The perfect age

I have a confession to make: I’m not really a baby person. By which I mean, I’m not one of those mummies who absolutely adores the newborn and tiny baby phase. I never revelled in that intimate milky haze. I love my children fiercely, and I would have killed for them the moment they arrived in my arms. But their babyhood was also an extended period of low-level panic: total responsibility for a tiny, vulnerable, helpless human being, who I struggled to understand and who couldn’t tell me what they really needed. It was two years of guesswork and feeling like I was getting it wrong, both times.

My tiny vampire and teddy bear.

My tiny vampire and teddy bear.

I regret, looking back, that I didn’t relax a bit, go with the flow and enjoy them more. It’s a cliche because it’s so true: they really aren’t babies for long, and it’s a very precious time. But we are are who we are, and some of us are brilliant with babies, and some of us are not. I was bloody good at giving birth, I have to say, but doing a good job of an actual miniature human being? Not so much. For me, it was a total headfuck. I wish it had not been so, but there we are. The moment DS was born, I knew we were done, our family was complete, and I have never had even a twinge of broody desire (luckily, since my ovaries were almost certainly nuked by the chemo two years ago) to have another baby.

Now, though, is a different pot of crustaceans altogether. I had an inkling, when DD started school nearly three years ago (OMG, where has that gone?!) that I was entering a phase of motherhood that I would be a darn sight better at. That would come more naturally to me. That I could really enjoy. Before having children, I always imagined myself with primary school-age kiddies. And lo: I have discovered that I really love being a school mom. Happily, I had two summer babies so this bit came round relatively quickly. DD is coming to the end of Year 2 and DS is about to finish reception, they are about to be seven and five, and I would bottle them, right now.

They are delightful, and I want this summer to go on for ever. I always want to watch them bouncing on their trampoline and inventing silly new jumps that reduce them to a heap of hiccupy hysterics. I want them to always be as funny and sweet and cuddly and delicious and adorable as they are right now. They don’t seem to have been particularly scarred by having a rubbish mummy early in their lives: they are disarmingly affectionate – it’s like they are teaching me new ways of loving and being loved and accepting love, every day. Every day, they break down my barriers and melt my cautious heart. Their kisses and cuddles are offered and demanded and given so freely. They are fearless with their love, still, and it is a total joy and privilege to be with them, most of the time. They are well-mannered, rarely horrifyingly naughty, and our minor spats are usually because they are so in the moment with what they are doing, they’ve tuned me out. Which is fair enough, really: pirates don’t need to put sensible shoes on.

I am pretty much the opposite of a ‘helicopter parent’ – I’m more of a stealth bomber, hovering out of sight in case of extreme crisis, and I encourage them to be independent and to make their own fun. And occasionally I hear a bored whine, and it is then that I know the magic is about to happen: in the space where they are a bit bored, their most exciting and imaginative new games and activities flourish, quite without my interference. They play beautifully together, and are completely in love with each other: DD is still unselfconscious enough to enjoy playing with her little brother almost more than anyone else, although he is starting to wind her up on occasion, being his father’s son. I avoid getting involved in their disagreements as far as possible (unless there is blood, obviously) not just because I can’t be arsed/am doing laundry/have a rather tricky level of Candy Crush to conquer, but because they are quite capable of resolving their differences, compromising and negotiating. In fact, I reckon they sign the peace treaty (ie agree on a movie or a game or who’s gonna wear the Cat in the Hat outfit) a lot quicker when I’m not doing a Ban Ki-moon act.

Every day, I take joy in the little acts of care for them. I take satisfaction from washing, ironing and putting out their uniform every night. I make their packed lunches with love (all those cute little Tupperware boxes!). I love making their beds in the morning, opening their curtains and letting the day into their room. I love doing the school run. They are so happy at our wonderful school, and doing so well. I love the little facts they come home with every night, and their excited bulletins about the next day. We are lucky that our homework burden is light, so after school they are free to ride their bikes and just be children. Apart from non-negotiable swimming lessons on a Monday after school, we don’t have any other scheduled activities at the moment. They are happy enough, stimulated enough, and tired enough as it is. Yesterday, we had no playdates planned, so we just hung out in the garden, the three of us, eating lollies, reading Grazia (me) and playing some sort of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory/Despicable Me mash-up (the smalls), whose rules I didn’t quite understand.

And the next stage is letting them teach me not only about love, but also about play. They are old enough, now, to play a rudimentary game of cricket, football or catch in the garden. They are old enough to write the clues for a treasure hunt. They are old enough to go for long adventures in the woods. They are old enough to make quite complex structures out of Lego or clay. They are old enough to try magic tricks and card games. I’ve never really enjoyed stuff like role play (no sniggering at the back), and puzzles, but the stuff they are into now is, well, more interesting. Take Harry Potter, who features large in our lives at the moment. IMG_2418They are mesmerised by the first three movies. I’m reading the first book to them at bedtime and they are properly enthralled. I think, to be honest, that that was the moment being a parent first made complete, joyful sense to me: when I started reading them books I love and saw the wonder in their faces. (Doing Hagrid’s West Country accent is no problem, as a Salisbury girl, but my Professor McGonagall is appalling). DH took great joy in whittling them a real wooden wand so they could properly be Harry and Hermione. They both saved up for a toy owl, so they have their own Hedwigs. I spent hours following a YouTube tutorial to make them Golden Snitches. DS is mooting a trip to Harry Potter Studios for his fifth birthday.

They want me to join in their play more than I do, and are surprised and delighted when I stop the chores and muck in. DD’s face when I actually got on the trampoline the other day and showed her how to do a pike was a picture – she lit up, which was worth the alarm caused to my pelvic floor. I plan to say yes to their games a lot more, this summer. Yes to water fights! Yes to races! Yes to hide and seek! IMG_2454

Because much as baby days were over quickly, this golden bit of my darlings’ childhood is rushing past. And this time I really do mind. I am already having conversations with friends about what age our girls will be when we allow them into town alone and let them have a mobile phone (the consensus seems to be between 11 and 12. That’s potentially only four years until the Letting Go starts…) It’s not going to be long before we have teenage strops and sulks and they don’t want anything to do with each other or us (but still desperately NEED us to get them, and love them unconditionally – I anticipate another challenging period of communication equal to having a newborn!).

In the meantime, for the first time in my almost-seven years as a mother, I kind of feel like I am doing a good enough job. I don’t always get it right. For every day that I’m calm, cheerful and easy to be around, there’s another day when I’m preoccupied, knackered and impatient. I really appreciate the silence in my home office while they are at school, and I rejoice, some days, when it’s time for the bath taps to go on and mummy’s little helper is chilling in the fridge. But I also rejoice on Saturday nights in, when they are allowed to stay up to watch trashy talent show telly with us, and we get through bags of tortilla chips and houmous together and discuss which mentor or judge we’d like. When we were in Rome for DH’s 40th at Easter, after the first two days we were missing the kiddies terribly and planning our next trip to the Eternal City with them in tow, and a bigger icecream budget. They are wonderful little humans, and great company. And, pelvic floor notwithstanding, I will be doing the Bottom Jump on the trampoline with them in a matter of hours. Lucky old me.


The C-Files

Another perfect pressie from my sis

Have you ever seen your medical files? As of last year, my hospital file was pretty thin: a laparoscopy to treat endometriosis when we were having trouble conceiving after two years of summoning the stork, then maternity notes from having our two kiddies, and a potential issue with a mole (the skin type, not the small furry mammal or a spy). C’est tout.

Then come October 2010, it started padding out. Today, it’s around five inches thick and pretty hefty. Much like this blog, it started out as an everyday tale of an ordinary woman (mother, worker, wife, daughter, sister, friend), then took a dramatic turn into tragedy, before rallying, at the end of Part Two, with an uplifting sequence.

Today I not only got the opportunity to carry this tome, but also to read it. I had my appointment with my surgeon, the Very Magick Miss Tracey Irvine, to go over the Full Story of my surgery results, followed by an oncology appointment to regroup post-chemo and pre-radiotherapy. I said I may as well carry my own notes from one meeting to the next. And there was the usual 80 minute wait in the oncology clinic, so, er, me and DH had a look. I have to say, it felt really sneaky, and illicit, like we were doing something terribly naughty, and every time a nurse went by I closed it and acted all innocent. Which is weird, because it’s my file, all about me, and there’s nothing in there I didn’t know already, bar some tables of medical data I don’t understand anyway. But still, it’s an unusual situation, having access to your notes.

[Quick break for some olives and a shlurp of sauv, back in a sec.]

It was a fascinating read. Not quite Man Booker prize-winning (although who knows what creative writing project might be the result of this rather interesting interlude in my life). Now I know everything’s looking good, I could read things like ‘malignant’ and ‘stage three, grade three’ quite dispassionately and think, gosh, no wonder everyone looked so serious when I was diagnosed. This is the sort of cancer that used to be a death sentence, basically. I asked specifically not to be told these things in the beginning, as I didn’t want to scare myself, and was concentrating on being in a calm bubble and successful treatment. All the correspondence between my hospital teams and my GP is there, including a couple of letters from my oncologist, Dr Houston, describing me as a ‘very pleasant lady’. Hilarious, esp as I have probably been one of his least passive patients.

There were also some things which I found emotional to read. The labour, birth and post-natal records for DD and DS were really moving. The exact moment I ‘delivered a healthy male/female baby’!!! Although there was a BRILLIANT contrast between my birth plan, which stated primly ‘I would like to use the birthing pool,’ and a note from the midwife I was yelling at during DS’s birth: ‘She asked for Entonox (gas and air). She does not want to use the birthing pool’.

And then a surprising, small note from the doctor who did my original mammogram (and broke the news, as gently as she could, that I had cancer and would need surgery and chemotherapy) to my surgeon, saying very kindly that we had found the news very difficult to hear, especially DH, and we would need lots of emotional support on our ‘cancer journey’. That blew me away. I’d sort of assumed all the scientists we’ve dealt with had been focused on the facts of treating a tumour, but thinking about it we’ve had a huge amount of recognition of our feelings, too, and have been handled extraordinarily sensitively. I know this isn’t the experience of everyone I’ve heard of who has been treated for cancer in other parts of the UK, and it made me feel, yet again, extremely lucky.

Anyway, back to my meeting with my surgeon today. I hugged and thanked her. She examined me, changed my dressing, and looked rather pleased with her work. Everyone who has changed my dressing over the past week has marvelled at her tiny stitching – the scars really are incredibly fine already, like in the Elves and the Shoemaker or something. Then (reclothed) we got down to business. In the beginning, I had two tumours side by side, measuring over 4cm. These had visually and palpably disappeared midway through the chemo. All that remained was 4mm of low grade cancer. Which she removed. There had also been 9cm of high grade DCIS (pre-cancer). This entire area was removed. When this was analysed, there was only 3cm left, so the margins were more than generous. Remember, this isn’t meant to happen. These are good drugs, people, and I say this as someone who will normally err on the side of complementary or alternative therapy. As I had definitely had cancer in one lymph node, all 30 nodes in my right armpit were removed. In the lab, not one of these showed any sign of cancer. As Tracey said, it’s a shame I had to have such extensive surgery just to be on the safe side, but with these sorts of remarkable results, my prognosis is excellent.

Mr and Mrs Pinchy expressed profuse thanks. And exited stage left. And held each other very tight and cried in the corridor. Relief at the confirmation that we have scaled a big old peak and now we just have a long but fairly unchallenging stumble down the other side.

And then, grinning, to see my consultant, Dr Houston. Actually, we saw one of his new registrars, which I was a bit disappointed about. Partly because I like him, and his enthusiasm (and he thinks I am pleasant!) and partly because I couldn’t tell him DS’s first joke, aged two and a half: ‘Knock knock. Who’s there? Dr. Dr Who? Dr HOUSTON!’ Little ears…

The hot news from oncology is that Dr Houston is thrilled. And all the results of my chemo, surgery and various blood tests indicate that it would be a really good idea to get started on the Tamoxifen this week, and there is no medical reason not to. This is the little daily pill that I take for five years to basically prevent this sort of cancer happening again. And next week I have another radioactive heart scan (MUGA) and next Thursday I restart the Herceptin drip (every three weeks until Novemberish). And I’m being referred internally to radiology for my radiotherapy, which will be arranged and planned out in a few weeks, and then started straight after our summer holiday at the end of June.

So, plenty more treatment to come, but everyone at the hospital is smiling now, instead of having a Serious Face or doing that head-held-on-one-side sympathy thing. And I want to say a special thank you to my sis and my friend L who each had one of our children for the afternoon so DH and I could go along to both appointments together and hear the story first hand. I feel a happy ending is on its way…

A poignant picnic

We woke up to some very sad news on Saturday morning. My sister-in-law had gone into labour at just 18 weeks pregnant. They had a baby boy, but lost him two hours later. My brother-in-law said he was a ‘good looking bugger’. Tiny, perfect, but very much not ready to be born.

The only thing we could think of to do that might help in any way was to travel to Salisbury, where they had been staying with my in-laws, and take our nearly-three-year-old niece out for the day so her mummy and daddy could get on with the rather horrific job of registering their son’s birth and death. So we picked her up and took her, DD and DS – who all adore each other, DD being bang on a year older than her cousin, and DS a year younger – to Old Sarum for a picnic.

I hadn’t been there for years, but both DH and I grew up in Salisbury and spent much of our childhood there, running around the ruins of the 1,000 year old castle on the hill and the original cathedral, climbing piles of stones , watching microlights take off from the airfield over the road, and looking over the amazing views of Salisbury and its cathedral spire. We also spent much of our young adulthood up there, getting up to rather less innocent pursuits.  

It was a terribly poignant day, watching those three small, funny, clever, lively, beautiful children dash around, while thinking of the brother and cousin they would never know, who would never kick a ball with them in the sunshine. DH and I were in or close to tears for much of the day, while being very much aware that all that mattered, all we could do, was make sure that our niece had a happy day.

I think we called it right. Her dad called after we’d dropped her back at her Grandma’s house, exhausted and grinning, and said that it was the best thing we could have done. He’s being terribly philosophical at the moment, and I know he’s right that some things just aren’t meant to be, or happen for a reason, but I really don’t know how anyone deals with something like that. As I get older, I know more and more couples who have been through terrible tragedy with born and unborn babies, or are dealing with children who need a lot of medical support. I have held my two healthy little ones extra tight this weekend, appreciating how precious they are and how much of a bloody miracle it is that they are here.

Hospitals and memories

I’ve been to the hospital twice in the past two days. Very fortunately, nothing to do with our generally robust little family. My gorgeous godson’s in again with his dodgy wee ticker and I’ve been running a few errands for his knackered mummy.

The funny thing is, each one of the thankfully few times I’ve been there since DD was born nearly four years ago, I feel quite emotional. Every time I step into the main corridor that leads to all the wards and see all the paintings by the mouth and foot artists on the walls (or ‘foot and mouth’ as I heard a visitor say yesterday), I am transported straight back to the early evening of 1 August 2006, when me and DH walked very slowly walked to the maternity ward, stopping every couple of minutes for another contraction. I’d made it to 7cm on TENS at home, unbelievably, so I was in the throws of that bit where you are weeping ‘I can’t do this!’ before they give you The Good Drugs.

Just a couple of noisy hours later, there she was, our first baby, perfect in every way. And pretty much bang on two years later, DS was born, in the Home from Home unit like his sister, but the room next door. I remember their births so vividly in every respect. A little different, both good, as far as the experience of forcing a watermelon through a hosepipe can be considered good.

DD, one day old

So the place of their births is sort of a holy place to me, where these two little miracles occurred. I’m incredibly grateful that I’ve been blessed with two such healthy little people, and the hospital has not become somewhere where we are very often. Even though the few times I’ve been back since DD was born have been for more prosaic though no less urgent reasons for me or the kiddies, I always feel myself welling up a  little. And not just because of the outrageous car park charges.

Love my babies, hated being pregnant…

I’m accompanying someone to their 12 week scan on Thursday. Very exciting as I’ve only ever seen my own babies in my tummy and that’s always a bit fraught with worry. The 3D scan we had of DD was especially cool, definitely one of the highlights of being pregnant for the first time.

Broadly, though, I have to admit I hated being pregnant both times.  When I first found out I was pregnant with DD, me and DH were so over the moon we took photos of me all excited, holding the little digital stick saying ‘pregnant’. She’d been a very long time coming.

A week later, the morning sickness kicked in. This wasn’t so good. It’s a very badly named condition that makes you think that you might be mildly nauseous when you wake up and you’ll be fine after a bit of tea and toast. Oh no. Not me. All-day projective vomming was more like it.

 Then when I was expecting my little boy, who made me violently sick for four months, the little sod, my neighbour commented that I was ‘blooming’. I know this was not true, and I’m not being modest, because I had just liberally and uncontrollably sprayed myself and the inside of my car with ‘morning sickness’ while driving home. I was blooming only in the manner of that tropical plant whose very rare flowers smell like vomit. Or do I mean rotting flesh?

 Another crap thing about being pregnant is the inverse relationship between how frisky you feel and the extent to which your partner finds you attractive. In the early weeks, daddy-to-be is feeling all virile and is hoping for old-style shagging again now that you don’t have to do the special baby-making version which involves specific times of the month, week and day and lying there with your legs in the air for 20 minutes afterwards. But no, mummy-to-be is feeling rubbish, exhausted and pukey, and although her newly swollen boobs look enticing, her entire upper body is a no-go area: ‘Don’t touch my f***ing painful tits!’ They felt like they were going to explode, like I had some integral suicide bomber kit.

 Then as the pregnancy progresses – this is measured in weeks, by the way, not months: everyone knows human gestation lasts nine months until you are involved in a pregnancy and then it’s suddenly a rather more annoying 40 weeks – so the bump gets bigger and you start looking like there’s a baby in your tummy rather than a large undigested portion of lasagne. And gradually mum really does start blooming like a great ripe fruit and feeling really quite sexy. And at that exact point, dad realises he really doesn’t fancy her anymore.

I’ve heard some of my friend’s partners claim this is something soulful to do with their missus becoming a sacred vessel and temporarily having a more important and awesome job than being their lover. My own DH, bless his lack of GCSE biology, thought his thing might somehow hit the baby on the head. God only knows how big he thinks it is.

 The honest answer is that the more pregnant you get, the more like a badly animated slow-moving herbivorous dinosaur you look. So your partner usually passes up his only chance since the very early days of the relationship of having sex every night because you look extraordinarily fat and pasty, having craved nothing but White Foods like tinned macaroni cheese for months.

And don’t get me started on the sciatica, the ‘bladder weakness’, the stretchmarks,  and the weird stuff that happens to your hair (greasy, then glossy and thick, then falls out).

So I’m looking forward to going along with someone else to see the little bean wriggling, safe in the knowledge that now my two precious little people are here, my baby-making days are over.