A is five. She was three when her brother S was born. She saw my pregnant belly grow and in the later stages move and writhe about. She knew that there was baby in there and she used to talk to him and introduce herself.
“Hello baby, I’m your sister” she would say.
She wanted him to know her. When he ‘popped out’ she was asleep. I was taken to the hospital because his head was not sufficiently engaged into my pelvis. So for the second time I was denied a home birth. All credit to the midwife for being thorough, when I arrived at the hospital things seemed to get steadily worse. The baby had moved into a superman pose, his arm up above his head and no amount of shoving seemed to persuade him to conform to the proper birthing position. When I say shoving the real truth is a doctor half submerged her arm up my vagina in a move that reminded me of classic veterinary TV shows involving cows. They tried their best to manually move his arm out the way – weird to think he had already been shaking hands with another person before even being born! He kept his hand above his head and proceeded to wrap his elbow around trapping the umbilical cord so that with every contraction he squeezed the cord between his shoulder and his head and cut off his own oxygen supply. We heard the heart rate go down as each contraction got longer. Needless to say the doctors couldn’t leave it any longer and I had to have a c-section. Having a c-section is just as weird as a ‘normal’ birth, all these blue masked people around you and the bright lights. You feel everything, the squidging, the slicing just without the pain and you can imagine the blood and guts on the other side. I thought it’d be the easy option, but I surprised myself by yelling in my best Dutch,
“Is it OK to scream in the operating room?”
I was given the go ahead so I screamed myself dry. I was disappointed to be cheated out of a second birth since everyone goes on about how much easier it is the second time around but hey on the other hand I accepted it, I knew I could have done it the other way too. I had a first birth under my belt and so there was the proof of my real warrior woman status.
The first time around was very different. There were minor complications that landed me in hospital but I ended up with a more or less natural birth. Granted I was very naive and had perhaps listened to too many positive stories about tranquil water births at my prenatal classes. Coming from a hippie dippie family I was aware of the facts, but in a very innocent way. I witnessed 3 births by the time I was 10 and I even dug a hole for the placenta planting ceremony after my sister’s birth. Birth was beautiful and soulful. But this was no match for the hard core reality of the deal and nothing nothing prepared me for the agony of having my bones ripped brutally apart like that. Nonetheless I did it and I did it with style. Apparently I was cracking jokes between the screams. I had been going to kundalini pregnancy yoga and I had practiced my mantras, so after two days of contractions, a few hours waiting in the corridor of the hospital and another 10 or so in the labour ward, I stood up at the side of the bed, clenched my fists and shouted,
“I am a strong and capable woman!!”
The Caribbean midwife in the London hospital chuckled at me and opened 2 sachets of sugar from the tea trolley which she poured down my throat. After a minute or two she advised me it might be an idea to stop shouting quite so much as I was losing all my energy out the front of my mouth by screaming instead of using that energy to push. I love a good drama, but she had a point and I focused in on the pain. I concentrated on the downward impulse and I think the scream turned into a low-pitched growl like a bear. Finally the most amazing person I was ever to meet arrived.
5 years later the baby girl that I gave birth to is lying in her bed and we’ve just read a bedtime story. Quite out of the blue she asks,
“When you have a baby in your tummy, how does it actually get out?”
I hesitate and think how to answer this. I won’t lie to her but I want to keep it simple. I’ve thought of it often, as soon as she was born infact, the fact that she’s a girl. What a destiny to be dealt this particular biological hand of cards. To tell the truth it terrifies me already. I tell her what I can.
“The baby moves down here” I say touching her abdomen “and it comes out through there.” I point.
“The fanny!” She literally looks astonished.
I quickly try to go over some basic facts, that it takes time, that the body is amazing, that it stretches and expands and even changes shape. She’s 5, I’m not going to let her in on the real truth of the searing pain and the blood and the vaginal stitches. Let’s spare her the details. For now.
She looks at me, laughs a brief nervous laugh and then snuggles down between her rabbit and her huge teddy who she calls big mamma.
“Night mummy” she says and hugs me tightly.
If you remember there’s a cute little kids song entitled A Windmill in Old Amsterdam which goes like this:
I saw a mouse!
There on the stair!
Where on the stair?
A little mouse with clogs on
Well I declare!
Going clip-clippety-clop on the stair
I am up early as usual. I haven’t slept more than 6 hours a night in weeks. Today the alarm call is A shouting from her bedroom that she’s scared. It’s 6.15 am. This is becoming a daily occurence and also wakes up her brother so it’s a perfect start to a dark winter weekend. I’ve given up on decent parenting decisions at this hour of the morning so I’m letting them watch Charlie and Lola while shoveling in the rice crispies and I’m nodding off with my nose dipped in a cold cup of tea. I keep hearing a sort of rustling noise coming from the corner of the room. I ignore it for a very long time and just keep my eyes shut. It’s probably one of the various drawings and bits of paper falling off the wall.
We’re down on the floor now killing time doing puzzles until the day begins for the rest of the world. Eventually I decide I better go and investigate. In the corner I remove a hobby-horse and a toy pram to reveal a bag with books in it. Under the bag I find some mouse droppings and something wet, which from it’s smell must be wee. A small plastic dinosaur and some magnetic letters are lying in the pool of wee. I consider throwing them out and then chuck them in the sink with some detergent. I don’t know what specific kind of detergent it is, just the nearest thing I find in a yellow bottle. I then use the same stuff on a load of kitchen paper and wipe the floor. Weird. There also seems to be some red blodges on the floor. Maybe the cat has killed a mouse and it’s wet itself in fright?
Ok, back to the puzzles, but I can still hear something. I pull A’s toy oven away from the wall but there’s just some pen lids and a cherry tomato under there. Then I pull a cupboard from the wall and a tiny grey streak zooms between my legs and out the living room door.
“AAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH” I am shrieking.
“CALL DADDY!!!! I NEED HIS HELP!”
“DAAAAAAAAADDY” calls A up the stairs.
He comes in half asleep looking bewildered “What? What is it? What’s happening in here?”
“A MOUSE” I shout
“God, do you need to be so melodramatic! I thought someone had been murdered!” says P
“Sorry, it’s just a mouse, I didn’t mean to scare you” I’m saying to A who looks worried.
“It’s just because it ran so fast under my feet, it made me jump.”
“Ok, can we all just calm down in here” says P
P closes the door to the living room and chases the mouse around the hallway with a pink bucket until it seeks refuge in the toilet.
“Can you get me a box?.. quick” he asks
I root through the recycling and find a bent bit of cardboard that once was a box. P has barricaded the toilet doorway with some magazines and an air freshener.
He is poised at the door with the bucket. It looks like he has come up with a mouse trapping system, so I leave him to it.
“Pixie” A runs at the cat and closes the door. “I don’t want her to get the mouse.”
I babble on about nature and hunting and predators for a while.
A climbs up on the coffee table.
“I’m a hunter” she’s saying “I’m not scared of anything”
Outside the door I can hear some movement and P calls me to open the front door.
“I’ve got it” he says
He carries the pink bucket and the cardboard outside to the pavement. He opens the bucket.
“What? There’s nothing in here! I really thought I had it.”
I find the mouse burrowing down next to the drain pipe in the toilet. I can see it’s furry back writhing about trying to wriggle under the linoleum.
We put the cardboard barricade back in place and watch, but there’s no way to get at it now.
“Forget it, I’m going to have a lie down” I say
An hour later I come back downstairs. P is in the living room. Kids are still in their pyjamas having a great time making whizz, boink, klaxon comedy noises on daddy’s computerised piano. Everyone seems to have forgotten about the mouse invader.
After a lie down and a renewed sense of purpose I’m on task, ready for the hunt. The mouse is still there in the toilet. There’s a lot of tiny black pellets on the floor. It’s nasty long tail is flipping about from the hole under the drain pipe.
I pick up the pink bucket and freeze.
He pokes his nose out.
I lose sight of him for a second, then suddenly he’s there under the radiator.
I put the bucket down.
I poke at him with an empty toilet roll tube.
He scuttles into the bucket to hide.
I grab the cardboard and try to place it over the opening on the bucket, but he darts out before I make it and the barrier is down so he runs out the doorway of the toilet and towards the coats.
“AAAAHHH! NO!” I shout and I’m clenching my fists and looking around for him everywhere.
“NO!!!!!!! I’ve messed up the system!”
P is at the living room door. “What’s wrong? what’s wrong?” he’s asking.
But I’m beyond help.
“I HAVE TO GET THIS MOUSE!” I’m shouting “I CAN’T FIND HIM!”
I’ve croached down on the floor and I’m starting to cry. I throw a walking boot in the direction of the shoe rack. The mouse runs between the shoes. He’s under a welly. I close the sliding door in the porch and open the front door. I pull the shoe rack away from the wall and find a mass of cobwebs. The mouse isn’t there! He’s already shot across to the other side, under the kids coats. I’m getting hysterical, groaning and flapping at him with the cardboard trying to usher him out the front door.
P opens the living room door and looks at me.
“Can you just be normal?”
“NO!” I snap back
The mouse runs back the other way under my legs and squeezes himself through a 2cm gap in the sliding door and back into the house.
“AAAAAHHHHHHH……He’s on the stairs! Help! He’s going upstairs!!!!!!”
I run at the staircase with the pink bucket and somehow I manage to interrupt one of his mouse hops. I fling the bucket down onto his head.
He runs in the other direction, jumps over the 2 potties and the toilet brush and he’s back in the porch between the walking boot and the umbrellas. I lunge at him with the bucket in one hand and the cardboard in the other and suddenly I seem to have scooped him up and he’s made a dash for it out the open front door. I see him running over the flower bed and through a gap in the wall.
I stand there holding the cardboard like a shield for a moment and then slam the door shut.
When I go back into the living room I am triumphant, but I feel a bit strange.
“I got him out!” I announce and I’m kind of laughing with a weird squeaky wheezing noise.
The cat is asleep on a chair.
“Well done” says P.
“Are you Ok? It sounded like you were having a nervous breakdown.”
We parents are so trying. So obsessed with our progeny are we that every gurgle enthralls us, every damp squirt has us studying the wonderment of their bodily functions and on top of that we won’t stop going on and on about it. We bother you with our stories of poo and sick, like you could care less. And ‘mummy bloggers’ we’re even worse, so it was only a matter of time.
Here we go then. No mercy.
We start the day with a wet bed. All night long A has been coughing up her guts, to the point where she projectile vomits a mucusy yellow liquid over her pillow. She crawls into our bed and I give her some paracetamol and a few sips of water. Her lips are all rough and she keeps asking for more water to soothe her dry throat. She’s been throwing everything back out, so I only let her have tiny fimble-fulls at a time. She coughs continually for what seems like for ever. She flings the covers off, then flings them back on. She sits up and asks for the bucket. Nothing comes out this time. I prop her up with pillows to try to reduce the coughing. She lollops from side to side slipping off the mound of cushions. Eventually she falls asleep and the paracetamol must kick in because the coughing dies down for a while. When she wakes up the non-stop hacking cough is back. She grabs for the bucket just in time. Well done, no sick in the bed! She’s puking up last night’s water.
“I need a wee” she says
I try to shake myself awake. P jumps up
“OK, let’s go downstairs” he says
But A has got the bucket under her chin again. A few more dribbles of slimy water.
“OH” she’s whimpering in between spews “wee wee”
I look down and see a wet puddle spreading onto the middle of the sheets. The retching reflux has made her let go of her bladder.
We clean her up but she’s floppy and lies miserable on the sofa for the rest of the day.
The remainder of the morning consists mainly of doing hulking laundry runs and struggling to lift our ten-tonner of a mattress, replenishing A’s tea, administering spoonfuls of warm apple juice, running about in my pyjamas after S who is not phased by his sister’s illness at all and shoves his big yellow tractor into her face expecting her to join in. At midday I see a delivery man waving at me through the front window. I am a bit sheepish about opening the door to him in my red christmas snowflake pyjamas that my mum gave me last year but he’s carrying a large parcel so I open the door a crack.
Well done mum, there I was scoffing at the pyjamas, but they do the job a pair of pyjamas is supposed to do. And here you are coming up trumps again with this year’s offering already. It’s a large parcel full of various wrapped goodies.
“You can open one each today” I say “and the rest are going under the tree.”
Early Christmas presents, perfect just when today was looking like a total loss. S gets some wooden skittles which gives him something to bash about instead of pestering his sister and as luck would have it the one A chooses to open is a DVD of Annie.
I prop her up on the sofa and stick it in the machine.
Maybe far away, or maybe real nearby,
He may be pouring her coffee,
She may be straightening his tie
I plonk down the washing and join her on the sofa.
Something strange has taken grip of me, I’m singing along, I know all the words! How did this happen?..I’m watching A watching this film and I’m taken back to a misspent childhood of musical appreciation. Hours of listening to the Annie soundtrack. And I always thought I hated musicals!
So my mum is at it again, indoctrinating the next generation.
Only the early 80’s could whitewash a story of alcoholism, child labour and kidnap to this extent.
She’s sitting playing piano,
He’s sitting paying a bill!
Harmless romanticism or should I cover A’s ears and protect her from dangerous gender conventions?
Bet they collect things
Like ashtrays, and art!
Betcha they’re good —
(Why shouldn’t they be?)
Their one mistake
Was giving up me!
Why would I want to collect ashtrays?
So maybe now it’s time,
And maybe when I wake
They’ll be there calling me “Baby”…
“Ahh,” I think stroking my ailing little girl’s arm “my baby”
I’m getting sucked in watching her giggles at the ‘hard knock life’/pillow fight scene. By the time we’re at the turban helicopter rescue, a dose of stage-school sentiment is pepping through her bloodstream. She agrees to honey on toast and a bath.
They both get in, but S is screaming. A realises she needs a poo. I wrap her back in a towel and she runs to the toilet, which in our house is unfortunately nowhere near the bath. S keeps crying, so I end up having to wipe one child’s bum with another naked shivering child wrapped round my waist.
Back in the bath, S is farting.
“Poo poo coming” he says.
Shit…I run and fetch the potty. I fish him out of the bath for a second time and try to plonk him on but he locks his knees rigid and shouts “NO”
“No poo in the bath” I explain “On the pot”
After a minute or two of potty face-off the poo threat seems to fizzle out so he gets back in the bath.
A is larking about with a rubber ring splashing and S is hooting with laughter. Hopefully the coughing and gut wrenching is easing off for today. Yes tomorrow’s a new day and we’ll both be able to get out of our pyjamas.
The sun’ll come out tomorrow
So ya gotta hang on til tomorrow
A gets out of the bath and brushes her teeth.
I love ya tomorrow
You’re only a day a….
A long brown turd is floating up to the surface of the bath water.
“Come on! I said No…poo…in…the…bath!”
I grab S quickly out of the bath, sponge him down in case any poo-crumbs have stuck to his wet skin. Then I get the cat litter scoop and start shit shovelling.
The kids are finally in bed and I’m disenfecting the bath. A day that starts with a wee in the bed and ends with a turd in the bath. Is this one of those grey days Annie means when she says you should stick out your chin and say…“Oh”
“Oh” I say
I am making a trip to England on my own with the kids. P is at home doing up the attic. We have grand plans. One day (after we finally get the plasterboards up) it will become an all-new, sleek and stylish boudoir….so we’ll see what 5 days without the interuption of screams, bum wipes, tears and mayhem brings.
The only slight hiccup to preceedings though could be that ambition outweighs common sense. In the previous week everything I have mentioned from the stuffing that’s falling out of the sofa to the ripped chairs to a missing birth certificate has been met with,
“Don’t worry I’ll do that while you’re away”
I know he has set himself an unrealistic list of jobs, but of course there’s still a part of me that hopes that it’s actually true, that we’ll walk through the door and be stunned by a whole new home-makover like they do in all those TV shows.
I’m not a fan of flying but I have enough experience by now to have plenty of grapes, crayons, crackers and stickers to keep two small children happy, with the added bonus that flying KLM offers, nibbly bits and free apple juice. I love this part of the journey. It seems to take so long for the smiling blue ladies to hand out all the snacks that we are almost landing by the time they come back for the empties. S is practically spilling over with joy to have charge of his very own mini can of apple juice. The can and fidling about with the plastic cup it comes with keeps him busy sipping and spilling all down his trousers until we’re on the descent.
The apple juice has been a winner but it’s a few hours before we make it to my dad’s house and I can have a decent cup of tea. What passes for KLM tea is wishy-washy warm swamp water. Crap ‘Dutch,’ tea served in a charming blue and white ‘Royal Dutch’ patterned paper cup. The pictures of clogs and bicyles are there to divert your attention away from the contents.
Apart from this, the journey goes well and we make it to my dad’s house without too much drama. My dad is very pleased with himself. He reaches into his biscuit cupboard and offers me a mince-pie to go with my long awaited perfect English cup of tea.
Bear in mind this trip is taking place at the end of October, we haven’t even had Halloween.
“Wow” I say. “Christmas is two months away, you’ve got them in already?”
“No” he says “These are just for now. Look, sell by date is the 9th of November”
So it seems the shops are milking it a bit, selling a Christmas treat that you have to eat a month before Christmas.
My dad loves mince-pies. For any non-brits who might not know, a mince-pie is a a small pastry filled with a very sweet mix of raisins and candied peel.
While most of us moan about how early the shops are filling their shelves with Christmas cards and festive gift boxes, my dad is getting excited, waiting for the first appearance of the mince-pie. You can see a little glint of mischeivous saturated fat inducing pleasure in his eyes.
“Why not” I reply
We don’t delay to warm them up properly, we just eat them straight out of the pack. I don’t think I even liked mince-pies when I lived in England, but absence makes the heart grow fonder I suppose.
During our 5 day stay we really start to settle into all the English traditions. I’m getting my fill of the BBC listening to Radio 4 all day, the kids are eating cheese on toast for lunch, with cheddar cheese that melts properly instead of turning to rubber like gouda, I’m breaking a sweat pushing a buggy up the steep hills of a northern English town. We go to visit my mum too and she makes cottage pie and apple crumble!
The hoards now desend on my dad’s house, my brother and his two kids, my sister and her boyfriend, and my mother comes round and my two other sisters. This is turning into a family shin-dig. One of my sister’s has even planned to take the Christmas theme further. I have to admit I am a bit ‘bah humbug’ about the idea, but we’re all here I suppose and we won’t be when the real thing comes around in December.
So on our last evening we order a stupendous Indian takeaway with all the trimmings, which is our Chritsmas family tradition. Noone has to cook and luckily for me I love it. We wear paper hats and read out bad jokes. We have steamed Christmas pudding with custard. I think it is my brother who points out the date on the custard powder,
“Wait a minute” He says “Is this the same packet of custard you had before you moved into this house?”
It turns out to pre-date the Millenium, but we have a quick family conflab and decide that it’ll be fine. After our grand dinner, we round off the evening with very silly Christmassy games, and the general level of merry cackling in the room rises as my brother starts handing out the daiquiri’s. Unlike my childless siblings, my other brother and I at this point have to switch to tea again. The combination of cocktails does not work well with 7am loud demands for weetabix.
All in all I would have to admit that I too got into the whole Chritmas theme this year, even though it was only October. It has been a jolly affair evoking all my lost Englishnes. I pack my suitcase with the inevitable stash of PG Tips, but I also add a few boxes of mince-pies.
We are products of our childhoods I guess and my kids are excited about going home. To where they feel they belong.
“Airplane, up in the clouds, see daddy” says S
A long drudge of a journey and we are there. We arrive home. The kids are happy to see their own toys and books. Lego is lego, but somehow it’s comforting to find it in the box just where you left it. They get into bed with the familiar smell of home. Before too long, I am nit picking, inspecting the progress.
P has varnished the work top in the kitchen. He shrugs his shoulders.
“Yeah, you can’t really notice the difference”
He has finished the plasterboards in the attic! Well done, but I can’t see a lot through all the dust. There is no lack of effort. He’s been working flat out, while I’ve been off having Christmas, but my expectations are high. Doing it all on his own has been ambitious. Maybe he could do with some help.
I wonder if the BBC would send their DIY SOS team over to Holland?
P and I are arguing, well in point of fact, we both maintain that we are not arguing but that the other is. We are extremely grumpy. The baby has a fever and is awake constantly throughout the night and A has a hacking cough that wakes her up. For the last couple of nights she’s slept in with us. Her coughing wakes the baby when I’ve just got him detached from my boob and back into his cot and likewise his crying wakes her up in between coughing fits. Last night at about 5.30 I finally remove the baby from the bedroom and stumble next door into A’s bedroom so as to stop him waking everyone else. He cries but I force him into a huddle and pat him gently til he stops and gives in to another hour of sleep. I drift off my legs bent up and cramped against the end of my daughters minibed, and I wake up amazingly refreshed! As long as you get to sleep at the end of the night for an hour or so your body tricks you into thinking you’ve had a nights sleep! What a revelation. Worse are the nights when the kids keep you up from 4 and that’s it. Don’t be fooled, no amount of love for your children can override the sleep deprivation and keep you patient and calm on those mornings. We are all bad parents.
Before I had children someone once asked me to predict what would be the biggest challenges about being a parent. I said
“Accepting bad behaviour”
“Allowing my children to be themselves”
Little did I realise that the answer was a lot simpler. The biggest challenge is coping without sleep.
In our house sleep has become like a form of currency between P and I. We have invented a system. I get up on the school mornings, and P gets up on the other mornings. On our morning to get up we both bark and complain looking at the clock. It has never been said in so many words but I’m sure we both have the same thoughts when the kids are wide awake and the clock has just ticked past 6, we secretly direct rage at the other who we are sure had the luck of it being closer to 7 the day before when it was their turn. Today was Saturday and the morning waker was P. When I got up after an amazing lie-in at 8.30 he went back to bed. The baby was also having his first nap of the day and rudely woke up crying so that P was again roused from his sleep. I eventually took the baby downstairs and P continued sleeping til lunchtime. The weekends tend to be basically just a rota of who gets to be asleep. So from 8.30 until almost 12 I am letting him sleep the morning away while I try to keep A busy with the lego with a feverish snotty baby clamped to my leg.
At around 11 I am having a mental conversation with myself,
shall I send the kids in to wake him up?
God I’m so annoyed with him
No I’ll let him sleep, he’ll be so happy and amazed at how long he’s slept, and then we’ll all have a pleasant day being calm and rational with each other
No but this is torture, how dare he still be in bed, I’m sure I never get to do this
Don’t persecute yourself, just go and bloody get him up! It’s about time he came and helped with the weekend
I’ve toed and froed about it all morning and now it’s practically lunch time, so just to show everyone how heroic and good at coping I am I’ve wiped the snot off my legs, plonked the baby in the high chair to stop him climbing up my pyjamas and into the oven and I’ve started making the cheese on toast when P finally comes downstairs.
I’m trying to look all unflustered and cool but I am perplexed when I notice that he still looks grumpy!
“It’s too difficult, I couldn’t really sleep”
Ok so now I think I’m going to punch him in the head, all illusions of a pleasant weekend family day are shattered.
What a luxury it would be to over-worry about “allowing my children to be themselves” and to make mistakes, blah blah, this all sounds like a lot of touchy feely babble. I’ve got a whole ton of books on parenting sitting on my book shelves unopened. My eye suddenly scans over the debris of ketchup, juice and scattered paperwork on the table and rests on a book lying horizontally on top of the shelf.
“How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk”.
Brilliant title anyway.