Posts Tagged ‘Motherhood’

I was bored and hot on Sunday in church and letting my mind wander, when I spotted a family across the aisle and a few rows in front of us.  The two older daughters looked to be in their early teens and very close in age, and were sitting on either side of their mother.  Their sister was considerably younger, probably four or five, and she was sitting on her daddy’s lap, her head curled into his shoulder and looking as bored as I felt.

Ah, the magic third — a term that a dear friend of mine had used to describe that third child who so often comes as a complete surprise to the parents and some considerable years after their more carefully-planned older siblings.  Except that my friend had made a Freudian slip as she spoke, and it had come out as “the magic turd”, which has had me quietly snorting with laughter ever since.

But as I looked at that father holding his daughter, and noted her long legs nearly reaching his ankles and the way her body slumped down to fit against his, I  thought to myself that he won’t be doing that for much longer — holding her on his lap like that.  She was nearly past that age, as her sisters had been for a long time now.

And then a thought occurred to me…  I wondered when was the last time he’d held his other daughters on his lap, and did he remember the last time?  One day he would have held them and it would have felt as natural as it did with his third now, but then it just wouldn’t have happened again… quite naturally.  And, I wondered, did he ever notice?

Because parenthood is circular.  Even though it is the firsts that get all the attention — the first step, the first smile, the first word — the lasts are just as significant, even if they go unnoticed.

I cried the last time I breastfed E1 — sobbed, in fact.  It broke my heart to do it, but I was five months pregnant and it had got to be too much, the way she threw herself with abandon onto the bump when it was time to latch on, the energy she was draining from my exhausted body — and she’d recently begun to bite.  The midwife had told me that older nurslings often self-wean anyway as the milk begins to change for the baby that is coming, so I decided it didn’t matter much if I took matters into my own hands and helped her wean a few months early.  It’s a decision I regretted ever since — not only because I’ve since learned that it is possible to nurse two children in tandem, but also because, immediately I weaned her, my ever-healthy daughter came down with one of the nastiest colds I’ve ever known.  She then passed it onto me and, with my body focused on protecting the unborn child inside me, everything above the bump was left to fend for itself.  Unmedicated, one night the infection moved to my ears and, within a couple of hours, the pressure was so great that it tore holes in both of my eardrums — the loudest sound no one ever heard — and my hearing has never been the same since.

But I digress.  At two-and-a-half, E2 is still breastfeeding and going strong.  And, given her severely restricted diet, that is a very good thing.  My plan is to let her feed until she is ready to stop, and I don’t really care when that is.  Never having done child-led weaning, I’m not quite sure how it will go, but I assume her feedings will gradually begin to grow further and further apart until they just quietly cease.  And like the last nappy change, the last night feed, the last kissed boo-boo, and the last time she sits on my lap, I won’t even realise it’s happened.

And then one day, I will.  And then I will cry.

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“Mmmm… I fancy some coffee,” I said.  M made it, and we stood in the kitchen and drank it, enjoying the quiet of that room as if it were a haven, while chaos reigned in the family room.  It was as close to bliss as I can find these days, with two toddlers about — to stand in the kitchen and drink coffee in silence with my husband.  When I finished the first cup, I poured myself another.

It was over too quickly, as ever, and time to get the girls down for their naps.  M took E1 up to the loo and then get settled, while I attempted to grab her little sister, who was running away from me as fast as her tiny legs could carry her and yelling at the top of her voice, “Nooooooooo!”  When I finally got caught her, she struggled so hard that I knew laying her down to change her nappy would pointless, so I hoisted her up onto my shoulder instead to create an exciting diversion.  Ooooh, this was new, being up so high!  She stopped screaming and looked at me, intrigued and starting to smile.  I capatalised on this upswing and told her I was a tiger! and then began to bite her bare belly.  She erupted into giggles, pushing at my face with her outstretched hands, and protesting most unconvincingly.  I was laughing, she was laughing, and my ruse had worked: when I laid her down, it was on the changing mat, but now she hardly noticed.  The whole operation was down before she even realised what was happening.

And then, as I was fastening the tabs on her nappy, I noticed the patch of red forming on her stomach.  Like someone pulling the needle across an old vinyl record, everything stopped.  I looked closer, and saw three white spots — three tidy little hives evenly placed amid the patch of angry skin.

My mind went straight to Code Red and began the drill:

When did she last eat? A while ago…  maybe an hour…

What did she eat? Nothing unusual, nothing new.

Alright, what touched her skin there? Oh!… My mouth.

And what did you eat? Coffee.

Coffee…  Coffee… Coffee!  Coffee beans!  Beans…! Oh shit.

The RAST tests say she’s allergic to beans, though we’ve never field-trialled the hypothesis, and I always knew in the back of my mind that that meant coffee was risky as well.  And here now, on her skin, the three perfect little hives staring up at me seemed to be telling me that it was.  Oh, and another, higher up where… yes, she’d bent down in her giggling convulsions and I’d nibbled her a bit there as well.  Yes, there was no doubt…

So this is a contact reaction! It takes a special level of allergy to break out in hives just from mere contact rather than actual ingestion — it’s a food allergy on hyper-drive.  This, I was slowly beginning to comprehend, was a serious allergy — possibly one of her most serious to date.

And… and… not even a reaction to the actual drink itself, just to the trace of it left in your saliva!… It got more serious still.

I stopped and pulled it back — it could have been the milk in my coffee.  We know she has an allergy to dairy, but it’s always been relatively mild — she can tolerate the bread I make even though it uses a small amount of milk powder and wee bit of butter.  And though I don’t drink milk directly, or even have it in my umpteen cups of tea each day, she does tolerate a splash of milk in my occasional cup of coffee.  But maybe that kind tolerance has now disappeared… maybe it was the milk.

I thought about testing it myself — putting just a drop of milk on her skin to see — and then quickly realised I’d be a fool to do that.  If her milk allergy was indeed on the march, morphing quietly from “mild” to “contact”, then a second exposure could potentially move directly past hives and escalate to something far, far more dangerous.  No, I wasn’t going to conduct any stupidly curious experiments on my daughter.  I would ring the allergist office on Tuesday and ask their advice.  Until then, we’d just have to treat coffee and milk with equal suspicion.

But no need!  Sod’s law ensured that the very next day, she made a bee-line for her sister’s milk cup when it fell to the floor, and got to it before any of us could catch her.  It was snatched from her grasp with moments, but a drop… a drop… a milky white drop flew from the lip of the cup and arched through the air, falling, falling, falling in slow motion, until it landed with a gentle plop on the top of her bare foot.

I froze.  M froze.  And she, sensing our tension, stood stone-still and looked at us in confusion with her blue eyes wide.  A paralytic moment and then we rushed into action — I wiped the droplet with my finger and reached for the wipes in order to wipe again more thoroughly.  And then… just stopped myself and looked at her foot… Nothing.  I made myself wait on the wipe for a minute more…  Nothing.  I let five minutes pass and then checked again…  Nothing.

It wasn’t the milk then.  It was the coffee.  We have found her thirteenth food allergy.  And it looks to be fierce.

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Four years ago this week, I had refried bean burritos for dinner.  I was tired, so very tired, and I couldn’t think of anything else to cook.  It was quick and easy, tasty and filling.  And, as it turned out, a huge mistake.

I remember every moment of the rest of that evening.  I remember when the burritos began to repeat on me, from both ends.  I remember being terribly uncomfortable.  I remember wanting to lie on my belly to let the gas rearrange itself in my guts, but there being no way to lie on my belly.  I remember the moment that I realised that much of my discomfort had nothing at all to do with burritos and, to my horror, that I was about to find out if heavy labour and a bad case of gas make a good combination.

Four years have passed and I don’t know where the time has gone.  It feels like only a moment ago — a moment — that I held my beautiful new baby in my arms.  Her face was smooshed, and more green and blue than the pink I’d expected.  She was as ugly as I knew she’d be and more beautiful than I ever imagined she could be.  I was exhausted, energised, and my life had instantly changed in ways I couldn’t even begin to understand at that moment.

And now she is four years old, 42 lbs instead of eight and a half, and so tall that her head rests on my belly when she runs up and throws her arms around me  How did this happen?  How could she change so much and so quickly?  She is a wonder to me every day — my daily companion, my sometimes tormentor, my deepest truest joy.  I am so proud of the person she is, and is becoming.

And yet, when I looked through the pictures of that magical day four years ago, and it all came rushing back to me — the feel of her velvet skin, and her feather-weight in my arms, her amazing newborn smell — I could not stop my heart from calling out that mother’s lament…

oh where oh where have my babies gone?


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The other week, my mother came round to babysit E1 while I took E2 to a doctor’s appointment.  It was a strangely warm day and so what did my mum do the whole three hours that we were gone?  She played in the garden with her granddaughter.  They gathered pine cones and seedpods for the bird feeder.  They played on the swings.  They marched around the garden and discussed the flowers and the trees and the sky and — from what I can gather — the whole of Life as it appears to a three-year-old…

I would never have done that.  I am not that kind of mother.  I am all about thinking ahead, keeping things safe, preparing for the worst while I go about teaching my daughters their independence and letting them show me what they want to learn.  My mother’s take is, in so many ways, completely different from mine.  She is all about being in the moment, experiencing every joy of parenthood (and grandparenthood), taking away pain, and leaping in to provide everything her charges might possibly need.  She is always there, always available, and always doing everything she can think of to make life better for the people she loves.

And according to Janet Penley’s excellent book MotherStyles, that is a perfectly in line with both of our Myers-Briggs Personality types.  As an INTP mother, my natural priorities are to foster independence and autonomy in my daughters, and it comes naturally to me to stay hands-off so my girls can learn through their own experiences.  My mother is an ESFP — expressive, attentive, and focused on practical help and especially on fun.  Even if all this Myers-Briggs mumbo-jumbo means nothing to you, it takes only a glance at our letters to see that my mum and I have very few of them in common.  Except for that ‘P‘, we are polar opposites.

Growing up, I found that very difficult — oppressive, even — though I didn’t realise it at the time.  Being a strong T (thinker), I don’t tend to be much ruled by my feelings — in fact, I don’t tend to delve into them much at all (with the anomalous exception of this blog) — and as an I (introvert), I’m not very comfortable sharing them even when I do.  But as an E (extrovert) and a strong F (feeler), my mother pushed me all my life to share my feelings freely with her  (and everything else too) — she has never understood why I feel so uncomfortable doing what comes so naturally to her.  For many years — and especially after I began to develop more of my true self as an independent adult — she told me that I was wrong…  that I was prickly…  cold-hearted… even that I was a bad daughter for not being the way she had expected me to be.  I was an enigma to her — and she to me — and the rest is our sorry history.

And as a grandmother, she has certainly done her fair share of things crazy-making.  As sad as it is to say — and I hate that it’s the case — being so near to her has been one of the things I have struggled with the most about moving back to the US.  And I have no doubt that she is slowly coming to the conclusion that she doesn’t actually like me much as a person — though I know that will never change the fact that she loves me completely as a daughter.

But when I got home that day from the doctor’s office and asked what they’d been up to while we’d been out, I was floored.  I would never have had the patience — or, let’s be honest, the interest — to have spent that much time exploring the garden with my daughter.  I would have done one quick turn before retiring to the porch-swing with a copy of the Economist, content for her to explore on her own and then to bring her millions of questions back to me as I rocked comfortably back and forth. But my mother never left her to herself, never tired — in a full three hours — of walking by her side and seeing the world through a three-year-old’s eyes.  She was, as per her ESFP-type, the “totally there” mother — the stereotype in the best of all possible ways.

And though I don’t understand my mother and she doesn’t understand me, and though we struggle so awkwardly — so miserably — to get along, and though as mother and daughter we often simply don’t work at all, the real truth is that we complete each other in my daughters’ eyes.  Together, we give them almost everything they need — both independence and total availability, calm rationality and expressive emotion, the foresight that keeps them safe and the ability to share in their joy of the moment.  Without my mother to fill in my gaps, my own mothering would be incomplete.  She does things that I simply can’t.  She walks around the garden with them for hours.  She helps them to feel every moment.  She swoops in when they need attention.  She is always, always there for my daughters.

She is everything that I will never be.  That’s the kind of mother my mother is.

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Today’s post is an homage to my mother, and how wonderful she is.  Yes, I know, I don’t say that much and it probably comes as a surprise to hear it at all.  But she is, truly wonderful, very loving, and everything a mother should be — she really is.  The fact that she and I are very, very different people causes us no end of problems for us, but it doesn’t change the fact that she is a wonderful mother.

The four of us — M, me, and the girls — have spent the last four days with a violent stomach bug and it’s been a thoroughly miserable experience (if you don’t like graphic details, stop here and jump to the next paragraph).  No one has been able to keep anything down — even a mere sip of water would be vomited straight back up.  At least M and I know to make a run for the toilet, but the girls don’t.  They just spewed their guts where-ever they stood, and I have quickly learned to keep sick toddlers corralled in the areas of the house with hardwood floors instead of carpet!  Oh, and what didn’t come out the top end came flying out the bottom end with no warning.  Again, M and I know what to do, but the girls had no idea what was coming.  I have done 10 loads of laundry in three days: all the sheets twice, all the bedclothes, all the towels, the bathmat (someone nearly got to the toilet, but not quite…), and change after change after change of clothes.  And the whole time, all I’ve wanted to do was curl up and die.

Within minutes of her first bout of violent vomiting on Monday morning, E1 looked up at me, with a miserable face and said, “I want Grandmaaaaaa…..”  I gave her the phone and, when her grandma answered, she said, “I’m sick!  Will you come please?”  No magic spell could have worked faster — my mother was here in 30 minutes and spent the day cuddling and rocking her increasingly listless grand-daughters.

When it hit me with full force that evening, and I realised what I was in for, I gave my mother a ring and asked her if she could come in the morning.  She rearranged her schedule so she could be here for 9am.  At 8.30, I was cleaning dried vomit out of E2’s hair and dried diarrhea out of her bum (and both off her bedclothes, her sheets, her crib, the floor, and the walls) and praying for 9:00 to roll on.  It did, Grandma took over, and I dragged myself back to bed, where I clutched my sick bowl and shook under the covers.  She stayed all day and then, at my request, stayed into the evening to put the girls to bed, while I slept and was sick and slept and was sick.

She came again at 9am on Wednesday.  Everyone had stopped vomiting at last — though no one was back to being themselves again by any stretch — but I am so dehydrated and exhausted that my vision kept going black.  She took care of the girls while I rested, and then had my first wash in 48 hours — discovering bits of old vomit still in my hair and under my fingernails — and then went down and collapsed in the rocking chair.  I told her again how grateful I was for her help.  I had told her yesterday, but I wanted her to really know.  It is this kind of help, more than anything else — more than shopping, more than dinners out, more than babysitting — that I really missed when I was so far away in England.  It was times like these when I would really wish I lived near my mother and, now that I do, I wanted her to know how very, very grateful I am for her help.  She hadn’t thought for a moment about the fact that she is now likely to come down with this too — she’d just come over straight over to help.  She is a wonderful mother.

And when she left, I told her to rest the next morning — I was on the mend and I wouldn’t need her, I was sure.  I woke up still nauseaus, but feeling confident that I could handle it myself today.  But as I laid the baby down on the bed for that first feed, a jolt of electricity shot from my hip and ran up my spine and down my leg, and I screamed out in pain.  I’d caught my sciatic nerve and it hurt like hell.  I hadn’t actually pinched it — thank Heavens — but, oh, how it was excruciating!  And, then to top it off, that pain brought on an instant and pounding headache.

I let E2 feed whilst I contorted and then, when she was done, I hobbled down the stairs — slowly…  slowly…  — and rang my mother.  Please, Mum.  She didn’t hesitate.  She arrived 15 minutes later and I dragged my nauseous, aching body and thudding head back to bed.

My mother and I are very very different people, and that causes us no end of problems. We have spent years misunderstanding each other, driving each other crazy, and struggling to keep our relationship on an even keel.   But she is a wonderful mother, and I love her, and I am very blessed indeed to have her.

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My mum found that one of her favourite shops was having a major sale and so she swung round to pick up the girls and me for a day of girly shopping, of the sort we rarely got the chance to do while I lived on the other side of the world.  It was wonderful fun — we found a ton of adorable dresses for the girls, and even a few really nice pieces that fit my still depressingly lumpy body.  And afterwards, we were all tired and hungry, so we looked for somewhere to eat.

This is easier said than done.  With a combination of allergies and intolerances that rule out eggs (both girls), soy (me and E2), peanuts, treenuts, chicken, dairy, avocados, and bananas (all E2), not just any place will do.  Most chains ares simply out of the question — indeed, when I mentioned a problem with soy, Olive Garden and TGIFriday’s quite happily told me they’d rather I ate somewhere else — and even individual places struggle to accommodate us.

So when my mother suggested Chili’s, I was dubious.  Leaving everyone in the car, I went in first to ask whether they were geared up to handle our allergies.  Imagine my surprise when the hostess — far from getting that weary look that I know so well — smiled and said, “Yes, let me just grab our allergy menus.”  Allergy menus?!?  I was delighted to discover that Chili’s has gone to the trouble of putting together individual lists of the items from their menu that are ok for people with a variety of allergies — one list for each of the top eight allergens.  I was over the moon that someone would take our needs so seriously, after so many brick walls and downright hostility.  And when I noticed the egg list was missing, the hostess ran back to the office to print a fresh one.  Fabulous!

And on that high note, I began the hard work, attempting to cross-reference all the lists and the menu spread out on the table before me to find something that the girls and I could eat.  But they were tired and cranky and starting to act up, my mother had chosen and was ready to order, and I was getting nowhere fast.  There was too much information, too much to check, and I couldn’t process it all to determine what was safe for E2 to have.  I was too acutely aware that if I ordered the wrong thing, I was putting my daughter’s life at risk, and the enjoyment was quickly draining out of this rare chance to go out.

The manager came over to answer our questions, and we found that there was a risk of dairy contamination (butter) with any food cooked on the grill, so we had to retreat to our safe standbys: the girls would have a plate of plain corn, broccoli, and carrots.  Soy being particularly insidious, I ordered the only items that were available to me out of the entire six-page menu: a burger with no bun and no fries and no mayo, and a side-salad with the one non-soy dressing (low-cal vinaigrette).  It wasn’t exactly what I would call much of a choice, but it was safe, and we were eating out for once, and I was still on a high because of all the care Chili’s was taking with us.

And after all that, the conversation continued on theme — my mother and I discussed the dangers of cross-contamination, my fears about sending the girls to school, and the horrible possibly that a moment’s lapse in concentration could have devastating results.  I told my mum the story of Sabrina Shannon, and we both stopped mid-bite, frozen at the thought that anything like that could happen to the two precious girls digging happily into their dinners next to us.  My daughters’ world is constant crossfire of danger and to keep them safe, we both agreed, vigilance was everything.

Eventually, the conversation changed and the mood relaxed.  The girls’ bellies now filled, they began to settle a bit and enjoy the novelty of being out for a meal.  My mother and I discussed with glee the bargains we’d snagged that day.  We had nearly finished our meals and all was well.  I sat back and relaxed for the first time since we sat down.

I turned to E2, who was wildly excited, pointing at the pictures on the walls, and we began discussing them one by one.  After a while, I realised E1 was making that whinging noise that three-year-olds do so effectively, and I looked over to see her leaning on my mother’s arm and reaching out for her plate, as my mother dug around in her salad bowl.  “Hold on, darling,” my mother said, “I’ll find one…”

“Mother,” I said, suddenly going cold.  “What are you doing?”

She picked up on the tone in my voice, but still remained cheery.  “I’m getting a tomato for E1.  She saw me eat one and she asked for one,” she replied, still digging.

“Mother, what is the white stuff all over your salad?”  I couldn’t hide my fear and irritation.

“It’s my blue cheese dressing.”  She stopped digging, a juicy cherry tomato now poised on her fork.

“Is it…”  I couldn’t believe I was having to say this… I suddenly felt like my head was being squeezed in a vice and I’m not sure I kept my tone under control.  “Is it egg-free?

There was pause and she put her fork down.  “I don’t know.”  Anger rose up inside me and made my vision go blurry on the edges.  E1, seeing that her prize was slipping away, began whinging afresh.  I picked up the egg-allergy list and looked at the salad dressings they listed as safe — blue-cheese was not there.

“It’s not on this list,” I said, not trusting myself to say more.  I looked at her for a moment, and then had to close my eyes and clench my jaw, and I couldn’t stop myself from pulling a face that I know revealed everything I was feeling inside.  It was the face of a mother who felt sick at what might have just happened.  It was the face of a mother who is afraid for her children every time she steps into a restaurant or a snack bar or a cafeteria.  It was the face of a mother who knows, in her heart, that her children are not safe, moment to moment, even with their own grandmother, even as I sit right there with them.


Epilogue: The next words out of my mother’s mouth were, “I don’t think there is any dressing on this tomato though…” as she eyed it carefully.  After all we’d just discussed about cross-contamination of utensils, of Sabrina Shannon’s death…  I could have cheerfully smacked her.

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With Thanksgiving now over, all thoughts turn to Christmas.  My mother spent much of Saturday festively singing Christmas carols to her granddaughters, to their utter delight.

Tonight, after I finally finished feeding a sleepy E2 and was creeping back down the stairs, I heard her older sister begin to work through this new repertoire, and I smiled to myself I she hesitantly tried to remember the lyrics.  Downstairs, I couldn’t make out the words, but I could hear her voice gain confidence as she got the hang of them and began to sing each song with more gusto.

I made a cup of tea and roused M, snoring on the couch.  We could hear her quite distinctly as we carried our tea past the bottom of the stairs, singing her twentieth round of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

…two tur-tledoves and a par-tri-idge in the pantry!

Hmmm…  yes…  Perhaps it is a bit early for the influence of that Thanksgiving feast to have completely worn off…

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