Category Archives: Parenting

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.

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.

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.

Here Comes The Big Third

Here we go then, little love: the third trimester. The final stretch.

I do wish it weren’t my beachball face doing so much of the stretching. It’s almost impossible now to take a selfie where my extra chins aren’t hogging the attention. But I am trying hard to let the weight irritation go, this time around. It’s mostly worked, which is sort of astonishing to me. I haven’t weighed myself since June, and I don’t care. I take my clothes off to get into the shower in the morning, look at this giant curve of belly in the mirror, and think it looks rather lovely, actually. I mean, I really think that. I can’t say enough how foreign that is to me.

I can still walk, as long as I waddle straight into the embrace of a groinular hot water bottle afterwards (2sexy2handle). I am mostly remembering to take my medication. At night I groan and hurt and throw Gaviscon tablets into my mouth with desperate abandon, and she kicks a lot. So I don’t sleep much, but HA, sucker, that ain’t getting better any time soon.

I am anxious, though. Not about labour, newborns or having enough love to go around – we’ve done all that before, and odds are that it’ll be alright again. I just lie awake at night, for hours, imagining catastrophes. In the first trimester I once found myself (in a secret and ashamed way) wishing I were feeling horrible for someone more tangible – you’d go through just about anything for your children, wouldn’t you? The ones you can see and touch, the ones you love so much it hurts? It’s not so easy to suffer for someone who’s only just managed to move from blastocyst to embryo. I don’t know if that makes sense at all. These are the things you find yourself thinking when you’ve narrowly avoided a deep-dive vomit into your handbag in a public place.

Now I have the opposite problem: she feels like a person to me already. We decided to have a third because we felt like there was someone missing – now it feels like there’s a space shaped like her, waiting for her to step into it. I am in, all the way. I am so excited, which means I have lots to lose. My brain likes to remind me of it at 11.30pm.

But I am getting ready. Do you hear me, love? I am trying to be ready: for a last labour, a last first newborn cry, a last whirl through breastfeeding and weaning and sleep schedules. There’s a lot for me to get wrong, but her brothers will be able to tell her plenty about that. Barbara Kingsolver wrote something about last babies that made me sob the first time I read it, long before I had any of my own, and I think about it often now:

‘the baby who trails her scent like a flag of surrender through your life when there will be no more coming after…

She’s the one you can’t put down’.

It seems like a good plan, and I’m sticking to it.

2016: the things underneath

I know, I think this might be the latest I’ve ever posted one of these. And I was just going to leave it – it feels irrelevant to relive 2016 halfway through January, not to say depressing – but I was surprised: it cheered me right up. Looking through all our photos, remembering the small, lovely things that happened in-between and underneath and despite the cataclysmic world events. Perhaps there’s something to be salvaged there, after all.

Anyway, here’s a map of 2016 in photos, tweets about bodily functions, and interesting things to read. Feels like it was made for your next long bathroom break, so hey: take fifteen minutes on me behind a locked door, while your children yell for status updates on your evacuations.

The January where we had literally no idea what was coming

An American broccoli and cheese soup recipe.
Frozen broccoli – ok
Cornstarch – um
1 loaf processed cheese food GET OUT GET OUT GET IN THE SEA

***

I know I should turn my nose up at chicken dippers, but I can’t ever truly disapprove of apostrophe-shaped food.

I read and loved:

This TOTALLY CONVINCING take-down of why Aragorn had no right to the throne of Gondor.

And I wrote: 

An impassioned defence of Always Taking The Damn Nap, Yes Always.

 

The February Heath Ledger and I Were Not The Same

Hey casual acquaintances! Just to say all my weirdness stems from my laser-focussed and obsessive attempts to seem less weird.

***

Sometimes I think that Heath Ledger dancing to Golden Years in A Knight’s Tale is one of the most exquisite moments in our human history.

(It is, though.)

I read and loved: 

This convincing explanation for why Harry Potter in Book Five is the absolute worst.

A gorgeous thing about To Kill a Mockingbird and our inner Scout Finches.

And I wrote: 

Something about David Bowie, and hawks, and dancing with toddlers (this is my favourite thing I wrote all year. Peaked early).

A controversial (as it turned out) article about how all two-year-olds are irrational tyrants, and we should definitely stop saying they aren’t.

 

The March We Survived A Transatlantic Flight With Small Children

2YO: I want a snack

Me: what kind? You’re already eating porridge

2YO: a…a green snack

Me: be more specific

2YO: I waaaant…porridge

***

I remember being a kid and consciously deciding that Belle ate the Be Our Guest food off-screen, because otherwise the waste was too annoying.

I read and loved:

Hilary Mantel (argh!) on Henry VIII’s bearded, Queen-stealing best friend (argh!).

This thing that basically confirmed my suspicion that Ben Affleck is a forever dirtbag.

And I wrote:

About Harry Potter and my teenaged life (terrible photos aplenty).

This piece for Selfish Mother about what happens once you’re out of the newlywed unicorn phase.

 

The April We Saw Lots of Beautiful America (Before, You Know, All That)

2YO, gagging gently, w. soap dispenser: urgh, soap

Me: did you put soap in your mouth?

2YO: yep

Me: why?!

4YO, wearily: it looks like syrup

***

Ate my 1st avocado-on-toast, so now I go to Instagram Heaven where all surfaces are white & food comes with hydrangea heads at a polite distance.

I read and loved:

This fascinating long-read about a woman with no long-term memory.

A gorgeous tribute to the late, great Victoria Wood.

And I wrote:

A piece about the most reliably thorny question in our marriage: who’s doing all the work?

 

The May It Was Actually Warm, No, I’m Being Serious, Take Your Coat Off

Getting a bit of Stockholm syndrome with this Eurovision presenter: he’s got more attractive the more HOURS this has gone on.

***

Went for my first run in about six months today, and this evening my legs are like ‘can u not’.

I read and loved: 

This invaluable collection of beauty recommendations for all age groups, by Sali Hughes (whom I love).

And I wrote: 

An article about body acceptance and shame.

An ode to babies-no-longer-babies.

And a Selfish Mother piece I had to screw up all my courage for, about gender-flipping periods.

 

The June We Spent Mostly Outside, Trying To Ignore That Other News Thing

I am making lists and 2YO is in the garden.

Me: you alright out there?

2YO. Yes! Do some work, OK?

Me: …ok.

***

Boy sneezes deliberately on the back of brother’s neck: a new low in sibling warfare.

I read and loved:

If Barack Obama Were Your Dad (gave myself whiplash clicking on this too fast).

The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’ Wife, a juicy saga about academic detective work, history and fraud.

And I wrote: 

A bit of hope for the toddler mothers: it’s going to get better.

A piece for TalkMum about keeping your hobbies and self intact after children arrive.

 

The July Outlander Finally Went Too Far

The fact that Claire would eat a Hershey bar after growing up in England is the most unbelievable thing in the Outlander book series so far.

***

Ten minutes into the car journey, I am now convinced that the thing on my rear wiper is a decent chunk of brown bread. #parenting

I read and loved:

This unbelievably cheering profile of a man who was stabbed on the Tube, and bounced back like a legend (I’m being flippant because I can’t do justice to it in a sentence: go read).

‘I Will Bear Witness, Though Heavy Laden’ (sob).

And I wrote: 

T’s three-year-old birthday letter.

A teary goodbye to H’s first year at school.

 

The August With All The Secret Cheese Crackers and Crying

The thing I have learned is you shouldn’t start using any phrase ironically bc your brain is like ‘cool, incorporating into vocab forever’. I am now a person who says ‘100%’ when I mean ‘definitely, absolutely’, so I am only fit for The Apprentice and quiet shame.

***

Sat here in an empty house wincing, aloud, over gingerbread avalanches. What a time to be alive. #GBBO

I read and loved:

What came next after Bones inexplicably reversed death and never mentioned it again in that Star Trek film (BEST. BEST.)

A hilarious look through a seventies Happy Bride cookbook.

And I wrote: 

H’s five-year-old birthday letter.

An angry post about token girls and token helicopters in kids’ TV.

 

The September of School, and Nursery, and Babies

Parental maths: if I did breakfast yesterday and last Sunday but @mrjeffcoat got up with 3YO in the night, who does breakfast today? Show your working.

***

I just accidentally sat on a big blob of breakfast porridge and for a moment thought I’d managed to poop my pants by osmosis #miracle

I read and loved: 

I am sorry about both of these, but I weep with laughter every time: this calculation of the exact amount of banter in that photo of the Eton boys meeting Vladimir Putin (remember that?); also, this weird and wonderful thing about the fox on Splash Mountain coming disturbingly to life.

The power of internet friendships, by the founders of The Toast (I love them both, and this is beautiful).

And I wrote: 

An honest appraisal of the first trimester, third time around (spoiler: it sucks).

A piece for TalkMum about five things you shouldn’t worry about when your baby starts school.

 

The October Facebook Sassed Back

Since I shut down my Facebook newsfeed (<3) I get this message there instead: ‘You’d have more items if you added more friends’. Pure sass.

***

Me: it’s wet. Let’s just walk in our woods and then fetch something to bake.

5YO: or! We could play here in the warm and then have a calm lunch.

I read and loved: 

This lovely bittersweet article about tracking our different lives on Google Maps.

I will read anything that trashes ‘clean eating’ for the dangerous nonsense it is: this is sensible and good.

And I wrote: 

When is a roast chicken not a roast chicken? When it’s this.

 

The November We Won’t Talk About Except In Trivialities Like The Below

Marriage is two consecutive text messages: one recording in loving detail the consistency of our child’s vomit, the next, filthy innuendo.

***

Me: [sigh] 5YO, just let him do what he wants  

This is the youngest-child-rearing policy I never meant to have, yet somehow do have at 5.30pm

I read and loved:

How a Kashmiri mother’s cooking bound her to her daughter.

Behind the scenes of a full-time carer in Anne of Green Gables – one of the best things I read all year, this.

And I wrote:

This about why it’s important to be a bit of a rubbish parent sometimes.

 

The December We Stayed Home For Christmas And Now We’ll Never Do Anything Else

5YO: so then you tie our laces together

Me: right. Why?

5YO: for the game

Me: I want you to know I’m doing this against my better judgement

***

Does it hurt?’

‘I’ve got other stuff that hurts more’

‘Like what?’ 

‘Things from my past’ <-the point where I decided this book was Not Good

I read and loved: 

Something we desperately needed by this point: eight ordinary heroes from 2016

And this very heartfelt, touching letter to the midwife who blew in with the snow

And I wrote: 

An installment of Notes from the Trenches with, could it be, a little less excrement than usual?

Maybe the small things in this year will turn out to be unexpectedly cheering too? Here’s hoping.

Notes from the Trenches: 9

Instagram looks like this. My text messages do not.

One of my favourite things about these Notes from the Trenches posts – aside from the fact that I think a good bit of unfiltered honesty makes all of us feel a little less insane – is that when I look through my last six months of frantic text messages, I can see how much we’ve changed. Every half-year seems to come with its own theme, and it’s rarely the same as the last one. Does this mean there will come a day where I’m not texting Tim about unbridled public faeces disasters? Oh, I live in hope.

This last six months I have mostly learned: that my tolerance for three-year-old tantrums or five-year-old stubbornness when combined with pregnancy is at the sort of miniscule level not much higher than, um, zero. And that our pitched battles over the heating will last until one of us dies (then I will keep turning it up from beyond the grave, cackling).

Look, see: your normal is normal too.

 

24 June

[It’s the day of the Brexit referendum result: I have cried all morning, and run off to the woods to avoid humanity. Then this.]
A good day all round. T also got dipped in. The bike fell over with him in it.

 

16 July

Danger of taking boys to Sports Day:

‘Look, that fat man in the grey is going to lose’.

‘SHE’S really slow. Go faster lady!’




8 August

H: I don’t want a bath today.

Me: you have to, you’re dirty

[disappears for fifteen minutes; reappears naked]

H: Mummy, I accidentally wiped myself all over with wipes so now I’m clean.

(Accidentally?)

 

31 August

How was your day? IKEA go ok?

I think you mean ‘your-KEA’, according to T.

 

9 September

‘No, it’s not screen time. That’s later.’

‘AH. I  GONNA PUNCH EVERYSING.’

(5 mins later)

‘Mummy, come hang out wiz me while I poo’.

Emotional hurricane.

 

5 October

Another poo in pants morning – in Holland and Barrett, no spare pants, toilets a 10-min walk away [horror face].

We managed to get there and I remembered I’d just bought some face wipes. So he got cleaned up with tea tree oil (!) and went pantsless (and, presumably, slightly stinging) to the car. Unpleasant.

 

6 October

YES HEATING NAZI IT WAS TIME

 – Retribution: 

Right, just for that I’m stapling the spare duvet to ours so that you overheat to death at night.

 

22nd October

[On the way home from a funeral]

Right, done and dusted. 

WHOA, sorry, unfortunate idiom to use on the way to the crematorium! Pretend I didn’t say that. 

 

25th October

We got out after all (they played nicely for an hour then tried to kill each other with colanders. Fresh air it was).

 

2nd November

T has caught our putrid throat. He kept waking up and crying, and wasn’t awake enough to tell me why (in the end his coughing tipped me off). Eventually he woke up more and I said ‘T, what’s the matter?’ He screwed up his little red face and croaked ‘Things…just DON’T GO WIGHT’. How existential.

 

6 November

I’m getting an early night.

[40 mins later]

THE CROWN IS SO GOOD I AM CRYING

– Thought you were getting an early night? 🙂

I only watched one. I’m about to turn in and feel sad about George VI’s lung cancer and excellent kingmanship.

 

9 November

PS, I solved the mystery of the magic decreasing heating.

 

11 November

I forgot to tell you: that thing that has been inevitable since September happened yesterday, when I apparently sent T to nursery wearing one of his shoes and one of H’s.

 

15 November

Exiting Tesco.

Pull up next to the car and notice a weird white stain on the door. Where did that come from, I think. I lick my finger and see if it comes off. No joy. I click the unlock button and nothing happens.

THEN I REALISE IT’S AN IDENTICAL MAZDA TWO SPACES AWAY FROM MY CAR, TO WHICH I JUST APPLIED MY SPITTLE.

 

17 November

Phantom Menace, and T sees Jar Jar Binks.

‘Um, is he a dinosaur? Or a frog?’

Unfortunately I haven’t got a clue what’s going on so I can’t answer their m a n y questions.

– Simple – he’s an alien!

Oh, well I knew that one. It’s my ‘someone’s attacking that planet for some reasons and these magic Jedis are involved because more reasons’ bits that are lacking somewhat.

 

20 November

T’s poo arrived. In two parts. In his pyjamas.

I only saw/evacuated one part, and stepped backwards onto the large, squishy other.

Thank you, washable bath mats.

 

26 November

Do I Need The Loo Or Am I Being Kicked In The Anus From The Inside: The Pregnancy Story

 

2nd December

THIS IS THE WORST ONE BY FAR:

T: where’s your special willy?

Me: my what

T: your special willy

Me: it’s called a vagina, remember?

T: [puts head down on my lap] I can’t hear it

Me: yeah, no, they don’t sing or anything

T: they don’t?!

– You guys talk too much about private parts…

If he asks, I have to tell him the truth! Even though it makes me do a full-body cringe. 

 

7th December

I just want you to know I came thiiiis close to McDonald’s this lunchtime, but heroically refrained.

– Lunch? It’s only 11.30am!

Yeah, that’s when we have lunch. I’m hungry all the time; it makes no odds to me.

 

17th December

Nice relaxing bath (eyeroll).

Yes, they’re both sat on a stool right next to me, having carefully moved my phone and book somewhere else, and are telling me about their favourite Pokemon/poking my giant belly. Just sign me up for a Lush advert, eh?

Previous Notes from the Trenches are here. I’ve been sending screechy pixels through the air since H was tiny. Well, you have to. Why should Tim miss out on all the fun? 

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