Daily Prompt: all grown up

My baby brother as a toddler.

My baby brother as a toddler.

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.

My baby brother and I; December 2011

My baby brother and I; December 2011

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.

su and tom funnyI’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.My son and I; goofy expressions and all.

My son and I; goofy expressions and all.
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Daily prompt: Happily ever after

Daily prompt: Happily ever after

Such a timely prompt!  Today is my son’s 15th birthday and I’ve been looking through old photos, journals, etc. and found an article I wrote for a National Childbirth Trust magazine about “my birth story.” This is it:

One day old; the calm before the storm.

One day old; the calm before the storm.

Other birth stories I’ve read remind me a bit of fairy tales – not that they aren’t true – simply that they always seem to end shortly after the birth with the whole family snuggled up together. I can almost hear the words “and they all lived happily ever after.

But that’s not how it was for me and my partner. It’s not that Tom’s birth wasn’t a huge event in our lives – just that the magic moment wasn’t his birth or the first few hours cradling him in our arms. That wasn’t the end of the story, just the beginning.

I suppose in lots of ways I was really lucky. Unlike much younger friends who spent years trying to conceive, I became pregnant as soon as we decided to start trying. While other friends struggled with horrible morning sickness I got off with no more than a passing aversion to garlic. Still other friends recounted emergency caesareans, having their waters broken, episiotomies and painful tearing; my labour left me physically unscarred and in fact feeling really well, so there’s no story there.

My fairy tale starts with Tom’s birth. Right on cue, in the dawning moments of his due date, my baby began his push to freedom. For three days, he pushed and my body withheld its help. After 24 hours in hospital walking around trying to “make it happen” chemical intervention was offered – and accepted. If I was disappointed, Tom’s relief was obvious. Sixteen minutes after the drip punctured my arm, he surfed into the world on a wave of synthetic hormones. None of this head-first-then-shoulder stuff. My skinny, wrinkled, pointy-headed son took his chance and hurtled screaming into the midwife’s arms.

Unfortunately, he kept on screaming. In the hospital he wouldn’t feed. I asked for help, begged for help, even threatened to stand in the middle of the ward with my howling son until someone helped. What I got wasn’t much more that a nurse holding my breast in one hand, Tom’s head in the other and shoving them together. Things got better when we went home, but breastfeeding was always a bit of a struggle for us.

And Tom kept screaming. Endlessly. For weeks.

He wouldn’t sleep – and Tony and I barely managed a couple of hours sleep between screaming bouts. Everyone said he had colic. The emergency doctor to whom I took him one Saturday night didn’t even bother to examine him. He simply asked if he was my first child then told me categorically that all first children get colic.

I tried to find out what caused colic. Wind? Allergies? There is no agreement about this. Infacol, gripe water, herb tea, giving up dairy products, I tried it all. Tom kept screaming. My health visitor was soothing. “He’ll grow out of it.” “The first six weeks are the hardest.” Then when it didn’t get better, “12 weeks and he’ll be a different baby.” He wasn’t, but since popular wisdom said he could no longer have colic, opinion shifted to his weight and naturally his eating. “He doesn’t sleep because he’s hungry, try giving him a bottle” and “Once he’s on solids, everything will settle down, you’ll see.” I rejected the bottle and breast-fed more often. At twenty weeks I started shovelling baby rice down his throat. He ate it happily enough but didn’t sleep any better. The Health Visitor tried another “he’ll be all right when …” but gave up when I asked as sweetly as I could manage if he might be all right by the time we sent him off to boarding school?

Tom’s nine months old now. The first seven months were total hell. Sometimes I really hated him, mostly I hated myself. But somewhere in the last couple of months I’ve slain the giant, or rescued the treasure, whatever. I’ve got through all that stuff you have to do in fairy tales to get to the ending.

When you read this we’ll have been to New Zealand for six weeks, Tom, Tony and me. Maybe while you’re reading we’ll be snuggled up together somewhere, beginning our time of “living happily ever after.”

So am I living “happily ever after”?

In so far as my child is whole, healthy, mostly happy, successful at school, funny, kind, proudly individual and still hugs me every day – hell yeah!

There are regrets; I wish I’d been able to have another child. I think Tom would have made a great big brother. I wish I’d worried about him less, tried to fix stuff for him less and trusted more that he would be able to solve his own issues in his own time (actually, I’m still working on that one); and knowing other mothers who have built great long-term friendships with their kids’ friends’ mothers, I wish I’d been better at the playgroup stuff instead of hating playdough and finger-painting and longing for “grown-up” company.

When Tom was little I used to have nightmares about losing him – and always because I had failed him in some way. I’m a bit more relaxed now, but I only have to turn on the news to know that every day parents do lose children – in many different ways. All I can do is try not to think about the bad stuff, enjoy the good stuff and work on the basis that there will be much more good to come.

So yes, I’m living happily ever after – one day at a time.

My funny, cool son. Am aIlowed to wish he'd lose the beanie?

My funny, cool son. Am I aIlowed to wish he’d lose the beanie?

Weekly Photo Challenge – forward

Always reaching; always moving forward.

Always reaching; always moving forward.

Raising a child is the ultimate act of moving forward. There is no way back, no return. And though all the sleepless nights (in their babyhood and teens),  the tears (theirs and your own), the arguments, lost homework, forgotten sports kit and left-behind cuddly toys, trips to the emergency doctor, mind-numbing nursery rhymes … well, you know all this. Through it all, your child moves forward – at a pace that never seems quite right – whatever it is. And you move with them.

“Forward” is a word that fits my son perfectly, and this photo is kind of symbolic of him. From birth he’s always wanted the thing that was just a little out of his reach. As soon as he could crawl he wanted to walk; walking was only a stepping stone to running. Every skill he has mastered has increased his desire to do more; better. He treats every day as a chance to move forward, and he amazes and inspires me with his capacity to master the new and look for more.

DP challenge – the teacher

DP challenge – the teacher

Mr J. was the first man to seduce me with his voice. Not that he intended to seduce me particularly. I think though, that he knew his voice was magical and used it to seduce everyone. It’s just that he was particularly effective with 13 year old girls, especially those with literary aspirations.

Mr J. was the first actual English teacher I’d ever had – as opposed to just a general teacher who worked us through whatever text book the curriculum prescribed. Mr J wrote the textbooks. He was pale-skinned, dark-eyed and terrifying. He told us once that as a young man he would be sent to represent his family at funerals because – he smiled – he looked the part. His teaching style was physical; he paced the floor, flung doors open, filled rooms with his presence.

He was Welsh, and his voice – at once both subterranean and mellifluous – could make taking the roll sound like Richard Burton reading Dylan Thomas.

To win his praise was to experience a small private orgasm in a damp, crowded classroom.

Most days, he read to us. Dylan Thomas of course. But also Steinbeck, Pasternak, Tolkein and Janet Frame. He made us read to him. He made us write for him – not the dry essays and childish short stories other teachers demanded. For the first time we were freed of structure and narrative; he asked that we give voice to our feelings. He played us music, brought food into class, showed us photographs and demanded our response to these stimuli. With the same ease I found in writing about the experience of eating cinnamon flavoured pastries, I wrote about my childhood, my fears, the way I felt about my alien teenage body.

Mr J. taught us to enjoy the sound of words and even now I read my sentences out loud to try out their rhythm and their melody. I do it even in “work mode” when I’m writing reports or instruction manuals that will never be read aloud.

Mr J. taught me to love the sound of the human voice; reading, singing, seducing. He made us say our names – out loud to the whole class. ‘Susan, Susan’, he repeated, and never had my name sounded so sensuous. I came from a working-class Fifeshire family where the sound of my name was clipped, harsh and unappealing. He made it sound sexy and magical and desirable. He said it was the softest name in the class and looked at me kindly. I was in love.

When we had to write about “what I’m going to be when I grow up” – he expressed disappointment – even anger when I discussed becoming a plumber. Writing, he assured me, what I was born to be. During that year, he encouraged and nurtured me and just seemed to accept writing as my fate. Had I stayed at that school long enough to be in his 6th form class – well who knows?

But it wasn’t to be. My parents, who christened me Susan and then spoke it as a punishment, decided to move away. I left that school, left school altogether and travelled a path that was paved with words rather than copper piping. But they haven’t been my words. I became a copywriter, making a living articulating the voice of my clients.

Ironically perhaps, when I decided to explore creative writing a few years ago one of the exercises I was given was to imagine meeting someone from my past who had championed my writing, and talk to them from “the present day”, to negotiate their presence back in my writing life. Unsurprisingly, Mr J was my chosen champion and this is what I wrote.

This time around I won’t be quite so imtimidated by you; by your voice, your carefully cultivated, darkly brooding presence. I won’t be impressed by your dramatic entrances. Don’t slam doors. I never liked it.

I guess this time too, I won’t be so flattered by your attention. I’m not the infatuated schoolgirl any more. You’re not the dashing deputy principal. Even your Welshness has lost its magic. I’ve moved on from Dylan Thomas (well a bit anyway).

This time around we can talk.

Yes, I know you wrote the textbooks. God, I’m in them. You write about writing. Perhaps you need a champion too?

You were always so positive about my work. So enthusiastic, so enraged when I said I wanted to be a plumber when I grew up. But you were right. You said I should be a writer and I am. Not quite in the way you intended perhaps. But it’s ok. I don’t feel bad about taking money to sell stuff with my words. I don’t do cigarette ads and I don’t sell military hardware anymore. I see myself as a performer as well as a writer. Perhaps “the copywriter” is just a character in a bigger story. I have created her; I sustain her. But I do write. Do you?

This time around, how will it work? Well you can get your bum off my desk for a start. I like to work alone, at least in the early stages. I’d prefer to bring you pieces for discussion. Yes, like school. You set the assignments and I’ll bring them to you for comment. I don’t want you to actually be there with me when I’m tapping the keys. No, I’ll be self-conscious and end up using your words instead of my own and that really defeats the purpose. Perhaps it’s time you made use of your words.

So, I’ll come to you afterwards. We can make a feast of the reading. It’s the best bit anyway. The glamour bit. Oh yes it is. You’re a performer too, so stop kidding yourself. And if we find more than words between us? Let’s just take this one step at a time shall we.