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.
Calling over WiFi is great. Living abroad, it’s a cheap and easy link to home. But man is it annoying when there is a lag. If you both cotton on fast enough and work with it, it’s managable, but otherwise it’s frustrating and the weekly chat with dad about the weather can typically wait.
Talking with a toddler is a bit like living in a land where all your conversations experience a delay.
Like many parents, we model good manners. Way before any level of comprehension, we used please and thank you with our son. At two and a half, there are still frequent calls of want water! Gentle reminders often illicit a please. Still, it feels like he’s being slow on the uptake. Then last week, out of the blue, I pinched a bit of my kid’s snack. “Mama!” he said agast, “you have to say please!”
It happens all the time. Fifteen minutes after discussing what we’re having for dinner with the only responses being: Look, a fire engine! A stick! Where’s grandad? From nowhere I’ll get a can I have cheese with my sausages?
For almost 9 months we discussed how he used to be in my tummy and be small like his sister would be. Two weeks ago, mid sausages with a random pile of grated cheese (because why argue with such a request?), he announced, “I used to go in your tummy. I was small. I’m a big boy.” He declared it as if he had personally just discovered how humans reproduce and grow; we were stupid for not having realised before.
It’s well known that it’s important to talk to kids. I am in favour of setting boundaries and trying to explain them, even if the child is somewhat too young to understand. I try to chat with my son about the big and the small stuff everyday, try to help him understand where there are rules, and celebrate his successes. But sometimes it’s like talking to a brick wall.
Then I cottoned on to the lag. I realised the need to start talking about issues way before they come up. I decided to keep talking long after he appears to be listening. I repeat myself again and again and again. Of course, when I am telling my dad for the fifth time what the weather is like, I eventually give up and call back later. I can’t hang up on my son. And oh boy, do I feel frustration when there seems to be a really weak connection.
Life with my son is steps forward, backwards, sideways, rightways and wrongways. We leap forward and see him explaining to us why he must stop before crossing the road. We plummet backwards when out of nowhere he tugs his hand away and makes a run for it. We grit out teeth in frustration when he will not accept that one cannot shout randomly on the tram. We laugh when he tells us off for standing on a chair to reach the flour from the top of the cupboard.
But mainly we are doing our best to work with the delay on the line, trusting our messages will eventually get through.
The waiting room is empty for once. The only sound is the piercing scream of an infant. It doesn’t matter, my baby girl will be chirping in soon enough when it’s her turn. I feel sorry for the doctor, really. He spends the day administering vital vaccinations and checking over children only to get screamed at.
For now, back here in the waiting room, all is peaceful. My baby is snoozing, the toys in the island are packed away, the books are neat, and the rocking horse and elephant are stored neatly under the coat rack.
Those rocking toys.
They are old, going by the wear on the wood. They lack any decoration and are simply designed. I always wonder how long they’ve been part of the wares provided to distract snotty and feverish kids waiting to see the physician. Probably a decade, at least. Plain and simple compared to the all singing, all dancing toys available, they’re extremely forgettable.
They have their place in my story, though.
It’s two and a half years since I first sat in this waiting room. I had the same bassinet with the same blanket, same wrap holding nappies and wipes. Then, though, it was my baby boy snuggled down in a hat carefully knitted by a friend, his eyes flickering under the green trim. (The flickering eyes of my daughter are so similar, the hat the same style, this time with a purple trim.)
I used to look at the rocking toys and apparently healthy kids swinging back and forth (I’ve since learned kids don’t typically look sick in the way adults do. They still run circles round you between sneezes.) and find it unbelievable that my son would be that kid riding a wooden horse and making clicking noises with his tongue.
Over the last 36 months, we’ve had a few routine trips to the doctor’s office. And each time my boy has engaged more with the rocking toys. Sitting, he was at constant risk of losing a finger as he insisted on pushing back and forth with one hand, the other in the danger zone.
From sitting came pulling himself up delightedly. Then asking to sit on them with enthusiasm, rocking gently as I made horsey noises. (My elephant impression still needed work back then.) Now he can stride over, mount the horse and inform me that he is off to see his auntie or his best buddies. This toy has been a marker of sorts, a way to see the remarkable things he learns as the months go by.
One day, the rocking toys will stop being interesting. They’ll be baby toys, reserved for his sister.
Because sitting here, 5 kilos of baby under a blanket, her chubby cheeks soft and her chest rising and falling slowly, I know I’ll see her growth in part through her interactions with a wooden rocking toy. All the weigh ins and supposed milestones are fine, but these toys have served me well in honing my appreciation for my child’s development. I don’t know or care at what age a child can typically ride on a rocking toy. I only know he couldn’t, then he could
And sitting here, having seen it once before, I can’t quite believe my baby girl will one day also be galloping into the sunset.
We can measure kids in all kinds of ways. We can keep charts and records, look at graphs and compare notes with friends. But providing they’re healthy, the growth that matters is the growth that I can’t believe will happen and that I can measure against a beat up swaying horse.
The spare sofa in our bedroom is the dumping ground for clean clothes. Usually vaguely folded and then ordered by owner/final storage destination, they can sit there for a day or so until someone gets around to putting them away.
And now there is a new pile. Next to my husband’s t-shirts, my socks, and my son’s dinosaur-print everything, there’s a stack of clothes so small they don’t need folding. Many of the items – the blue and grey zip up pyjamas, the elephant onesie, and the stripy vests – have been on these piles before. Only one pile to the left. When the big boy was still the little guy.
But now they are on a fresh pile, mixed in with some new clothes, sent by family members whose kids grew out of them long ago.
Four piles of laundry not three. It takes longer to sort, the reality of life now. Everything. take longer, we go slower. And it’s a pleasure.
Sorting out the washing is never much fun. But I am sure glad there is more of it these days.