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Mid-morning yesterday, my mother brought me a cup of tea, and my daughters brought their beaming smiles.  “Mummy! Mummy! We’ve made you a card!”

Ah, now, this is what you want when you’re not well — a nice cuppa, delivered to your bedside.  And this is what you envision when you become a mother — the glowing faces of your children as they bring you their home-made Get Well cards.

I looked down at my card, my mother-heart warmed with love.  I looked again.  Was… was this card threatening me?  This is what my children were giving me?!?

My mother chuckled a little under her breath and shrugged her shoulders.  “They told me what to write and I just wrote it…”

E2 had disappeared, but now I heard her footsteps on the stairs. Clomp clomp clomp. Her face was again that wide grin — so pleased to see her mummy after a whole morning without her — and she held in her little hands a plate of carefully laid-out, half-smooshed grapefruit pieces.  My breakfast, from my lovely daughter!

“Oh, thank you, sweetheart!  Is that for me?”

Her brow furrowed and she looked suddenly surprised.  “No! It’s for me!”  And she leaned onto the foot of the bed, setting the plate down heavily and spilling grapefruit juice onto the comforter.

I sighed.  She dug into her fruit.  And then looked up and beamed that grin — that grin that melts her mother’s heart — as juice ran down her chin.

And I remembered what all mothers learn quickly and must never forget:  children bring an abundance of love… but there is very, very little sympathy.

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I will be in bed in seven minutes.

I need to go to bed in seven minutes because in seven minutes it will tomorrow, and tomorrow I need to start the day bright-eyed and raring to go.  Tomorrow I need to exercise first, maybe even before the children get up, have my shower, eat my breakfast, charge into the day as if it were the first day of the rest of my life.

I need to do this because I never do this.  I stay up late, late, late into the night, and then cling to my morning-sleep like a drowning man to a rope.  And I get up fairly late — well, very late by mummy-standards — when E1 calls me, and I put her on the toilet, and bring her back to bed with a nice cold cup of milk, and then tell/convince/cajole/beg her to let Mummy sleep a bit longer.  Please, please, let me sleep a bit longer…  I am soooo tired… I don’t tell her it’s my own fault.  It just is what is.  And we can all get up when the clock says…

She’s so good — she waits.  She sleeps, or she plays.  And she watches the clock.  And her sister make wake, but she reads a book to Pink Lamb — I hear her through the monitor, and smile sleepily.  And it’s all good — in our world, this is just how it works.

But I know that sounds wrong — deeply wrong — to most people.  Statistically, the world is mostly made of morning people, and they have set the ground-rules.  Early to bed, early to rise…  The early bird gets the worm… (Seriously, is that last one meant to inspire me?).  And that’s great — it works for them.  But nightowls are actually wired differently — our brains have been shown to be active in the evenings in a mirror of the way that morning people’s brains are active in the morning and, likewise, less active in the mornings the way others’ brains are winding down in the evening.  Oh, we swim against the tide, but it’s not by choice — it’s how we’re made.

And I wouldn’t have chosen it, if I could have.  Life is harder as a nightowl — it doesn’t go down well.  M doesn’t get it one bit — to him, it’s a crime against nature itself that I don’t have those girls up at 6am!  And my mother has commented a fair few times.  It looks like laziness to anyone who isn’t in the same boat.  My dad has no idea how late I stay up…  I dread to think what he’d make of it.

I want to change it.  I do want to claw those hours back on the clock, shift our days back by three hours so they end a bit earlier and so can start a bit earlier.  You know, at a decent hour, like decent folk do.  I’ve been trying for a year, and I haven’t managed it.  Foiled at every turn.

I explained to my mum, you can’t spend two-and-a-half years getting up with the baby once… twice… three times a night without it affecting your sleep patterns for a long time afterwards.  You can’t spend the first 14 months of that child’s life never getting to sleep before 4 or 5am without it having its impact.  Particularly when your body is already wired that way and goes ahead and happily sets the new pattern in stone.  “Hmmm,” my mum said, her disapproval softening a bit, “I’d never thought of it that way.”

So, I go to bed early.  I make myself do it even though I don’t want to, and even though there are books to read and websites to look at and bills to pay and yarns to spin.  And I put it all away and go to bed — and then I stare at the ceiling.  I lie in bed and stare at the ceiling for an hour… for two hours… for two-and-a-half, until it finally rolls around to the time I would have gone to bed normally… and then I fall asleep.  It’s incredibly frustrating!  But I do it because I need to claw this body-clock back to something decent.  So night after night, I remain determined… and after three nights, it starts to get a bit better, like a clog in a pipe that slowly starts to break up, the sleep begins to come a bit easier…  And then, just like clockwork, on the fourth night, one of the girls has me up for some reason or another once, twice, maybe three times…  and I am shot away.  My body conspires against me and the whole cycle starts up again.  Please let Mummy sleep for another hour or two…  I’m so tired… We can get up when the clock says…

But now it’s time.  This time, I am going to do it.  I am going to get past this and get it to work!  When M went to bed, I promised him I’d be right up.  Just a couple of things to do, and I’ll be in bed before midnight.  I would!  Which is why I have to be in bed in seven minutes, before today becomes tomorrow and the cycle starts again.  Only seven more minutes.

Except that now it’s gone ten minutes to 1am.

Damn!

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When we first moved into this house, we debated about ripping the carpets up and finishing the hardwood floors.  I knew they were diamonds in the rough.  I wanted to do it — really, really wanted to do it — but everyone else was against it.  M thought we didn’t have the money to spend (and, to be fair, he was right).  My dad couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to “just move into the house and enjoy it, as he would.  And my mum was adamant that hardwood floors are so much harder to keep clean than carpet (but the truth is she just doesn’t much like hardwood).

In the end, I listened to none of them, and I have never regretted it for a minute.  Not only because they are gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous.  And not only because I realised with hindsight that, with her allergies and asthma, E2 probably would have suffered a lot more with carpet in her room than she is with that nice clean hardwood.  And not only because there were quite notable decreases in M’s migraine and sinus problems first when we moved to the States and changed to forced air heat, and then yet again when we moved to this house with its hardwood throughout.

No… no… not just for all those reasons.  No, I was so glad that I had decided to go ahead and rip out the carpets, to listen to my gut and get the hardwood finished all though the house…  I was so glad today, as I followed a little trail from one room of the house to another…  A little trail of neat little brown plops of poo — one every few feet — which led me through three rooms and finally ended at a pair sagging, straining training pants, filled way beyond their capacity, employed far beyond their remit, by a little girl who had completely forgotten that she wasn’t wearing a nappy and is now supposed to use the toilet instead.

I lifted her in one swift motion and deposited her — clothes, socks, training pants, and all — straight into the bathtub, and ran downstairs to quickly collect the plops before someone else unknowingly squished them underfoot.  And, as I gathered them up easily with a damp cloth and some disinfectant — to the panicked howls of  “But Mummy I am still wearing my clothes!!!” — I thought back to my mum’s argument…

When she said carpet was easier to keep clean, she was never imagining this.

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We went out on Saturday night and I didn’t have much to drink at all — I didn’t! — but I got myself to bed so late again and so, the next morning, I was hung over from pure self-made exhaustion.

M came in the room, banging the door and waking me up with a start.  Sunlight streamed mercilessly through the blinds, and  I could hear the girls downstairs, playing with their breakfasts instead of eating.  “Good morning!” he called cheerily and very loudly.  “It’s a beautiful day, so warm again for November.  Come on, get up!  Time to get ready for church.”  I peeled one eye open, caught his huge grin and felt the throbbing in my head, and collapsed back into the pillow.  “Come on!” he bellowed encouragingly, shaking my shoulder.

I pulled the covers over my head.  “I aaaaaam!”  It came out as a groan and a whinge and was patently untrue.

Ten minutes later, he returned.  He is a the ultimate early riser, a consummate schedule-keeper, and me still face-down in the pillow did not fit in with his plans.  “Come on!  Get up.  It’s TIME!”

I am all about the sleeping, especially in the morning.  Bed is my best friend.  I shifted a bit… couldn’t open my eyes…

“If you don’t get up, I’m going to…”  He paused, trying to come up with a big enough threat to pry me from my warm cocoon.  “I’m going to… ”  He paused again, and then he got it.  “I’m going to ring your mum and I’m going to tell her that she’s right and you’re wrong a-a-and… you really should be best friends with her and… um… you don’t share enough with her and you don’t really appreciate her they way you should and… um… if you were a good daughter you’d…”

Aw, hell!  I couldn’t take this!  He’d beat me.  I got up.

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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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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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This time I spotted the signs much quicker — the belly breathing; the way the base of her neck caved in on the inhale; the listlessness, so much so that she was lying flattened on the floor and wouldn’t even lift her head — and I knew what to do.  My mother held her on her lap as I put the mask over my daughter’s face and turned on the nebuliser.  She would be fine, I knew.  I’d done my bit by spotting the signs and now her breathing treatment would open her airways again.  It would not go to croup this time.

And she did perk up for a time — the adrenaline rush to her system gave her a jolt of energy that spilled out in songs and giggles and, once she was eventually free of the mask and the machine, the kind of crazed dancing that only drugs can produce.  I watched her mania with waves of relief.

So the shock rocked me to the core when I realised only thirty minutes later that she was struggling to breath again.   Again, the belly-breathing.  Again, that horrible pulling at the base of her neck.  It was too soon to use the nebuliser — much too soon, it should have lasted four hours!  How could she have fallen back so badly in only thirty minutes?

A cursory call to the doctor’s office, only to confirm what I already knew — we were to go directly to the Emergency Room, by ambulance if necessary.  I calmed my racing heart, told it that those words came as no surprise — to no avail — and began to pack our bags.  We needed enough nappies to perhaps see us through the night, more wipes, and food.  We can go nowhere without bringing our own food — even the hospital struggles to cope E2’s extensive dietary restrictions.  Last time, it produced an apple and a bowl of plain rice noodles covered in canola oil.  She’s two years old: of course she turned up her nose.

But the timing was terrible and the cupboard was bare.  “I’ll make something,” my mother said, hastily shoving a pair sweet potatoes into the microwave.  “You…” she looked at me, still in my pajamas and with great globs of snot dried in my hair.  E1 had cried through the night with a sore throat so pitifully that I’d slept (or, rather, not) beside  her, contorting my too-long body into her toddler bed, where she’d sneezed repeatedly, violently, all over me.  My mother winced a little, “You have a quick shower — quick — and get dressed while I make the food.”

I looked at my daughter, judging her breath.  She was working at it for sure, much more than she should have been so soon after a treatment, but she was ok for the moment.  I could see that. There was time, I thought, and dashed to the bathroom.  My shower lasted two minutes — soap on, soap off — but  I kicked myself for it the whole time, stepped out onto the bathmat in a guilt-induced near-panic.

In the car as I drove, my mother kept her body turned around in the passenger seat, watching E2’s chest rise and fall, and periodically telling me to slow down.  My wet hair dripped down the back of my neck.  E2 kept breathing.

At the hospital, they issued us with masks first and read the registration paperwork.  “Breathing troubles”, I’d written and they waved us straight in.  Weight, blood pressure, stethoscope — ah yes, that wheeze and rattle — and they settled her down for another breathing treatment, this one lasting an hour.  She perked up again almost immediately and asked to take the mask off so she could dance with her fidgetting, bored sister.  “No, sweetheart.  You just breathe,” I told her.  She sang instead, which was just as good.

The treatment finished, they left us for a while to see how it took.  But when they returned at last, the rattle was still there, so she had another — shorter this time, a steroid.  And that one did the trick.   After another long observation period, made more difficult by one child who was now totally wired and the other who was bored beyond her tolerance, they declared her fit and released us, with a prescription for more steroids.

We drove home in the falling dusk.  E1 succumbed to sleep immediately and, as the adrenaline rush began to die away, her little sister followed suit.  I watched them both in the rear-view mirror: their faces relaxed and angelic, their mouths both hanging open, and their chests rising and falling …easily, rhythmically.  I counted my blessings.

And then I counted something else: four colds so far this year, and all four times, we’ve had to use the treatment to keep her breathing.  Four colds so far this year, and two have ended up in the Emergency Room.  What gave the rest of us sniffles and coughs brought E2 to the edge of disaster every time.

We pulled up to the pharmacy and I turned off the car.  It was dark now and I was exhausted, ready for bed but knowing it would be another long night with two sick little girls.  “Oh, Mum… I hope she outgrows this.”  I reached to open the car door when another, darker thought suddenly chilled me.  “But…”  I turned my head and looked at my mum.  “But if she doesn’t…  if she’s this susceptible to everything…  how will I ever be able to send her to school?!?”

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