Presence

The wind moved in the trees as I listened to my breath.
The wind moved in the trees and I heard it because I listened to my breath.
The wind moves in all the trees and I was there to hear it.
My breath moved boringly in and out
But because it was boring I heard the trees.

The light is flat and blue over the playing fields, filtered through saturated air.
Today everything is muffled by autumn.
Green, brighter than it’s ever been, hangs from the branches
and falls brown like paper for our feet below.

If I believed in God, here he would be.
I feel presence in the sun and clouds.
Though I move, every successive moment is still
and in the stillness, everything arrives.

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The grief of the first letting go

My brain’s only partly mine this month. I’m trying to take it out to enjoy some childfree time before I go back to work. Baby is going to nursery one day a week to ease him in while I’m still here, so me and brain are doing some shopping, cooking, even thinking about writing. I’m supposed to be enjoying it. It’s just that I have a little ghost voice whimpering away in my ear, mumbling and worrying about my baby.

It is, quite literally, a voice. The actual words ‘my baby’ keep popping into my head, keening away like a one line earworm song. It goes: My baby. I miss you. My little love. And so on. The ache builds over the time we’re apart and when I’m about to get back to him it’s like an engine, pushing me into the room to grab him. Twice now I’ve picked him up and then had to put him down again so I can pop next door for a quick cry.

It is a mad time and I am a little bit mad. I’m going back to work at the start of November, starting at three days a week and building up gradually (thanks to my sensible, supportive employer and their all-round excellent approach to parenthood). I’m actually excited about it – a recent keep in touch day reminded me just what work does for your mental stimulation and self esteem, particularly if your job is interesting, rewarding and worthwhile. Mine is and I’m lucky. But…Theo. I didn’t know the process of separation after nine months of full-time motherhood would be like this. It’s like grief. I’ve put a part of me into something external to my body, and now that external bit is further away, in the care of someone else.

After a few days of wandering round in a sad fog (not helped by the first few days of proper grey autumn), I talked to a mum friend. It turns out, thank god, that I’m not mad. Everything I feel, she’d felt too – even the grief, which I’d thought I must be mislabelling. She used the exact same word. I went on to talk to more mothers about it and ditto. Just nods, empathy, and yes, it’s the hardest part. Not newborn hard, but love-hurts hard.

It’s bitterly uncomfortable to let others have him all day, fitting him into their routine and caring for him alongside other babies. Over the past nine months, Theo and I have developed a quiet little dance of how we do our days. He makes signals for what he wants and I read them and respond with food, rest, cuddles or activities. I feel like a membrane surrounding him and protecting him from the world by filtering his needs before they become too urgent. I act like a second womb. Reading this back, I realise it limits him, because he needs to start dealing with the world. It’s just that it’s been my unconscious philosophy of motherhood, and it soothes me as much as it soothes him. They say that stroking a dog slows both the heartbeats, of human and animal, and mother caring for child may be the same.

What I’ve decided is that nursery’s care doesn’t have to be the same as my care for Theo, and my care doesn’t have to change to match theirs. I’ve been seeing it as one or the other: either they achieve the same level of individual nurture that I give him or I dial down my nurturing to help him adjust to them. Not so. It *should* be different. A parent’s love is unique and, if we’re lucky, we’ll return to it throughout our lives as a well of safety and peace. Everyone else in life will be different. Unlike your parents, they start out separate from you, and they’ll treat you with their own blend of care and challenge.

So I’ll keep my routine and keep comforting him the way I do, and at nights or on days off we’ll do it our way (perpetually changing, of course, as he gets older). With others, he’ll learn to do it their way. Somewhere in between the two he’ll find himself. For mum, it won’t get any easier, but I’ll learn to let go because I’ll have to and because that’s how making new life works.

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How not to f*** him up

I think a lot about how not to fuck Theo up. It’s inevitable, according to Philip Larkin (“they fuck you up, your mum and dad, they may not mean to but they do.”) Nevertheless, I’m a perfectionist. I also have a long history of depression, anxiety, food issues and self-confidence issues, so I really, really want not to fuck him up. I’m afraid all this might mean I have even worse odds than the average parent and, if I do pass my challenges on, I know from experience how painful they can be. I can’t cause him this kind of pain. I might not be able to beat it in myself but I’ll be damned if I’ll pass it on to him.

Ultimately, I can’t control who Theo is or will become. You feel like you can, because you made them, but you can’t. And even if I could control his future, who’s to say he’d end up any happier? My own life is often a mystery to me, so why think I’d be any better at crafting his?

Still, I want him to be a good person and a happy person, or, at least, a person who searches for and finds happiness. So I think a lot about how to make him good and happy, about what I can do to increase his chances and beat the slightly tricky odds I’ve given him as his complicated mum.

Here are my thoughts.

1. Trying to steer the ship too firmly is to be avoided. I must allow him space to grow in his own direction and this will involve letting him make mistakes and do things I don’t agree with. I can guide him and challenge him. I can be honest about what I believe and tell him what I think I know. But I can’t control what he does with that.

2. I must try not to let my love become needy. He will grow up and away from me, every month depending on me less than the month before. Physical contact will decrease. He started out inside me, stayed virtually attached to me for the first few weeks of life, is carried everywhere he goes by me now. He’ll keep having bedtime cuddles for years, I hope. But then they’ll get fewer and fewer, and one day he’ll move out, find a girl or boy, settle down. I mustn’t cling on.

Instead I try to prepare myself by storing the memories. I look down at him in my arms when he falls asleep after a night time feed and I try to drink it in, fixing in my mind the pursed lip and the wedge of eyelashes, the warm weight, the love.

3. I think I must talk to him about mental health as he gets old enough to understand. My own challenges are not, and never will be, his problem. But I don’t want him to be scared when I’m down, think I’m angry when I’m just anxious, or believe the difficult things I feel are his fault.

If I help him understand what so many millions of us go through at times, it will, I hope, give him the tools to tackle his own sadnesses and fears and doubts, because they will inevitably come. They come to all of us. It might also give him compassion for those struggling with their own issues who might be less transparent and easy to understand.

4. Finally, I should feel joy. There are times when the practical jobs of looking after him and the anxieties and stresses all pause for a bit, and I just delight in his Theo-ness. Right now, right now, he’s woken up and is singing out ‘da-da’ on the baby monitor. This is such joy. His faces squidges up into the widest smile sometimes and he laughs, cackles from his belly as I blow air at him. Joy.

Surely the best thing I can do for him is feel that joy and show it. That’s the clearest, simplest love. It takes nothing from the recipient and says: you and the things you do make me happy. If he can see how delighted I am with him, if I laugh at him and make him laugh, if I love hugging and kissing him, I hope that will be the foundation for him to love himself.

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Blackberries in July

Today I saw the first dark blackberries of the year,
Sitting in a nest of green by the road.
They hadn’t hurried. They’d been brought to their time
By sun and water and the quiet chain link fence lining the allotment.

Shoulder to shoulder with their dark sisters,
Unripened jade berries faced the warm sun
And said, this too is our time.

You cannot yet eat us.
We are still green, still part of the leaves and the plant.
Because we are hard, because we cling hard to our home,
We let the birds pick off the ripe fruit more easily.
We let this first seed be spread,
So that when we too are soft and ready
They will come again for us.

There is a time to grow dark and a time to wear our subtle green.
We are not ready to fall. We are as we should be.

The black berries waited and they knew it was them I could see.
They told me, yes, we are ripe, sooner in the summer than you thought.

You could eat us.
We’ll leave the stem with a quiet kiss, stain your fingertips,
Carry a fine layer of road dust to your lips on our purple beads,
Which you won’t mind because of the sweetness.
But take care, because not all of us are sweet. Be ready for the sourness of those that look ripe but are still sharp.
We are still new berries, more plant than fruit.
We all carry the plant within us.

 

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The highs and lows of exclusive breastfeeding (when you don’t have a choice)

My boy won’t feed from a bottle. He used to, and now he won’t. I don’t know why. One day he’d take one when required. The next day, about 10 weeks in, nada. He mouthed the plastic teat, scowling, appeared dumbfounded that we expected him to suck milk out of it, and screamed utter blue murder until I fed him from me.

And there it is. From me. Those two words, expressing something given and received but also something originating from its source, encapsulate my dilemma. They’re why exclusive breastfeeding is so wonderful and so hard all at once.

It’s wonderful because it’s the last biological link with my son after pregnancy and birth. When you nurse a baby, you feel, see and hear milk being drawn out of you. It’s like nothing else, just as feeling them kick and shuffle inside you is indescribably weird and unique. He seems more animal when he feeds than at any other time, and I suppose he is, following in the footsteps of mammals through the millennia.

I love that he’s so healthy on it, gaining weight (those chubby thighs!) and staying remarkably well. I love that he’s so happy nursing from me and I love the hours of quiet bonding, that we can’t feed without cuddling. I love that my body has quietly succeeded at something which is far from easy, however natural it might be, even in the times when my mind is a mess. I love nursing’s ability to soothe. I kind of love feeling like a super feminist she-wolf in every new public place I feed him. I love how clever it all is, how the milk can change to suit a baby’s needs through the day.

When Theo was born and I struggled to get through each day and night, the strength and wisdom of my body, what it had done and was still doing, was a solace. I remember thinking: I might not know what I’m doing or how I’m going to do it, but my body’s saying, we’ve got this. Every time I feed him it tells me that again.

So it’s wonderful. But it would still be wonderful if he took a bottle every once in a while – and so much less hard. As it is, I’m tied to him. I can’t leave him for more than two hours, not with his dad, not with his grandparents, because they can’t feed him.

This is more than just a practical issue. Of course he can go more than two hours without food and suffer no ill effect. He just doesn’t want to. He gets hungry often (partly because he gets reflux) and when he gets hungry, he gets mad. Then sad. Then pitiful, crying big, heaving sobs, hands shaking, face red, hot and sweaty all over. He feels things strongly, like his mum, and he’s stubborn as hell, like his dad. It’s horrible for him and horrible for whoever’s with him. I suppose there would come a point where he’d be so hungry he’d drink from a bottle, but how long would this go on before he did? We’ve never pushed it hard enough to find out.

It’s just…it’s hard to be me, fully, when I can’t ever go away for an unspecified amount of time. I can’t be free or get a full night’s sleep or get drunk or storm out the house after a marital disagreement, muttering to myself that his father can take care of him for a bit. I can’t completely relax when I am out in case he’s been sick or didn’t eat enough at his last feed and is hungry again.

I can’t really crash low and hibernate when depression hits, which I guess is a good thing, but there’s a part of me that’s being crushed smaller and smaller because I don’t ever give her pain any space to breathe. My sad, frightened side needs a rest, needs to be held, and it’s very hard to learn how to do that when I have to be on baby duty 24/7.

I know it’s only temporary. My mother in law is going to try to get him on the bottle when she’s here visiting. If she doesn’t manage it, he’ll be weaning soon and feeds will get further apart. It’s just hard to see that right now. The thing he most wants and needs comes from me and there’s nothing I can do except provide it.

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How do I love thee?

Everyone says you can’t know what parental love feels like until you have a child, but that’s a bit of a cop out. For many parents, this love is the hide tide mark of human joy and as such, we have a duty to try to describe it. Art and culture are supposed to reflect on the extremes of our experience and God knows enough people sing songs and write poems about romantic love. Why not parental love?

So I’ll have a go. Borrowing from the great Elizabeth Barrett Browning, let me count the ways I love him.

I love him because he changed me. The moment he was born has been the best moment of my life so far. Partly it’s the overwhelming relief at knowing the ordeal of labour is over, and I’m convinced that’s partly why evolution has let childbirth remain so utterly crap. But it’s not just that. I remember clearly the first time I saw him, the red, round little nose, dusted with milia in extreme close up. He kicked and slithered and looked up at me and I was his mother, his parent. He’d come out of me. He literally transformed me. It was bloody amazing.

I love him so that the idea of something happening to him is the most terrifying thing ever. I imagine him being gone and it makes me feel sick and faint. It’s stupid thing to do, but maybe imagining the worst helps us feel prepared, in control. Or maybe I’m the only one who does this. Whatever. Theo, you’ve now replaced even my husband and parents as the number one person I’m terrified to live without.

I love his smile.

I love the person he’s bringing out in my husband. Slowly, day by day, Theo works his magic on the self contained man I share my life with. He knocks on the walls around his solitude and ducks under the rules he lives his life by. He gets him to deal with poo. The magnitude of this cannot be overstated.  

I love how he’s bringing my family closer. Everyone gathers round and loves him and can’t believe how great he is. He’s the first baby of his generation in our small family, a little campfire to gather round and warm our hands and hearts.

I love him extra for the sake of those who never got to love him. I imagine him in my grandpa’s arms, the same expression on his face as in the picture of him holding baby me. I imagine his pride. I imagine the softening of my brilliant, dominant grandmother and how fiercely delighted she would be at everything Theo did (she was always fierce, even in her loving). He makes me long for heaven to exist, and sometimes believe it does, so that they can meet him one day.

I love him shoulder to shoulder with all the other parents who love their children, and all the children who love their parents, for we are all born into this deepest of bonds. My love makes my heart break for those who didn’t get the love they deserved as children and break awfully, over and over again, for parents who have lost or face losing a child they love. I am nothing, know nothing, next to these parents, in their courage and their pain.

And now I turn to Elizabeth, who said it so much better.

*

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnet 43

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The problem with milestones, or Why do I keep judging my baby?

Answer: because I’m insecure.

Today I’m embarking on a new way to describe me as a mum and my baby as a developing person.

Up until now, I’ve unintentionally focused a lot on Theo’s progress and defined us by comparing us to others. I’ve read up on the different developmental milestones and find myself holding them in my head as a roadmap, charting Theo’s course along them as he begins to show signs of hitting them. There’s physiological milestones, such as sleeping for longer periods of time or being ready for solid foods. Motor skills, like grasping objects or rolling over. Language, including the complexity of the sounds he can make and his attempts to convey meaning. And social and emotional connections, from smiling to searching out his mum and dad.

All very sensible and useful to know. But I’ve realised that I spend so much time calibrating Theo’s position on these parallel pathways, and what this says about me as his mother, that I forget to notice him as he is. I mean, I don’t – emotionally and intuitively I have a picture of him so steeped with colour and nuance that I couldn’t begin to describe it. I’d need a Shakespeare or a Keats to supply the words. His eyes, his smell, the Groucho Marx way he raises his eyebrows, his sleep noises, the extra strength I suddenly feel in his legs when he stretches himself straight on the changing mat. But when describing him to others or thinking about him consciously to myself, I fall back on the milestones. His grades, if you will.

And that’s only the start of it. Once I have his grades, I plot them alongside the other babies I know. A couple are further forward in motor skills. He smiled quite early but not as early as some. He does seem ahead of the norm in the language stakes, creating vowel-consonant combinations from about six weeks (as an English graduate I am enormously proud of this jargony point). As his mother, I also believe with absolute certainty that he wins at life by being breathtakingly beautiful.

Knowing all this, I construct a picture of his progress and secretly urge him to show the behaviours he’s mastered in front of friends so I don’t have to announce them myself.

But this isn’t a picture of him. It isn’t a picture at all. It’s obscuring who he really is and the infinite detail of our time together.

Babies are magical, incredible, infuriating sometimes but so beautiful, so changing in every hour. I truly want to be able to look back on this year at home with Theo and remember as many moments of pure him, pure us together, as I can. And I’m missing so much by allowing my insecure grading and comparing to take up mental space. I can’t bottle his essence or paint an exact picture of it, so the only way I’ll have to preserve it is in my memory. Memory relies on senses and emotions and I need to focus more on sense and emotion to really experience my boy.

So I’m going to try to catch myself every time I compare him to a list of baby milestones or to another child. I won’t be able to stop completely – it’s too ingrained and also, to a certain extent, normal – but I don’t want it to be so pervasive. I’m going to practice holding him in my mind exactly as he is and trusting that this is just how he should be. And I’ll practice feeling warm and happy for the progress (and uniqueness) of the other children in my circle of maternity leave friends, rather than threatened.

I will try to do this because I love my son and I want to be better for him.

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