Wanderlust.

It feels like it rains with disproportionate frequency at 3pm, and yesterday afternoon (despite it being mid-June) was no exception. My old car had stoically made it through a suddenly flooded village on the way home from work and I did my usual mad dash round to school in the pouring rain. I waited with wellies and a mac ready for Bean in the playground as the deluge continued and thunder rolled overhead, cursing the British summer and vowing to move somewhere sunnier.

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By the time Bean appeared at her classroom door I was mentally strolling barefoot on a beach in the south of France, contemplating where to purchase that particularly pretty shade of blue for my imaginary window shutters.

Another roll of thunder and Bean rummaging in my pockets for snacks snapped me out of my daydream, and we set off for home as the clouds relentlessly drenched us. Bean scooted off happily, stopping only to leap in particularly large puddles. I trudged behind like an overladen donkey who had mislaid their ticket for the ark.

It never ceases to amaze me just how much stuff Bean is required to have to spend little more than six hours in school some days. This, in combination with the UK’s nod to a monsoon season, got me thinking about travelling. The humidity of the day and afternoon storm defining of that school run reminded me of backpacking more than ten years ago. It reminded me of the pairs of flip flops, which had been respectfully left outside a restaurant, floating quickly down a makeshift road as heavy rain predictably broke the afternoon heat in Thailand.

I considered whether I had packed lighter for that summer in South East Asia than for PE day at school. Bean seems to constantly accumulate more ‘essential’ school items. I conversely had successfully honed down the content of my backpack throughout the course of my trip, beginning with the redundancy of the foul smelling travel towel that prior to setting off had seemed like a good idea [why does no one tell you how awful those things smell when they get wet before you set off backpacking?].

Then, in the midst of my travel reminiscing, set to the backing track of Jack Johnson and Morcheeba on repeat in my mind (as I am sure is the case for anyone who was in Thailand around the same time), it hit me.

What if Bean one day goes travelling and does some of the things my 19 year old self did?

What if she falls asleep drunk on a beach and has her camera and money stolen? What if she takes a sleeping tablet from a stranger on a platform before getting on a train travelling south to Malaysia? What if she gets a tattoo done by someone she has just met using a sharpened bamboo stick dipped in a pot of ink? What if she treks in Taman Negara with no guide and no sense of direction? What if she is not concerned by the numerous holes next to the door frame of her ridiculously cheap hostel room where the lock previously resided?

What if she is having so much fun she blindly ignores everything I hope to teach her before she packs her bags in search of an adventure?

The penny drops that I can’t teach Bean everything. One day she will fly and explore independently, and most likely have her own summer of making at times inadequately judged decisions. At some point in the future she will put herself on a plane and be free; responsible for her own decisions far away from my advice.

Bean will have her own summer of having one of the best times of her life. Her own summer of meeting new people; people she will bond with and learn from and see new things with. New foods, new cultures, new places, and a slightly altered perspective. The wonder of seeing what feels like a totally different sun setting in the sky.

These are not things I can teach her fully. I can show her the possibilities, but I can’t make her feel them. They are things she will experience and learn for herself. They are things I want her to feel and experience for herself.

The thought of Bean one day forging her own path in a distant place may have initially had me wondering how to best to disguise myself and stowaway in her luggage but, with a little more reflection, I hope she does seek adventure. I hope she will be happy and free and take leaps of faith into the unknown, even if it does come with the caveat of some likely reckless abandon.

Maybe we will have some adventures of our own before she decides to fly solo. What better reason than the instilling of some wanderlust to try and fulfil my recent dreaming of a van, some time, and the realisation of some of my postponed travel plans?

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Denial.

I have never been the type to crumble in a crisis. Mind over matter with a bit of hard work thrown in; naively I used to feel in total control of my destiny. Focused, with a [liberal] sprinkling of a stubborn tendency to get through any challenges that came my way. Anxiety was for other people.

But when truly tested I was to find out I was not only one of those other people, but also stubborn to my detriment. Stubborn enough to not see the wood for the trees, or rather the anxiety for the fear. The irrational fear of something happening, despite it not physically being able to happen again. The fear I unnecessarily projected onto everyday activities. The fear that I was not coping.

The fear that other people would realise I was not coping.

So I did nothing. I was fine; there was nothing wrong.

There was nothing wrong with events playing over and over in my mind, transporting me back to the paralysing fear of bleeding to death (Singular; adjective, just one person or thing.). There was nothing wrong with it catching me off guard and stopping me in my tracks. And further still nothing wrong with the sudden flashes of what I lived and breathed two days after giving birth to my daughter; flashes of trying sit up in my hospital bed refusing to lay down or close my eyes in an effort to not pass out. The images in my head held horrible inseparable hands with later thoughts of the gravity of the situation, adding the dimension of watching as a helpless bystander who was unable to look away.

I took control as best I could by avoiding certain situations and discussions. But this, along with a simultaneous disregard for the mundane and fearful risk aversion that had developed in the wake of the events of having Bean, left me feeling isolated and even less able to overcome my feelings.

To a point, despite the obvious disadvantages of my so-called coping mechanisms, daytime was the easy bit. It was the subconscious anxiety that refused to leave me in peace even when asleep that really got to me. My deep routed inner anxieties waited just long enough for me to get over the fear of going to sleep alone before striking. Just long enough that I could go to sleep without worrying something awful would happen.

But even this sleep-disturbing spike of worry was not enough to admit there was a problem. It didn’t matter that while I slept the feelings of fear peaked, with images at their most vivid convincing me I was bleeding profusely again. It didn’t even matter that months later I would wake up totally convinced I was waking in the early hours of that Wednesday morning in a pool of blood.

Maybe waking up standing on one leg in a bid to get out of a pool of non-existent blood with my face wet with tears was normal, just something to be brushed aside before getting on with the day.

My subconscious was getting the better of me time and time again, but my stubborn denial stopped me accepting there was a problem and stopped me seeking help. Irrational worry made insignificant decisions hold a disproportionate importance, and still there was no acceptance of a problem. My inability to verbalise what I was seeing in my head prevented me from feeling I could articulate and convey the issue to allow anyone in to help.

Despite my outward denial there had been months of friends and family suggesting it may be helpful to speak to someone. Attempts to veil my feelings were clearly thin, with those who knew me well unconvinced by my transparency. But still I thought their concerns were misguided.

I am unsure what finally broke my resolve to deal with it myself. Now I wish I had taken the advice of loved ones sooner, but I think it had to come from me. I knew I wanted Bean to know the old me and as she grew that became more pertinent. Perhaps there was also an element of despair that what I was doing alone was not making it go away. A large part of someone being able to improve the situation in my head was me admitting it was a problem; something that could not come from anyone else. I had to get to a point where I accepted denying my fear and anxiety was getting me no closer to my old self. To the contrary, I was rapidly travelling further from the person I was before I had Bean.

I eventually spoke to a hypnotherapist who walked me towards the images that most frequently emerged from my memories. She helped me to replace moments intrinsically tied to fearful emotions with something more positive. I walked towards my scared self waiting to be operated on, unsure of what the outcome of surgery would be, and replaced the feeling of being alone and scared  with warmth and reassurance. I was sceptical of the effect of hugging my petrified self, but something clicked. In no way was the fear gone completely, but I could process some of my anxiety with thoughts that did not leap to a state of frozen panic. I could sleep and begin to recover out of the grips of something I had felt I had no control over. Hypnotherapy may not be for everyone, but for me it had echoes of the meditation classes I went to when I was at University. It just felt right. I am sure others would have their own right person to seek help from.

It is a work in progress, but admitting I had a problem and letting someone in was the first step in my journey back to reclaiming the bits of the old me I wanted to keep. I was worried my anxiety was a sign of weakness, a defining feature that someone else would have been strong enough to deflect. But this is not true; my weaknesses were thinking anxiety discriminates in who it lives in and that someone else would not be able to help me see blue sky in the storm of my thoughts.

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Music, my memory peg.

Twice this year I have cried actual tears for the loss of people I have never met. First Bowie and now Prince; 2016 is not turning out to be a good year for artistic legends.

Admittedly, I am emotionally fairly free. I have cried following the deaths of those I have barely known, but most likely these were tears for the pain of their loved ones left behind. I have also been known to cry at death in the news, but perhaps this is because of the general inhumanity or injustice of certain events as opposed to the often untold individual stories.

These tears are more selfish than that. I cried at the news of the loss of these artists because they have provided the backdrop to many of my memories.

Bowie was frequently played by my parents as I grew up, and I found my own love of his music in my teens. ‘Hunky Dory’ has never really not been played. And now, in a full circle state of affairs, Bean loves Ziggy Stardust. Although, apparently, this is entirely different to loving David Bowie if you are four years old and cannot see past the make-up. How can they possibly be the same person when ‘Ziggy is too pretty to be called David’? But, artist identity aside, her ‘Starman’ is  undoubtedly about Tim Peake taking up residence on the International Space Station. And if Ziggy plays guitar left-handed then she can definitely use her different scissors with pride.

The songs that spoke to me now speak to her. Lyrics I remember clearly from my childhood are now beginning to punctuate hers.

The passing on of a love of a certain artist is clearly not unusual. My love of Prince came not from a family member, but instead from an older neighbour when she leant me a box of cassettes while I was still at primary school. At the time I probably would have loved anything those cassettes contained. How could I not have wanted to like the music of a girl who painted graffiti on her bedroom walls (albeit immediately prior to planned redecoration) and dyed the majority of her clothes purple in a water butt in her driveway? But independent of any external influences, ‘Kiss’ stood out on one of those cassettes and remains able to transport me back to the exact details of rummaging through those old cassettes so long ago.

Music is a constant in my hanging of memories on the pegs in my mind. The work of people I have never met helps me remember things clearly, make sense of things and bond with those around me. How can it matter that I have never met these creators and performers when their words run through the events of my life?

Of course, my song hung memories extend beyond the music of the legends that are Bowie and Prince. But their deaths have prompted my thinking about the importance of music in our lives.

I pressed play on the CD player in my room immediately before feeding Bean for the first time after leaving hospital, without a thought as to what would begin to play. It was the last album I had listened to before having her, Bob Marley and The Wailers, ‘Feel Alright’. But without any thought, the first song that played, ‘Stir it up’, was perfect. I can hear it when I think back to our first few minutes together in our own environment. Stir it up she did, but in that moment everything was as it should be. I was relaxed, warm, and grateful for being sat on my bed feeding my six day old baby. Listening to that song never fails to make me feel happy and safe. The album stayed in my CD player for the coming days and continues to remind me of little details of that time; her hiccups, her froggy legs as she lay in her moses basket, and the sunny time of year. I worry that without the intertwining of my memories with the prompt of hearing certain songs I would forget these details that make me so happy.

Then there is this memory I have of Bean, just turned age three, dancing freely to ‘Don’t Stop’ by Fleetwood Mac. We were on holiday in Brittany, it was windy but warm and our giant prawns were cooking on the barbecue. We were having a lovely time in a beautiful location. The sun was still fairly high in the sky, but would soon begin to set on the wrong side of us as we looked North, out towards the sea. I don’t think I will ever forget some of the details of that holiday, but I cannot think of any of it without my mind jumping to Bean dancing to that song.

Not all my memories married to songs are so pleasant, but even then songs have only ever served to help a situation. Some songs have been seemingly ruined by their, often accidental, accompaniment of a sad time. But they never really are.

I cannot imagine life without other peoples words and feelings so easily accessible in their music. Wondering what they meant by their lyrics, and if it is the same as my interpretation and what I am feeling.

These true artists who are sadly no longer with us will live on through the love people have for their work. Their words, the feelings their music brings, and an appreciation of their talent, will be passed on to our babies. Bowie’s affirmation that throwing homework on the fire is perfectly acceptable is all the encouragement I need to do exactly that. Only we will not be taking the car anywhere, we will instead spend the time listening to great music that is good for our souls.

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Decisions.

I have been meaning to see a fertility consultant for a while now. I kept saying to myself I had not got round to it because I was too busy with Bean, work, and life. But really, I just didn’t want to hear what I thought would be said.

Left unspoken I could keep hold of the eighteen month old words that described my fertility as slightly below average for my age.

My glass half full self looked past the below average bit and revelled in the word slightly. Those slightly less than averagely functioning ovaries were, as far as I was concerned, triumphing in the face of trauma and decreased blood supply. They stubbornly refused to wave a white flag of surrender at the loss of their closest ally.

The not quite so glass half full part of me did consider the flawed nature of this approach. Defiant as my ovaries were, it was not as if they were going to team up and initiate a uterine regeneration programme.

However, despite my lack of uterus, my ovarian function remains important to me. Their continued function my ticket to the opportunity of having another baby of my own. A ticket to a no doubt difficult journey with a slim chance of arriving at the destination I would like; but a ticket none the less. Their function, along with the help of a surrogate home for nourishment and growth, providing the possibility that another baby is not an entirely unrealistic hope.

Today, I got round to braving the appointment with the fertility consultant. I walked in past the white stone statue of a man holding a sword to a dragon that I could not fathom the relevance of, went up two flights of stairs with success stories adorning the walls, and waited.

Knowledge is power after all. And the hospital coffee isn’t all that bad.

Knowledge of a significant decrease in fertility, using the term in the loosest sense given the sub-total hysterectomy shaped elephant in the room, did not feel like power. It felt horrible. Not unexpected, but deflating, flat, and somehow unfair.

I feel guilty saying that it feels unfair, when I am so fortunate as to share my life with Bean. But there is this part of me that really hopes that one day all the pieces will fall into place. A version of my life where I will be with someone who loves me and can see us with a baby, and a kind and selfless women will offer to help bring one into the world for us. Life where things are how I would have loved them to be had events not happened as they did when I had Bean. A dog or two, a couple of chickens, and a little place perched on a hilltop where grass meets a stretch of sandy beach would also be great, but I don’t want to push my luck given the first request.

Back in the consultation room, options and success rates were discussed. Frozen eggs, frozen embryos, surrogacy; nothing I have not heard before and yet different in the context of the immediately preceding conversation.There now feels like a very present need to make a decision.

I thanked the consultant for his time and advice, and walked down the stairs. Everything always feels like it takes longer when you have just received news that is not as you would have liked it to be. Two flights of stairs felt like many more. I know there is no point feeling upset about something I cannot change, and yet I walked down the stairs trying not to cry and hoping I did not bump into anyone as I left.

In a parallel existence where money is no object I would be freezing eggs as soon as possible. But the success rate is poor.  Would it be spending money I do not have for false hope in my current situation? Will I have days where I feel the loss of someone that does not exist as I so frequently did when I finally accepted the implications of having my uterus removed? Will a man fall in love with me and want to try against the odds to have a baby, rendering the need for a frozen egg insurance policy unnecessary?

If I don’t do it while it is a possible option, will I wish I had?

I am notoriously awful at decision making at the best of times; weighing this issue up at this point in time feels challenging. I am not a five year plan kind of person. I like things to just happen, absolving myself from the responsibility of the what ifs.

So far the decision making process has consisted of buying myself flowers, wine, and my favourite cheese. I danced with Bean in the lounge and let her stay up later than normal, giving her just long enough to adopt my flowers with the assurance they will definitely prefer to live in her bedroom.

None of this has yet led to me deviating from my usual demeanour of planning avoidance. But flowers, cheese, wine, and dancing with someone you love are firmly confirmed as the best medicine for a difficult day.

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Meeting Bean.

I felt like I knew Bean well before she was born. Those months of getting used to her movements, talking to her, and playing her my favourite songs as she grew were special.

We had our routines. I would frequently accidentally bump her into the checking bench in the hospital dispensary and Bean would retaliate with an indignant kick, having been disturbed from the reassuring background noise. I knew she liked coffee and the sickly sweet syrup kirsch cherries are bathed in, but didn’t seem to want me to consume anything else very successfully. I also knew she had formed an early disregard of my need for sleep and enjoyed nothing more than hosting a rave for one every evening when I lay in bed. She would hiccup daily, endured my awful singing, and let me know of her annoyance when I dug a hole in the cold sand for my bump on West Wittering beach.

And then there was the blurry little black and white pictures of her.  I have no idea just how many hours I spent looking at them, but they were numerous. One of the tiny pictures came in an envelope with me to Tanzania, so it could be happily stared at on a different continent for a couple of weeks. They now live next to my bed, safely tucked away in my favourite book. Bean once pulled them out of the book, peered at them at a variety of angles, and declared, ‘It was so dark when I grew in your tummy; it must have been night-time for ages’, before discarding the pictures in favour of something more interesting.

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I most likely felt I knew her better than I ever could have done at that point in time, but undoubtedly she was a huge part of my world and our bond was already there.

So why, the first time I met her, did I ask for her to be taken off my chest?

It is almost five years on and I still have moments of guilt about my immediate reaction to meeting the little human I was already so in love with. There is so much spoken of how you will feel when you meet your child for the first time that I had not contemplated it being anything other than the soft-focus image of skin-to-skin bonding and overwhelming love.

Despite this preconceived image and Bean’s need for me I asked for her to be taken off my skin. I was totally in love with her, but her presence was claustrophobic for my three days in labour exhausted, spaced out on opioids, being stitched up self. The curtain part-way down my body felt like it was closing in on me and everything felt a bit foggy. I had lost the best part of two litres of blood; small fry compared to a couple of days later, but none-the-less it was likely contributing to my exhaustion as Bean was placed on me.

The rational part of me can see why I reacted as I did, but it has been hard to overcome my feelings of inadequacy and guilt for wanting my child to be taken off me when we first met. I would have loved for Bean to have had the calm and peaceful entrance to the world some women are fortunate enough to experience with their children. But, like a lot of us, it did not work out like that.

Labour was protracted and exhausting, it involved drugs, an emergency caesarean section, and later worse (Singular; adjective, just one person or thing.). But it was not my fault. And similar experiences are not other women’s fault. No amount of birth-planning, mindfulness, or calm on my part would have stopped Bean’s head getting stuck and the traumatic birth that resulted. I need to stop concerning myself with even the twinges of the guilt of our first meeting. We need to stop having such high expectations of ourselves and our bodies; growing and birthing a baby can be really hard and none of us have a crystal ball to prepare us for what our personal experience will be.

All we can be is our best. My best asked for Bean to not be on my skin while the best I could be at the time felt physically awful. My best delayed our first contact and the reassurance of my presence in my daughter’s life.

But my best also held Bean close, fed her, and showed her the love I had wanted to immediately just as soon as I felt I could. There have been more cuddles than I could begin to count since, and that is what matters. Like many other women’s experiences of birth, it was far from perfect; but it was my best.

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Little Bell and the Moon, a review.

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Three year old Bean was a bit too young to get it when Harvey Dog went to the vets and didn’t come back. Initially, there was no significant tangible response to his one-way trip. There was the occasional sigh of ‘Harvey Dog has been at the vets for a really long time now’, and, ‘When will Harvey Dog come home?’; but no amount of explanation of the finality of Harvey Dog’s journey truly sunk in. Consolation of others around her was acted out beautifully, with hugs and perfectly timed sympathetic exhalations in abundance.

But still nothing.

In one of the most delayed displays of grief in man-kinds history, it was the middle of the next summer when the penny finally dropped. ‘I don’t think Harvey dog is coming home and I really miss him’ was suddenly sobbed as we finished washing the car. Upset turned to anger that Harvey Dog wasn’t going to see her in her school uniform. There were cuddles and all the same explanations as before, but a year of emotional growth suddenly flowed with real tears and a degree of realisation.

Giles Paley-Phillips’ ‘Little Bell and The Moon’ plants the seed of wondering about our finite time on Earth perfectly for the curious mind of a child. Little Bell adores the Moon and the feeling is mutual. Wonderful adventures they have together play to a child’s imagination and, like all of the best teaching, draws them in to the bigger issue without even realising.

Bean, like many children, is fascinated with the moon. ‘Is the moon’s belly full of sun when it lights up?’, and, ‘Do astronauts go to the moon because it is the best place to bounce really high?’, are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to her moon-based ponderings. The Moon is the perfect childhood friend for Bell, with the enduring nature of their friendship providing the security to deal with a difficult subject.

Bell and The Moon continue to explore faraway places; with Bell’s growing older not going unnoticed by Bean. Iris Deppe’s beautiful illustrations pave the way for discussions before being allowed to turn the page. ‘She’s fading’, Bean comments quietly towards the end of the story. And then, ‘Is that her soul?’, asked as we turn the page.

Bell’s being joins her friend in space; Little Bell, young again, consoling her friend with her brightness. Bean noted Little Bell’s happiness at being able to see The Moon even though she faded. A beautiful, touching, and reassuring ending to a lovely story of life and loss.

Little Bell and The Moon’s difficult subject matter and thought-provoking nature is perfectly balanced with well-worded rhymes painting images of childhood fun. It opens a child’s mind to the reality of death, while giving them relatable and reassuring images to hang their thoughts and questions on.

The Moon knows it is Little Bell that can be seen shining brightly. Bean asks ‘Are other people up in space with Little Bell, shining like stars?’, and I know that neither of us are going to look up at the sky in quite the same way again. Maybe Harvey Dog can see her in her school uniform, and perhaps Bean will see him when she next looks up at the stars.

‘Little Bell and The Moon’ written by Giles Paley-Phillips and illustrated by Iris Deppe, Fat Fox Books.

 

I think, therefore I am.

‘I told my teacher I need to leave early on Wednesdays now, so I can get to my Bhangra class on time’, Bean pipes up as we walk home from school. My bemused response of, ‘But Bean, you don’t go to a Bhangra class?’ was quashed with a self-assured, ‘I know I don’t go to one YET. But I WANT to go to one and my teacher said I just need to remind her next week’.

So that’s it, a done deal. Next Wednesday I shall be leaving work early to take my four year old daughter to a fictitious Bhangra class.

This approach in many ways is admirable; I think it, therefore it will be. No barriers, no uncertainty and total unwavering self-belief. It leads me to question whether the focus of my pondering as we walked home that all four year old children are clearly bonkers should actually have had a strong leaning towards championing the true genius of these little people.

I passed my driving test having repeatedly muttered to myself, ‘It will be okay. I have never met this person before, they have no idea what an awful driver I am’, before the test. The shock on my driving instructor’s face told me I was right to have questioned my (in)ability, but the bottom line was I had proved I could do it. The ability was there, it was my prior belief that had not been.

When do we lose our self-assurance that things we want will just be?

When do the lines between everyday life and make-believe stop being blurred?

It is these blurred lines that frequently provide the magic of a young child’s imagination. They do not believe they are imagining; they just believe. They did not possibly hear their toy dinosaur roar when they were in bed last night, they definitely heard it. They do not doubt they will simultaneously be an astronaut and a milk-maid when they grow up, they know they will be. Minor details like appropriate habitat for the accompanying cow, ‘Space Moo’, are easily solved by planting ‘A field on the moon’. It doesn’t matter that, aside from anything else, there will be no one to sell the milk to because ‘It will all be so much fun!’.

This inability to differentiate between the real world and everything else is what makes reading stories with a child so great. It is what makes them believe the International Space Station is Santa Claus pulled by reindeer in his sleigh. It is the reason I watched a lengthy puppet show of dubious substance but abundant enthusiasm yesterday. It is what makes you question your own sanity if you spend too long with a young child.

Clearly, we cannot all go about our lives with unwavering self-assured belief in fiction. But I am sure just a little more of the ‘I think and so I am’ attitude of a young child would serve some of us well as adults.

I really hope Bean holds on to every bit of her refreshing childhood shade of crazy for just a little while longer. And I hope the smallest amount of it rubs off on me.

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