We’re a house of snuffles, sticky cuddles and pathetic coughs, and we’re not sure where the illness ends and the sleep deprivation begins. Having a toddler with a cold is like having a newborn again except the cries for milk at 3am are joined by shouted accusations and fists to the eye, as though we did this to him ourselves and even if we didn’t why haven’t we made it better yet ffs. Oh, and I just wiped my nose on a muslin cloth that I forgot contains my son’s regurgitated breakfast. Oh, motherhood how I adore thee!
I’ve found that Little T’s second year is so far being punctuated by tiny anniversaries. It seems like every day I’m thinking, “A year ago we were…” or, “A year ago he was…” You might think it’s nostalgic to the point of being harmful to live like that, but I find it’s more a way of gauging time and progress, a bit like looking back at the starting blocks in the race, an ‘I was there but now I’m here’ sort of thing.
A year ago I was in a dark place. I didn’t like myself or my life and I wasn’t bonded to my son the way I felt I should be.
It was also around this time that I became obsessed with my baby’s appearance.
Little T was born with a light dusting of brown hair, the soft newborn kind that you can barely feel when you stroke it. I kissed that hair and inhaled its newness whenever I held my squish in my arms. It was beautiful and precious and I memorized every strand during those hard, early sleepless nights.
And then it started to fall out.
I remember Big T coming downstairs having just given LT a bath and handing him to me, a six week old bundle wrapped in a towel. I noticed immediately that he was almost completely bald on top, like a tiny Iain Duncan Smith – BT had washed his hair away. I was mortified, but we laughed about it because of course it’s funny when your newborn son resembles a Tory politician. It’s natural and it happens, after all.
A few weeks passed and before long new hair started to grow.
Around that time, and totally coincidentally, I hit my lowest point. I felt as detached from my life and loved ones as I’d ever felt. I dreaded each second T was awake but hovered over his every breath while he slept. My fingernails were bitten to the skin. I was a shadow in the same room of the house each day. An empty little ghost.
And suddenly my brown-haired baby had been replaced with a blond imitation. I couldn’t see myself in him, and I couldn’t see his dad either.
Big T has naturally thick, black hair and large brown eyes. I’m also a natural brunette. It had never occurred to me that our baby could be anything else. And people started to comment on it –
“He really doesn’t look like either of you, does he?”
I got scared. And paranoid. I didn’t recognise my own child.
I began pleading to Big T over and over, “He is yours, I promise!” as though repeating it would banish the panic, but every, “I know he is!” did nothing to quiet my head. It started as fear that my husband would think I’d been unfaithful, but gradually became a belief that I unwittingly had been. Let that idea sink in for a second – I was so paranoid that my son was blond that I believed I must’ve cheated on his father. I was crazed over it.
My self-esteem plummeted, Little T’s hair kept growing, and the comments kept coming. “I can’t believe he’s so fair!” The only way I could handle it in public was to smile and laugh even though my mind was ravaged by fear.
And then it got crazier. And scarier.
I stopped believing he was mine.
Did the midwife swap him when I was being stitched up after my C-section? Or when I was having a shower and the nurse promised to look after him? Did I mix him up myself at a sling meet? The possibilities swam round my head, and the more ripples they made the more plausible it all felt. He isn’t ours, of course he isn’t.
Big T kept reassuring me, even suggesting we pay for a DNA test to put my mind at rest, but perhaps I knew that what I felt was so irrational that even scientific evidence wouldn’t have helped, and I refused. I’d look into Little T’s face and hate myself for rejecting him, even though I didn’t want to be feeling any of it. He was lovely, beautiful, precious – but he wasn’t mine.
Just typing this hurts. The whole situation was ridiculous, but it was real. It sounds crazy because it was; I was out of my mind. I don’t know who I thought the little baby in my arms belonged to, but I held his little fingers and kissed his perfect button nose and cried hopeless tears because I loved him in whatever frayed and tattered way I could and it wasn’t enough.
(I wonder now whether my belief that he wasn’t our child came from a need to legitimise my detachment, and his hair colour was just a catalyst for it. It’s hard to accept that theory though because it felt so real, too real to simply be my psyche’s attempts at justifying its failings. But it’s true that new parents are under tremendous pressure to feel all the ‘right’ emotions when their baby is born. As someone who rarely has the ‘right’ feelings in most situations, this was doomed to fail, and I knew that, even when I was pregnant. Towards the end of my pregnancy I had the increasing sense that I was performing a role in a play, the role of glowing, contented wife and mother-to-be, and doing it badly. Before I even held my boy in my arms I’d already fluffed my lines as his mother. Much like the hopeful teenagers who go on TV talent shows to be harshly told they can’t really sing, I felt devastated, as though my dreams and everything I’d worked towards had collapsed around me. All my life all I’d wanted was to have a child, and according to every book, film and parenting website I was failing at it. I don’t suppose it matters. It doesn’t help to understand; it doesn’t make it hurt less.)
Very slowly things got better. My son’s hair stayed the same but I became marginally less crazy over it. My mood started to lift but a trace of my paranoia lingered, and it made me ache slightly to see my two boys sharing a cuddle, thick black hair against fine yellow. I kept trying to find a reflection of me or Big T in the special little boy I loved (now in all the ways I was ‘meant’ to) but I couldn’t.
And it hit me like lightning – “This beautiful boy is part of me.”
It was there in front of me. I studied the two photos obsessively, a mixture of amazement and relief buzzing through me like ten cups of coffee. I remember lying in the bath clutching my phone, stifling giggles and splashing my toes in the water like a little girl. He is mine!
At least, I’m 99% certain he is. You see, I’m not fixed down to my bones. I will always be paranoid, I will always find myself questioning my own happiness and waiting for it to fall apart; I will always look for a leaky roof. Perhaps one day the fear will grow again and it’ll become too much for me and I’ll accept my husband’s long-standing offer of a DNA test, but for now things are okay. Things are good. My son is my world and my husband is the gravity keeping me steady and sane (mostly), and far from regretting my son’s uniqueness, I love him all the more for it. He is so far away from what I expected, in all ways! He’s his own man, his own remarkable little human, and I don’t own him at all.
The way I handle the comments these days is to pre-empt them and mention Little T’s blond curls before anyone else does. To the outside world it probably looks as though I’m still obsessed with his genetics, bringing it up at every opportunity, but the truth is that I’m protecting myself from my crazy, from the germ of an idea that can so easily become a fixation in the head of someone whose neurological pathways are skew-whiff.
During the height of my delusions about Little T’s parentage I remember a night I spoke about it at length with Big T. We lay in bed together, my head on his chest, and we talked about the baby in the co-sleeper next to us, and how wonderful he was, how much we loved him, and how lucky we were to be right where we were in our lives and in that moment.
My husband, gently and softly, squeezing my shoulder as he spoke, asked, “What if he isn’t our son, just hypothetically? What difference would it make?”
I only needed a fraction of a second to answer:
“…None at all.”