I am my own mum, busy picking up after everyone, making sure that dinner is on the table and that there are always a warm and safe pair of arms into which my children can fall.
I am my mother in law, my sisters and my sisters-in-law, a combination of their words of wisdom and cautionary tales. From holiday rituals like making mountains of sandwiches for picnics, singing nursery rhymes I picked up from Grandma, or working my way through the challenges of children, I am all the mothers closest to me.
I am my friends, my army of cheerleaders. Our kids change in different ways and at different times. We evolve as mothers and figure it out in our own way, but I am stronger for knowing I am not alone in the madness.
I am all the mothers at the playground, wrestling their refusing sack of spuds into pushchairs, digging harmoniously for buried treasure with a boy who really believes we might dig to Australia one day, or sitting exhausted at the bottom of the slide, my day made by the delighted squeals of my girl whizzing into the sand.
I am the sum of many mothers and a better one because of it.
Sunday morning, 7.40 am. I’ve been up for two hours. My daughter, Cora, woke up just after 5.30, snuggled into me on the sofa and promptly fell back to sleep. Meanwhile, I dozed, making micro movements to avoid waking her up whilst trying to get myself out of the damn awkward position in which I was lying.
Just after 7, she pings awake, informs me she needs her sleeping bag off (which she can’t do herself as we put it on backwards to stop her climbing out of it ten times before she goes to sleep at night) and that it’s breakfast time.
Like right now. My gentle, well mummy would just really love to pop to the loo is met with an indignant no! And since I really don’t want to wake up the rest of the house debating the point, out comes the Wheetabix.
Ten minutes later, in stumbles my four year old, rubbing his eyes and looking dazed. No good morning as he flops into my arms, just a what day is it? He’s asking because on Sunday he’s allowed to watch cartoons in the morning. It’s an arbitrary rule, made up for our own weekend peace so whoever’s on get up duty gets twenty extra minutes for a second cup of tea.
I flick through a book, Owen sits watching TV, Cora is ostensibly eating breakfast, but she learnt the word licking and likes to inform me this is what she is doing whilst craning her neck to see what’s happening in Mighty Express. There is an indescribable peace in this moment.
Then of course Owen spills his water down his pyjamas, then tells me it’s perfectly acceptable to sit on the sofa naked from the waist down. I disagree. Fortunately it’s still early and he’s not properly awake, so the discussion is a short one and soon the last five minute of train drama is playing on the screen, the cereal bowl is empty, and Dan has appeared, 30 years older but the exact template from which Owen was cut, rubbing his eyes and looking dazed. After a cursory up date on the kid’s food/toilet/mood status, I head back to bed for a snooze.
It’s not text book parenting, it’s not news and note worthy, but it’s real and happy.
For me, it’s what mum-ing is. It’s cuddles and uncomfortableness. It’s feeding and caring. Then feeding and caring for yourself. It’s taking a minute of quiet here and there. It’s routines and chaos.
I was going to say I don’t get it right a lot of the time. But who’s to say what right is. Any given day is filled with lovingly prepared meals and a biscuit stuffed into a hand to stop the associated mouth complaining. It’s filled with countless cuddles and snuggles and tens of will-you-just-cut-it-out-for-a-minute. It’s hours of biking and walking, baking and crafts, padded with some tv here and some ignoring there. It’s gaining love from giving love.
I don’t know if I mum right. I don’t think there is such a thing, but to mum to me means trusting you did what you could with the energy and experience you had, trying again tomorrow to do better and knowing your kids at least think you mum the best.
Corona Virus (both the overall pandemic and my recent experience of having it) has left me feeling pretty much awful.
I mean, what a damn stupid thing to say? Living under a lockdown, kindergartens closed, family miles away and mostly unseen for almost a year and a half, and having spent the last two weeks inside the walls of a ninety-something square metre flat (big by some standards, of course), of course I feel bloody awful.
But I mostly feel awful because of the other feelings I’m tackling.
I feel angry that the politicians seem to be making bad decision after bad decision. I feel angry that I don’t think there is a right decision, not for everyone, anyway.
I feel jealous.
Jealous of people with gardens, jealous of people with daycare still open, jealous of people who can see their family. And I hate jealousy more than any of the feelings. It’s ugly and completely useless.
I feel self-pity (maybe that’s worse than jealousy). Why me? Why now? I don’t deserve this. (Right, because like anyone does.)
And it goes on. I see people walking in groups surely larger than the rules allow and want to shake them, as if they are solely responsible for the mass spreading of the virus. I see people dropping their kids at Kindergarten and want to demand they can justify their need for emergency care. Goodness, I see people going for their haircut and wonder at the necessity, given that you need a negative test to go to the hairdresser here in Berlin; I even worry about the environmental cost of all these swabs going up our noses.
But, it’s all petty, judgemental, and ultimately a waste of brain power and energy. And, if I look inwards, it’s not like I live the life of an angel. Not to mention that my cup is definitely more than half full, all things considered.
I am, therefore, left with a decision to make. A decision I have to make everyday. To feed these feelings, allow them to fester and grow, or to rise above them.
The last two weeks, the second option has been the harder. I’ve not seen anyone outside of my household for three weeks. My nephew is approaching his first birthday and I haven’t seen him in person. A close family member passed away and, while it’s not illegal, going to the UK for the funeral would be complicated and morally questionable.
(Urgh, morals, the bane of my life.)
But I really need to start standing up the all the Ugly Feelings. I have to check them and check my own privilege every day, every hour even. We as a family were lucky enough to have had COVID 19 and be okay. It wasn’t pleasant or pretty, I thought my poor daughter’s nose would never stop running and my son would climb the walls, but it passed and we are okay. But these feelings, this useless negativity could do me more harm in the long run.
It could turn me into someone who resents people their good fortune. It could turn me into someone entitled and indulged. It could turn me into someone who doesn’t see past the end of their nose, who forgets the two bright and wonderful kids she gets to spend her days with, the relative fortune she has, the vaccine on the way, and the fact that one day, perhaps in a month, perhaps in two or three or four, I will hug my family again, I will cuddle my nieces and nephews (even the big grown up ones, probably much taller than me these days), and get to sleep in my own bed again. (My own, own bed, in my room, with the stars I chose still along the top of the wardrobe, in my home town.)
It really is time for me to master the ugly feelings. Or else, what is already an awful time for everyone, will be an awful time that I handled badly, with no advantage or use to anyone.
Weeks of ugly statistics, no signs of improvements, hospitals overwhelmed. When the politicians call a news conference to tell us we are getter new lockdown rules, it’s hardly surprising.
Stage two: Surprise
You are proposing what? What! I can’t believe it. That’s mental.
Stage three: It’s not fair!
I can’t send my kid to nursery. I can’t have a playdate. I can’t do anything. I can’t even go and buy a bloody spanner if I need one.
Stage four: Blame and resentment.
If only those idiots would follow the rules. Well, it’s okay for those folks with family just up the road. Grandma can pop over and help. And as for those people with big houses and gardens, what are they complaining about.
Stage five: Acceptance.
People are dying. Hospitals are overrun. Nursery staff are putting themselves in the line of fire. Key workers are having to mix their kids with other people. This is how it has to be.
Stage six: Coping
Right, we’ve got this. We will walk, colour, bake, play, watch TV, play, walk, probably watch a tiny bit more TV. It’s not for so long. Maybe it will go on. But we will cope. Because it’s the right thing to do. Because it’s only fair on the people who can’t protect themselves. Because it could be so much worse.
Stage seven: Breath out
Away with the anger, frustration, thinking you know better, resenting the rules, resenting the people who seem to have it easier. Remembering the people who have it much harder. Breath out. Relax. One day at a time. One day. At a time.
Every time I think about 2020, my mind engages in a table tennis game, paddling thoughts back and forth at speeds to make Olympic players envious. It was a really, bloody hard year – and it could have been harder. It really could have been. People lost their jobs, their homes, their loved ones. But using other people’s misery to reassure myself is repugnant. Then again, so is self pity without perspective applied. And this is how the mental conversation goes. Back and forth, serve and volley, occasionally hitting the net.
It’s been a crappy year. We’ve been limited, afraid, staring into an abyss.
It could have been so much worse. We had a home, an income. We had our health.
I haven’t seen my sisters for a year. I haven’t held my new nephew.
We had each other’s back. Across the miles, we stayed close and connected. My son considers his cousin, who he hasn’t played with in a year – a quarter of his life -, one of his best friends.
I missed my grandad’s funeral.
*Thought hits the net. There is no return shot.*
We didn’t get to explore our new city.
Berlin is still there. We got to know our neighbourhood, the real heart of our new home.
We had to spend so much time together.
We got to spend so much time together.
Nothing exciting happened.
My daughter learned to walk. My son learned to ride a bike. We paid attention to the seasons. We had at-home date night every week.
We couldn’t go on holiday. We couldn’t eat in restaurants.
Give it a rest, Helen. You’ve had these privileges for more than thirty years.
Our family missed our kids growing up.
They did. They really did. It’s inescapable. They were always going to though, the minute we had babies abroad.
It wasn’t fair. It isn’t fair.
No, it’s not. But, imagine if you’d been almost anywhere else in the world. Imagine if you started off with an unfair life. It could have been unfairer.
Christmas was ruined.
You’re an atheist. And you had a tree, presents, dinner, and your family. Christmas was great.
I’ll be glad when you start sleeping reliably through the night and when you quit announcing it’s morning at 5.42 am. I will. But I will miss the cuddles, the snoozing on the sofa in the dark, your whole weight on my chest, snug and safe.
I’ll be glad when meal times are less of a circus, when you can use a spoon and keep all the food securely on the tray. I will. But I will miss the look of pure determination on your face as you fight a slice of satsuma onto a spoon, the twinkle in your eye as you bat away another slice, eyeing your brother’s biscuit with intent.
I’ll be glad when you’re settled at nursery, some hours a day for me, some hours a day for you, playing happily instead of being dragged around the supermarket. I will. But I will miss you, the mischief and the mayhem, the company and challenge.
With everyday comes a new skill. From climbing where you shouldn’t to experimenting with new words, from peek-a-boo to waving. Everyday we greet a new talent. But everyday we leave something behind. It’s magical and wonderful. With every step, you become more yourself, more independent of me. I’m proud. And I’m sad. I’m glad of the progress; but I do miss the baby you were, just as when you first crawled, I missed the newborn, and the bump before that, even the tiny ball of expectation.
Soon I’ll miss the babble as words take over. I’ll miss the bottle feeds as cups become norm. One day, I’ll even miss the mess, the laundry, the arguments over curfews and unsuitable outfit choices. But everyday I am amazed at the girl in front me, ready to take on the world when only yesterday she fit on the crook of my arm.
Kids. Two of them. Always needing something. Always wanting something. While I’m almost certain that my wash bin has a bottom, I’ve not seen it in weeks. I seem to remember owning hair straighteners, but I’m lucky on the days my hair gets a proper brush.
Meal times are like feeding time at the zoo. The big one is pretty well trained. He needs his occasional reminder to sit on his chair rather than hang sideways off it, but he’s not too bad providing he approves of the menu. Offer him carrots and you may as well offer a tiger an avocado smash. The baby communicates in screeches. Like a seal. And like a seal we toss food at her to answer her cries, something nicer if she performs a trick like clapping banana together to make it extra smushy and harder to clean up. My husband and I consume lunch like starved lions who’ve just been offered a whole antelope.
The house is never tidy. Never. Even at 6.30 am, when only 50% of the household is up and we tidied before bed, there are cloth nappies drying that need to go away. The baby’s sleep sack is folded in a heap on the sideboard, not back in the bed yet because big brother is still sleeping. The most likely scenario is that the sleeping bag only makes it back to the crib with the baby in it.
The baby. Oh the baby. Crawling, pulling up, eating everything, although mostly paper. We sweep our floors at least twice a day. I don’t walk the length of the kitchen-living room without picking up six hazardous items (a receipt, a Playmobil figure’s head, the drill bit from a toy drill). These things inexplicably made it to the floor despite being cleaned up earlier (receipt) or hidden away days ago (Playmobil and drill). Sometimes I imagine I have elves hidding in the basement who come out at night, and, rather than leave me shoes, subtly undo any attempt at cleaning from the previous day.
(Then I remember I do have a set of unhelpful elves. They’re called my children, and, occasionally, my husband.)
So, yeah, things are pretty full on. Meal times, nap times, 37 stories (often the same story 34 times), Lego aeroplanes, Lego airports, unending chores, 20 minute discussions about putting on shoes, reminders repeated so often they could play on a loop peddle. (O, give her space. C, paper’s not for eating. Do we climb on the sofa? Do I look like a walking vending machine?)
Let me be clear; I’m not complaining, not really. I’m shattered, but find me a parent of little ones who isn’t. I’ve got all I need.
It’s just it is non-stop. Non-stop being needed. Non-stop thinking ahead. Non-stop being in the moment with an eye out for the next trapped fingers or sofa dive.
And relentless can be a good thing. The big one is relentless in his questions. We spent a perfect twenty minutes on the balcony yesterday. The little one napped, I had a coffee that was still hot, and my son paced up and down, eating an apple and asking me everything on the philosophical scale from what do dogs eat to are we real?
The days are a whirlwind. We do everything and nothing. We achieve miracles, like a three year old who can put his own t shirt on. We achieve nothing, with a to do list that’s had taxes at the top for a month.
And then it’s 8.30 pm. Then there’s a drink of something in my hand and a book on my lap. There’s twenty minutes of chat about how the baby can pull herself up and it’s endlessly cute. There’s anecdote sharing about how the big boy asked me if I was okay when I had tears from cutting onions. A sign that he does have empathy and that the throwing his toy drill at his sister was just a blip.
You see the love is unrelenting, too
And when tiredness, lack of space and personal time go into battle with your kiddos’ laughs, there’s only going to be one winner.
Eight months, eh? Long enough in the world that you probably feel like you know your baby quite well, you’ve got a bit of a routine down, you’ve figured out some nice meals. It’s going well. You’re maybe even feeling a bit rested. And then. Then.
Teeth. Movement. Opinions.
I’m no specialist. As a parent, I’m an expert in my kids, but no way a parenting expert. But, based on recent events, this is what my gal has to say on the matter of being eight months old. And she’s rarely wrong. When it comes to being a baby, she’s got mad skills.
Firstly, toys are rubbish. Toys are for babies that don’t know any better. Shoes, paper, mum’s book, big brother’s lego – that’s the good stuff.
Also, nappy changing equals workout time. You go left, I go right. You lie me down, I think time for some crunches.
Sleeping a bit better? Predictable wake ups? Yup. Time for teeth. Tips? Wait it out, my dear parents, have the paracetamol on hand, and maybe buy extra coffee.
To be clear, morning is between 5.30 and 6.30. Don’t fight it. Don’t think you can feed me back to sleep. Just remember: the early bird, suckers.
You want to what? To take the dirty bib away and stop me sucking it? You’re trying to confiscate the discarded receipt I found under the sofa? I’m not allowed to eat the big one’s snack that he left right here in the middle of the living room? Are you insane? I have rights, you know!
Finally, you thought you wouldn’t have to deal with moodiness until I was fourteen. Ha! Watch my bottom lip go when the spoon is just out of reach. Watch me slam about when I can’t quite get to where I need to go (the plug socket, probably. It’s just so perfectly baby-hand sized). I got opinions and I ain’t afraid to share them.
But really finally. Isn’t it great? Isn’t it great that my personality is really taking shape, that I am a refraction of you with shades of uniqueness? Aren’t I cute? Isn’t my smile the best? Yeah, you’re tired, at times overwhelmed, worried even. Of course, it’s hard. We are sorry about that, us babies.
But just look at us, looking at you, eight months in this world and already paving our way. That’s pretty awesome, I’d say.
(Or I would say, if my communication wasn’t limited to dinosaur squawks.)
We moved across country about a month before lockdown was imposed. Between unpacking and figuring out where the nearest supermarket was, we hadn’t got very far. Little did we know that our couple of trips into central Berlin or to neighbouring districts would be the furthest we’d go in a while. We still go out everyday but local and on foot. We keep our distance as best we can to keep our sanity as best we can.
Since variety is the supposed spice of life, we’ve tried to vary our daily walk. And since we’re brand new in town, everywhere new is a bit of an adventure. Today we found a path along the Spree that took us all the way to Alt Köpenick. Before today, I’d been down to the old town a dozen times to visit the library, bakery and playgrounds. However, I hadn’t been close in weeks. As the Rathaus clock tower came into view and an all-but-empty tram rummbled past, I turned to my husband and said, look, it’s all still here.
For those of us with the luxury to be able to social distance – and it is a luxury to have a job you can keep doing from home and an area where you can go outside easily without seeing too many folks- it has been easy to feel that the world has shrunk to our nearest green space, our closest supermarket and our living room. Finding ourselves on the river bank, passing closed restaurants and imagining what they could be, was a much-needed boost.
Because when this is over, the rivers and parks further afield, the beautiful old buildings, the sun-soaked spots for sipping a beer with friends will still be there. When this is over, Alt Köpenick’s bakery will still sell pretzels, the playground will open again, there will be opportunities to natter with other parents again. All that will still be there. And for now, we can do without. For now, we have to do without. Enough people have lost everything for us to forget that.
I vaguely imagined life in lockdown would be quiet. With nowhere to go, no trams to rush for, no obligations to fulfil, I imagined a less hectic life. In fact, in my anxiety about how social distancing would work, about how we’d get on stuck by ourselves 24/7, I tried to envisage the upsides: a slower, less fraught existence. And it is slower. It is less fraught. (Well, when I stop myself from thinking too hard about why we are in this state of lockdown.) But quieter. Ha! No way.
For one thing, I still live with a three year old, a baby and a working-from-home husband who makes daily conference calls. In terms of raw decibels, our volume output is, if anything, up.
Then there are the noises I hadn’t noticed in a while. Walking through the forest or out playing in the park with my kids (my son barely remarks on the deserted playgrounds anymore), I’m reminded of how loud nature is. When usually I’d be chatting to other parents and hearing the cries of other kids, my son and I listen to the birds and the trees. It’s a different kind of noisy and, while somewhat twee to draw attention to it, there is something to be said for stopping and listening to the forest. I’m seeing this Spring through a child’s eye, hearing it through his ears: curious and enthusiastic about a daffodil, the sound of a woodpecker and the rustle of birds in the bushes. Less people to talk to does not necessarily mean less to listen to.
The noise in my head is different, too. It’s both much louder and much quieter. There are days, or parts of days, when I get sucked into the news, my phone, messaging friends as I crave connection, thinking I must send this photo now, I must reply to this message immediately, and generally being anywhere but present. In those moments, as all the what ifs cascade through my mind, as my fingers race across the keyboard, as my eyes devour the screen, the world becomes really loud. Anxiety builds, my ears buzz, and I am deafened by the sounds of my mind.
On the other hand, all those nonspecific worries from before the lockdown seem trivial now. Routine medical appointments, sorting out my taxes, concern the oven is off, all the daily tasks that take up brain space have melted away. And, on those days when I restrict my screen time and news time, preferring instead to focus on whatever Lego building project my son has in mind, I don’t allow the major worry to consume me. In this regard, my life is quieter. My brain has learned to shut down certain corners, calm down others, and become more focussed. Living one day at a time, and really doing that, not just throwing the idea about like a cliché, turns out to be pretty healthy.
And so, for sure, lockdown is not living the quiet life, even for me, privileged enough to not be too affected as yet. But the noise is different, and, at times, not at all in a bad way.