Sunday, 7 September 2014
A note from the edge of the trench
(I tried to add a photo to this post but for some reason I can't.)
“How was your summer?" people have been asking me, and I say "awful," because I've decided to stop lying about stuff like that. I'm finding that this is not a socially acceptable answer. The correct answer is "great," of course, although "fun" is also permitted. Summer is meant to be a time when you enjoy yourself, whether you frinking well want to or not.
I, however, am on my fourth week of medication for what turns out to be a multi-antibiotic-resistant infection. That has not been fun. Some people have told me that at least I live in a country where I have access to medicine! Yes, I know. However, neither good access to medication - nor even free healthcare, which I also have - technically makes summer fun.
The real issue, of course, is that I've been looking after two children, one of whom is currently highly dysregulated. Doing that while well is a challenge, and doing it recently has felt impossible. Even before I got sick things felt really hard. I’m not going to rehash all of that again; just take my word for it.
We've been parenting these twins for (almost) the last five years. Apart from the first year, when I was home full time, Jay and I have shared the childcare and the working – him working three days per week, and me working two, and both of us caring for the children on our other days. We haven’t had any daycare or preschool or any of the sort of help that might have kept me – and Jay – a little bit closer to sanity. (Given our time again, would we do it the same way? Probably, although maybe not, and I’d happily discuss our choices over a coffee with you sometime. The point is that this has been what we’ve been doing, week in and week out, year in, year out).
But on Monday they go to school. SCHOOL. For five and a half hours every day.
If parenting little kids is being in the trenches, I feel like I’m standing on the very edge of this particular one, about to run over the top into – well, who knows what. Another trench, almost certainly, with its own troubles and joys and (for me, undoubtedly) reasons to complain.
But standing here, on the edge of this trench, this is what I want to say. This is what I want to remind myself of, when I’m older, when the children are no longer cute and I think it was so fun when they were small.
It is not always fun, I promise.
On the morning of Wednesday, my last day on my own with the children, we had to go to town to buy school uniforms. I should have bought them a month ago, I guess, but I like to live on the edge. They were excited – they’ve been asking about their uniforms for months – and as we walked along the path to the railway station Blue began to bounce and before long he was skipping, properly skipping with joy, like a baby lamb. It was adorable and my heart nearly beat out of my chest as I thought how many more days like this? None. Except every weekend and all of the school holidays, I guess, but this is the last time they will be solely mine, before their lives are taken up with teachers and friends and all the other shrapnel that comes with growing up. I have adored seeing them change from tiny babies into healthy, strong kids who can skip (both of them) and click (just him) and make up songs (mostly her) and do all the other things a pair of just-five-year-olds should be able to do. I’m so proud of who they are, of what they are becoming.
So yes, of course sometimes it’s really fun, or at least heart-warming, which sort of looks like fun from a distance.
But recently, a friend who is quite a lot older than me said to me “How are you? At the moment, you always seem really… frazzled.” I said that might be true, and she asked why. I said that I was struggling with the children. We were having a hard time, I said, and I was feeling exhausted and discouraged. (By the way, for those of you who don’t go to church, ‘discouraged’ is Christian code for ‘I want to stab somebody with a fork’). She asked me why I was discouraged, and I said that I was finding it really hard that I was getting no respite from the children, none at all. We’d looked into a few things over summer but they had all fallen through and I’d reached the point where I was too tired to even keep looking. I was feeling a bit emotional, talking about it, and said that at times like these, I really feel the distance from my family. I said I wished they were closer; that I could trade childcare with my sister; that I could phone my mother on a bad day and demand that she drive over immediately. “I’m really struggling,” I said. “I’m finding things very hard and I need more support.”
“Oh, right,” she said. “Being a long way from your family must be tough. I can see why you’re finding that hard.”
And that was it. But I didn't want sympathy. I wanted her to say “So how could I help you?” or, much better, skip the chit chat and just say “So can I take the kids for the morning on Tuesday?”
I think she had forgotten what it is like to be in the trenches.
I think a lot of people forget what it is like, actually, how when you’re in the middle of it sometimes you really can’t see out the other side. I try not to tell other people what they should do, generally, but I’m going to make an exception here. Older women – empty nesters – retirees – I wish you would step up. I wish you would step up and help those of us who are struggling with our young children. We’re not hard to find, I promise. Take our kids for an afternoon. Do it often, if you can bear to.
Once you've got them, do whatever you like with them – stick them in front of the TV for four hours if you want to, or let them play with power tools. Feed them all the refined sugar they can fit in their sticky little hands. That’s fine. Just help. Lots of us don’t have anyone we can really count on to do that and sometimes it makes it really hard to breathe. The adorable moments don't erase the difficult days.
So we went to buy their school uniforms. One of the really great things that's happened recently is that Blue's eating - a huge, huge issue around here - has suddenly got easier. He's eating sausages, now, and fish, oddly enough, and he no longer cries when he sees an egg. Mealtimes still aren't easy but that pressure has eased a little. He has even eased up on his lunch restrictions. For years (seriously, years) he would only eat raspberry jam sandwiches on white bread with the crusts cut off. Now, he will happily eat raspberry jam sandwiches on white bread with the crusts still on, and he's even broadened his horizons to try a croissant for lunch once when we were out, and a cheese sandwich another time. This is a really good thing, because the uniform shopping was taking longer than I expected and they were really needing lunch. How wonderful, I thought, that I can now take these kids out for a simple meal if we get stuck. This could never have happened a year ago. And I said "Kids, I think we're all getting hungry. Let's go and get a sandwich at Starbucks."
Cue howling from the boy. We back and forthed a little - I thought it was because he wanted cake, not a sandwich, and I said that he could still get a cake if he liked, and then he lifted up his voice and said "But lunch in a cafe is a new thing and I DO NOT LIKE NEW THINGS!"
Well, score one for self-awareness, I guess, but zero for actually getting any food into him. One step forward, two steps back.
And yes, I do know that school is a new thing.
Yet it’s kind of embarrassing to admit just how fervently I’ve been looking forward to them starting school. I’ve got a to-do list as long as my arm, with everything on it from organising five years’ worth of photos to editing my novel to finally getting that pesky smear test done. Every time I see the doctor (which is a lot recently) there’s obviously some kind of flag on my record which makes them say “So when are you going to come for your test, Mrs Chapman?” and I gesture at the children, who are always with me, and say “Really?” and they say “Uh, okay, I can see your point. So when do they start school?” and I say “September!” and then the doctor says “So I’ll see you then,” and I say “I can’t wait!” and they give me a funny look, and as I walk out I realise that they thought I was talking about the smear test.
But honestly, the thought of some time on my own is almost more than I can bear. A few nights ago, I dreamed that I died suddenly (and hopefully painlessly). I'm not sure how it all happened, but I could see all my friends and relatives clustered, crying, around my hospital bed. One of them was wailing and said “I can’t believe she died now! It’s so unfair!” and another one said “I know! JUST AS HER CHILDREN WERE ABOUT TO START SCHOOL!” In my dream, it’s obvious THAT was the real tragedy.
I’m not making that up, I promise.
We were walking through uniform-shop number eleven (it felt like) when a little girl lurched towards us. She was about twelve months old, I think, and just walking. She was dimply and curly and unbelievably cute. I saw her coming straight at us and laughed at the adorableness of it all. Blue, who was holding my hand, pulled my arm sharply towards him and said MUMMY! YOU MUST STOP LAUGHING AT THAT BABY!
I had forgotten. For ten seconds, I had forgotten that he would feel threatened and angry if I smiled at another child.
Probably, this explains the fighting, or at least some of it. If I had to pick one reason why I need a break, not that anybody has ever asked me to do that, I would say it's definitely the fighting. I've never really written much about the fighting that goes on in our house because it's too hard to put the awfulness into words. It started when they were about thirteen months old and I have no idea when it's going to end. These days, there are moments when they aren't fighting each other but when they are tired or bored and I leave the room, they start immediately. He is the main instigator, but she is hardly innocent. Right now he has bite marks on his tiny little torso from where she actually tore his flesh a few weeks ago. I know that lots of kids fight, but this is pathological. I know a few other boy-girl twins who do the same thing, including one adult pair who apparently came out of the womb clawing at each other and now, aged, forty, are still doing it. Managing this is... unspeakably hard. When they are with other kids, the two of them make a great team, but when it's just the two of them, the twin-unit turns inward and attempts to devour itself.
I'd try to solve this by having lots of visitors come and play, but Blue gets hugely upset and threatened when we have people to our house. He just cannot understand why, when they have come to see us, it really is absolutely necessary that I talk to them. We've had a few good friends over recently - people he really likes - but he still spends the spent the first hour (at least) saying MUMMY! STOP TALKING TO THESE PEOPLE!
Mostly it just seems easier to deal with the fighting.
Recently I've instituted 'fighting fifty', whereby every time they fight they have to go and sit in opposite corners and count to fifty. Then they have to apologise to each other, and then they have to apologise to me. It does help, somewhat, because it gives them a bit of cooling off time in between bouts, and also, since they have to do it so often, it's really excellent for their numeracy. Silver linings, folks, silver linings.
So we were heading home, jam-sandwich-ward, from our uniform excursion, and as we approached the railway bridge - a route I walk pretty much every day - I saw a white woman pushing brown-skinned baby boy-girl twins in a pram. I've never seen that before in our town - except for me, obviously - and it was the strangest, strongest feeling of deja vu. She was clearly a little bit lost - looking around, trying to get her bearings - and I stopped and asked if I could help her find her way. Good citizen, yes, but mostly I just wanted to see it was real. It felt so very, very odd that I would see this for the first time ever on the last day of this phase of my life. It was as if destiny was giving me the chance to hand on the baton of adorable tiny transracial twin-mother-dom to this stranger.
She thanked me for stopping, and told me where she wanted to go. I pointed her in the right direction, and then she looked at my two children and smiled. "Are they twins?" she asked, and I said "Yes. How old are yours?" and she told me they were fourteen months. "Does it get easier?" she asked, and I said "No," because I've decided to stop lying to people about that one, too. She laughed nervously, and said "really? We're only just keeping our heads above water."
I felt bad. "Well, are yours fighters?" I asked. "Mine are fighters, and that's what's made it difficult." I looked at my two, one of whom had the other in a headlock.
She relaxed. "Oh no, not really," she said. "Mine are really close. When our boy cries, she crawls over and wipes his tears away."
It was my turn to laugh nervously. "That's great," I said, as I prised my children apart. We said goodbye. No baton for you, lady, I thought, as I walked away. You and I clearly have nothing in common.
That's the strangest thing about parenthood, isn't it. Having kids is this near-universal experience, but my experience of it and yours can still be worlds apart. Some friends of mine seem to be nowhere near breaking point while I feel like my rubber band is about to snap. And who knows? Is my rubber band not stretchy enough, or is it just being stretched further than theirs? I have one friend who complained about how hard motherhood was because her two year old (then an only child) 'couldn't entertain herself for more than twenty minutes at a time.' I don't think she knew the meaning of being stretched. But then other friends of mine happily manage a minivan full of children with significant challenges and I know that if I was stretched that far, I would definitely break.
I guess what I mean is just because you and I both have children doesn't mean that we have any idea what it is like to have each other's children.
Later that day Blue got stuck in a tree. Actually, he wasn't stuck, he just refused to come down. He was on a teeny tiny twig that was bending badly, even under his tiny weight. I asked him to come down and he refused and I couldn't reach him to lift him down. He was high and he was defiant and that is a toxic combination.
The defiance terrifies me. When he's angry, he has no sense of danger. I'm pretty relaxed about letting my kids do stuff, but I don't let them scoot on the road with trucks and I don't let them run away down a road where I can't see them and I don't let them fall from fifteen feet, either. They are so precious, and when they won't come when I say You. Need. To. Come. Here. Now. in my scary voice it makes me absolutely furious. After I got him down from the tree he had a tantrum all the way home and I was so mad about the tree and the tantrum and the danger (there was real danger) and the onlookers (because yes, there were onlookers) that I just couldn't form a coherent sentence. I have to have five minutes on my own before I can talk to you about this I said, because I really did, and as I sat in the bathroom and did some deep breathing I kept thinking if one more person tells me to enjoy these fleeting days I will have to kill them.
I calmed down, he apologised and order was restored. But I was exhausted and in that moment it wasn’t a day I was upset about, it was every bad day. This was our last day of this phase of our lives and I wanted it to be good. Not perfect, but good.
It wasn’t good.
When I write all of this down, none of it seems like a big deal at all. If I would only be better organised, and bring his sandwiches, if I would only remember to make him the focus of my attention, if I could only be calmer and more patient, things wouldn’t be hard. Life was easy then, I can hear myself saying. I don’t know why I didn’t just enjoy it more.
But these days are hard, and I want to remember that.
Between finishing this post and publishing it, I’ve just checked my email, and it turns out I was wrong about something.
School doesn’t start on Monday after all. It starts on Tuesday.