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.

Family of Four

So I’m back after my unplanned and largely baby-led hiatus. My firstborn consumed my sleep which I’d thought was bad enough, but now his brother has dramatically swooped in and eaten time itself. Not that it isn’t wonderful and fulfilling – it really is – but I do spend my evenings staring into space, scraping bodily fluids out of my hair and gazing upon the day with the awe, pride and incredulity of someone who’s woken up next to an empty wine bottle, an alpaca and a return ticket to Peru.

Our smallest family member is now the grand age of 5 months, from my experience a time in a baby’s life when wakefulness and screaming for increasingly elusive reasons become firm priorities. Also hair pulling. Between Leo and my postpartum loss there’s enough hair embedded in the carpet to weave actual-size replicas of the cats, which will be handy when they inevitably pack their bags and move out because they’re done reaping the consequences of our decision to procreate. (“We stuck it out after the first but then they did it again and I’m too old to be run over with a Cozy Coupe.”)

So to compensate for my absence here I thought I’d take the chance to share a snapshot of our new(ish) life as a family of four via the things I’ve learned over the last 171 days –

1. It turns out my children being within a metre of each other is the BEST THING. Not for them, you understand; Tristan has virtually no interest in his brother, and I get it – objectively Leo is not exciting. He doesn’t have wheels, he can’t play and he wasn’t created by Pixar. Bor-ing. But for me seeing them together makes me positively giddy with joy. The two creatures I love more than anything in the world INTERACTING. My heart explodes every time. It reminds me of the feeling I had when my best friend and boyfriend (now husband) became friends and I’d watch them chatting in the pub and beam across at them like an over-earnest kids’ TV presenter, except with my sons that feeling is even bigger and the smile even more creepy because I love them more than life itself. My attempts to create these moments have led to photos like this –

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And this –

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2. All babies are different, I knew that. But I naively thought fate would be generously selective about those differences when it came to my own children. NOT SO. First time round we had a sleep thief, who at 32 months still hasn’t learned the mythical skill of ‘self-settling’, is rocked to sleep, has milk during the night and doesn’t sleep alone. Fine, I thought, the next one will be easier. We’ve earned it, I thought, and the first time I placed Leo gently on the bathroom floor so I could pee and he instantly drifted off I believed I was right, and that perhaps there was a god who’d seen how tired I was and figured I deserved a break. WRONG. At five months old Leo has never napped lying down (apart from that one time on the bathmat). Never. He only sleeps on Big T’s shoulder or with a boob in his mouth. Suddenly my pram loving, sling loving, dummy loving toddlebeast seems like something off a Mothercare poster. Leo will not go in a pram for more than ten minutes at a time. He quite likes being in a sling, but not for too long and he WILL NOT SLEEP IN ONE, which seems like a matter of principle to him, especially when his eyes are half closed and he’s chain-yawning. And as for a dummy, not a chance. Why settle for silicone when the real thing is available? Suddenly my well stocked parenting arsenal is looking a little sparse. I have boobs and that’s basically it, and those boobs aren’t even his primary food source. I feel like a total novice. I thought I had this! I should be a pro by now!

3. Gender disappointment is real, but in my experience doesn’t last very long.
A year ago, early on in my pregnancy, if someone had told me I could choose what sex my secondborn would be I would have said, “GIRL,” without any hesitation, due in the main to a natural preference for variety. I’m usually a ‘little bit of everything’ kind of gal so it stands to reason that at the buffet where all the chromosomes hang out I’d go for the XX since I already had some XY on my plate (babies-as-hors d’oeuvres metaphor ftw!). Another, much smaller reason is that clothes designed for children with vaginas tend to have more rainbows on them, but that really is a minor issue since Tristan definitely doesn’t have a vagina and still wears clothes not ‘made’ for him because, y’know, his genitalia doesn’t predispose him to liking tractors, football or the colour blue. But I digress…
So we had a preference, albeit not a particularly strong one. And yes, when I saw Leo being born and he was presented to me balls first (seriously) there was a shock of disappointment that lasted all of one second, a sort of lightning strike to illuminate a path I’d never follow. I was the mother of boys. We had boys. And with no other children planned I’d never be a mother to a girl. And what surprised me was how completely okay that felt. Better than okay, it felt good, like it was exactly how things were meant to be. I held my newborn son in my arms in my hospital bed and a new piece of my heart bloomed that I hadn’t known existed before. Where his brother had brought me alive, Leo had made me complete.
And it’s nothing to do with which box is checked on his birth certificate.

4. There is nothing worse than seeing your child sick in hospital. Nothing. Nothing can prepare you for the powerlessness, the frustration, the guilt. But you get through it. You manage, somehow. You don’t sleep, you barely have a chance to eat – but you cope. And you come out the other side more fiercely protective of your tiny human than you thought possible, and with a quiet but steely belief in yourself as a parent.

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5. I found out who my true friends are, and they aren’t all the people I’d have guessed when I started my parenting journey more than three years ago. Some have been in my life for many years, others are new, but they are all very dear to me. They are the people who came round with supplies when we had a new baby and didn’t care that we weren’t dressed and our house was upside down. They held Leo so I could take 10 minutes to finish a cup of coffee. They brought gifts for me rather than him, at a time when I felt all I was was a baby feeding machine, and a failed one at that. They offered to donate breastmilk for my son when I was desperate and spent and had nothing more to give. They sent messages in the middle of the night telling me that I had this. They talked to me the same way they always had, as though I was still just Lindy, not Mummy, not a parent, not a breastfeeder or bottle feeder, babywearer or cloth nappy user. Just me. I don’t see these people every day, or even every week or month – some never – but they are my tribe, my village and they have my gratitude and friendship for life. They are part of why I didn’t suffer with post-natal illness after having Leo. They are why I’m still holding it together. They are fucking awesome. ❤

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6. I understand now why my own mother never had new clothes or shoes, why she mended her old things and why it was a Big Deal when she bought anything new for herself. I had a taste of that when we had just one child, but now we have two I understand more the need to nurture my babies at the expense of myself. Kids are expensive and while we aren’t poor by any means, with only one of us in employment we do have to make sacrifices to give our children the lifestyle we want them to have. If that means I have to sew up a hole in an old dress or Big T has to buy his jeans second hand, that’s more than fine. We’re proud to do it. Seeing Tristan pick out his own shoes for the first time is a gift far greater than having new shoes myself.

7. There are different kinds of love, we all know that. We don’t love our grandparents the same way we love our 6ft hunk of husband, for instance. But I wasn’t prepared for how different my love for my two sons would feel. It’s as individual as their personalities. My relationship with Tristan was more fraught, more tempestuous when he was a baby. Harder. And that shows now in the affinity I feel with him, the sense that we battled something together and came through it even stronger.  With Leo the beauty in my love for him is its simplicity. He is my precious baby, and I am his mother, and there’s a purity about us, a bubble we live in that remains untouched by the outside world, as though he’s still in my belly. Nothing prepared me for the difference. Everyone told me I’d love them equally, and I do, but it absolutely isn’t the same.

8. You can absolutely watch The Land Before Time too often. Trust me. You can try to appreciate the racial subtext, the beautiful artwork and James Horner’s deeply moving score, but ultimately you will want to take Littlefoot and his pals and feed them one by one to Sharptooth just to get the film over and done with sooner. Luckily Tristan isn’t aware of the numerous sequels yet, though at this point I’d be grateful for the variety even if that means singing dinosaurs.

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9. I’ve said before that motherhood for me is a wicked combination of joy and guilt. Since becoming a mother-of-two I’ve had a healthy dose of the former and a less healthy onslaught of the latter. My eldest watches too much television (see #8). He uses his Kindle too much. He goes to bed too late. He doesn’t eat well enough. He never gets enough time with me. He doesn’t socialise enough. My youngest never gets to nap undisturbed. I’m not expressing my breastmilk enough. I put him in the jumperoo too often. I clock-watch. I sleep in on weekends. I scream into a cushion when things feel too much just so I don’t have to scream at my kids. I see photos on Facebook of my childless friends on far away holidays or nights out and I envy their freedom. I sometimes wish I could go back in time and tell myself to calm down with the procreation and live a little. I have ALL THE GUILTS.
But my children don’t need me to feel bad. My guilt doesn’t help them grow or feel loved. All they care about is that Mummy and Daddy love them beyond words and that we keep them safe, which we do. The rest is filler. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make things better where we can, but instead of letting my guilt cripple me I have to thank it for reminding me I have more to give and then let it go. I don’t want to raise my two beautiful boys in a world of not enough. That shit is toxic and it doesn’t belong here.

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10. Further to #9, and somewhat paradoxically, I’ve learned to try to let go of perfection. I don’t have to be the perfect vision of parenting. When Tristan was a baby I was very hung up on doing everything exactly as the attachment parenting guides told me. I felt guilty if I used the pram, tore my hair out over BLW, wished the earth would swallow me whole when I bottle fed in public. PND and a desire to feel like I’d done something right led to that originally, but Leo’s birth and all the healing it brought gave me the perspective to see how ridiculous it was. Parenting isn’t a sport; I can never be the ‘best’ at it. All I can be is true to myself and try to parent instinctively. When I stop checking boxes I find my values don’t change but my flexibility grows, and I enjoy my children more without the pressure of being the poster girl for all things AP. Looking after two kids doesn’t leave time to worry about how I come across on Facebook, or whether it’s been too long since I carried my kids in a wrap, or whether I can be arsed washing nappies this week. Those things are superficial and I don’t need them to prove to the world what kind of parent I am.

In lots of ways life has carried on as it always has. My boys change and grow all the time, and we grow with them, sometimes not quickly enough to adapt to their needs in the way we want to, but we keep trying. We juggle, we struggle, we love and learn and fill our home with laughter, and the occasional frustrated, cross word.
Our days are as changeable as our current sleeping arrangements, but we’re happy, and while we may not be the perfect parents to our imperfect children, we are all perfect for one another.

(Except for the cats, poor things… But four out of six ain’t bad.)

I Still See You (A Letter to the Father of my Children)

Looking back at photographs from just a few years ago it’s clear how much we’ve both changed. We’re so old now. My hair is flecked with grey throughout and your face is etched with the faintest wrinkles, both testaments to the gauntlet of parenting we’ve been running for the last two years.

I remember in the early days of our relationship how I’d wake up before you and silently reapply my make up, subtly of course, so I’d look as pretty as possible for you when you woke. I’d slip back under the covers and pretend to be asleep, knowing you’d soon stir, turn to me, kiss me gently and whisper, “you’re so beautiful.” Our world was full of little fantasies we had time and space to cultivate – every sight, taste and smell could be planned in advance, every glance through perfectly styled hair expertly performed. Every moment our hands touched could freeze time because there was so damned much of it.

These days I rarely wear make up and at the moment we don’t even share a bed. You’ve seen me bleach my upper lip and go without shaving. You even walked in on my midwife giving me an enema when I was in labour with our son. We talk over Facebook Messenger when one of us is on the toilet, and our conversations are more likely to be along the lines of, “What are we doing for dinner tonight?” and, “We need more bin liners in the next shop,” than, “Let’s go out to an expensive bar on a work night and fondle each other until it makes the clientèle uncomfortable!” 

I want for all the world to throw myself into our relationship with the kind of abandon that led us this far, but while I am still the girl who became the woman who became your wife, I am also a mother, and the two are not always compatible. I can’t switch motherhood off. I am changed down to my bones by the boy we both love so much. But inside there is still a little fire burning quietly, a fire that’s alive with my youth and passions, a fire that yearns for freedom, romance, sex, and metaphorical wind on my face without the knot of responsibility that made itself at home in my gut as soon as our son was born. It yearns for you. It yearns for us singing together in the dark at 3am, eating out just because, sleeping in til midday, hopping in the car and driving nowhere and everywhere with the windows down. You and me so full of passion we believed we could set the world alight with it.

I haven’t forgotten us. I’m still your lover and your friend. I still get butterflies when I hear your key in the front door and my heart is always calmer when you’re near. I love how your body and face has changed since you became a father, as though you wear your strength and knowledge like armour. I sneak a quick look at you when you get dressed in the morning and I feel the same girlish lust I felt in my early 20s (I sometimes catch you doing the same) and your kisses, though more rare, still send electricity to my toes.

I wrestle with my individuality and my role as a mother, but I know that you do too. Fatherhood defines so much of who you are and what you do now, and you’re tremendous at it. I’ve never known a man more dedicated to his family than you are. I know how it feels to worry that you’re losing yourself in the day-to-day and the 9-5, in the bathtimes and snacktimes and nappy changes. I know that you miss your time spent exercising, gaming or recording music. I know you miss having me to yourself.  I know you miss your solitude.

We created something beautiful in our son, and in less than six weeks we’ll meet the latest member of our little family. Life will explode in chaos again and it might be harder to connect for a while. The time we once had so much of will disappear before our eyes as our children grow far too quickly and our grey hairs and wrinkles shower us like confetti.

But before we jump back in to the swirling vastness of new parenthood I want you to know I still see you. I see your fire blazing just like mine, two beacons on a stormy horizon. I see you every day, the boy who became the man who became my husband, and I love you beyond words.

And if we keep shining we’ll always find each other, no matter how rough the waves become.

Yours forever,
your wife and friend, Lindy xx

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Equality of Life

I haven’t been feeling well recently for one reason or another, and naturally haven’t felt up to getting my Nigella on every night, or trying to coax my sticky, sweaty toddler into or out of the bath. Even attempting the super-wordy-rhymey works of Julia Donaldson has been too much at times, and don’t  mention the cleaning of cloth nappies… Just nope.

But of course this is okay because I have a ready, willing and able husband to almost 100% take over and sort out dinner, bathtime, laundry and a bedtime routine that involves more running around and screaming than two out of three of us would like.

There’s a slight problem though.

This is a typical exchange after Big T has put Little T to bed while I relax with a book or endless lost lives on Farm Heroes Saga –

Husband: Finally asleep! Just couldn’t switch off as usual.

Me: I’m sorry…

Husband: Why are you apologising?!

Me: Because you had to do it.

Husband: I didn’t have to do anything, I love spending time with him at bedtime, especially if I’ve been at work all day.

Me: Are you sure?

Husband: Positive. Relax, you deserve some time off.

*five minutes later*

Me: …I’m sorry.

Now I don’t know precisely what it is that makes me apologise and set feminism back 50 years in the process. It could be that being a mother and looking after my son is my ‘job’ and Big T taking over feels tantamount to me going into his office and designing a thingumy on the whatsajig while he puts his feet up with a magazine and farts the Game of Thrones theme music (I’m not entirely what he does for a living which makes the analogy tricky, but you get my meaning). I couldn’t do that and nor should I, but when he gets home it’s expected that he should roll his sleeves up and dive head first into the dribbly ocean that is parenting. And he should, I know that, but in a modern society where mothers often work to provide for their families I feel that as a stay at home parent I should be working just as hard, giving 100% even when there’s only a trickle in my tank, to keep up with these amazing women who do it all, and the men like my husband who pick up where they left off that morning with rarely a second to themselves.

There’s also an element of my upbringing at play. When my parents were still married they each had their specific, often stereotypical, roles within the family. My dad went to work and earned money, my mum stayed home and cooked, cleaned and wiped the snot from our noses. It wasn’t inherently a bad thing; roles were clearly defined, no one seemed bent out of shape, and although I’m certain my mum wished for more help I doubt she was surprised that it wasn’t forthcoming. Things just were and that was mostly okay. Within the white, middle class, suburban community I grew up all the families I knew looked much the same.
Fast forward 30 years and, at least on paper, my relationship with my husband mirrors that of my parents. He earns money while I stay home and bake cakes and make stuff out of shoeboxes and dried lentils. It’s hard then to separate our situation from the one I grew up in, where all expectation fell on my mother to take care of absolutely everything, from shopping and nit removal to bedtime and diarrhoea. I’m in a 21st century marriage but I feel all the pressures of my mum’s 20th century role, and because I do less than she did, and rightly so, I sometimes feel as though I’m getting a free pass and my struggles aren’t valid.
It’s not specifically about my parents of course, they’re merely the nearest example; I see the same dynamic in many couples their age. Lots of wives and mothers I meet from older generations are often keen to point out to me how wonderful, caring and involved my husband is, how rare that is and how lucky I am to have him.  The problem with that kind of rhetoric is that all it serves to do is convince me that what T does is somehow above and beyond what is expected of him, yet again reinforcing my belief that I should be doing more.

I’m not blaming other people for my reactions to any of these influences, that’s all firmly on me, but it’s an internal battle I rarely feel like I’m winning. I find it hard to shake the sense that T is doing me a favour by parenting our son. How messed up is that?

In taking on all responsibility for Little T I’m not only denying myself the support and help I need, I’m also impeding the partnership that defines my marriage to my husband, and perpetuating the outdated idea that men aren’t capable of being exceptional parents. No one wins. T is an excellent father, objectively, without my input, and more importantly he should be, because the decision to bring another human into the world was 50% his. And what kind of example am I setting to my son by openly modelling draconian ideas of female roles? Hearing me apologising and gratuitously thanking his father will not help nurture him to be the man he deserves to become.

It’s time to let go of the apologies and the guilt. It’s time to respect my husband’s role as a parent as well as a provider, and it’s time to congratulate myself on the mostly-great-but-sometimes-just-okay job I do as a stay at home mum. And it’s probably time to sit back and eat cake, just because.

I owe it to my son to show him the meaning of equality.

Motherly

Sunday 15th saw us in Eyam, a lovely little village in Derbyshire famous for an outbreak of plague that occurred there in 1665, wiping out most of its inhabitants. Sunday was also Mother’s Day here in the UK, a fact which didn’t affect my husband’s decision to take me to a place noted for death and disease; because nothing says, “I love you Mummy!” like a spooky walk to the revolving sheep roasting jack.

Plague and freezing temperatures aside, it was a beautiful day. We had cuddles in our new Girasol Northern Lights and Oscha Matrix Satori ring slings, ate obscenely large cheese-stuffed paninis, shared a big pot of tea, and explored Eyam Hall and its lovely gardens. Little T is walking confidently now so there was lots of chasing for Daddy to do while I hung back with the camera. It’s nice to have a chance to enjoy my little livewire from a distance; it makes it easier to focus on what a delight he is when he isn’t whacking me in the eye with a pastry brush.

P1070298And being the contemplative sort, I also took the time to reflect on my last year of motherhood, and I realised with all the amazement of a child at the zoo that I actually felt I deserved this special day, a day spent honouring my role as Mummy. I walked with my head held high and a big smile on my face. I felt proud carrying my boy in our sling, his little face nuzzled into my chest, and prouder still with my husband’s arm wrapped protectively around us both.

As a new mum caught in the throes of PND, Mother’s Day 2014 wasn’t such a happy event.

Imagine waking up one morning and the people you love most have thrown you a birthday party. They have cards and gifts for you, and tea and toast in bed. They keep saying ‘Happy birthday!’ and you feel a knot in your stomach and you want to cry because they’re wrong, it isn’t your birthday at all, and all their effort and sweetness isn’t deserved.
I wasn’t a Mummy then. I was a parent, technically, and I nurtured and cared for my baby, but my heart was empty and my head was full of hurt. What I wanted more than anything was time alone, to sleep or cry or both. Big T and I argued; neither of us had done anything wrong, we were simply overwhelmed by the need to make my first Mother’s Day ‘perfect’ and I couldn’t do it, not with the world ending around me. He perceived that as his failure to make the day a good one and felt he’d let me down, which of course he hadn’t, so I felt guilty too… And it spiralled. Most of our arguments were like that then, guilt feeding off guilt and exploding, usually inwards rather than at each other, which makes a different kind of mess but a mess all the same.

2015-03-17_11.25.46So this year felt as though it was my first true Mother’s Day as a proud mum deserving of the title. I basked in it like a cat in the sunshine, grinning at strangers as I held my son close as though to say, “I’m a MUMMY, bitches!” (that’s an idea for a slogan t-shirt right there).

I know it’s just a day, a commercialised farce invented to make us spend money on cards, flowers and chocolate, and maybe we won’t make such a big deal out of it in future, but I loved every second because it celebrated the journey I’ve taken to get here; the years of wanting a child, of dreaming but never believing I’d be strong enough or lucky enough, to the joy of early pregnancy and the devastation of antenatal depression, to a difficult birth and sinking into the blackest hole I could ever imagine. It’s all part of where I am now, which is a place of tentative but very real happiness.

This year’s celebration also gave me the opportunity to consider my relationship with my own mother. In a way, parenthood forces you to see your own parents in all their fallible humanity, especially when you remember that they were in your position once, sleep deprived and scared, still feeling like a child themselves underneath the mask of age and responsibilities. Some (most) days I want to crawl back under the duvet and let someone else take care of my son, just until I’ve had enough sleep or spent some time doing something for me. I don’t want to wash pissy nappies all the time or read ‘Whose Tail?’ over and over to the point I want to punch the lion in the face at the end. Sometimes I want to be able to yell when my son pulls my hair or gleefully hits me without restraint, but I don’t, because it’s not the kind of parent I want to be, and I have to keep that adult armour on all day every day for his sake.
I now understand that my own mother will have felt the same, especially spending much of her life as a single parent. I know there were days she’d have been exhausted from work and would rather have curled up with a book and a glass of wine than helped my brother with his homework or combed nits out of my hair. That’s not to say those things weren’t done with love; they most definitely were, and that’s why I admire her so much. Not once did we ever feel like we were a chore to her. She never complained, she always listened, and we never wanted for anything. I’m sure when the weekend came and we went to stay with our Dad, she collapsed in a tired heap and maybe even had a good cry. But we never knew.

I understand now how hard her days could be and what the love I took for granted actually looked like, the true depth of it, and I’m so, so grateful for all she did. I don’t parent the same way she did, our values are slightly different and our methods occasionally at odds, but I always hope to model her affection, encouragement and creativity with my own children. I can now wish my mum a happy Mother’s Day as a daughter but also a sister in the sorority of parenthood.

And I hope all my other sisters in real life and here had a wonderful day celebrating with their children. You’re all amazing. ❤

Cuckoo

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.
Blond hair.

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.

Until I found these pictures:
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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.”

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Two

Two years ago today I woke up at an ungodly hour in an unfamiliar bed, butterflies in my stomach and my hair a medusa-style mess. I opened a letter from my best friend and lover and read it under the covers, using my phone as a torch. The words in that letter soothed my heart and reassured me more than anything else could that day. It told me that all the choices I’d made up to that point had been the right ones, and I didn’t feel nervous any more. I got up, had my breakfast, and changed my life forever.

Our relationship was difficult then. We didn’t talk to anyone about it because what right minded couple gets married when their relationship is on the rocks? We didn’t need the criticism. We’d just bought our first home, decorated and furnished it on a shoestring, while simultaneously planning a wedding that truthfully only Big T was keen on (I wanted to elope because agoraphobia + a room full of people = freak out). It was a stressful time, even objectively. But on top of that, we were both going through personal transformations away from one another. For my part, I’d just finished therapy and my outlook was new, and my feelings were fresh and raw. I felt anger that had previously been dormant – suddenly chair covers and centrepieces seemed utterly trivial. As for Big T, well, that’s his story and I can’t speak for him, but he was wrestling with his own issues. We weren’t part of each other’s problems, but we couldn’t help each other either because what we needed more than anything then was tonnes of chocolate and some serious self-care, which meant that just before we got married we seemed separate and far away, like we were circling the earth on different moons.

But I’m grateful for that – because it meant we married out of sheer love. Nothing at that point really aligned apart from how fiercely we loved one another. Through the personal battles, frustrated arguments, and tears at midnight in our freezing Hyundai in the supermarket car park, there was never a question of love. We looked at each other, open and vulnerable, metaphorically bedraggled, and said, “I want you more than ever.”
So two years ago we got dressed up, stood in front of our families and friends, and committed ourselves to the unknown. And what an unknown it turned out to be!

Just four months into our marriage we began trying to conceive. We unexpectedly succeeded first time, and so began the crazy, beautiful, sometimes tragic journey that has brought us to this place now, with the amazing little person we created. It feels as though we haven’t stopped since we said “I will.”

So what of our relationship now, amidst the chaos of real life, PND and our whirlwind baby?
It was rough for a while. But adversity has a clever way of bringing together or pulling apart, and in our case we’re lucky enough to be stronger than ever for everything that’s happened. I would never claim that Big T and I are the ‘perfect’ couple, but by my own grossly lopsided definition of perfection we’re pretty darn close. Perhaps we cuddle and kiss a little less now, and we never have the chance to curl up with popcorn and a dvd (that’s our ‘refuses to sleep alone’ baby for you), but we communicate well and often. We really talk, the kind of talking that film characters do from rooftops and laid out in wheat fields under the stars, except we do it in bed with cats on our bellies and our baby’s white noise track playing in the background. We are real with one another, down to our bare bones. We’re vulnerable, and we trust each other with our insecurities and fears. We always apologise. We are trying constantly to better ourselves, for each other, for our relationship and for our son.

I’m not trying to brag. Like I said, we’re not perfect. Big T is stubborn and reluctant to admit fault and I have a cruel tongue and a tendency to lash out with it when I’m upset. What I’m proud of is that we work hard every day to be the best we can be, and in the poopy, dribbly storm that is parenting we haven’t forgotten one another. More than that, we see each other more clearly and with more depth. I adore my husband not just for how he loves me, but for how he loves my child.

Becoming a parent has been the making of Big T in many ways and I’m so proud of him. He is never stronger than when he’s holding our son, never more gorgeous than when he’s elbows deep in a dirty nappy, never more talented than when he’s crooning yet another rendition of L-O-V-E over a tiny stirring face, and never sweeter than when he’s sleeping with one hand resting gently on our boy’s chest.

I’m so very, very lucky. ❤