Plant-Based Parents

It was a trip to a farm that made us turn to veganism.

It’s a nice enough place, where the animals look happy and there’s lots for young kids to do. My two enjoyed exploring the play areas and eating chocolate in the café afterwards, and we even saw newborn piglets pressed against their mother in a warm, pink bundle. It was a perfect day out, or at least it should have been. I wanted it to be. It was Mother’s Day, after all.

But just before we left I came face to face with the absurdity of it all.

There I was in the farm shop of this lovely local attraction, having just cooed over tiny piglets and frolicking lambs. The farm shop, with its artisan breads and craft ales, handpainted teapots and homemade fudge. Chutneys and jams. Bird tables, windmills, cherry bakewells, toy animals, chocolate eggs, pork chops, smoked bacon, ribs, chicken breast, steaks, ox tongue, liver, sausages, cheeks, tails, necks – the purple flesh of the animals I’d just spent the last few hours showing to my sons.

It didn’t repulse me and I didn’t rush home to cleanse myself of the blood of the innocent. I just felt sort of… uncomfortable. The whole thing seemed off.

On the journey home we talked about the weird feeling we had. We’d had plenty of conversations about giving up meat before and how it was something we knew we should embrace, but our resolve had always guiltily fizzled out, and truthfully I thought it would then too. Except something pushed me further that day. For the first time ever I didn’t fight the tide and instead allowed it all in. I watched documentaries, I read article after article and let the guilt swamp me. It was all part of the process of opening myself up and witnessing the hypocrisy, deception and cruelty inherent in the nameless system I’d grown up accepting as normal.

And so it grew. We started off committing to giving up meat, but within two days of vegetarianism we realised we couldn’t justify the consumption of eggs or dairy either. And since then we haven’t eaten a single animal-derived ingredient.

I could go into details about the treatment of farmed animals and the brutality of the dairy industry, but this isn’t a post intended to convert anyone to veganism. It’s not about what happened or how we came to change how we eat or live; it’s about the change that followed, the one that came from within us and spilled out into our everyday lives.

Because it turns out eschewing all animal products and living as gently as we can in a modern world designed to commodify everything in it can bring contentment, joy and happiness in a way I didn’t expect. I thought I was signing up to a life of sacrifice and compromise, but I ended up gaining an inner tranquility I didn’t know I was lacking.

It’s not some transcendental BS. I don’t start my mornings singing to the wildlife with a perfect plump bluebird on my shoulder like a Disney princess, but it’s unfair to the change I’ve made to deny that I am happier and more fulfilled for making compassion part of the food I eat, the clothes I wear and the cosmetics I use. My heart is lighter and I’m more freely able to enjoy the natural world and the animals with whom we share the planet. I’ve rediscovered my passion for cooking and creating, which has helped my fragile-at-best self-esteem. I’m healthier! And most unexpectedly, I feel closer to my husband than ever before; we’ve held each other up when it’s felt easier to throw in the towel, reminded each other why we’re doing this, shared passion, pain and anger at what we see as the injustice around us, and we understand the other’s guilt at having been a part of it for so long.

I’m not vegan for my health. I care about animals and the environment, but that’s not my true motivator either. I’m vegan because I want to teach my children that compassion doesn’t end where convenience begins. I want to show them a world where fairness is extended to all living beings. I want them to understand that all life matters and that kindness feeds the soul more than any meal in our privileged bubble ever could. I want to teach them humility and the preciousness of our time on this earth. I want them to learn that the smallest changes can make the greatest difference, to their lives and their fellow earthlings’.

And I want them to know – in the future, when plant-based lifestyles are necessary for the survival of the planet – that their parents were on the right side of history. Their side. Because it’s their world that we’re trying to save.

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Astronomy

Much of my life I dreamed of meeting ‘my’ child,
gazing into a tiny face and seeing a version of myself made new,
mistakes undone, innocence restored.
But a life isn’t a second chance
and it’s only a blank canvas for an artist not yet bloomed.
It’s a fallacy that the children we raise are ‘ours’;
They belong to us no more than the stars in the sky,
and like stars we can love and cherish them
– we can even cry for them –
but to think we can own them is to think
a grain of sand can own the earth.
Perhaps it is the other way round and
we are beholden to the stars,
and what we mask with ownership
is in fact gratitude that they shine on us,
and fear because we so rarely
feel worthy of them.

Life has been ticking by nicely for us. The days get easier as both boys grow, and I frequently feel guilty for that, as though I’m inadvertently wishing the time away just by appreciating the changes. Guilt is my biggest struggle, I think.

When Tristan was the same age as Leo, I wondered whether I’d allowed his babyhood to pass me by while I fretted about developmental milestones and parenting by the book (whatever book that was). It all happened so fast that I didn’t have time to take in every scent of it. I promised myself it’d be different the second time round, and with no post-natal depression I initially thought I was in with a good chance.
But the first time wasn’t a fluke. It really does disappear that quickly, and now that I know for sure, I feel more at peace with it. And perhaps that’s why I’m content to stop at two children. The baby months still flew out of my fingers like confetti but I know I lived them and enjoyed them with every part of me.
And at least this confetti will stay on the wind for as long as I remember it.

Where I am now is in between my life with babies and my life with two little boys who will become two young men. With me is my best friend and husband, and we’re changing together too. I hardly recognise us from even just a year ago, and it’s a wonderful change.

And I’m different too. I can feel it deep down, a stoicism and determination to get started on the next chapter. I think that’s why I haven’t written much; I don’t know where I’m going! I’ve had my children, the only goal I’ve ever really had – maybe it’s time to ask myself where my next step will be.

Too Fast

Last month we celebrated Leo’s first birthday, and for the first time since I’ve been writing this blog I didn’t post here to mark it.

I could explain it away by saying we’ve been busy (true), happy (very true) and that I’ve been focusing on being present with my family instead of letting my brain go on holiday to creative, rewarding but very distant places. (Creativity is a wonderful thing, but too much and I start to drift and find myself daydreaming about amigurumi I don’t have time for, poetry I won’t write, and chord changes I’ll never play, and forgetting there’s a world outside our four walls.)

But the truth is I haven’t been able to confront my youngest son’s departure from babyhood. Writing about it would mean facing it and I haven’t been brave enough to do that.

Because we won’t be having any more children.

(That’s the first time I’ve committed it to writing.)

Leo’s birthday wasn’t just the anniversary of his arrival, it was a door we walked through, with our past making squishy babies on one side, and our future raising two strong, kind boys on the other. No more morning sickness, no more scans, no more lists of potential names. No more tiny newborn clothes. No more first cries, first cuddles, first baths. No more sons; never a daughter. No more tiny wrinkly fists wrapped round my finger.

It’s the right thing. It is.

Only I never fully realised how quickly the time would pass, and how short the baby years truly are. I dreamed of parenthood every day up until I held my firstborn in my arms, and that dream consisted mainly of the babies I’d press to my chest and soothe, of breathing in their milky newness. I only ever wanted to be a mother, to feel that moment of overwhelming love and know I’d give anything for the tiny person I’d created. Now all that I dreamed of for 28 years is over, and it didn’t last long enough. I never knew.

But of course it isn’t really over. I wake up every day and I’m still a mother, and I still spend my days kissing, soothing, feeding, loving. I just understand better how fast the rest will disappear too. And it’s absolutely terrifying.

Terrifying and exciting, and so very very precious. I have so much to look forward to, and a greater appreciation for it because I know that sooner than I can imagine I’ll be older, greyer, and a proud mum to two beautiful young men.

I’ll be overjoyed to meet them – but I can definitely wait, as long as I can make it last.

Meanwhile, to my youngest son, my little lion –

The first year of your life was one of the hardest of mine, but also the most rewarding and bright. You make everything around you shine. I see so much of myself in you but also a fire and mischief of your own. I’m your favourite person in the world, and I promise never to take that wonderful gift for granted as long as I have it. Thank you for making my heart whole and completing our family, and bringing so much laughter to our home. I love you more than you could ever know – it’s not your job to, you just carry on being you. Keep smiling and keep shining (but try not to pull your brother’s hair). Here’s to another year of you, beautiful boy. ❤

How To Talk About Not Talking

I wrote in December about Little T and his language delay. Since then there have been some big changes – he started going to nursery two mornings a week and seeing a speech therapist on a regular basis. He’s had no problems settling at nursery and his therapist is amazing (I can only admire a woman who walks into my home, takes one glance at me with my hair unwashed and snot pouring from my face and says without hesitation, “You look awful.” My kind of person tbh).

One crucial thing hasn’t changed though; he still doesn’t really talk. I mean, there’s been some improvement and it’s been awesome to see, but with every month that passes the developmental gap between him and his peers grows and grows. And since he turned 3 he’s passed through an invisible threshold and is now considered to have special educational needs (SEN). In some ways that’s been a positive thing for us because we don’t feel so much like he needs to magically up his game in time to avoid the SEN label (why that was a worry for us I have no idea), but in others… Well, labels. And “advice”. SO MUCH ADVICE.

So on that note, here’s my (very personal) guide of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ when it comes to my non-speaking child –

  1. Don’t say “Have you tried reading to him?” (or “You could use flash cards!”or “Just don’t give him what he wants until he asks properly!” etc) Honestly, I’m not a horrible person. I know that when you say this you’re trying to offer help and support and you have no idea how so you just come out with the most benign suggestion you can muster. I really do understand the mindset of wanting to offer solutions, believe me I do. But these aren’t solutions. At best they’re conversational filler, at worst they’re downright hurtful. And given that he has a speech therapist, it’s likely we’re already exploring different approaches. And for the record, we’ve been explicitly instructed never to withhold things from him until he asks. So suck on that.
  2.  Do listen. The uncertainty, doubt, guilt and worry is hard work, especially alongside the day-to-day drudgery and stress of maintaining a marriage, parenting two kids, paying bills and stopping the house falling down, so it’s sometimes nice to be able to say, “This is shit,” to a trusted friend or family member and have them pat me on the head and feed me cake without trying to fix my son or change my feelings. I love my beautiful boy with all my heart and I have 100% got this, but it’s not always easy and it’s great to let my guard down around the people I care about.
  3. Don’t tell me he could be autistic. I’ve got news for you – I know! It’s a very real possibility and not one we’re frightened of. But at this point in time we’re not pursuing an assessment for him. Just because my son has delayed speech it doesn’t mean he owes the world anything. He doesn’t owe the world an answer, and that would be the only reason for us to seek a diagnosis. And yes, the answer could be that he’s autistic. But it could also not. We may find out definitively one day, but while he’s happy and there are no other “problems” with his development we want him to enjoy being a young child with as little scrutiny as possible. That’s our choice and it’s the right one for him. Remember, we’ve got this! 🙂
  4. Do speak to him. His hearing is fine, and while he often doesn’t appear to be listening, I promise he is. And it’s okay to ask him questions, just don’t expect an (obvious) answer then let the “conversation” dry up because you don’t know where to go next. Observe him, talk about what he’s doing, engage in his play. With a child like Tristan you need to get inside his world. Sit on the floor with him, pick up a toy, connect with the child inside yourself and go on wonderful imaginative adventures with my son. He may not talk but he isn’t quiet and his universe is bright, bold and colourful. I promise you it’s worth finding it.
  5. Don’t assume he’s unintelligent. No he doesn’t talk much yet, but try to remember that in all other ways he’s just like any other 3 year old. He loves Pixar movies, being outside, climbing things, small world play and splashing in puddles. He found a ladybird at nursery a few weeks ago and proudly showed everyone. He’s learning to share. He has tantrums. He likes chicken nuggets and chocolate. He loves novelty and trying new things. I don’t really know how smart he is, but it doesn’t matter! Don’t make assumptions either way. Just enjoy him and take him as he is.
  6. Do ask questions. After everything I’ve written above it might seem like it’s a bit of minefield and it’s best to keep quiet and ignore the speech delayed elephant in the room but that elephant is my son and perhaps surprisingly, his development isn’t something I’m ashamed of. I love talking about my kids, and nothing makes me love a person more than when they embrace the subject of T’s speech and ask about it meaningfully and rationally. It’s perfectly reasonable to ask about his hearing or what our plans for his education are should his communication not change much by the time he reaches compulsory school age. Ask away. Just don’t be a dick (see #1).
  7. Don’t tell me about Susan’s nephew’s goddaughter who didn’t speak til she was 5. Truthbomb time – I don’t care. And I know about Einstein. And Mark Rylance. It’s not that these examples don’t make me feel better in the moment – they do. But I want to let go of the need for Tristan to meet certain expectations of ‘normal’. He didn’t meet the goal of talking by 3 so now people try to helpfully move the goalposts for him. Einstein means he has til he’s 4! Mark Rylance didn’t talk until he was 6! The point is that I don’t want goalposts for Tristan at all. What happens if he reaches 5 years old and still isn’t talking, what then? Will he have failed at normality? Why does it even matter? That’s what I’m trying to let go of. He probably will talk one day and catch up with peers, but he may not. Changing goalposts isn’t helping to embrace him as he is now or as he could possibly be in the future, it’s just another arbitrary mark to potentially miss.
  8. Do tell us we’re doing a good job. Okay, so this is more than a little vain, but as I said above this isn’t always an easy journey. I have blamed myself most days for not doing enough to help my son communicate, resented Leo because he gets in the way of me interacting with Tristan, and sometimes had to make do with five minutes of reading at bedtime as quality time with my eldest. It’s crap and I beat myself up for it every day. So if you have a compliment spare, send it my way. My mummy guilt needs it.

There you have it. In short, love me and my son, and don’t be an arsehole. 🙂

The Hardest Thing

I was lost for a while.

I didn’t realise it at first, through every nappy change, every bowl of pasta tipped on the floor, every reading of Tabby McTat. Every chunk of hair yanked out by chubby fingers. And the scarier stuff, like all the early mornings soothing my tired and anxious husband as he wrestled with fears bigger than himself, all the late nights talking about our relationship, picking us up and hoping he didn’t drop us again. Toddler tantrums, baby grumbles, mummy meltdowns. Daddy on the other side of the universe (or so it felt).

Pick up, dust off, get on.

I got lost under the waves that were rocking my family. I tried to hold us together, and I’m proud to say that I did. But it came at a cost. And that cost was me.

Not even my self worth, or my free time; just me, the grasp I had on who I was without the other people around me. Like looking in the mirror and seeing their faces but never mine.

I don’t regret a thing. I carried us all and we made it through.

But I stopped being a person in my own right. I was only mother, wife, counsellor, mediator, therapist, personal shopper, accountant, chef, life coach, cleaner, nurse, teacher. It’s sometimes hard when you’re buried underneath so much responsibility to even notice that you’re struggling to breathe.

So I started to break a little. Bit by bit the burdens grew heavier and I was less able to hold them. My self esteem plummeted with every new ‘failure’. I apologised when I was ill, when dinner was late, when I slept in. Guilt was my shadow. I criticised myself for wanting time alone or checking my phone when I should’ve been playing with my kids. I tortured myself for causing my son’s speech delay. I went from solving our problems to blaming myself for them.

I realised it had gone too far when I spent the days before Christmas focusing on everything I’d done “wrong” and apologising to my family for not being good enough for them. I was too busy hating myself for not being the wife and mother I should be to actually enjoy my beautiful boys. Christmas, a time I look forward to all year and always fills me with magic and warmth, was lost to me. I was lost to me.

So I began the new year with a resolve to find myself again. So far that looks like apologising less, keeping a happiness journal, watching movies alone, listening to music that made me feel alive when I was a moody teenager in bad eyeliner and baggy jeans, crocheting more, sometimes saying no and often saying yes. And it’s working, albeit slowly. I can feel the change in how much enjoyment I’m taking from my sons and how much clarity I feel with my husband. I’m getting there.

When I was pregnant with Tristan someone warned me that the hardest thing I’d have to do as a parent is put myself last, but they were wrong; far harder is having the strength to stand tall and put myself first.

When You Speak

My darling boy,

In a few weeks it will be three years since I first saw your scrunched up face and your serious eyes. Three years since you grasped my heart in your tight little fist and changed it forever. We’ve been through so much together already, it’s hard to believe you’re only three years old. How have you not been here always?

You amaze me daily. You are so kind and quirky, imaginative and playful. When I’m sad you always come to me and gently stroke my arm until I look up and smile. You are cuddly and sweet. You love pesto and play-doh – you’ve been known to eat and play with both. Your favourite film is Monsters University, your favourite book is your pop-up version of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and your favourite place is the woods, or maybe the pond with all the ducks and pigeons. You still wake most nights but your face lights up when you see us next to you in the morning and it makes the disrupted nights completely worth it. You are headstrong, stubborn and frustrating; you do things your own way, but you rarely tantrum. I’ve seen you hurt and angry but able to pick yourself up and move on happily. You eat grapes by the tonne. Your best friend is the cat and thankfully it’s more than mutual. You are adaptable, excited about everything, gentle and rambunctious in equal measure. You are every season rolled into one.

But I don’t know what your favourite colour is, whether it’s constant or changes every day. I don’t know what you dream about. I don’t know whether you know you’re starting nursery next month, even though I’ve tried to talk to you about it. I don’t know what adventures your toys are on when they’re jumping round on the table and diving off the sofa. I don’t know where you want to go on your birthday. I sometimes don’t know what you want when you whine and look up at me pleadingly.

You have a speech delay and there is so much I don’t know.

I don’t know why you don’t really talk. I don’t know if it’s something we have or haven’t done (you’ve certainly had less one-on-one time with us since Leo arrived). I don’t know if you have a developmental disorder, or a hearing problem. I don’t know if you’re just taking your time and you’ll suddenly start speaking in full, grammatically correct sentences and reading the Financial Times over breakfast.

But the whys don’t really matter. I don’t want you to be anyone other than who you are, and who you are right now doesn’t talk. I want you to know that’s okay.

I just wish I knew whether the decisions I’m making are the right ones for you. I wish you could communicate to me somehow that, yes Mummy, keep going, this is what I need.

Because I’m clueless.

And yes, I wish I could hear you tell me you love me. Heck, I’d settle for you saying my name more often. And I admit I’m jealous of all those parents of children the same age as you sharing their stories of the latest funny thing their little one said.

But please understand I’m not jealous because I’m disappointed in you, or in any way ashamed. You are perfect to me. I would never ever change you, not for anything in the world.

I’m jealous because of all those I don’t knows. I want to hear your thoughts because I want to know you better and drink in all of you before time changes you, as it’s meant to do.

Like how sometimes you hug Toru and squeeze too hard because you want to love as much of him as you can, but then he swishes his tail and jumps up so you can’t reach him anymore? You feel sad that he moves away but you’re not angry with him, you just want to keep loving him, don’t you? Mummy feels a bit like that when you don’t talk.

But it’s really okay. You can keep swishing your tail as much as you want, my sweet boy. Keep on being you, keep on conquering the world, keep on laughing at random dogs in the park, keep on dancing to the music you sing to yourself, keep on shining with that beautiful smile of yours. You are doing just fine.

And I promise you that when you speak, I will listen.

tristanmyheart

It Never Stops

The spilled drinks.
Cheese puffs scattered on the floor like toddler confetti.
The bumped heads, stubbed toes and unidentifiable rashes.
The calls to NHS Direct and the inevitable, “You’d best go to A&E just to be sure…”
Then  – “Did they think I was wasting their time?”
The nappy changes, clothes changes, channel changes.
The sticky fingers, sweaty hair, and toenails that desperately need trimming before he learns to catch small rodents with his feet.
(What will people think?)

It’s constant.

The crying, the whining, the wailing as though some great injustice is being dealt even though I’m doing exactly what I thought he wanted.
The repetition, the tedium, the repetition.
The wooden cars driven up my legs, the tiny giraffe in my hair, the hands everywhere.
On me ALL THE TIME.
Bathe, rinse, repeat.
(Except don’t rinse because he hates water in his face.
And never repeat.
Unless you’re a toddler, in which case repeat everything forever.)

The mess. Everywhere. Walls, floors, faces.
The incomparable pain of standing on a lego brick.

(No, wait – standing on a metal biplane is worse.)

Coffee, cake, chocolate.
Must eat better. Could join the gym.

Maybe next month.
I need the comfort and calories after another aborted day out.
I’m sure he liked farm animals last week?

The noise! Shouting, screaming, banging, burping, scraping, throwing.
All when the other is trying to sleep.
Do they do it deliberately?
Why are they doing this to me?

The snapping, the yelling.

The apologising.

This isn’t the mother I want to be.
I’m not equal to this.

The fear.
The guilt.
The worry.

It never ends.

I can’t do this.

Each day the same.
Alarm. Breakfast.
Coffee, cake, chocolate.
The same TV shows (we sing the theme tunes together).
The jigsaws, the play-doh, the painting.
The reading, pretending, bouncing.
Splashing!

Did I mention the singing?

The kisses, the stickers, the Gruffalos and Zogs.
The towers, the tickles, the dancing!
The beaming grins that make hearts skip and wrinkles deepen.
All of us together, the only people in the world.
Feelings so big there isn’t enough space in the universe to hold them.

The glances to the only other person who understands what these moments mean.
And the quiet smiles that say, “I know, I feel the same.”

The mess, the noise, the laughter!
The sticky hands everywhere, on me – don’t care!
We’re tigers today, growling and chasing.
My cubs are loud and I am too.

They’re growing so fast.
I’m running to keep up.

Stamping through leaves, feeding ducks, counting raindrops.
Holding hands. Hugging.
Loving, learning.
Exploring.

Changing.

It never stops.