New worlds, old stars and red lipstick: some advice on being a woman, for my daughter

Little girl, you sleep.

I wanted a girl desperately, and you came like a song in the night. That’s a true thing – but in person you are less melodious. Squawky, hungry, passionately attached to us. You take up all your allotted space and more, and I am quietly proud of you for it. There are things I will need to tell you about being a woman in the world, and that’s probably first on the list.

No, here’s what’s first, always: you are loved, fiercely loved. But your worth does not depend on who loves you and how they show it. Your worth is intrinsic. You came with it, and you have it still. No amount of rubbing around in this world can take the shine off it.

This is number two, then. Take up all your space. Speak truth and keep speaking till you’re heard. Some people might tell you that a woman’s place is to be soft, tender, (most of all) quiet. You may know already what I think about that. Be abundantly kind, kinder than people expect. But don’t ever turn gentleness into self-erasure. Don’t beat yourself up for your spiky edges. You are meant to have those, too.

For various reasons, teenage girls are often the absolute worst to each other. Sorry. It can’t be helped. You may be in your thirties by the time you stop doing things just because other people expect you to. This is fine. If you get it earlier, even better.

Food is not your enemy. Your body is not your enemy. You are a thing of wonder, an atom in each of your fingers made in a different, distant star. You are a miracle. Treat yourself gently. Eat things you love, with people you love, getting your hands messy. Exercise because you want to look after yourself.

Your experiences and your history are your own. You get to tell your own stories. Other people are allowed theirs, too. Learning to properly listen and validate is one of the most powerful gifts you can give.

Don’t be afraid of red lipstick. It’s the best kind of warpaint I know.

It’s really alright to lie down and put a pillow over your head the day your period starts. Would the boys you know battle silently on if they got crushing penis pain, a distended stomach-balloon of rage and a gushing bloodbath in their bed once a month? I THINK NOT.

Read, and never stop reading. You’ll visit more new worlds than you can imagine – breathe their air, stand on their soil, then come back to your own able to see magic in everything.

A great many problems can be solved with a chocolate biscuit and five minutes outside with a good view. Or dancing in the kitchen to your favourite song, turned up very loud. It appeared in all those eighties montages for a reason.

Your older brothers love you, but it’s not their job to protect you or vet your boyfriends. Their job is to be the only people in the world who know the exact and particular madness of your parents. Keep them close.

Things that have brought me the most joy in life: loving your father; finding a field I was interested in and good at and pursuing it tenaciously; the grand cosmology of our faith; reaching out to people in need; being vulnerable and authentic in female friendships; loving my children.

Things I have found the hardest work: see above.

Be brave, dear girl. So many things need bravery. The best things. Go and find them.

With all my love,

Your mother.

(PS: if we’re at a point where it helps to pretend that someone cooler than me is telling you all this, feel especially free to do so.)

Love after love [and birth]

 

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Derek Walcott, Love After Love

 

It’s that last line I think about at 11pm. However hard I try, it’s never earlier than that. I load up her night’s bottles onto a tray, take off my day’s sick-spattered clothes and sit down in front of the mirror. I find the skincare pots and tubes I’ve been using since Imogen arrived, and line them up carefully in front of me. Cleanser. Toner pads. Hydrating serum. Moisturiser. You’re supposed to cleanse twice and I only do that sometimes, in the mornings, when it’s been a rough night. Even so, this routine is about seven light years away from Take Off Makeup Most Nights; Use Cream When Feeling Fancy, which has been my go-to for oh, the past fifteen years.

I sit, I exhale, I rub fresh-smelling things into my exhausted face, and I think: sit. Feast on your life.

It is entirely possible that when you have a small baby – say, less than six months old – that you will feel close to madness at times. Your other children, if you have them, still need feeding and clothing and relationshipping; your spouse would probably like a conversation every now and again; your baby thinks any moment not being held is a moment wasted. And partly you crave those connections, and partly you want very much to run away to sea, where you might have to climb rigging but at least it will be quiet.

I have felt it, tickling away at the edges of my consciousness: the growing suspicion that a padded room would be a nice place to spend a long weekend, provided they gave you a book.

I have to remind myself all the time, so I’m reminding you too: this. is. totally. normal.

Since the padded room isn’t a serious option, I’ve tried hard to be exaggeratedly gentle with myself over the past few weeks. There are things that fill me up, and I’ve tried to do them whenever I can. You will find me opening the fridge and cupboards on food shopping day, because looking at our shelves crammed with fresh food – that I will use to feed them, that will do them good – makes me feel competent and satisfied.

At lunchtime I set the table for one, fussily, folding a single napkin under my knife and fork.

I write tick lists on my phone every morning, and include things like ‘Shower’ and ‘Dry hair’ so I have lots of easy wins.

I’m making huge efforts to exercise. I buy only my favourite ice cream. I downloaded a meditation app. I spent a little money on clothes that fit better.

I signed up for a creative writing course I didn’t have time for, and insisted on making the time. I write at the desk once a week, with the door closed, gently turning away all comers, and Tim brings my dinner on a tray. It feels odd, and good. I think maybe I haven’t taken myself seriously for a while, but I’d like to, now.

Give back your heart to itself. Sit. Feast on your life. 

Save the rigging for another day.

A letter for four (for Teddy)

Dear Teddy,

On the evening of your birthday, while the sun printed itself onto the carpet and your aunties pored over your new Lego sets, you buzzed around in the kitchen, high on cake. Then something occurred to you, and you popped your head back in the door to say, gratified, astonished: ‘People just KEEP ON buying me presents!’

It seemed very like you. You can’t do anything without singing under your breath, and you can’t stop yourself springing into rooms with a mouth-trumpet fanfare (whether your sister’s asleep or no), and you couldn’t believe that you’d be so lucky on your birthday as to get some actual, real-life presents. Last week you looked in open-mouthed wonder at the camping spork I’d given you to eat with. ‘That is ung-CREDIBLE’, you said, in a hushed voice. Oh, Ted. Imagine what you’ll think the first time you see a Swiss army knife.

Here you are at four: suddenly long-legged and perpetually covered in bruises, you fall out of bed at least once a night and dance all day in my orbit, telling me you’re hungry. ‘I’m STILL hungry’, you insist at 9am, at 9.12, and approximately every twenty minutes thereafter. You’ll try any food once, but pasta and pesto is still your favourite meal. You like to help me cook dinner, and often do – partly because you can’t bear to stay in the room if there’s even the mildest tension on the TV.

You love music, too, and often open the piano to plonk on the keys. ‘Listen, I’m playing some thinking music’, you told me the other day. It sounded like all of your other abstract compositions, but what do I know? Last week you refused to get out of the car until we’d listened to the very end of Elton John’s Sacrifice (I think I preferred your Starman phase). You’ve recently dispensed with your cheesy photo grin for a serious stand-to-attention pose. The look on your face – proud and dutiful and fierce – always makes me want to cry a little. I never know why.

Other things you love: Transformers Rescue Bots, riding your scooter to nursery, Lego, laboriously spelling out the speech bubbles in Calvin and Hobbes cartoons, Moana, your brother and sister. You have a small and enthusiastic group of friends, of which you seem to be the ringleader. On our way home from nursery you call out cheery goodbyes to anyone you can see. When the girls respond, you blush. I think you might be…cool? It’s all very strange to us. You start school in September and you’d go tomorrow, if you could. You’ve been desperate to go since Henry started, which is how it is with most things.

You are so loud. Your tantrums could knock over a horse, diminishing in frequency though they are.

In your two-year-old letter I said you felt like a piece of grace to me. I suppose what I’m saying is, you still do.

Happy fourth, little bear.

With love,

Your mother.

Let it grow

This week, a surprise: my rose plant bloomed. Three, four, five pink rose heads, heavy and scented on spindly stems, unfurled themselves within a couple of days. It’s ‘my’ rose plant because I bought it and planted it last year, but that’s about where my involvement ended. We haven’t even trimmed it, let alone fed it or done any of the mysterious rituals people talk about on Gardeners’ Question Time. It has sprawled over the grass, unsupported, in odd directions. Its main claim to fame in the last six months was popping Teddy’s balloon last week when he turned his back on it. (Hilarious.) Honestly, I thought it was dead.

But no, roses. Amazing how life conserves itself under the soil, waiting for just the right season. Our house is pretty chaotic at the moment, but the flowery scent floats in regardless, past the crusty porridge bowls, through the open patio door.

Imogen is two-and-a-half months. She had a cold and her first set of injections a couple of weeks ago, and the two things combined meant that she cried all week. So I held her all week, or put her down for two-minute intervals and then scarpered back when she realised I was gone. She has a very loud cry, like Teddy did, but unlike Teddy she uses it for any and all occasions, not just the dire emergencies. You sprint back, thinking she’s dying, and find her only a bit bored. But you can’t not respond to a cry of that magnitude. You’re hard-wired to sprint, so you do.

She doesn’t realise she’s activating every one of your evolutionary alarm bells whenever she raises her voice. It’s just her voice, and she’s using it. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, given that she lives in a world where a girl speaking up loudly is met with hysterical Twitter threats more often than applause.

(I wrote this before she started with reflux this week, so now I sprint faster and put her down hardly at all.)

She smiles a lot too. It pops up suddenly and takes over her whole face, like a huge wave surprising you from behind. I laugh, delightedly, without being able to help it. That feels evolutionary too, like she’s giving you a mental high five.

There was an evening during the first Crying Week, when I had given up on the idea of a proper dinner and was trying to persuade some leftover pizza into the boys’ bellies. They didn’t like the pizza – decided after they’d picked it to pieces – so I cut them big slabs of bread and cheese and jam, jiggling Imogen under one arm and fretting. Nothing was done, nothing was clean, and they still had a day left of school before the holidays. Suddenly I thought ‘I cannot do another day of this. I cannot wake up tomorrow and do this again’. There was something about the flat hopelessness of it that was terrifying. I wondered whether my parenting was broken. By the time Tim got home, fifteen minutes later, I was crying too. (He found me a Dr Pepper, made me a fat cheese toastie, put me in front of some Brooklyn Nine-Nine and scheduled the rest of our evening into tickable hour-long chunks, because he knows exactly what I need and is a hero among men.)

Then came the May half-term holiday, which is the one I like the best. It’s just long enough to stuff full of exciting things, and the weather’s warmer than February. I took them out on day trips all week, all three of them, after plotting carefully what we needed to take with us and how much they could handle. Released from school schedules and spelling lists, we caught buses and trains, pottered around museums, stuffed ourselves in ice cream cafes, spilled popcorn at the cinema. They had a wonderful time. Rather to my surprise, so did I. ‘Halloooooo’, my last-year self called from across the New Baby ravine. ‘This is what you used to be good at. Remember?’ I’d forgotten, actually.

When I was pregnant I used to think about what it would be like once the baby was here. I thought I would get myself back, like I could map the version of me with two older children directly onto my life with three children, and I would be the same, just with more to do. I don’t know how I thought I could get through the soul-stretching work of pregnancy and a newborn and come out the other side unmarked.

You can’t, you can’t. I couldn’t. And I miss my old self something dreadful, but I thought to myself after that half-term holiday that maybe the best of me was still hibernating under the soil.

There are roses in me yet, and I think the season is coming.

 

It’s all coming back to me now

11pm. I’m sat in bed next to a baby I will need to wake up soon, eating a boat-sized slice of buttered toast. I don’t know of any diet that recommends toast after 10pm, but I am trying to look after myself. And sometimes that looks like going to bed at 8.30, so I get a couple more hours’ sleep before Imogen’s middle-of-the-night feed. And sometimes it looks like cutting yourself an inch-thick slice of toast and sitting in fresh pyjamas far too late, to do the things you desperately wanted to do this evening before the baby’s bout of trapped wind said ‘mmm, actually no’.

I wanted to write this, and to pack away her newborn clothes (she has grown out of her newborn clothes already) (sob), and I was hungry, so here I am.

I am in that baby phase where just getting from 7am to 9am every day feels like this:

but already she’s seven weeks old and her cheeks alone have their own address on Google Maps, and her teeny tiny newborn photos look like someone else. I love her, I love her, I am completely obsessed – and Tim is totally her favourite. I’m like a needy super-fan whose celebrity crush doesn’t know she exists. I mean, not quite, of course, I exaggerate, she thinks I’m alright; but she adores her Daddy. It’s gorgeous to watch and also sort of annoying, like MY BODY ATE ITSELF TO BIRTH YOU, CHILD: LOVE ME BEST.

After paternity leave, and then my mum’s two-week visit – both blooming marvellous – I’m now getting used to doing things solo. Mostly I’d forgotten how much extra time things take. Getting out of the car with bags AND a baby. Making dinner AND soothing a baby. I keep coming across new things and thinking ‘Right, so, how to…because I’ve got this baby here? And how can I…? Should I put her…? Um?’ It’s coming back to me, in bits and pieces.

I do tend to find it very difficult, getting lost in intensely practical, menial routines. Patting out need fires from morning till night, and not doing much else. I tend to slip into resentment easily, brooding over the unattainable luxury of being able to leave for a quiet office in the morning, and not coming back till your day’s tasks are done. I miss writing, thinking, reading. Feeling vaguely competent. Sleeping in blocks longer than four hours, day or night.

But then, oh, my dear, there are moments of such transcendence. I do mean that, actually – I’m not being melodramatic. Yesterday I’d been for a run – one of the wonderful side effects of that gestational diabetes fiasco is that I now associate exercise with anxiety relief – then came back and dressed in my yellow jumper, which fits again. My yellow jumper! We had twenty minutes before the school runs, so I sat on the bed under a blanket, Imogen on my lap, and watched Netflix. I took hilarious photos, and laughed so much she twisted her head right around to look at me accusingly, then gradually my body heat lulled her to sleep. Oh gosh, I was happy. I was so happy.

Tonight we drove home singing along to the Moana soundtrack – H and T’s current all-consuming obsession. I watched H in the rear-view mirror, as he forgot his perpetual self-consciousness for once, for once, and sang his heart out. ‘I am Moanaaaaaaaa!’ I thought I’d give anything at all to capture the expression on his face, and knew I’d never convince him to do it on video. So I tried to fix it hard and deliberately in my memory, like pressing a diamond into its setting. The sun was low and warm over the sheep in the fields, and there was a big ghost moon hanging in the sky.

I have a few little flashes like that, like tiny jewels – the white-hot stab of happiness when I coaxed a first smile out of Imogen; the serious expression on toddler Teddy’s face as we twirled to Starman in the kitchen; H singing with closed eyes in the rear-view mirror, the evening sun touching his face.

Midnight again. Midnight, my old friend. It’s feeding time. And then it’s time for bed.

Sometimes your newborn feelings are not pretty, and that’s ok

Anyway (she said, mouth full of Easter chocolate), I thought I would let you know that being in the newborn phase for the third time is more complicated than it seems.

I really thought that having done this twice before, I’d have it down. That there wouldn’t be anything to be surprised about. And there have been big improvements, as well as plenty of moments of total joy. I don’t feel tortured over any of our baby choices – because I’m more confident in them and because I don’t have time or space to fret about them – and I think that’s reflected in how placid she is. And the tiny baby developments are even better and lovelier than you remember.

On the other hand, I have found a lot of things to be hard work. And they’ve almost been worse because I feel guilty about STILL finding them hard work, the third time around. Does that make sense? I feel like I should be more together than I am. So, since one of my big new year’s resolutions was to be kind to myself during the newborn phase, and since one of my big life resolutions is to remember that it’s ok to feel whatever you feel, I thought I would record some of the ugliness here. I don’t know, maybe you have it too? And we can both remember that it’s ok.

 

It’s OK If You Don’t Fall In Love Immediately

I find it hard to describe what I feel over the first week or so with a new baby. The otherworldly strangeness of it, having an entirely new person where there wasn’t one before! It feels like we’ve been lent a baby that we’ll be asked to return at some point. Like I’m road-testing a new identity, but only temporarily. I’m aware of feeling protective and attached, but it’s buried so far under numbness and shock that it’s almost subconscious. Anyway, after a little while the haze clears, and it turns out there is love beating there underneath. Hard and messy and sure, as always. It just takes a bit of time.

 

It’s OK To Find Your Older Children Exhausting And Sort Of Unpleasant Sometimes

The other day I was reading old blog posts from when Teddy arrived. Here’s what I wrote about two-year-old Hen:

Second Note: I keep telling myself that things will Settle Down with my wonderful firstborn, but let me tell you, I was pondering Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat this morning (2am is weird) and felt for a moment that selling Joseph to the hairy Ishmaelites sounded like a pretty good idea.

I knew that would likely happen again, but I’ve still had to remind myself that the boys are fighting and ignoring every damn thing I say because of change and insecurity and displacement. I asked H this afternoon how he felt about having a new sister, and he paused, and then said thoughtfully, ‘Mmm. I feel worried. Because maybe you won’t have any space for us anymore?’ Urgh, RIGHT TO THE HEART.

Still, you are a human person, and you can simultaneously understand a tantrum and not much enjoy dealing with them every five minutes. They’ll settle down. In the meantime, shut yourself in a cupboard with a biscuit and whinge away.

 

It’s OK If Breastfeeding Really Isn’t Your Thing

Oh lawks, I am one-score-and-twelve and the progenitor of three children and I am still afraid to say this. I can’t emphasise enough how much better feeding Imogen has been, after we decided to combi-feed from the beginning. To know that she’s getting the goodness in the breastmilk but that I’m not the only thing standing between her and dangerous malnutrition! High fives for that! Feeding is gradually being stripped of the guilt, terror and failure it’s always been bound up with for me, and it’s wonderful.

But still? Even so? I do not find breastfeeding a bonding experience. I adore this baby, but I do all of my quality adoration outside of our two-hourly feeding times. I hate leaking and soreness, I hate fumbling with my underwear in public, and while I’ll do it as long as I feel it needs to be done, I won’t be writing praise poems about it any time soon. It feels like a necessary sacrifice, no more than that.

I have decided that this is alright. (I’m not one breastfeeding consultant/YouTube video away from miraculous transformation; don’t @ me.)

 

It’s OK To Sometimes Feel Useless, Bored Or Just Very Tired Of It All

She’s the most beautiful thing. And it. Is. Hard. It is much easier to say ‘accept the chaos; it’ll be over soon’ once it’s actually over. Being in the middle of it again, giving up all of your markers of self-worth and achievement in favour of an untidy house, squabbling children, hardcore sleep deprivation and near-constant CBeebies – that’s difficult. It stays difficult, no matter how many times you’ve done it before. I had a sobbing rant at Tim only this morning that included the phrase ‘IT’S ALRIGHT FOR YOU: YOU ARE A WELL-RESPECTED PERSON’, like I was giving him a demented quarterly review.

I love it and I can’t stand it.

I want her to be older and I can’t bear to think of her being any bigger than she is right now.

It’s terribly beautiful and it’s horribly ugly.

I think it’s probably time I accepted the contradiction as the messy, essential, really definitely OK thing it is.

This Is Where We Are: a letter to my children on Mother’s Day (6)

Every year on Mother’s Day, I write about how I mother my babies day-to-day. I think they might like to know how the little things felt, as well as the big ones. Here goes the sixth, an entire week late (this is the first year I’ve had a proper excuse). 

Dear Future Versions of Henry, Teddy and Imogen,

This has been my sixth Mothering Sunday, and you are five-and-a-half, three-and-three-quarters, and two weeks old, respectively. And this is what we looked like today.

It’s a bit odd writing this letter, this year. We have never been so far from our normal day-to-day, and I’ve never, till now, had a Mother’s Day where I’ve been here in this most intense phase of mothering, the no-sleep, hands-on one where it’s impossible to do anything else. I spend most of my time sat down under various blankets, feeding, and Daddy is home picking up all of my slack (which you love). We’ve spent this whole weekend at home, watching Conference sessions, going for walks, eating, colouring, admiring your new sister in her stripy jersey dress, making monster cars out of Lego. It’s not normal, but I am so enjoying it. I hope you are too.

***

Imogen, here you are at last. We brought you home after that unpleasant forty-eight hours in the hospital, where none of us slept and they made your little heels bleed over and over, and the three of us buried ourselves in clouds of white duvet and slept for four hours in sheer relief. I spent the first week largely on autopilot, in shock, with you an unknowable, ravenous little thing beside me. The second week it was like you’d always been here. You have a head of black hair, like your middle brother did – in fact you look exactly the same as he did, so we keep speculating whether your hair will fall out and grow back bright blonde, like his. You have a delicate pixie-ish face, chubby cheeks, long spindly fingers. One of your toes – ridiculously small – folds under the one next to it, after it spent several months crammed under my ribs.

Two weeks isn’t terribly long to be anything, and most of what you’ll be is unwritten. But you are remarkably unfussy, for a newborn. You sleep in good three hour blocks, and feed happily from me or a bottle. In the evenings you watch our faces intently, dark blue eyes wide. You only screech when we change your nappy. In the bath you stretch out in the water, sigh and close your eyes, a look of bliss on your miniature features.

There was an evening last week where I sat, too late, pyjamas on, and rocked you a little while for the pleasure of it. Little bird, I loved you. It was new, and so strong it hurt my chest. I can’t wait to see where you go next.

***

Teddy, you’re in front of me right now, pushing a toy car from one end of the piano to another, cracking poor jokes for my benefit and humming to yourself. Which is you all over: happy, fidgety, affectionate, unintentionally hilarious and so. very. loud. You hum all the time – one constant, buzzy stream of song fragments – which means we’ll never lose you in a supermarket, but also makes it hard to concentrate. Now you’re a new-minted middle child, you seem huge to us, though in fact you’ve been getting older on the sly for a while. You wake up at a fairly civilised hour, and you’re starting to dress yourself and put on your own shoes. After we’ve dropped Henry off at school we spend the morning together, then you speed off on your balance bike to nursery. You can read, now, and recognise numbers. You just rushed up to tell me that it’s very important to wash your hands after handling your pets (we don’t have any pets) and that ‘boys have eyelashes too, you know’. Apropos of nothing, as per. You represent total, uncomplicated joy to me, still.

You love Where’s Wally books, your bike, Transformers, and any Lego vehicle you can persuade Henry to make for you. You would eat pasta for every meal if I let you. You idolise your brother, even when his reticence frustrates you and your chatter irritates him. You won’t do anything you don’t want to, until I’ve counted to five. Just occasionally now you get tongue-tied and nervous, quite unlike your usual fearlessness. The threenager rages are less and less frequent, now we can see four on the horizon. Which is to say, my baby-no-longer-baby, that you’re growing up.

***

Henry, this is you. Somewhere between five and six, and in the middle of a big year. Self-contained and quietly stubborn. Cautious and intuitive. An endless, vocal worrier. You are dryly funny, an insatiable fact-hoarder, and can communicate ten sceptical things just by raising your eyebrows. You love reading, cycling, dancing and singing (strictly in private, those two), Pokemon, dinosaurs, Lego, and sausage pie for dinner. You hate having to do anything quickly, and being reminded that I am in charge. At home you are kind and capable, though you have flashes of defiant temper and always want the last word when we disagree (I have a feeling this will come up again in, say, ten years). You dress yourself, like your own space, and direct Teddy like a benevolent general when you play or do chores together. Yesterday I was in the middle of making Sunday lunch, and came in to find the two of you poring over your Pokemon encyclopaedia, you making up quiz questions and Teddy guessing the answers. You are increasingly inseparable. It’s everything we hoped for, for the two of you.

At school – such a huge part of your life now – you are the youngest in your class, and I think you feel it without knowing precisely what ‘it’ is. You are quiet and unshowy there. Sometimes you struggle with who to play with in the playground. You feel things very deeply. It can be difficult for both of us. I try hard not to wish away your sensitivity because, my love, I want you to remember that emotional literacy is a powerful thing, and not something to be ashamed of. To know always what you’re feeling and how others feel too – do you know how rare that is? If you can work up the confidence to listen to yourself, you’ll be a wonderful friend: the sort of steady light in the corner that people are drawn to; the sort of person people feel safe with. And I couldn’t ask for anything better for you to be.

So there we go. I don’t know what our normality will look like over the next few months; I expect things will be chaotic for a while, and you’ll have to be patient with me, as you have been for the best part of a year now. I hope it counts for something that I love your company. That’s all I wanted to say: that I love your company, and I love where you are, even with all your contradictions and complexities.

(I’m also very tired.)

Here’s to our new gang of five.

Much love,

Your mother.

Another Birthday

All throughout this pregnancy, I have been waiting for the other shoe to drop.

When you want a final baby – and you conceive one – and you want a girl so deeply and painfully that you compulsively make light of it whenever anyone asks – and you get one – it starts to feel like too much of a good thing. I’ve been peering ahead for the universe to foul it up ever since.

In the end, the complications that arrived – anaemia, gestational diabetes, that restrictive carb-free diet that surely counts as cruel and unusual punishment for a pregnant woman – all sounded scarier than they were. I gave up sugar reluctantly and toast with a cry of rage, and survived the next few weeks on oatcakes and cheese. Then one of my extra scans showed a too-large measurement, and the next one was too small. And she was still stubbornly, unobligingly in the wrong position. We cut our anniversary trip short when I started having contractions, speeding from London to our local hospital at two in the morning, but after five hours bouncing hopefully on a ball in Delivery Suite, they vanished. My finger-ends were running out of needle room. So when the diabetes nurse told me they’d rather induce labour early, I almost gave her a high-five.

‘How, um, soon should I start eating normally again?’ I asked her, hoping I sounded casual.

She told me I’d be fine within a couple of days, probably. I tried to look like someone who was enjoying their twelfth oatcake of the day, and not like someone planning to dive headfirst into the nearest Krispy Kreme.

We set the date for four days’ time, the day after my birthday. Just time enough to finish all our baby errands, for Tim to spend 24 hours in Manchester for business meetings, for me to schedule a haircut and eat a birthday breakfast with some friends. Which promptly all went to pot when I woke up on my birthday with horrible, incapacitating vertigo, and had to SOS-call my mother-in-law to take me to the doctor, in yesterday’s clothes, for an anti-sickness injection IN THE BACKSIDE.

I mean, universe, there’s such a thing as overkill. A birthday backside injection? It felt personal.

Luckily, the next day I woke up still dizzy, but not ill. Tim was back. The boys were happy with their grandparents. And the Delivery Suite called us in late morning to get things rolling. Before I could say ‘pass me an oatcake’, my waters had been broken, and my perfectly wonderful midwife had put me on the hormone drip. Then we waited. And waited. I did some lunges in my sexy compression stockings, watched some Gilmore Girls, and laid down quickly when the vertigo popped back in to check on things. I was informed that I was no longer allowed to eat anything, even oatcakes. I was not sorry. I lunged some more.

Finally, at 4.30pm the contractions started up properly, and we were really in business. I knelt on the bed on hands and knees, trying to remember all the hypnobirthing mantras about surging and relaxation, but very quickly all I could do was hang onto Tim’s hand and count the eight breaths it took till each one was over. It felt so long, kneeling there. The only real things in the world were the pain and his hand and the pillow I buried my face in when the pain went away. After an hour and a half I asked for some gas and air, but since it only makes you pleasantly dizzy and I already had that covered, all it did was make me sound like I was playing a kazoo when I exhaled. This is jauntier than you really want in late-stage labour, I can tell you, but I kept doing it. It passed the time.

At last, at last (actually fifteen minutes later), I started wanting to push. My herculean midwife, who all this time had been encouraging and counting with me and generally being marvellous, told me when to push and when to stop, and I did the best I could to follow her, sobbing in the spaces between.

‘She’s coming!’ I remember her saying in the middle of it. ‘She’s already trying to cry!’

In the end, head out and shoulders refusing to follow, the midwife pulled her out during the next contraction. It was the only time I screamed, the sound torn out of the heart of me, and I heard at the same time another outraged, shivering cry. A new one. The last first newborn howl, and I gathered it and her to me on the bed, both of them to keep.

She had a head of black hair, like Teddy. She frowned up at me, her bottom lip quivering indignantly.

‘I waited so long for you’, I told her quietly. Or perhaps I just said it in my head. I wanted her to hear.

Sometimes, the universe really comes through.

Nine

Apparently we don’t take photos of just the two of us? This is the most recent I could find…

A few days into my Grand Experiment with Temporary Diabetes – which sucks, by the way, I mean no one should flirt with diabetes even a little bit because it’s scary and tedious and it really sucks – I kept on getting my breakfasts wrong. I already knew that pancakes, waffles, toast or remotely edible cereal were all out, but unsweetened porridge started to make my little sugar reader cry too. And guys, I love breakfast. It’s my favourite meal. And so I wanted to cry a little bit as well.

‘Look’, said Tim, coming in to pick up my empty porridge bowl – THE LAST PORRIDGE BOWL OF SCOTLAND, it turned out – ‘just start eating protein for breakfast instead of carbs. You’ll be full, but your blood sugar will be fine’.

‘Protein is hard!’ I snapped. ‘Who’s going to make eggs and bacon every morning?’

He rolled his eyes, and replied like it was obvious. ‘I will’.

And he has, every morning since. Frying pan, sizzling butter, plate delivered hot onto my bedside table while I’m still rolling my giant carcass off the mattress and unsticking my eyelids. I never doubted that he was that kind of man, but he is totally that kind of man.

It’s our ninth wedding anniversary today.

When we got married we were young, young enough that these days I would tsk and say ‘whoa, that’s very young’. I know that marrying in your early twenties has its risks, and it’s true that we’ve had to do a lot of our Practising Being A Healthy Relationship-Haver on each other. We have felt and stumbled our way into better patterns, bit by sometimes-painful bit. Our wedding day was all gauzy satin and red roses – a long way from the weeks when I see him only in exercise lycra with helmet dents in his forehead, or else pyjamas (hey, you own jeans! I exclaim on Saturday mornings); where we get into bed and I’m so huge that all we do is groan in unison and switch our bedside lamps off; where a Tesco Indian Meal for Two is cause for an entirely sincere midweek high-five. There’s not much glitter in our day-to-day, but it feels special to me. It feels like home.

Life with children is sublime and ridiculous; mortgages and car bills are stressful; work takes up nearly all of our time (whether that’s wrangling a small boy onto the toilet when it’s already far too late, or ploughing through tech demos at the office). We have done one university degree, four jobs, two houses, three pregnancies and two-and-three-quarter children, and that’s a lot of scenery for nine years. But he has been the fixed point in all my whirling constellations, all this time. Still the person I can’t wait to walk through the door in the evenings. Maker of our morning eggs. Recipient of my ten thousand daily text messages.

Honestly, I would not be anywhere else.

Now take a deep breath

Teddy disappears as soon as we’re through the doctor’s door. I keep half an eye on his white-blonde head, bobbing around the pharmacy shelves, while I sign the form and pick up my latest flavour of tablets (this week: iron! For extra energy and black poo!). They’ll go on the shelf with the daily aspirin, and the multivitamins, and the lucozade from the glucose tolerance test I took yesterday, though the tolerance it tested most of all was my ability to go without food for half a day without Actual Murder happening.

He has settled himself at the toy table by the time I turn around. ‘Ted’, I call across the waiting room, ‘Ted, we’re not staying today’. He looks mildly peeved, but drags himself over to me.

‘I wish we could stay at the doctor’s every day’, he tells me as we leave, little hot hand in mine.

‘Why?’ I ask, amused.

‘Because they have Star Wars plasters, and those toys’.

‘I bought you the Star Wars plasters’, I remind him. ‘You can look at them in the downstairs loo any time you like’.

I did, too. This boy has accompanied me to most of my appointments this pregnancy, and they’ve piled on more in the last few weeks. He has sat in a wide variety of waiting room chairs, swinging his legs, eating cereal bars or watching the iPad. He knows that sometimes they take away some of my blood with a pin, that we mustn’t forget either his snacks or my bottle of pee, and the whoomph-whoomph-whoomph of his almost-sister’s heartbeat. He’s never complained, but I still felt guilty enough to buy the Star Wars plasters the last time we visited. He has been actively hoping for an open wound ever since.

***

When we get home I know I’ll need to lie down sharpish, so I ask him whether he minds watching some CBeebies this morning. Of course he doesn’t. I ask him because it’s me who minds. On go the Twirlywoos, and I settle him under a blanket and open the little box of iron supplements. They’re supposed to give you terrible constipation. After some consideration, I pop an iron pill into my mouth with one hand, and a dried prune with the other. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, right?

***

She moves, and moves, and moves. I’m amazed she still has room, but I get the most astonishing(ly painful) triangular lumps poking out of my belly day and night. I am reading baby books again, listening to hypnobirthing tracks, buying sleepsuits, and have generally skipped forward mentally to the point where she’s a baby, not a five-pointed uterus star. So I sometimes wake up surprised to still be pregnant. Ted thinks – after he asked where the baby would come out and I gestured too vaguely – that she’s going to squeeze out of my feet. I haven’t corrected him. (Would that be better, or worse?)

***

In the playground, and everywhere else, all anyone asks me now is how I’m feeling, and when my due date is. Which I don’t mind, because it’s mostly all I can think about too. After one of these conversations – one of the school mums running in one direction, Henry and I hurrying back to the car in the other – he asks ‘What does the 29th March mean?’

‘Oh’, I say, ‘that’s when the baby is supposed to be born’.

‘On the 29th March?’

‘Well, thereabouts’.

He thinks. Then he says, with an air of dawning wonder, ‘So…so that means, after the 29th March, you won’t have a belly anymore, and you’ll be able to bend down, and ride your bike again?’

He’s known that the baby will come out eventually, I realise, but not that I won’t be like this forever. He thought this puffing, exhausted, snappy version of his mother was all he’d get. I think about myself a year ago, manhandling a pushchair over tree roots in a yellow jumper. I think about getting that back. I think about never having this again, this holy thing where I carry a child blindly, not knowing what they will look like or the precise pin-sharp contours of their personality, only that they have a decent set of elbows and are about to break my heart open, all over again.

I think I want to cry a little, for at least two reasons.

‘That’s right’, I tell him, firmly. ‘I’ll be able to do all that again. Just like before. Only there’ll be a baby, so it’ll be even better. Put your seatbelt on, please’.

I just catch his answering beam in the rear-view mirror, as I switch on the engine and drive off.

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