigorates, prompts more. With all things parenting the temptation is to help our children skip the steps towards finding the good stuff in life: help them miss our mistakes, to avoid the rubbish on the way. Which leads me to Ben 10, which to be fair, isn't the worst TV show ever, just not especially inspiring in any area other than the endemic marketing to little boys.

For over a year the spectre of Ben 10 has hovered around our remote control, always a fascination, a temptation, eventually a Holy Grail. I didn't especially want to encourage it but had to marry that protective desire with the wider picture - how could he fit in at school if he wasn't armed with the lexicon of the playground? How could he join in games with big boys (and almost everyone in his school is a big boy compared to him with his summer birthday) if he didn't understand the mechanics of a shape shift enabling alien watch like Ben's? These are difficult questions, and ring true with my history - one of the reasons my parents bought their first television, if family lore is to be believed, was because I didn't understand what Fame was and my teacher thought I was fibbing.

Before it became a true fetish object we decided to relent. What would he make of it if we let him watch it for a treat, this Most Wanted cartoon about an alien boy? He thought it was okay. He's only asked for it once again, and that was because he knows how to spell it, speak the title as code as if his little brother might be interested. 'Perhaps tomorrow we can watch B-E-N-ONE-O?' he shouts conspiratorially at bath time. 'Newborn's not allowed because he isn't nearly five!'

Which underscores something about Newborn too - whatever rules we have for his brother, what ever gentle nudges we give him to watch TV which is good and fun and offers him a side of lasting knowledge and discernment with his entertainment, Newborn will always have seen more. He never gets to watch stuff which is purely age appropriate for him, he must filter for himself and fall back into his place in the wolfpack hierarchy of boy. No safe CBeebies island for him in his introduction to the popular arts, no haven of Iggle Piggle and quieter fare. He's seen the Tombliboo's once, on a day when I had him alone and put it on. He now takes a tie in book, discarded years ago by his brother, to bed saying proudly 'LOOK... lolliloo' to himself and laughing in genuine wonder. They are his special secret, I think he's still wondering if any other baby ever saw one.

Then today he saw an episode of Spot. Such simple, old school little kid TV that I remember my younger sister watching it. He ran to the TV, towards the simple line drawings and gentle, gentle voices, and had what I think was an epiphany: someone, somewhere is making TV for him. He held the screen, nose on the lights. And then he ran away. Perhaps it was too overwhelming, to feel so personally addressed by the magic box corner. After all he must associate it primarily with being told to move out of the way of the picture or being admonished for switching it off. Or perhaps he was just disappointed with the simplicity of Spot, and craves the episode of Horrible Histories where George IV explains his life long passion for actresses, duchesses and pies. I know I did.

If you are interested in Kids and TV my husband writes a blog on this subject.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Guest post: birth story

Here is the link to the birth story post I wrote for blogger The Mule. I discussed the emotions stirred up by recounting birth yesterday

Her blog is on my blog roll and can be found here. She has always been supportive and kind to me, whilst producing a provocative, poetic, thought provoking body of work herself including activism, musing, challenges, calls to arms, questions and genuine celebrations of women, mothering and birth.

Interestingly I realise it is the first time I've written out Newborn's birth in one go. For the record, it really did go that fast.

You get some brilliant TS Eliot too, for your trouble if you visit it - such a wonderful piece of work I feel quite ashamed of what's below!

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Birth stories...

Two weeks ago we were back with my second son in the hospital where my first was born. More hours to think, gazing at our London, which now of course, five years on from my start at mothering, has a great shard across it, cutting up through the skyline.

While there I was mulling. A few weeks ago, another blogger ( asked me to write up a birth story for a week of guest posts she has been putting together. I have written about childbirth a great deal, of course, here but also on forums and in emails. I feel quite strange about 'my' birth stories, especially given I so easily refer to them as that, 'mine', when in fact they really belong to my sons. They are their stories, the beginning and end of our exclusive time together.

I don't know what I've encapsulated writing them out, or indeed editing them to fit the word count for the birth story season. Or that thinking too much about them and writing it out was even helpful or cathartic.

I feel I've bored people senseless with snatches from them: gory, funny, outrageous, warm and fuzzy. And yet I also found to my surprise that there wasn't any especially clear story of either birth which gave the full picture.

I went through my emails and my posts, I looked at the stories I've told, the narrative I've constructed about both births. It made me think a few things - any sense of narrative, any neatness to either story, was imposed by me. These were meandering, raging, boring, weird times: minutes crawled along majestically paced, hours zoomed, phrases stood out, entire conversations seemed to disappeared  even as they happened. Perhaps all labours are like that - and necessarily become flashes of full colour in a sea of sensation.

Even (especially?) my medical notes were not helpful. They were a fragmented skeleton which didn't help me iron it out either time as they are jotting books, lacking depth of detail, written by multiple authors and occasionally contradictory.

Is it important, to have either story complete? I'm not sure. I wrote them out, every single thing, the first birth so seared to me and so upsetting, the second so fleeting and confusing. Everything I could remember now, the details I recorded then. It took more than 5000 words and neither properly held things together. They missed the real joy: the warm sun on my face the first time and the birdsong we could hear as I hit 10cm, the jokes and hopes and the moment a friend delivered a sandwich to our labour room. There seemed no way to explain the intensity or meaning of my first memory of my second child which is a mixture of:

relief he was alive
recognition (as he looked so like his brother)
shock (as I hadn't really realised he was about to be born)
confusion (because the similarity I refer to was so acute, they were identical birth weights and length and as I stared at his fat cheeks and little face I couldn't understand if he was real or imaginary)

Perhaps there are no words for that kind of mirage of light joy and recognition, the old newness of an echoed face, the excitement of familiarity and its surprise.

They did fit a pattern though. The same pattern seen in @caitlinmoran's How To Be A Woman where she writes out both births: one shocking, leaving her speechless, the second leaving her asking why did no-one say it was so easy.

I could write mine like that - the horrid nasty damaging birth vs. the healing transformative birth. That is one reading, and the easiest to structure my life around. It doesn't tell all, not least as in my case it ignores the duplicity of birthing which I also find in parenting. I only just avoided calling this post A Tale of Two Births. A nice pun, an apt Dickensian allusion given that when in labour the first time, I felt trapped in a Victorian hospital in the dark, united with all those howling heroines in novels I read but never truly understood. It would have been an apt name for this post mostly though as they were the best of times and the worst of times for sure. Tonight my son asked what the best and worst day of my lives have been. It is hard to give him a truthful answer, not least because those days of delivery do sit there, side by side, but at the top of both lists.

I've written before about common phrases and things we hear - like how we should be grateful for a positive ending for birth and a healthy baby. This, of course, is true. A healthy baby is the holy grail and all we should hope for, though I've noted my annoyance. Just like descriptions of empowerment and rushes of love, I think it is unhelpful to generalise about childbirth, especially to people whose experience of labour and delivery is not a positive one. I think this sort of expectation of empowerment, for example, can create a terrible expectation of what birth 'should' be and suggestion of failure if it turns out to be something else.

As a feminist this makes me concerned - I do not want to scaremonger or upset, or to blemish or affect people's views of birth, to contribute to any school of thought which disempowers women in any way or encourages them to make choices based on fear rather than anything else. I know my experiences were deeply transformed by a model of birth which was positive, and yet didn't match mine. My pain, for example, did not feel positive once when I was giving birth the first time. Not once. I know for some it does; for me it didn't. I'm most empowered personally when I hear others too felt the same. But I also know that my experience throughout labour was not conducive to that model of birth anyway - too much was stressful, unexplained, and frightening, and that there is still much which transformed me for good and ill.

Yet I often feel in need of confirmation that it is okay to feel the visceral intensity of those memories, and their massive distance from me now, their beauty and their heartbreak, their difference from anything I've experienced and their drudge, their fear and their wonder. So I tried not to sugar the pill or make it too poisonous. I'm not sure if I succeeded but I will link to the post when it appears.