The first time I really felt “all grown up” – I was eight years old and my mother had just given birth to my youngest brother. The birth had gone really badly; she’d almost bled to death and I had to be strong for everyone – my mum, my dad and both the baby and my other brother who was two years younger than me.
I remember my dad waking me very early in the morning; it was early summer and the light was already coming in through the curtains, but it was way before my usual wake-up time. Also, my dad was never home at that time on a week day so I knew something was wrong. I don’t remember his exact words, but something like “you’ve got a little brother and your mum’s really ill.” I do remember his fear and his pain.
The days after that are blurry in my mind. I remember going to visit mum in hospital – the big women’s hospital on the other side of town. I particularly remember the motorway off-ramp. I still think about my mum when I go off there now. I remember the smell of hospital; disinfectant, floor wax, the perfume of cut flowers. I remember the baby; soft and blonde and wrapped up with only his little head sticking out.
I remember neighbours getting my other brother and I off to school in the morning cos my dad had to go back to work. I remember the tears when a family friend had to take me shoe shopping and she bought me a pair of horrible red sandals. I remember wearing them to the end of the driveway each day, then stuffing them in my schoolbag and going to school barefoot.
My brother was only six and had always been “mummy’s boy”. I already had to fight kids in the playground that bullied him, but when Mum was in hospital I had to look after him in other ways too. He didn’t know what to do with himself without Mum around and he seemed to me just hopeless, he missed Mum so much. So did my dad. He tried really hard to look after us, but the worry on his face was too obvious. I know now that his own mother had died when he was only 17, and the fear of losing his wife as well must have been terrible for him.
My mother was in hospital for ages. I used to think it was must have been weeks and weeks, but in reality, it was probably only a week or two.
It was when she came home that I really became a grown-up. She was too ill to do much, so I mixed formula, fed the baby, changed nappies, dressed him, undressed him, rocked him to sleep. I think there was a church roster for providing meals and housework; I certainly remember the minister’s wife doing our vaccuuming. But between us, my dad and I organised mealtimes too. The other brother was instantly jealous of the baby, so dealing with him was another task that fell to my dad and me.
Looking back, it all seemed so natural. No-one ever said “wow, she’s just a kid.” But I think my parents had already constructed a narrative about their clever, compliant daughter that made me an adult before I had a chance to be a child.
I’m middle-aged now; a mother myself and as I’ve been writing this post I realised that my life has been a bit backwards. Instead of thinking about when I became grown-up, it’s almost as if I need to figure out when I got permission to be a child.
Oddly enough, raising my son has given me that permission. I have been able to play with him, and laugh with him and although I’m still “responsible” – there have been times when the pleasure I’ve had from his company has been really quite childlike.