And they all lived happily ever after?

My youngest starts a good fifty percent of everything he says with variations of “why?” or “what if?”. At almost four, he’s still at that stage where nothing’s a given; where there’s no clear line between what is real and what he reads in his (older siblings’) books or sees in his (older siblings’) films and TV programmes. A solemn weighing-up of my explanation of clouds or the length of the summer holidays will be followed by a puzzled query as to “how do skeletons kill you?” or “where do dinosaurs go at night?”, both requiring just as sober and extensive an answer.

He knows already, as sadly he must, that there are real dangers out there. I’ve been sketchily but brutally honest about the possible consequences of running into a road or wandering off or trying to play with a socket. He relishes washing his hands as a small battle against bugs (the chance to battle is not to be missed). It’s only to be expected that on a diet of Super Hero Squad and Star Wars – hell, even the good, old fashioned, lethally innocuous fairy tales – he will perceive enemies and threats (and potential battles) round every corner where there is no greater hazard than an overheated imagination. I hold his hand for now, literally and metaphorically, but only he can learn, in time, the phantoms which are real and the lines which he’s not prepared to cross.

I read Frank Furedi’s excellent piece in the Independent today, on paranoid parents and the independence we deny our children. Before I became a mother, I was categoric in my certainty that I would not become one of these namby-pamby types who perceive a bogeyman in every shadow. Like all the best resolutions, it was one I was fated to break. I struggle, now, with giving my children the independence I know that they need to develop into self-reliant teenagers and adults. I am happiest when they are in my full sight; miserably uneasy when I grant them some small measure of freedom to walk ahead or play with friends in the next street.

It isn’t that I think the bogeymen lurk, just that I let them go against a constant backdrop of “what ifs?” not unlike those of my three year old. What if someone drives too fast round the corner? What if they trip and fall into the road? What if they get caught up in the fun of the game with older children and stray too far from home?

To some extent, Furedi’s “Paranoid Parent” has probably always existed. What is more natural than to fear for your child, whether in the face of supernatural demons or all-too-human monsters? What, really, is the difference between reluctantly conceding to the demands for a mobile and murmuring an enchantment to divert the Evil Eye? I do wonder, though, if we are becoming more paranoid because we are not so much losing our perspective as having it distorted.

We gorge on small, everyday tragedies. Magazine covers, the sofas of daytime TV shows, our Facebook and Twitter timelines are filled with battles won against the odds and victims of one-in-a-billion catastrophes. Whether sickness or accident or malevolence, it’s hard to weigh the statistics when the vanishingly-rare likelihood of ill has a name and a winsome photo and a story to be told. It’s difficult truly to believe that something is almost certain not to happen when you feel that you have come to know the person to whom it did; when they, or those who were left behind, recount what went wrong, what they would have done differently, and exhort others not to make the same mistake.

No wonder we try to tidy ourselves into security. No wonder we fret over any loose ends or uncertainty, trained, as we are, to spot the fatal flaw in a story we read over and over from the starting point of unhappily ever after. We feel that the script’s ours to write, ours to navigate safely around all the pitfalls we’ve been warned of.

I can confidently tell my three year old that skeletons aren’t alive and that he doesn’t need to be worried about the giganotasaurus. Convincing myself that the worst isn’t inevitable? That takes more doing.

 

A Measure of Time

It’s a day of endings and possible new beginnings. A day of trying to cram jobs in before a summer of never being alone. A day of sighing over the children who were and trying not to sigh at the children who see nothing but who they will be. September will bring new starts for them all: Year 4, Year 3, Lower Foundation; but nothing much beyond a slightly different timetable for me. They are moving on; I’m, increasingly, watching them as they go.

It is beyond trite to say how fast time goes with children. I see, today, not so much the nearly-four year old who’s desperate for his uniform come September, but the little boy of just-turned-two who clung to my arm as he started nursery. Not the lanky, sun-cream-sticky six year old whose last day in the Infants this is, but the curly-topped moppet who walked through those gates on her first day determined not to let anyone see how scared she was. Not the eight year old who overtops many of those moving on to secondary school in September, but the sturdy little soul who held my hand to the door and caught the hearts of those on the other side. 

They like to hear of how and who they were, but it’s with a laughing incredulity. In the churning rapid flow of childhood, what counts is clinging to the markers that grade and differentiate. There’s little purchase in remembering what you used to be, when you’re surrounded by those who still are. How much more important to stake out your claims of seniority and superiority and identify your next destination in your all-engrossing journey of Growing Up.

Do they feel the tug of the current, or just the terrifying exhilaration of the ride? Are they aware of the relentless current of life, or is it just me, as I gauge my time against theirs, who sees its sweep, on and away? And realise, belatedly, that there is no standing still for me either. 

Yes, Minister

Shortly after I left work, with my eldest in preschool, my daughter a toddler and my youngest a protuberance under my top, I went to Marks and Spencer to buy some furniture. As is the fate of most children when another’s on its way, ours was being ousted from her cot-bed and into a new big girl model, so that the incoming baby would have a place to sleep.

It was all part of a major reorganisation. We had decided to bite the bullet and buy a fair amount of furniture, on interest-free credit, while it was on offer. So I stood, for hours, completing the paperwork, resting No2 and my stomach on the counter, as we filled in form after form after form.

I don’t know if it’s the aching weariness that makes me remember it so vividly, but I can still recall the jolt that came from completing the “status” bit. I wasn’t a solicitor any more. I was, for the purposes of the finance company, unoccupied. Having spent such a long time being unhappy with the ramifications of my job, dreaming of the day when I could “just” concentrate on my family, I was surprised to mind so much that I had to tick the only box which applied to me, though I didn’t recognise myself in it.

A few years on, I still struggle with not knowing what to call myself. “Homemaker” gives a frankly misleading impression of the state of my interior decor, let alone my skirting boards. “Full time mum” is insulting to those who work outside of the home. “Stay at home mum’? I wish I did. Since I can’t decide what I want to be called, I’m not really bothered that no-one else can either. I’ll tick the box left over when all the other options are ruled out, and get back to the reality of my day-to-day. It doesn’t matter much.

In fact, it only matters at all because, for right or wrong, there are times when we need to define people by what they primarily do. If I had a proper career or occupation alongside what I do at home, I’d be happy to be referred to by that. I would expect to be, in fact; the status of “mother” or “housewife” or whichever variant is used is only publicly relevant in that I currently have no other face to present (and, even then, it’s arguable whether it is at all).

When I did, work, though, I would have taken exception to having a footnote against my professional status to the effect that I am a woman and a mother. I would have been outraged to be introduced to a client or colleague, overtly or otherwise, as such. When I was at work, as a solicitor, I was a solicitor, not a bit of everything that makes me who I am. I did not bring another facet to the negotiation of a contract for carriage of goods by virtue of once having carried children. I did not draft more persuasively because I had that morning succeeded in bribing my children out of the house in time for nursery. I did not advise board members on issues which affected the business with an eye to the impact on the female constituents of it.

Regardless of the personalities, I could never not welcome the presence of more women in Government. Not because, as political commentators relating today’s Cabinet reshuffle have implied, they will somehow speak for me, or that they share my concerns as mothers or that  they bring a unique perspective simply by dint of their physical makeup. But because I dream of a day when women are allowed to participate equally, when their political credentials can be examined – and, yes, savaged – as are those of their male counterparts, rather than as a sideline to what should be peripherals: gender, motherhood or otherwise, appearance. When the fact that a woman becomes a minister is not, in itself, worthy of news, and when the reports of her promotion don’t refer to her as a “working mum” or “surrounded by flashbulbs”. Somehow, the fact of whether male politicians have children never seems to be mentioned, nor what they’re wearing when they get the tidings of a new job.

I am not going to write about the merits of all-women shortlists, or the mechanics of how we get more women into positions of power. How to achieve equality of platform is beyond me. Alongside all such developments, though, must be a parity of language and treatment in the media. Continuing to emphasise that women are a background,  added colour, some kind of token human touch does nothing to further their promotion and everything to reinforce the prejudice of those who see support of women as unwonted and unmerited positive discrimination.

Whether I like them or not, the women who have been promoted today are career politicians. And that aspect of them, really, is all we need to hear – and talk – about.

No-one Expects the Dangly Bits Inquisition

Dear reader, do you have small children? Do you have a baby who cries all the time, or a toddler who hangs from your leg by the hour? Do you dream of the day they will discover a little independence? Of a future in which they can – unimaginable luxury – read to themselves their favourite book, rather than ask you to do it for the 71st time that day?

Don’t be afraid, dear reader. I am not going to tell you that it all gets even harder, or that you will look back on these days as the easiest and happiest of your life in comparison with what comes next. Every stage of parenthood comes with its own challenges and joys. And children who can read are, undoubtedly, a joy.

But.

Let me tell you a tale.

Imagine, if you will, that you wake with a cold. A cold which has transformed the inside of your head into a Tolkien-esque landscape of grey and murky green. A cold which scrapes in your throat and crackles in your ears and fills your nose with a smell as of drains.

And this is not just any day. It is a day which you are going to spend with all three of your children, rather than the more usual one, due to a strike by their teachers which you hope you’d support even if it caused you much more serious inconvenience than the unscheduled company of your children.

You know it is going to be a long day. You drag yourself downstairs, eyes barely open, and make your way blearily towards the kettle. Your way is blocked by a sweet-faced boy in convict-striped pyjamas, clutching a book. You drop an absent-minded kiss on his head.

You don’t make it to the kettle.

“Mummy? What is copulation?”

You are suddenly markedly more awake. Your brain, which has up till now has been focused on remembering to breathe through your mouth, begins to whir. Copulation? COPULATION? It’s still in the hour of six. You can’t do this. Can you? Must you? Has he misunderstood? Has he misread? Could he be thinking, perhaps, of the process by which policeman are formed? A Brazilian word for sporting disaster? Then you notice, with a sinking heart, the title of the book which he is holding. The Usborne Illustrated Guide to Human Biology. 50p, apparently, at some garden party or school fair or second hand bookshop you have no memory of visiting but for which you find you have not curses strong enough.

It isn’t that you didn’t think that this day would eventually come. It isn’t that he doesn’t already know the basics of seeds and eggs and a hazy, though sound, understanding of birth which would beat that of several of the fathers on One Born Every Minute. The current Year 6s have just had The Talk, and you knew that you’d have to discuss it at some point before he got there (in three sodding years time, your poor brain screams). It’s just that you had visions of being prepared. You had visions of it happening on a winter’s night, curtains shut, cosy and confidential. You had visions, let’s be honest, of lovingly closing the bedroom door and leaving your husband in there to get on with it.

You look, together, at the pages. They are admirably detailed. More admirably than the Biology textbooks at your convent school from which your teachers had removed the relevant pages. Admirably enough, in fact, that there is no question of falling back on reference to birds, or bees. Or special kisses.

You keep a straight face and you move briskly through the illustrations, elaborating no more than you must, till your youngest, blessedly, comes in to ask for his breakfast. And in between buttering bread and pouring milk, the book makes its way somehow to the very back of the very highest cupboard.

You think you’ve survived.

Then…

A quiet voice, by your elbow, as you make coffee. “Mummy, what is a eunuch?”

A puzzled query, in the garden, as your neighbours enjoy the sun. “Mummy, what is puberty?”

An absorbed murmur from the kitchen table. “Mummy, what are sperm-a-ta-zoa?”

You answer, calmly, biting down the hysteria which is starting to build as you wonder if you’re secretly being filmed. The questions keep coming, though, their target narrowing, till you find yourself talking about castration in more detail than you ever believed likely or, indeed, feasible – certainly as far as conversation with an eight year old is concerned.

You may wonder if I had failed to hide the book well enough. Where else would these words, this fascination, be coming from? Dear reader, you would have – as had I – forgotten that this eight year old’s room is crammed with books. That he has a particular taste for the gorier of Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories. And that he has a large, (perhaps unfortunately so), dictionary within easy reach. Did you know that there were nine possible definitions of “sex”? Well, did you?

I didn’t expect, when I woke this morning, that by bedtime one of my children would be able to give an account of where babies came from. Or that I could talk, lucidly and at length, about gangrene and the multiple options for the chopping off of dangly bits (thanks, TD). Am I still glad that my children are keen readers? Yes, of course. Will I pay a little more attention to the books that make their way into the house. Perhaps.

But I will relish, for as long as I possibly can, the ability to crop and skip when reading to my youngest. And I will no longer complain when asked to reread his favouritest book of all. For the 71st  time that day.

Beware...here be dragons

 

 

How To Make A Working Mum

Mainstay of headlines and adverts alike, here’s a handy guide.

  1. Take a woman with offspring The offspring is usually to be of school-age, but in the event that they display problematic behavior or emotional difficulties, a woman will qualify as a “working mother” till she’s past retirement.
  2. Add work Recipes vary as to the amount of work required. It is usually agreed that anything from an evening paper round to running a merchant bank will count. The essential ingredient is pay and, often, that the woman leaves the house. (NB voluntary work and caring responsibilities are never acceptable substitutes.)
  3. Season to taste A working mum requires a degree of motive. This may range from “setting a good example” to “personal fulfillment” all the way through to “desperately trying to make ends meet”. The working mum must be seen to have identified and be able to demonstrate her motive at all times.
  4. Soak in guilt The strength of the solution and length of soaking time differs depending on which variation you’re making, but some guilt is generally held to be an essential ingredient. Retain some of the soaking liquid for the next time you’re making a mum.
  5. Toast lightly, then freeze Before serving, apply some gentle warmth in the form of an approving reference to “hard-working family” before consigning to a deep chill composed of all the societal ills she’s apparently caused.

(How to make a working dad? Man, children, job. No further ingredients required)

Surprise me

It is my birthday soon. It’s not a Big One (not yet, not quite), and it won’t be a particularly big one either, since life has shown scant respect for my advancing years and filled the weekend with other people and events instead (no bad thing). I’ll spend the day being happily engaged in non-birthday activities, though, purely for my children’s sake, you understand, I’ll make sure cake features at some point.

Because I have a lovely family, I always get asked before birthdays and Christmas: “what do you want?”. And every time, the answer is always the same: “oh, nothing, thank you”.

It’s true, almost. Just not quite.

I have everything I need, and more besides. I have everything I want, too, unless you’re counting the Georgian rectory with acres and orchard, which I don’t think is available yet to include on an Amazon wish list.

So when I say “nothing”, I am telling the truth. It’s not stuff as such that I want, it’s a surprise. I don’t know whether this is a sign of motherhood, womanhood or simple encroaching middle-age, but I’m conscious of Decision Fatigue.

I control my little domain. I hold the reins, I spin the threads of my family’s lives: a domestic Ariadne weaving a pretty pattern of school runs and football classes and playdates. Even at the weekend, even when we have time off from organised activities, I’ll decide what we’re going to do: researching venues, checking weather forecasts, clipping vouchers and packing picnics. I compile lists of presents for Christmas and birthdays. I organise holidays. I compare the market for home and car insurance. I know with a large degree of certainty what I will eat for my next meal. I could go off piste, certainly, live dangerously, not roast the chicken earmarked for tonight (do chickens have ears?), but then there’d be no leftovers for dinner tomorrow, and you can forget about Tuesday’s soup.

I don’t hanker after diamonds and clothes; nice as they are, I have a Georgian rectory to save for dream of. I don’t yearn for a Tiffany’s box in trademark baby blue wrapping, or a bag from a shop far, far removed in all senses from the retail park down the road. I’d just like something unexpected to disturb the contented certainty of my day-to-day; something pleasant, that is, not something involving a midnight sickness bug or morning wet bed. You don’t have to get me anything, really. But if you do, can it please be something I didn’t have to think about in advance?

Do I sound like a spoilt brat? Probably. I don’t mean to. I know how lucky I am, really, I do. I know too that I have insufficient backbone to manage without a convenient exoskeleton of expectations and routine. What’s more, I secretly love being the hub of my little home, love that the managing and arranging and spinning and juggling, while sometimes sending me cross-eyed with tiredness and tedium, pull everything together in a more or less coherent facsimile of grownupness. It’s just that I’m bored of always being in charge.

I probably fit right in the target demographic for 50 Shades, but, dubious attitudes to relationships aside, I never quite got the attraction.  Perhaps it’s because my children still wake so early that the honest answer to “what do you want in bed” remains almost without fail that old chestnut “ten hours’ sleep.” Bedroom shenanigans notwithstanding, I think I could do with a little bit of Christian Grey in my life. Not for the private jets, or the Red Room of Pain (I have one of those already, my own, lit by the rosy glow of dawn as the three year old bursts into each new day at an hour best called profane) but simply for the blessed relief from having to think.

To eat out (on the rare occasion we do) and simply find the food arriving on my plate, not being paralysed by choice like a mouse hypnotised by a cobra. To eat in, come to that, and not know what will appear till it’s served. To wake on a Saturday and find the hours till bedtime laid out by a hand unseen; a well-oiled (possibly by wine) machine carrying us all from fun to fun with no mental input required from me.

In lieu of the nothing I need, I get lovely cards, messages that make me smile, perhaps a cheque which I’ll bank and never spend because choosing something for myself feels extravagent and…well, too much like hard work, usually.

It’s too late for this year, but the next time someone asks me what I want, I won’t reply “nothing”. What would I like? Something silly, small, unnecessary. A book, a scarf, a postcard; something to warm me or beguile my eye or make me smile. Something I wouldn’t spend money on if it was up to me. I’d be thrilled, to be honest, to be given a lumpy, mysterious parcel and peel away the wrapping paper and find a satsuma, if it weren’t one I’d chosen and paid for in Morrisons myself.

“What do I want? I don’t know. Surprise me.”

 

Miss-leading headlines: Andrea Leadsom, The Telegraph and Postnatal Depression

Imagine a successful young chap in his thirties. He’s flying up the ranks at work, and he and his partner are starting a family. Then he’s diagnosed with a serious illness.

It’s a happy ending. He makes a full recovery. He fulfils his childhood ambition of becoming an MP, and, with his previous professional expertise behind him, rises quickly to Ministerial status, with a particular responsibility for libraries.

He’s speaking, one day, to a national newspaper, about his departmental brief; in particular, the challenges posed to traditional book lending by new technologies. The conversation strays to his well-known work with charities supporting those affected by the same illness which struck him. He talks about his own experiences, how he personally had struggled, and about the wider ways in which families and society are affected by the financial, emotional and physical problems it brings, especially where there are young children involved.

The piece is printed and shared on social media.

“Minister blames violent crime and homelessness on illness among fathers”.

He protests that he was deliberately misrepresented, that he never made such a claim. The headline stands.

So far, so whimsical, except that the story actually ran in yesterday’s Telegraph.

When I first clicked on the link, courtesy of @drlangtrygirl, I was ready to fume against Andrea Leadsom, Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who, according to the paper, blamed postnatal depression for violent crime and homelessness, for a crass and dangerous attack with no basis in evidence.

When I read the piece, though, it didn’t stack up. It was apparently contradictory, true (she inferred that her PND may have been contributed to by her employer’s refusal to countenance part time work, while going on to say that work had “sorted her out”), but at the same time she spoke with a deep understanding both of the gravity of postnatal mental health issues, and the importance of decent support and early intervention to help women  - and families – affected. She spoke, too, of the wide range of circumstances which can negatively impact on a child’s start in life.

What she didn’t do was blame women for society’s ills by virtue of the simple crime of illness. She didn’t say it, and, reading more about her, it sounds as though she never would.

Miss Leadsom has herself, on Twitter, stated that the article misrepresented what she said. I am angry on her behalf, and I trust that she will receive an apology.

Screen Shot 2014-07-04 at 12.50.10

But there will be no apology for the deliberately cynical headline which will have deeply hurt many women, already struggling with ante-, peri- and/or postnatal health issues. There will be no counterweight to the terror they already feel and which has now been increased, that by suffering from an illness, they are somehow doing harm to their child. There will be no reassurance, from the Telegraph, at least, as they lie awake haunted by dread and groundless guilt.

I am not, it goes without saying, a Minister in Her Majesty’s Government. I am not suffering postnatal depression. Perhaps, you will say, it is therefore none of my business. By twisting the words of one woman, though, and by using them to attack many others, ensuring that as many as possible will see it by putting it within the “Women” section, the Telegraph has made it my business.

Moreover, it’s nothing new. Papers and TV programmes refer daily to other interviews, research, think pieces – usually balanced, reasoned and nuanced, but presented every time through the prism of the ways in which it’s all our fault. Mothers’ age. Mothers’ health. Mothers’ financial status. Mothers’ work or lack of it.

I don’t think we’d see a story like the one above about testicular cancer. We shouldn’t see it when it’s a “woman’s” issue, either. The Telegraph chose not to use the interview to highlight and support the cause of support for maternal mental health, and instead to take a prominent woman’s cause of a serious issue and twist it into lazy clickbait. We need to ask ourselves why.

 

Strong

When I was a very little girl, I wanted to be a dancer. There are photos of me packed like sausage meat into strained black lycra, carroty hair in a home-cut page boy, chubby satin-clad foot not so much pointed as angled forlornly towards the floor.

I devoured books about ballerinas. I plotted my application to the Royal Ballet School. I dreamed of my debut at Covent Garden,  all tutu and rapturous applause.

Luckily for all concerned, we moved house away from any chance of ballet classes when I was seven, and the dreams died away. It was only as an adult, looking back at the photos, that I could smile ruefully at the suddenly glaring disconnect between my remembered self-image and what must have been painfully clear to anyone looking on.

I can’t remember the first time that I started to perceive of my body as something to wish otherwise. I do remember being proud, for quite a lot of junior school, of being the tallest and the biggest; of being able to beat some of the boys. Bookish by nature, I was never that keen on sport, but I ran and rode my bike and played out, thinking no more of how I was made than what it let me do.

At some point, though, I became aware that my extra height and my added strength were no longer envied. I started to stoop. I chose clothes that draped and flowed, in the catastrophically unsuccessful hope that they would somehow make me look smaller, more fragile. I stopped eating in the presence of other people,  deluding myself that they would see me as more delicately girl-like.

A small coterie of girls in secondary school were sporty, an even smaller group of one or two managed to be both sporty and cool. A natural lack of aptitude met head-on with a new-found aversion to being thought unfeminine, and I (usually fake) limped through my teenage years with excuses to get out of netball or hockey or cross-country running, lingering, when the notes and the weekly periods didn’t work, on the touchlines hoping not to be noticed.

By the time I went to University, almost six foot tall, overweight, and trying desperately to be invisible in shapeless clothes and a face hidden by hair, the thought of doing exercise was as likely to occur to me as that of admitting to liking Take That.  Exercise was for Other People: a strange subset of humans who felt compelled to sweat in public. I was too busy perfecting self-effacement through emerging only in darkness and drinking myself into oblivion.

At some point (after the Guinness and snakebites abated, strangely enough) the weight started to come off. I made my peace with being tall. I started to eat a bit more normally, but there was always a niggling urge to reduce a bit more, occupy a bit less space. I’d make self-deprecating remarks about being in drag if someone complimented me on a special outfit. I’d try not to stand next to women who were much smaller, because the niggling sense of ungainliness would linger for hours.

I was diagnosed with a joint condition, and a tiny bit of me air-punched (feebly) – I always knew exercise wasn’t for me. I wrote myself a note and opted out of PE for good. And I made sure that everyone knew I couldn’t lift; couldn’t run; couldn’t do anything particularly physically demanding, despite my size. I felt, in a dark, twisted way, that the discomfort and the small degree of enforced weakness bought me back some of the femininity I’d somehow forfeited by being tall and broadly-built.

I’m ashamed of myself, now.

Perhaps it’s my age, perhaps it’s a zeitgeist thing, but it’s  become harder and harder over the last few years to keep excusing myself from physical activity.

Friends started to run, and post their times on Facebook. People I’d always thought of as One Of Us started to talk about gyms and footwear and personal bests. Perfectly normal mums from the school gate would jog past the house of an evening, pink and sweaty and not very fast, but doing it nonetheless and not apparently suffering from some form of personality transplant when I spoke to them next. I admired, and sighed, and waved my precious get-out-of-running-free card, but slowly, because my joints were getting worse.

Then friends who really did have more serious physical problems than me started doing it, and the foundations of my contented state of inactivity started to shake a little. I would have got up off the sofa, but my back was killing me.

And then, in September, back from our summer holidays, we joined a gym. We wanted to get the children swimming and my husband (who had been one of those naturally sporty people before being corrupted by a job, children and marriage to a couch potato) was approaching a milestone birthday and was, if not in crisis, determined to regain some of what the sedentary, sleepless years had stolen.

I could tell you of my nerves before my induction. I could tell you of my first impressions of the inside of a fitness studio and the jangling terror of walking into a class. I could tell you of the cringing mortification of wearing clinging, Sainsburys-fresh workout clothes and spanking new trainers; of the wheezing, creaking ache of my body after a pitifully few minutes’ work. You can probably imagine them all.

Did you think I was going to tell you of a transformation? Of a dramatic before and after; of talents discovered; of a life changed? Sorry.

I’ve learned that I am not, and never will be a runner. But I have learned that I can power through kilometres on a cross trainer, upping the level and the time each week, turning a blind eye to the clash between my dripping beetroot face and orange hair in the mirror. That I can cope with a Pilates class which a few months ago had me giggling hopelessly at the seeming absence of any muscles in my body. That I like feeling a sense of my own strength.

My personal bests aren’t medals for races, or times beaten, or in the gym at all. They’re the fact that I can stand up from the floor now without hauling myself up against something. They’re the feeling of power in my arms as I rest my hands on the steering wheel rather than hanging on limply. They’re the quiet awareness of capabilities I didn’t know where there: a confidence, a completeness.

I still ache in my bones, and sometimes they’ll still flare and stiffen and swell. But I can feel now the rest of my body knitting and bulking to take some of the strain, a whole clever system of support I’ve denied for my entire adult life. I just wish it hadn’t taken me so long to value my body again for what it does, rather than how it looks.

 

 

 

I read to my youngest earlier this evening, the pair of us sitting on the floor in his sister’s bedroom. Me, with my back against the wall, him enthroned against me, legs drawn up in a miniature copy of mine, one small, slightly sticky paw starfished against my bare foot.

He’s almost too big to fit comfortably now: the top of his head no longer tucks naturally under my chin, and my hand had to bend at an awkward angle so that I could read the words around his shoulder.

At not-quite-four, he’s still a cuddler, a mummy’s boy. He snuggles and kisses and worms his arms up my top whenever he gets the chance. He still takes a frank physical pleasure in being close to me, and I, in turn, greedily relish the satiny, solid, smooth weight of him on my lap or under my arm, because I know he won’t be there for very much longer.

The move away from physical dependence happens so slowly, so gradually, that it’s hard to pinpoint a time where there’s a definitive separation. The days of pregnancy, a relationship so intimate and so intense that you feel each other’s hiccups turn to the early weeks of babyhood where time apart is limited to a snatched shower or toilet trip – if then. Only one of my children would tolerate any sling or baby carrier, but all three preferred – naturally, though, at the time, infuriatingly – to be held most of the time. And then on, and on: through crawling, then toddling, then running joyfully ahead down the road.

In the early days of parenthood, especially when I had three children under five, there would be days when my skin would feel as if it were crawling with over-stimulation. Breastfeeding, having a child at my chest or on my hip or clinging to my leg (and sometimes all three at once). Small fingers snaking into my ears, up my nose, tiny fingernails picking at my cuticles or stealing under mine and trying to force them up, vice-like. Arms vanishing up to the shoulder down my neckline;  I’d daydream of being alone, suspended in space, with no portion of my body touching that of anyone else (draw your own conclusions from this).

It is just so intense, the physical demands and constant proximity, day and night. It is so intimate, the wordless, unconscious connection: your heartbeat calms, your skin soothes, the smell of your body means comfort and safety (and food). You don’t notice the growing that happens day-by-day, till you realise that the babygro’d feet that once tucked under your elbow are pressed up tight against the arm of the rocking chair and then suddenly, one day, they don’t lie across your lap anymore at all.

The other two still cuddle, of course, but a self-consciousness is starting to creep in. My eldest has developed a quick, reflexive glance around before slipping his hand into mine. He’s so tall that he has to fold himself up to loll against me on the sofa. He will, occasionally, grab my hand as I kiss him goodnight and tuck it into a Masonic grip of complicity beneath his cheek – but he’s starting, quite rightly, to pull away into his own space.

Meanwhile, I’ll gloat over the unthinking head on my shoulder and the legs draped across me. Wrap my arms closer round the awkwardly lanky child on my lap. Squeeze that bit tighter the hand curled into mine. For as long as I can.

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On bras and other burning questions

My six year old daughter wants a bra.

It goes without question that she doesn’t need a bra, but still, she wants one.

I can’t remember how old I was when my mum took me to Fenwick in Newcastle for my first small, largely pointless, soft white cotton bra (no cutesy crop-tops in those days) but I was considerably older than six. I was also disappointed, I remember, that I didn’t warrant one of the mysteriously glamorous garments I’d watched her wear for years: all satin and wiring and lace.

I want to say to my daughter: don’t hurry. The glamour and the mystery soon wear off. The grown up ritual of slipping arms through straps, adjusting cups, pulling hooks and eyes tight across the back and giving the whole thing a practised, unthinking shrug is also the nightly sigh of relief as it comes off. The ghost-bra that stays long afterwards: welts along ribcage, grooves dug into shoulders. The little roughnesses that build up over the years so that you can see where fabric rubs skin, day after day after day.

I want to say: enjoy your freedom to choose your clothes and wear them without thought for how they look or what they require. Time enough to scour shops for the elusive bra that won’t show under a pretty dress without reducing your bosom to the shape of a draught excluder. Time enough to wear something remarkably like two dinner plates wired together so that something which is just a part of you doesn’t manifest itself as someone else’s “inappropriate cleavage”. Time enough to sigh and wince at the need for the postnatal over-the-shoulder-boulder-holder (if boulders were alive with milk and hurt).

Of course, wearing a bra at all is a choice. No-one makes us do it. It’s a choice largely enforced by necessity and convention, though, and one which is restricted to what is affordable and readily accessible.

I have no doubt that there are women who, of a morning, slip into a bra which all at once enhances, supports and relieves, while instantly rendering itself unnoticeable to wearer and beholder alike. That they see no issue in bra-wearing, since for them it involves choosing to wear something which occasions little, if any, discomfort and which has a price-tag that doesn’t place it out of reach.

Most of us, though, run along with we can find in our local M&S.  Whether or not it’s really what we want; whether it’s comfortable or suitable or even plain attractive, we shop on cost and the sizes in store. We plump, by default, for one of the various mammarific Spice Girls types on offer: Sporty Breasts; Baby Breasts; even, in the case of those frankly alarming contraptions involving plunge and purple lace, Scary Breasts. We’ll probably end up with something reasonably close to what we want, but we’re still fitting into what’s available rather than the other way round.

And yet, of course, we’re fortunate even in this limited choice. So many women have to do without, or have recourse only to the methods used to defy gravity since time immemorial. Charities collect our old bras (sporty, baby, scary…) and ship them to others who are unlikely to be matched up courtesy of a tape-measure around the ribs and a calculation on the fingers. Is it better than nothing, having someone else’s discarded bra, with the elastic worn and the colour washed out? Possibly, but it’s still a long way from ideal, when it’s such a very bad fit.

Sooner or later, I’ll give in and get my daughter what she wants, though not yet. I’ll resist for as long as I can the allure of the “training” bra. I don’t want to train her into wearing a bra, full stop. She’ll have to work out for herself where the satin and lace stops and the rest of being a woman begins.