Archive for October, 2009

Three times in the last five weeks…  Three times!  And that’s a lot really — I’m exhausted.  Am I talking about sex? No.  Dates with my husband? No.  Attempts to start weight lifting again? Nope.  Trips to the Emergency Room, that’s what I’m talking about.  And those were just the (dubious) highlights — in between all that fun and excitement were days and days and days of dragging everyone from doctor appointment to doctor appointment, seeing the pharmacist so often that he now greets us like old friends, and spending hours on end stuck on the couch comforting one miserable, clingy child or the other.  Absolutely everything else has had to fall by the wayside — the house is an utter tip and we’re probably overdrawn.  I’ve been so snowed under, I never even got the chance to write about the second trip to ER…  I started, but never got finished.  For now, I’ll just tell you that it involved a really frightening amount of blood.  E2’s blood — who else?

And there we are, the source of all the commotion — always the source of all the commotion.  I really don’t want to be this way, but I am now completely glass-half-empty about my younger daughter — she’s been training me in it since the day that was born.  If there’s something she can catch, some food that can set her off, some way something can go terribly wrong, it will happen for her.  Even the allergist said, she was just destined for this, all this medical hassle…  Some kids are.

But if that’s true, then I am so glad I could be her mother.  Because that kid — the kid with all the allergies, the horribly restricted diet, the terrifying undernourishment, the (now almost confirmed) asthma, the utterly out-of-control immune system — that kid needs a really support system; that kid needs someone always watching over her; that kid needs an advocate.  And I am lucky enough to be able to be just that for my daughter.

Sometimes I really regret becoming a stay-at-home mum.  I’ve been out of the workforce for nearly five years now, and I know my career prospects are pretty much shot.  When M starts on about me bringing in some money, I think of applying to Starbucks or something… and then I get nervous that they wouldn’t have me.  And other mothers I know are starting to go back to their careers — or, indeed, have never really left — and they have kept continuity and are going back to jobs they are excited about and feel empowered by.  I look at them and can’t help but feel a pang of jealousy…  and a bit of guilt for having thrown so much a way.

But the other day, I looked at my daughter’s smiling face — she now finally truly well for the first time in nearly two months — and I realised that all this time, I’ve been free to be fully there for her.  Day after day, I’d been able to wake up (or indeed, not sleep all night) and just be able to do whatever was needed of me that day.  I never once had to make a choice between my daughter’s needs and some other obligation, never once felt that conflict that so many other parents have to deal with.   I had some very hard judgment calls to make in those two months — is she breathing well? do I risk waking her to check? do we go to hospital now or wait…? — but I never had to look down at her and choose between risking my job to stay home again or sending her to childcare while she was still sick.

If I have sacrificed all — and I believe I have — then it has been worth it, because she has needed that level of dedication…  not just to thrive, but simply to survive.  It took love to get through those first fourteen months — nothing less than real love would have sustained someone through the days of nonstop screaming and the endless nights of no sleep until dawn.  If she’d been in daycare, I honestly believe there would have come a point where the hired help would have lost patience, or lost faith, and just put her in a corner to cry through her pain alone.  Because I nearly did.  I did leave her to cry, for a while, now and again, and I love her.  If I couldn’t handle it, how could anyone else have?

So, when I hear about my contemporaries going back to work, or talk to my friends who have flourishing careers, I can’t help the jealousy that immediately flares up, or stop the self-doubt that creeps along afterward.  And when M asks about the money, I can’t help but feel guilty that we are always so skint.  But, when I look at my daughter, I realise that being a stay-at-home mother — for all that sometimes feels so wrong about it — is absolutely right for us, for her.  And I know how very privileged I am that I’ve been able to do it, and I am deeply, deeply grateful.

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Just of late, my elder daughter has been a bit… concerned about death.  She knows that people die, but she doesn’t really understand what that means.  So she’s trying to wrap her four-year-old brain around it.  She plays games about dying.  She sings songs about dying.  She discusses dying.  And she asks a lot of questions…

“Daddy, where is your granddad?”

M paused for a moment, and then replied honestly.  “He’s dead.  I had two granddads and two grandmothers when I was little, but they died.  I had a daddy too, but he is dead now too.”

We have discussed how to handle these questions about death.  We could skirt the issue, or offer euphemisms, or sweet stories to soften the reality.  Maybe we should, really — she’s only four, after all.  But somehow, we’re both a bit rubbish at that sort of thing and so we tend to just answer her questions plainly, without elaborating much.  I keep hoping to come up with a better way of handling it but, so far… nothing.  I really do feel like I’ve failed her in that way.

“Daddy…  ”  Oh no, more questions!

“Daddy, when you die…” she spoke quietly, evenly, “I want to hold your hand.”

And with that, she had grasped all that we have failed to explain to her.  Not a question at all, but the answer — the reason that parents have children.  And the calmest, most honest concept of death that I could have hoped her to have.

M stood, with tears in his eyes.

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In the end, we did go to the emergency room, and a very good thing too.  As I said in the postscript to my last blog post, E2 got me back up again around 3.15am (though I say she “got me up”, I had yet to actually sleep) and, this time, she was having to work very, very hard to breathe.  She was asking for milk, but what she really needed was an immediate breathing treatment, and I carried her straight downstairs to set it up.

The medicine is a strong stimulant — this is what forces the airways open again — and the result is almost always a burst of activity, as if she’s suddenly ingested four cups of strong coffee.  It’s hard to judge her breathing at this point — I have to wait until she’s calmed down a bit to get a true idea of whether the treatment has worked.  She ran around until around 4am, and then slowed and I could begin to see…  and I just wasn’t happy with what I saw.

She was still working to breathe — less than before, for sure, but still visibly working.  And that meant it was probably time to go to the emergency room.  But… I wasn’t sure.   It was 4am, I hadn’t had much sleep for nights on end and no sleep that night at all, I was exhausted…  it was chucking down rain and cold, and dark, and hospital has recently moved to a new location which I don’t know that well…  I thought of my other daughter, fast asleep in her bed upstairs…  I wasn’t sure what to do.   She was working for the breath but…  was it that bad?  Or was it just the usual struggle from having a cold? I couldn’t decide.

I woke M from his deep sleep and made him watch her breathe.  He  wasn’t sure either.  She was so happy and lively in herself, smiling at her daddy, but still… there was that rasping, the belly working with each breath, a slight collapse at the base of the neck…    “Mmmm… ” he weighed it up, “I think she’s ok.  Let’s just wait a bit and see.”

I agreed, relieved to share the burden of the decision.  “But I don’t want to put her in her room.  I want her to sleep here with us.”  It was a sign of his true uneasiness that he agreed immediately — he has always been adamantly against the girls sleeping in our bed.

She didn’t sleep.  She tossed and turned, and sang, and played with her daddy’s ears and his nose, and smacked me gently on the face.  So exhausted was I that I managed to slip into blessed unconsciousness even still, and so grabbed my only sleep of the night — about 30 minutes.  But when I came to again, there was no question — she was not getting better.  I rang the doctor’s office — it was now about 5am.  The nurse on call listened to my description and then said, “You know what I’m going to say, don’t you?”  I did.  “I’ll ring ahead to let them know you’ll be coming…”

Poor E1 sat up with a start start when I rudely flicked on the light, and she blurted out in confusion, “What’s… what’s going on?!?” I told her we were going to hospital and I needed her to get up, use the toilet, and get dressed.  My recognised my tone and followed the orders without complaint.  But when her knickers wouldn’t cooperate, the sleeiness got the better of her and she faltered.  “Mummy, I think I might cry…”  Big eyes, wobbling lip.  I fixed the knickers, gave her a squeeze and a big kiss, and she composed herself again and carried on — so exactly the big girl I needed her to be at that moment.

I rang my mother and asked her to meet us at the hospital, then grabbed a change of clothes and whatever food I could find — breakfast would be corn muffins and leftover pasta with garlic-tomato sauce — and bundled everything and everyone in the car.

I took a wrong turn in the dark and got lost in the city, then found my way again, then took another wrong turn and got lost again.  “Sweetheart, are you ok?” I called out every few seconds, and she’d squeak a small sound in reply.  I barked at E1, “Watch her! Watch her breathe!  Is she breathing?”  This time, the nurse had not suggested an ambulance.  And we’d made the trip every time before in the car so I just hadn’t thought…  Oh, why hadn’t I called an ambulance?!?  I turned left… found it was a road I recognised, worked out the way to the hospital, and gunned it.

She didn’t respond to the first treatment, even after a full hour.  The wheezing continued, the effort with every breath still painfully apparent.  And, more worryingly, even the stimulant no longer perked her up much — she laid on the hospital bed, listless in a little blue gown covered in dinosaurs.  They tried another treatment, with a different medicine and, thankfully, that one.  She began to breathe more easily and her eyes brightened.  We stayed another hour for observation, and then we were released, and left feeling disorientated, surprised to find that it was lunchtime.

The doctor had asked me — no, ordered — to take her for a follow-up the next morning.  He was adamant that he did not want it delayed until after the weekend.  But when we arrived, the pediatrician was running behind, and we sat in the waiting room for over an hour, surrounded by all the other children who also so sick that they couldn’t wait for Monday.  One mother, her arm around a bleary-eyed, coughing girl, told the woman next to her that 300 children had been out that week from her daughter’s school with suspected or confirmed swine flu.  I made E2 put her book down, and slipped into the bathroom to wash her hands.

The doctor’s eyes went immediately to E2’s chest and belly, from the moment she walked in the room.  “She’s working for it now, isn’t she?” she observed before we’d even begun.  “She needs a treatment now.  We could do it here… but, no, that will cost you.  How far are you from home?”  Ten minutes, I told her, and we agreed we could do the treatment the minute we got home.

I like this doctor very much — she is gentle and respectful with my daughters, shows them all the instruments before she uses them, and sings a quiet and soothing  song as she examines them.  More importantly, she genuinely understands that I am generally hesitant to resort to medication, because she is of the same persuasion herself.  So when she suggested at our previous appointment (that is, after the last breathing-trouble run to ER) that perhaps we should consider giving E2 a nebulised steroid treatment — daily steroid, for the next six months — my initial gut instinct to reject the idea was tempered by the knowledge that she wouldn’t be suggesting it if the situation weren’t really that serious.  And yet…  and yet, I couldn’t hide my revulsion.  “Think about it for awhile,” she had said, writing the prescription.  “Pick up the medicine from the pharmacy…  Maybe discuss it with the allergist too.  But the way she goes down so fast…  I think we might need to do something to help her get on top of this, for the future.”   And now the doctor brought the subject up again, suggesting in her gentle manner thatperhaps we should be using that daily steroid treatment — and this time I had to agree with her.  It all gets so critical so quickly with E2…  It’s dangerous to carry on like this.

I asked about swine flu: could the girls be vaccinated, given their egg allergies?  No, but M and I can.  In fact — she pointed her pen at me, concern on her face — we probably should be as soon as possible.  With E2’s history…  She didn’t finish her thought, but I understood.  I have no doubt that if this child contracts swine flu, it will not be the “mild case” that we’re told most people get.  I will be that mother praying fervently, with her forehead resting on the edge of a hospital bed, next to the child fighting for her life.  I need to register the two of us with a doctor — or perhaps ring the allergist — and hope my explanation of the situation is enough to persuade him or her to bend the rules and give the two of us the H1N1 vaccine.

But for now, sat here at the computer and up far too late again, I am just counting my blessings — grateful that we made it to the hospital in time, and that my daughter responded to the treatments at last, and that tonight she is sleeping peacefully upstairs… her little chest rising and falling gently in the dark.   The last few days have been exhausting, draining.   Tackling the next hurdle can wait until tomorrow.

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Another night of watching her breathe, of watching her chest rise and fall and having to make that judgment call.  What has caused E1’s nose to run and M’s throat to feel a bit scratchy has attacked E2 ferociously.  She is wheezing and rasping… and I know those sounds so well.

She spent the day trying to be her lively self.  But she kept crashing and coming over to me, heavy-limbed and whinging, and we’d feed or just sit and cuddle, until she’d regained herself again and would scramble down to join her sister.  But it wouldn’t be long before she’d be back again, asking for milk, or to be held, or just crying because she felt miserable.

The holding and the feeding I didn’t mind — not even the crying, really — but the breathing was worrying me.  When it turned raspy and I saw the first hint of that collapsing at the base of her neck, I pulled out the nebuliser and gave her a breathing treatment — remembering the doctor’s words that I was not to follow my instinct and hold off, but use it as soon and as long as she was wheezing.  Her breath quietened for a while.  And then began to grow noisy again as she played.  I watched nervously…  looked a the clock…  thought about the drive to ER…

Dinner was coaxed into her, and then another breathing treatment, her face hidden behind the mist rising from the mask.  I should have put her to bed — she was so ready, exhausted at the end of her long day — but I held her in my arms and kept her up for another hour, just to watch that her breathing was stable.

M came and sat with us.  She seemed fine, but the rattle was on the edge of each breath.  M looked at me, his mouth pressed tight with concern.  Silent, but our fears the same.  I checked the clock again.

I carried her upstairs and fed her again, and laid in the dark listening to her breathe, feeling healing milk flow out of me.  Her nose was blocked and so she kept having to stop and come off to take air in through her mouth — a frustrating way to nurse.  Eventually, I realised she’d fallen fast asleep, peaceful and safe in her mother’s arms, her mouth open and her breath warm on my skin.  I stayed where I was for a little while, holding her, watching her.  Still and resting at last, her chest rose and fell easier now, the wheezing barely noticeable.  I stood up carefully and carried her to her bed, my apprehension calmed just enough.  She hardly noticed when I laid her on her mattress and gently, gently pulled my arms away.

A few days ago, I was writing a letter a friend in the UK — a real letter, with a pen and paper, as my friend doesn’t really do the the internet that much.  This friend is so dear to me and, yet, it’s so rare that I get the chance to sit and write that I hadn’t done it in nearly a year.  So much to tell…  I was trying to summerise E2’s condition, to explain everything without drowning her details…  the allergies diagnosed, and then more of them, choice between child and cat, the tininess of her, the breathing troubles, the trips to ER, the way she succumbs to every little thing…  Compared to so many dread diseases that she could have, what we face with her is nothing really.  And yet, it’s constant, never-ending…  It touches everything.  It’s changed our lives.

I searched for a word, a way to describe her, to describe her condition…  A nightmare?  No, that wasn’t not right — cancer is a nightmare, not this.  A misery? No!  She’s such a joy!  Even with all there is to contend with, misery wasn’t right either

And then I got it.  I knew how to express it — all the frustration, all the worry and the fear, the tests, the disappointments, the way she ends up so close to the edge with every little thing…  She is an exasperation.  My daughter is a medical exasperation.

But tonight, she is upstairs in the dark, breathing peacefully.  And that is everything.


Post-script: I stayed up a bit too late writing this, and then realised I had to stay up a bit later to finish loading the dishwasher and get it running.  So it was very late by the time I finally laid down in bed…  A few minutes later, E2 was crying for me, alarmingly weakly.   As I lifted her out of her bed, I could see how she was struggling, the base of her neck collapsing in that grotesque way.  I’ve just given her another treatment and she is breathing freely again (though coughing a lot and hoarse) and running around the room like a lunatic, completely hyped up from the stimulant in the drug.  It will be awhile yet before I can see if this will hold, and feed her down again.  It is 4am and I have had no sleep.  ER may still be on the cards.

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When my mum stopped by today, I noticed her car was making a funny noise.  She agreed it didn’t sound right, and then described a few other odd things it had done today.  As I listened to the list of symptoms, it suddenly made sense to me and I knew, more or less, what was going wrong with her car.  I was pretty chuffed with myself for putting it all together because, really, I don’t know a thing about cars.

My pride aside, she rang my dad for instructions.  He’s been a mechanic ever since he built his first motorcycle back when he was still too young for his driver’s license.  He’d know what it was for sure and what needed to be done.

My mum described the symptoms again, and then relayed my diagnosis, with me feeding the words into her other ear.  There was a long silence as my dad spoke, and then she went back out to the car to give him a reading off of one dial or another.  I went back into the kitchen to finish making the tea.

When she came back in later and stood holding her steaming cup to warm her chilly fingers, I asked her if my dad had been impressed by my diagnosis.  I certainly was — it had turned out that I was right.  “Oh yes!” she enthused, her face lighting up.  “He was very impressed!”

It felt good to hear and I was pleased.  But…  no.  Something in the way she’d replied just hadn’t convinced me.  It is one of the biggest problems my mother and I have always had: she, so keen to make or keep everyone happy, often says what she thinks others want to hear, regardless of whether the facts or her own feelings agree.  And we all take that into account and so none of us ever take what she says fully at face-value.  And, because she does it so naturally — without even being conscious of it — I think she assumes we all do it as well, and so she never fully believes anything we say either.  It leads to a ludicrous situation in which everyone is second-guessing (upon second-guessing upon second-guessing) everyone else and no one ever knows if anyone is truly speaking their mind.  I find it exhausting, confusing… and so wasteful:  I have a closet full of clothes that she has given to me as gifts even though I told her in the shop that I didn’t like them, because she knew I “did want them really.”

I tackled this head on. “Mum, did he really say that?” I asked.

Yes!”  Then, “Well… no.”  She looked sheepish, and I smiled at her.

“Did you just lie to me?  To make me feel better?”

“Well…  Well, only because he should have!  It was very clever of you!  And I’m sure he would have been impressed if he hadn’t been so worried about the car…  He was preoccupied…”

This was ridiculous.  I am staring down the barrel of 40 and she was protecting me from the perceived disappointment of an excited five year old.  I appreciate the kind intentions but…  please.  I gave her a kiss on the cheek.  “Mum, please don’t lie to me.”

“No…  Yes…  I mean, Ok.”

But I know she will.  She’s a hopeless case.  And more than anything on this earth, she just wants us all to be happy all the time.

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I was contacted recently by a television producer from LA who was looking for people to take part in a documentary she is making about extended breastfeeding.  I was excited, flattered, and… a little wary.  Depending how it’s handled, the women on the programme could end up looking like amazing mothers or absolute freaks.  I answered the producer’s questions and then added a couple of my own… But really, I knew I wouldn’t get picked.

Television producers are out to make eye-catching television shows — no doubt this producer was looking for extended-breastfeeders who were militant, activist, perhaps shaking an angry fist.  They’re not looking for women like me — I’m still breastfeeding E2 as she nears her third birthday partly because of a medical need (to supplement her severely restricted diet) but mostly… well… just because we’ve never stopped.  It’s really nothing more exciting than that.  I still changing her nappies every day, which I’ve been doing since the day she was born.  I still dress her and bathe her and lift her in and out of her cot (crib), as I’ve done since the day she was born.  And, two or three times a day, we breastfeed, just as we’ve done since she was born.  It doesn’t feel weird and it doesn’t feel radical…  it feels perfectly normal.  It’s just what we do, same as we’ve always done.  And that’s probably pretty boring television.

But if that television producer focuses on only the freaky of extended breastfeeding, she’s going to miss out something much, much better.  It’s quiet and subtle — so soft I hardly noticed it at all — but it is really worth noticing.  The best thing about extended breastfeeding — the real surprise of it — is that it is wonderful, and wonderful because it is the kind of bonding time that mothers of newborns always hope for, but never quite get.  When my daughters were newborns, breastfeeding them was (cue script) amazing, of course, but it had a certain… a certain one-sidedness to it.  Sometimes it felt that the love — much like the milk — was flowing only one way.  I fed and I loved, I cuddled and I stroked, and my baby noticed nothing more than the breast.  There were days when I felt like a milk-machine: the baby demanded, I produced, the baby demanded, I produced, endlessly, endlessly  …and I wanted something more.  I wanted something more from my baby.

It came — eventually — in dribs and drabs: a little eye-contact, and then deep, meaningful gazes — a connection at last!  And then, one day, smiles, and then giggles during feedings, and cuddles that went both ways.  That feeling of being nothing more than a walking milky-bar began to slowly fade.  And it’s just at this point — just as it’s all about to get so much better — that so many mothers are told it’s time they weaned their babies.

Feeding a toddler is completely different from feeding a baby.  For a start, all that panicked frenzy for milk is gone and, in its place, we’re in a nice, easy routine that we both understand.  We feed at home, at the same times every day, and it’s rare for E2 to ask for her milk otherwise (indeed, on those rare occasions when she does, it’s a sure sign that she’s coming down with something).  And she’s really good at feeding now — where she used to take an hour to get the milk she needed, she can now do the same job in 15 minutes.  Breastfeeding a toddler is just so much easier than feeding a baby — like night and day.

But the real change is something far more significant than those purely practical considerations.  The real change is quiet joy.  A toddler, by her nature, rarely stops moving — if her mother gets a kiss, it’s fleeting; a hug is a violent bodyblow before the whirling dervish whirls off again.  Life with a toddler is constant movement, never-ending noise — it is exhausting.  Quiet does not exist… except when we’re breastfeeding.  It’s only then that all the chaos and the wild energy stops, when my daughter crawls up into my arms, and snuggles against me, rests her head on my arm, and we spend that little time just being together.

I sing to her while she feeds.  She smiles — skilled enough now to smile without dribbling.  We hold hands, walk our fingertips together, and trace shapes on each others’ palms.  I momentarily forget the lyrics and she pulls off, corrects me sternly, and then latches back on.  Sometimes she stops feeding and sings to me — a whole song from beginning to end — before returning to her milk.  I ask her questions while she feeds, and she tries to answer them, still feeding and mouth full and sounding ridiculously indecipherable.  It makes me smile…  The whole thing makes me smile.  Breastfeeding has become a time we truly share, a few short windows of quiet and togetherness that punctuate our chaotic days.  She loves to be held,  I love to feel her body-weight on mine, to stroke the soft fullness of her cheeks, to smell her hair.  When she falls asleep, I look at her face — so relaxed, eyes closed, rosebud mouth open, her breath slow and rhythmic, her smell so sweet…  and for a moment, she is a newborn again.

This is nothing freaky.  It’s a mother and a daughter doing what they’ve always done, and finding that’s it changed and become better as time has gone on.  You could never capture that change on film — and, even if you did, it probably wouldn’t interesting television, and so that producer won’t be emailing me back.  But I wish she could capture it, I wish people could understand what it is.

Because the extended breastfeeding story that I’ve got… it’s nothing short of beautiful.

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My husband is a pretty straightforward guy.  He gets up before the birds start singing, he is on time for everything and, if you ask him a question, he’ll answer you honestly.  And, as such, he has a habit of telling the truth when people ask how he likes living in the US.  Every time, he replies that it’s ok, it’s good, but that he’s left his two older kids in the UK and that’s been hard.  Just like that.  And it’s always more than the questioner was expecting — more detail than they wanted to know, more personal than they were expecting to hear.  And more than I wanted him to tell them.  They’re uncomfortable, I’m uncomfortable, he is… he’s just him, answering the question the only way he knows how.

“Oh!” they always say, a little shocked, a little concerned, but trying to hide it.  “How old are they?”  They’re expecting to hear that his other two children are in their early 20s and so it’s all ok, really.  When the reply comes that they’re in their early-mid teens, they are shocked all over again.  “OH!”, like clockwork.  And I feel all the accusations that I believe are suddenly running through their minds: He left his children!… How could anyone do that?!?… He left them for her!… Did she make him do it?!?…
The truth is that he didn’t leave them for me, and we tried everything we could think of to stayNeither one of us wanted to leave Britain, but we were between a financial rock and a hard place and we honestly couldn’t figure out how to make it work, no matter how we reworked the numbers.  Leaving Britain — leaving them — is something we both regretted at the time, and more and more with every day we’ve been here.  And we will put it right, just as soon as we possibly can.

But the people asking a casual question of two foreigners they’ve just met… they don’t know that.  They have too much information, but not enough information…  enough to condemn, but not enough to understand.  And in that moment — the moment after they say, “Oh!” and then nothing more — everything becomes very uncomfortable, everything slows down, and we all stand — hesitant, expectant — in the silence.  And then someone, us or them, breaks it with some lighthearted comment about how it will all surely turn out alright in the end and, gosh!, such a hard economy in which to make a move like that!  We all smile, tightly instead of genuinely, and carry on…

It happened again today, at a bagel shop we go to, with a Greek lady we’d just met.  We all followed the script perfectly.  But this time, when we smiled and carried on, I broke from the usual dialogue and mentioned that we’d been thinking of having M’s son maybe come and live with us for six months (or is it three months? however long a visa will allow…).  It’s not something we’ve shared with anyone before, let alone a complete stranger, but we’ve been talking about it for a while.  It’d give the two of them the kind of day-after-day time together that they haven’t had since his son was starting primary school, and it’d give his son a wonderful opportunity to experience America in a way most Brits never do.  I was surprised to hear myself speaking the words and giving life to the idea like that but, as soon as I did, it felt good.  And the Greek lady’s face lit up.

“Yes! YES!” — she grasped at the positive spin — “It would be so good for him!  And you could get him involved with something to do with kids his own age…  He could make friends!”  We were all smiling now.

I had already mentioned my parents — it’s my standard answer to why we’ve moved here: the grandparents, the grandchildren…! And they always emailed with so many opportunities…! I don’t mention the rock or the hard place — no one really wants to know that in casual conversation.  But the Greek lady began waxing on about the good of our situation — such a rare response given M’s unnerving honesty — and now she brought up my parents.  She said, “It is good for you to be able to be near your parents for a while,” and then looked right at me.  I could see that she meant it — this wasn’t some sugar-coated babble to smooth over the uncomfortableness.  She had lived abroad for twenty years, away from her family…  she got it, how tough it is for everyone, the balance needed on both sides.

It is good to be near my parents.  For as much as I complain that they drive me nuts, it is good.  And they won’t be around forever — they’re not young anymore — and even though I know they won’t be around forever, I don’t think I’d really thought about it that way until today, in that bagel shop.  My parents are here now, lively and young  enough to enjoy having us so nearby, to know and enjoy their grandchildren.

There is no relationship with as much responsibility as that of a parent to a child: M’s relationship with his kids trumps my need to see my parents or their need to see the girls — absolutely, hands down.  We need to go back to Britain for their sake, and we never should have left in the first place.  But I have family that I’ve been away from for 15 years, and I have missed them, and now I am getting the chance to have some little time to be near them, while I still can — and there’s a certain validity to that.   Talking to this Greek lady, I think she was the first person to hear the news of M’s children, to be shocked by it, and then to still go on and take the whole situation into consideration, to acknowledge that there are two people in this partnership and that we both have been away from the people we love.  No one can ever doubt that his kids have the higher priority but… well, it felt good to be part of the equation.

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For all the books and classes and preparation, I anticipated there’d be a lot to giving birth.  I thought there’d be choices, decisions to be made, forks in the road left or right…  I envisioned myself as a cognizant, informed participant.  All those long months, while I waited in excited anticipation of that wonderful day, I saw myself as the driver.

But the truth is that instinct kicked in and booted me right out of the process.  Once the contractions began in earnest, my body started calling the shots; it making all the choices.  I tried to argue, I tried to assert dominance, but to no avail — this was coming from a deeper place than my consciousness could reach.  This was primordial.   My job, as it turned out, was simply to go along with whatever my body dictated.

And when I did absolutely have to take charge and command my body, it took such a force of will to make it submit that I had the sensation that I was alien within my own skin.  The baby was in some distress, the midwife was monitoring the heartbeat, but every time my body did what came naturally and turned me  onto my hands and knees, that beep-beep-beep disappeared abruptly.  The sound just stopped, every time — that reassuring sound, that necessary sound.   I would have to stay on my back, the midwife explained and then smiled sympathetically.  She knew that a back-birth hurts so much more; she knew it would go against what my instincts wanted.  And it did.  As the pain rose up from my abdomen and flowed — twisting, tearing — out to every part of my body, I watched my body tried — arms reaching over, legs turning of their own accord — to move into the position that it knew it should be in.

But then that beep-beep-beep sound stopped, I went straight back to an afternoon a year earlier, and a ten-week scan, a baby glowing on a screen but with no sound of a heartbeat.  That silent scan and my dead baby, and the way I didn’t understand what was wrong until I looked over and saw M crying — it was all seared into my memory so deeply that when my body began to take over and the sound of the baby’s heartbeat would suddenly stop, fear rose up to do what my mind couldn’t.  My body obeyed, the limbs working together to move me back onto my back — back to the pain they were trying to escape, back to the safety of that sound.  Time and again, I watched — almost as a detached observer — as my body and my mind repeated this dance, battling it out between themselves and  labour grew more painful all the while.

But the midwife was wonderful through all of this — she saw my distress and talked me through it, giving me a play-by-play that kept me focused and lucid, and gently reminding me to “push.. push… that’s it, keep pushing…” as each contraction built up and then crashed over me, waves of pain pounding a rocky shore.

I, on the other hand, was not nearly so wonderful — I was exhausted, I was in pain, I was angry.  As she coached me through each contraction, my irritation grew.  Why was she repeating the same bloody thing over and over?  Why was she harping on at me like that?!?  I was pushing!  Wasn’t that blindingly obvious?  My whole body was focused on pushing, my mind was focused on pushing…  Pushing was the only thing they’d agreed on all night!  Pushing was the whole reason I was there!  What the hell else did she think I was going to do?!?

“Ok, here comes another one,” she said, gently preparing me so I could ride the wave instead of getting submerged under it.  “Take a deep breath and focus… and now push… push… that’s it… keep pushing… keeeeep pushing…”

I felt the irritation rise.  How could I focus on pushing with her going on at me like that?  She encouraged me again and I cracked.  “I AM!!!  I AM PUSHING!!!” I bellowed at her.  I heard my husband draw his breath in sharply.

The midwife, fortunately, was not phased and came up to stand by my shoulder as the contraction died away.  “Are you ok?” she asked with concern.  “You holding on?”  I felt sweat drip down between my shoulder blades.

“Yeah,” I sputtered, ashamed of my outburst.  This is not the pregnant lady I’d imagined myself to me.  Where was my poise?  My calm?  I would get this under control, get on and do the job with dignity.

But when the next contraction hit, and the midwife began her gentle encouragement, I exploded again.  “I AM!!!!” I yelled, loud enough to be heard three doors down.  “I…  AM…  PUSHING!!!”  And so I continued, vowing between every contraction to regain my cool and then spewing that venomous anger at the blindingly obvious when the pain returned.

Several hours (and one episiotomy and large yellow suction cup) later, our beautiful daughter was born — healthy, bluey-green, and hungry.  Holding her in my arms, everything else faded away.  I apologised to the midwife — embarressed now — but she smiled at me, laughed a bit, and told me she liked her job most when the patients kept her entertained.  I was relieved — and vowed to be poised in labour next time…


“Mu-u-uuum!” E1 was hopping toward me on one foot, holding one trainer in her hand and the other half smooshed onto the foot held aloft.  “Mum, I can’t get my shoe o-o-on.  HELP ME!” she commanded.  The laces were still tied tightly — her father had removed her shoes last time, obviously — so I removed the shoe from the foot in the air and began to pick apart the knot.

“You have to find a loop… like this… and pull,” I explained.  “And then you loosen the laces all down the shoe, like this…”  Once there was some give, I yanked the tongue forward violently and pulled the heel back, so there was now yawning hole for her foot to fit in.

“There, put your foot in now.”  She lifted the foot, lost her balance, leaned heavily against me and grabbed hard onto my hair.  Even with the extra space, she struggled to get her foot in — time for new shoes soon.  “Go on!” I said, irritated under her weight and with hair being pulled from my scalp.  “Go on!  Push!  Push!

She wasn’t enjoying this either.  “I am!” she replied, irritation filling her voice.  And then, in echo of her mum four years before:  ” I AM PUSHING!”

Tucked away under the weight of her body, I had to smile to myself.  She’s her mama’s girl!  And then I began to chuckle, shaking her as she stood above me and making it impossible for her to get that foot into the shoe.

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