Delicate Scent of Summer Dusk

I really shouldn’t be blogging tonight. I’m lucky enough to have a bit of work to do, work that I might actually get paid for. But I can’t concentrate.

I don’t know whether it’s because I’m ‘overdoing it’ as my two friends and husband protest that I am, or whether it’s this lovely weather distracting me and giving me an intense dislike for my desk at the moment. It’s been gorgeous these last few days, and my mantra is to make the most of life before it disappears through your fingers as fast as dry grains of sand. So I’ve been in the park, going for walks and trying to clear my head. And then I sit at my desk, and nothing happens.

Just half an hour ago, I took a break from my desk to bring out the bins, and as I stood there absorbing the fresh air and fanning away the midges, the smell of the warm air brought back memories: memories of having barbecues growing up that lasted until it got dark; memories of walking to the shop with a single pound coin in my pocket to buy sweets for all four of us; memories of having cycling competitions with my two younger sisters (in my younger, fitter days) around our estate, only coming back in when the other kids were called home too.

I really hope that one day, Ali will enjoy this freedom, but right now I don’t think she’ll ever be as free as we were. The dangers that were there when we were kids are still there now, and coupled with social media (I get the irony, believe me), you really can’t tell who is watching your kids and what images they have of them. Ali is only five and I’ve already taught her my address and phone number in case we ever get separated for whatever reason. We’ve done stranger danger, although how much of it she really understands I don’t know, and I worry irrationally all the time. This is normal, right?

I remember after the terrorist attack in Paris in 2015, I didn’t sleep for about two weeks. I got paranoid about every little noise in the night, about being in crowded spaces, about helicopters and planes overhead. And I’m not sure why it worried me so much, because I remember going to Coalisland (In Co. Tyrone, Northern Ireland) every weekend with my parents as a child and being stopped by soldiers at the border. Both of my parents worried about their Southern Reg car – it was dangerous at the time and it certainly made you stand out as an outsider and in the wrong area, a prime target for petrol bombs. As kids we were terrified, but mum and dad seemed to take it in their stride. They were used to it, it didn’t faze them. And if it did, they never let it show.

What  were they supposed to do, never go north? Or move back up and never go south? They did neither. We continue to travel back and forth to see our family, and will always do so, even if Brexit does mean tighter borders between the UK and Ireland (and after the attack at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester this week, it’s looking like a possibility).

Our world is not safe, yet it has been reported that never before in history has it been safer to be alive. Polio, the plague and other diseases are almost entirely eradicated. Vaccinations against deadly diseases such as measles and malaria are widely available. Life expectancy is now into the seventies at least. And we will be spending the rest of our lives worrying about terrorism, bogeymen, rapists and the likes.

Listen, I’m not suggesting for one second that we should let our guard down and ignore what’s going on in the world. Nor am I saying ‘oh well, the world is an evil place, sure what can we do?’ Of course we must be seen to be strong in the face of barbarity. But our children deserve to live free of fear, because they are going to spend enough time worrying about things. Our children deserve to live, and to try and carve out a legacy to leave behind them for their own kids. They deserve the freedom to make their own mistakes and the freedom to recover from them.

They should be free to ride their bikes into the sunset, embracing the sweet smelling fragrance of a summer dusk.

RIP to those who were killed in Manchester 22.5.17, and condolences to your families.

To Alison on your first day at school

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Alison at eighteen months

 

To my beautiful daughter, Alison,

 

It’s ten past nine on Monday, 29 August 2016 and you have been in bed just over an hour. Since then, I’ve spent the time running around like the proverbial blue-arsed fly trying to make sure I’ve everything ready for tomorrow morning. Another big milestone in your life.

Your very first day of primary school.

I marvel at myself for how I can sit here and type that sentence so dry-eyed and straight faced, my thoughts still coherent enough to write this blog proclaiming my undying and never-ending love for you. I should be in a heap in a corner somewhere, sifting through your baby photos, pining for the years I will never have again with you.

But I’m not (Don’t worry though, mummy isn’t some sort of insensitive bitch, promise honey). Not yet, anyway. As nervous as I am, I’m also really excited about it

I don’t know if you know it, but there was a time when I didn’t think I was good enough for you. There was a time when I believed you would be happier without me, that I wasn’t a good parent. And then you started to walk, to talk, to count, to recognise your colours and shapes, to sing little songs over and over again. Things that I taught you. You kept mummy going in the darkest days; you were the light, your butterfly kisses the fuel of my strength.

You are so beautiful, inside and out; don’t let anyone tell you outside. You are so kind, gentle and loving that any one of your classmates would be lucky to have you as a friend. You’re also a bit of a messer, so I’m anticipating a lot of notes home over the next few years. I think auntie Alex is in there somewhere!

 

Alison, as you may know, mummy spends every night in her office, trying to  write the best novel ever written (okay, a little pretentious, but who’s judging? Let me enjoy my delusions in peace). Mummy often gets frustrated, thinking she is going about things the wrong way, and sometimes wonders if she should’ve stayed at her job. But then, Alison, I look at you – the stunning, clever girl that you are – and I know that I will never regret the extra time I had with you. Sure, some days were crap (especially when it was raining or mummy was PMSing), and others were fabulous (when the sun shone), but they were memories made together that I will eternally treasure. Thank you so much.

Honey, when the time comes I want you to follow your dreams, no matter how far-fetched they seem. I want you to be always happy in who you are and not to be afraid to be yourself, no matter what. Fitting in is overrated – take it from someone who never did (and never really wanted to, either). Don’t ever be afraid to stand up for what you believe in.

My daughter, my little girl, my only one – have a fab time at primary school. You’re going to Scoil Mhuire, which used to be my favourite place in the world. It was there I became who I am and developed a sense of myself  as a person. School taught me that I would always have to fight to be recognised as equal, but that the fight would invariably be worth it. School taught me that in order to be trusted and respected that I would have to respect others. Most of all, the fabulous teachers there encouraged me to write which has been my sole ambition since I was a small girl like you.

And as I say to you every night, thank you for being my daughter. I am so lucky to have you. I love you princess. Just please-stop growing up, okay? If for no other reason, just so that you will always fit in the hollow below my ribcage xxxxxxWIN_20151128_192444

The Secret Agony of Postnatal Depression

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(Me and my little princess)

Sometimes the hardest thing about being a writer is writing about real feelings, about your reality. Once the words are out there, you’re opening yourself up to merciless scrutiny and possible criticism. But I’ve decided that in order to be free of the most horrible experience of my life, I have to write about it and share it with you. And I’m so happy that I’m finally in a good enough place to do it.

(written Wednesday 22 June 2016)

It is one o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon. All is quiet, now. We’ve spent the whole morning talking to a lovely woman who is interested in our story of how we, two parents with various degrees of Cerebral Palsy, found the whole experience of having Alison and whether we would have any advice for the so-called medical professionals if they ever come across a case like ours again.

We are not a ‘case’, of course. We are people. Real people with real feelings. Talking about how we were doubted when we had Alison and when we brought her home first is always draining. As a person who loves to bottle things up and have that bottle explode at the most inopportune times, talking openly and honestly about what is going on in my head is something I hate to do.

So why now? Well, maybe it’s because no matter how hard I try to deny it, the fact that I had postnatal depression will always be part of my identity. I will never forget how I was made to be so afraid that I had to go through it alone, even though I know that some friends tried to help me. They couldn’t of course. I had to help myself.

I was nine weeks pregnant when I self-referred to a physiotherapist and an occupational therapist. I wanted to be the best for my baby, I wanted to improve. I wanted to show people that I was capable. Deep down, I wasn’t sure if I would be. The last time I’d cared for a baby was when my little sister Alex, six years younger than me, was born. Dressing and feeding a doll wasn’t going to be the same thing, I knew that.

Anxiety lingered where excitement should’ve resided. Our Public Health Nurse started visiting when I was twelve weeks pregnant, asking questions that I didn’t know the answer to. How are you going to feed the baby? Change it? Carry it? (Apparently my plan to wheel the child around the house in a buggy was inappropriate; a sling was more suitable. How was I going to get the baby in and out of a sling?) It didn’t really matter – they had come up with a solution, they knew best. Sure what did I know? I wasn’t a medical expert, like they were.

But if they were medical experts, then I was treated like a medical marvel. We’ve never come across this sort of situation, I was told countless times. What did they mean, this ‘sort of situation?’ Surely I was just a normal woman, having a baby? I was told that I’d have to be under general anaesthetic to be sectioned, and it was only the week before the section when we discussed our concerns with the anaesthetist that a spinal was considered. Then there was the apparent issue of me being  left alone with the baby. I spent months trying to illustrate how, if I got help with basic tasks such as bottle making, washing and cooking, being alone would not be a big deal. I later heard about how everybody was apprehensive, watching me with bated breath, expecting me to fail.

Alison Mary Fitzgerald was born on the 9th February 2012 at 11.52am, weighing a sizeable 8lbs 4oz. She was, and remains, the most beautiful person I’d ever met. As I held her in my arms I was blown away by her huge blue eyes, her physical strength and her flawless, unblemished skin. Immediately after the birth the lactation consultant showed me how to breastfeed. I hadn’t really considered breastfeeding, nor had I any interest in it, but Alison took to it easily and I watched her ‘help herself’ it occurred to me that if I could do it, then I would always be useful. Even with my horrible, mangled body I would still be useful.  Even if I couldn’t do anything else for her, I could do this. And if I  was her main source of food, then no-one could take her away from me.

Warped thinking, yes, I know. But I wasn’t thinking straight at this stage anyway.

I was a fog of hormones, crying from hormones and  tiredness. But finally, everything was in place. We became claustrophobic in that small hospital room, the three of us, and by Monday, all I wanted to do was go home. There was no medical reason why this couldn’t happen. John Paul was staying with a friend and that morning, it was just me and Alison in the hospital room. I looked into the little cot and sang ‘Baby, now that I’ve found you’ to her, studying her little hands, her thick head of hair. I promised her there and then that I’d always do my best by her, that I’d always love her. just as I was doing this the anaesthesist came in, grinning.

‘Do you remember calling me a legend last Thursday?’ he asked. ‘I recorded it in case you don’t!’ He checked my stitches, which were healing  nicely. ‘So are you off today? There’s no reason why you can’t. You’re recovering well.’ My heart soared. The ward manager agreed.

‘You’re doing really well,’ she said, ‘and we need your bed. What time is your husband coming in?’

‘Ah, soon,’ I said, packing my belongings. ‘Can’t wait to go home!’ But I was nervous too. I’d never handled a newborn baby before, and here I was, her primary caregiver, and like so many first-time mums I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.

The trouble was that I wasn’t like other first time mums.

I was just after feeding Ali when the head midwife came in. ‘I’m going home today, aren’t I?’ I said excitedly, gesturing at the half –packed suitcases on my bed. The midwife smiled, her lips pursed and shook her head.

‘Not today,’ she said. ‘You see, we have… concerns that you might be a danger to your baby, that you might drop or hurt her. What we’ll have to do is ring your social worker, your public health nurse and the Centre for Independent Living again and just verify what supports you’ll be getting, see if they think you’re ready to go home.’

‘But I’ve already done all that,’ I cried, my words an indecipherable screech. ‘Everything’s organised. I spent my whole pregnancy getting everything ready. How can you say we’re not ready? I can’t believe this is happening…’

The midwife shook her head. ‘I can’t understand what you are saying,’ she said. ‘Can you take out your phone and text out what you’re saying, like we agreed last week?’

Tears fell out of my eyes as I looked at the perfect sleeping baby beside me. I could hurt you, I thought to myself. I shook my head dismissively and instead rang John Paul, not letting Alison out of my sight for a second.

‘You have to take her,’ I sobbed down the phone. ‘There’s no point. They won’t let me take her home. You take her, you look after her. I’m obviously the problem, so you take her.’

A startled and breathless John Paul burst into the hospital room fifteen minutes later. ‘All right?’ he said casually, looking at the nurse. ‘Sarah said that you won’t let us home with Alison…’

‘Oh no, that’s not what we said at all,’ the midwife gushed. ‘We merely wanted to make sure that you two would be fully supported when you got home. So the Public Health Nurse will be out to ye every morning…’ I waited for John  Paul to protest angrily, but he remained calm. ‘And she’ll be a great help, no doubt. We’ve also ordered Sarah a cloth sling which she can use to carry Alison in her wheelchair. It’s sixty euro, so…’

‘I’ll get that,’ John Paul said confidently, although I knew by his reaction  he’d no idea where it’d come from. ‘And all going well, we’re going home tomorrow?’

‘Of course,’ the midwife said, although I felt like a royal idiot at this stage.

Getting home, away from the maternity hospital, felt surreal. We arrived at our house where my P.A. had decorated the house with ‘It’s a girl’ signs. Our family was waiting inside, armed with presents for me and Alison. There was even lasagne, and cake from friends. It was lovely. But I still felt like crap, as if I’d escaped from prison and that at any minute the midwife would come and try to take me back.

And so I began the journey of motherhood constantly feeling like an imposter. As those early days wore on, I began to feel tired. The physical effort of breastfeeding took its toll, but I persevered nonetheless, determined to do it. It took me forty-five minutes to do a nappy change and outfit change, and the fact that Alison had reflux and spewed during each nappy change didn’t make the process any faster.

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My aunt informed me that now that Ali was born, I would always chart life events through the life of my child.

Alison was eight weeks old when I started to feel odd. I wouldn’t say miserable, and I didn’t think I was depressed. But I definitely didn’t feel like myself. I put it down to exhaustion, physical and emotional, as well as recovering from, as my aunt put it, major surgery.

One night, when John Paul was at work, I sat looking at  Alison in her buggy. She was crying frantically and I was bent over her, ready to pick her up. Suddenly I felt light-headed and the room started spinning. All I could see was Alison’s head smashing against the floor, blood splattering everywhere. They were right, I thought with trepidation, I can’t do this. I’m going to hurt her. I phoned my friend, and when she arrived I was holding Alison in my arms, shaking with the relief that she was okay, and that I hadn’t hurt her.

But one day I will, I thought, and they will take her off me for sure. It’s only a matter of time.

I say ‘one night,’ but in truth, there were many, many nights like this. And if it weren’t for this friend, I don’t know if I’d be writing this blog right now. She saved me from myself more times than I can count.

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As part of my bail conditions, the Public Health Nurse came nearly every day, for nearly six months. We would try to look together, calm, pretend to know what we were doing. However, Alison had severe reflux which gave the Public Health Nurse the perfect excuse to drop by, sometimes twice a day, often unexpectedly, to weigh her. The house could be a tip. I could be wrapped in my purple and white bathrobe, curdled milk encrusted in my hair. To this day I firmly believe that Ali picked up on my nervousness, which in turn exacerbated her reflux to the point where she was throwing up whole feeds. She also had colic, but that was nothing compared to the pressure I felt to show people that I was able, capable.

‘Do you think it’s a cow’s milk allergy?’ I asked one day, as my heart ripped in two watching Ali spew another feed over yet another newly changed outfit. The Public Health Nurse smiled and waved her hand dismissively.

‘I doubt it,’ she said. ‘Do you know how rare that is?’

By Friday of that week, I’d had enough of this shit and brought Ali to the doctor, demanding a letter for the A&E in Mullingar, that I wasn’t going to be fobbed off any longer. It was the June Bank Holiday of 2012 and the hottest weekend of the year. We spent it in Mullingar hospital where the doctor finally prescribed Ali Nutramigen, a soya-based formula. I felt like kissing his feet in gratitude. Between the Saturday and the Monday Ali gained four hundred grammes and the heart-wrenching colic dissipated instantly. The colour came back to her face  and she became a happy baby, full of chat and smiles.

‘You see?’ my husband said as we came home from the hospital. ‘You are a good mother. You know exactly what you’re doing.’

I closed my eyes tightly and desperately wished it were true.

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I went back to work in August 2012, for fifteen hours a week. Fifteen hours a week filled with anxiety, wondering how she was. Fifteen hours a week that I had to hand her over to someone else. Some days I would look forward to the break, until Alison left the office with the childminder. I knew I couldn’t have it both ways, but it was still so hard. It’s something I still struggle with, but I suppose every mother does, to some degree.

It was around this time that a horrible, mean voice moved into my headspace, and I was feeling too low and vulnerable to tell it to fuck off. Whoever this voice was, he/she/it was intent on destroying me. It was the voice that told me that I was going to drop Alison whenever I picked her up. The same voice told me that Alison was not safe in my care, that she would resent me as she got older because I wasn’t a normal mum. If I spilled something or knocked something over, the voice would never fail to criticise.

Alison turned one on 9th February 2013, and I’ve never felt relief like it before or since. Relief that I hadn’t caused her any serious harm or injury. Relief that she was home with us, celebrating her birthday in the company of friends and family. Relief that the first year was over. But I also felt anger. Angry that I had lost so much enjoyment with her because I was constantly worried about what others thought of me and my parenting skills. Angry that I would never be good enough for this little girl, no matter how hard I tried.

As Ali bent over her birthday cake and grabbed the flame, burning her little hand, I burst into floods of tears in front of my friends and family.

‘Don’t worry,’ my dad said, hugging me tightly. ‘Her hand is fine. She didn’t burn it too badly.’ I looked up at him and smiled, relieved that he didn’t know the real reason for my tears. Ali hadn’t been afraid to grasp that candle; she’d been strong and fearless. I’d felt that way too when I was pregnant. Now, all I felt was constantly afraid and so, so useless.

And my biggest fear was that somebody would guess how I was feeling, and threaten to take my little girl away from me. So I stayed silent, plastered on a smile and threw myself into the monotony of work and my daily routine.

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I started to have thoughts of suicide, as they say, when Ali was eighteen months.

I’d no intentions of going through with anything, but I had it all carefully plotted out in my head, just as a back-up plan. Knowing it was there made me feel safe, happy even. (Don’t worry, there is no backup plan now. If there was there would be no way that I would even mention it on a blog).

John Paul and I would have a row, and I would storm out of the house, vowing never to come back. Sometimes I would take pills with me. Sometimes I would storm out and walk around for hours. I would come back. John Paul would say that I needed help, but we would both agree that we could not live under the scrutiny of nurses and social workers again.

He was tired, as was I. tired, and alone. So, so alone.

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We moved house in 2014, to a bigger house with a lovely garden and lots of storage. And, it seemed, mirrors everywhere. We had no mirrors in the last house we’d rented and I found it difficult to deal with seeing my inadequate self everywhere I looked.

It was a tough year. My nephew died at thirty-four weeks gestation, which really affected me, having had my own baby just two years beforehand. I was grateful that Ali’s birth had been so straightforward, but also felt guilty because Kaleb’s should have been too.

Ali started crèche, which meant she was sick every week with one thing or another. It was an exhausting, sleep-deprived time. John Paul and I would stay up with Ali at night, then head into work the next day, frustrated when we weren’t able to function properly. And the voices spoke louder than ever, telling me I was useless, inadequate, nothing but a waste of space. I was constantly tired to the point where I myself was sick all the time.

One day I went to the doctor’s with swollen glands. I had had a tummy bug the week before, which had wiped me out completely. I sat in her surgery, answering the routine questions.

‘I can’t go on like this,’ I said. ‘I’m sick nearly every week, and I’m constantly tired.  I’m taking my iron. What the hell is wrong with me?’

‘That’s what having a baby does to you, I’m afraid,’ the doctor smiled. ‘Unless – well, how are you feeling in yourself?’

I stiffened. ‘I feel grand, great. Why?’

‘Sometimes physical symptoms can point to an underlying emotional problem,’ she said. ‘Has anything particularly stressful happened over the last while?’

‘Well, we moved house, and my nephew died this year,’ I explained. The doctor nodded.

‘That’s probably what’s causing it,’ she said. ‘Just try and take it easy.’

As I left the surgery, I thought of how one of my college friends had recently sought help for postnatal depression and how she had bravely posted about the whole experience on Facebook. And I remember reading it and thinking oh, if only I could be so brave. So strong. So honest with others, and with myself.

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By July 2014, I was exhausted. I was ringing in sick at least once a week, and producing no work whatsoever in the office. All I could do was stare mindlessly at the screen, scrolling through random Independent Living sites, taking nothing in.

And I hated myself for this lack of productivity. (You’re nothing but a waste of space)

I would come home in the evenings, and spend time with my lovely daughter, playing on the floor with her, silent tears running down my face from the pains that radiated from every fibre of my body. (You will never be good enough for her)

I wanted my house to be perfect, my daughter to be perfect. But how could that be when I wasn’t perfect? When I looked in the mirror, all that I saw was a deformed nobody, an imposter waiting to be exposed. I was a terrible wife and mother, and I was convinced that the two people I loved more than anything in the world deserved better.

‘Where do you think you’re going?’ my husband asked, his face shocked. It was half one in the morning, at the end of July and I had been in bed. Now I was awake, looking at him from the doorframe of the sitting room, fully dressed under my bathrobe. And all I saw was mess. In reality, it was a couple of dirty dishes, but it might as well have been thousands of dirty dishes; I hadn’t the energy to deal with them. If only someone had given me the memo that a couple of dishes wouldn’t signal the end of the world, but there and then, I couldn’t deal with it.

I couldn’t deal with anything.

‘I’m off,’ I screamed, jumping into my wheelchair. ‘And you can go and fuck yourself for all I care. I won’t be back. I mean it this time.’ John Paul tried to stop me but I tore out past him and headed out into the darkness. I didn’t know where to go so I wandered around aimlessly for hours, watching the cloudy sky gradually become brighter. The grey haze enveloped me as I sat beside the canal, and cried, and cried and cried.

Later that morning, I went into work, sitting mindlessly in front of my laptop. After about an hour two of my colleagues collared me.

‘You look dreadful,’ said one, surveying my dark circles. ‘Something has to give. You can’t go on like this.’

‘You need a break,’ agreed the other. ‘Before you crack up.’

My initial reaction was oh shit, I’m going to lose my job, but they were right. I couldn’t go on like that. We agreed that two months off work should help me to feel like my normal self.

Within two weeks of being off work, I felt more like myself again. which was odd, because I thought that I would hate it. I absolutely loved being home with Alison, and getting to know her better.

And then, I started writing again.

It began as a few words here and there in an empty Word document. As the weeks wore on, I began to write out the thoughts in my head, and they didn’t look as stupid as they sounded in my mind. I wrote exactly how I felt, staring at the words until I smiled. This was how I felt. And as I explained in a previous blog, I began to understand why I’d felt so shit; so many things had happened that I’d repressed, including the death of my mother and the way I’d been treated after Ali was born. I started to blog about them and it made me feel happy and peaceful in a way I hadn’t felt in years.

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I didn’t write this very long preamble because I want sympathy. I wrote it so that I can say that that horrible part of my life is over. I’ve never been happier, although loving myself is going to take a bit longer. I still have bad days, but everyone has; none of us are perfect. The main reason I’ve written this, however, is because it breaks my heart to think that there might be other women out there, suffering as I did, afraid as I was to speak out and ask for help. I know it’s easy to say this now, but there is no shame in having PND. It’s an illness, a horrible, horrible illness, and nobody should have to wrestle with it alone. And if you’re reading this and can relate to any of the above,  please ask for help. I’ve heard that there are so many great counselling services out there and I’ve read and heard so many success stories. Don’t hold off – just do it. You are worth so much to so many people.

Most of all, you owe it to yourself. Because despite what those head demons are constantly trying to tell you, you’re actually pretty damn fantastic. You really are.

The Sarah Fitzgerald Guide to Raising Toddlers

I would like to reiterate that prior to having my beautiful daughter, I knew nothing about children. I didn’t know anything about pregnancy, childbirth (I now think this worked to my advantage) or caring for a newborn. In fact some evenings, when I tell my husband that I’m working or ‘studying’, my mind wanders and I somehow end up on Google looking up ridiculous things such as ‘normal three year old development’ and ‘how to encourage your toddler to read’. Yep, I’m a little crazy, but Ali didn’t come with a manual and I don’t always know what I’m doing. Do ye?

The best teacher, of course, has been Ali herself. Of course, it’s my job to teach her right from wrong and how to be a sensible, well-rounded person, but she has also taught me so much about the world around me and how to best respond to her needs. I’m not sure if any of the following skills can be applied beyond the privacy of our house, but for those of you with kids that are three or younger, you may/may not find the following advice useful:

*The following is copyright of yours truly and cannot be found on any internet site*

  • You will suddenly find yourself unashamedly fascinated by your child’s toileting behaviour. Pervy? A little, but unfortunately necessary. If you are lax it may result in a disgusting accident that I imagine my childless friends would have nightmares about. For parents of toddlers, it’s just another day at the office. My daughter won’t let me into the bathroom until she has done her business, but the conversation between her, and I standing patiently outside the door, usually goes like this:
    Me: What are you doing, wee or poo?
    Her: Wee
    Me: Did you wipe your bum?
    Her: I’m already dry.
    Me: WIPE YOUR BUM. I’m coming in to help.
    Her: Don’t look at my bum.

On a related note, the luxury of privacy is not afforded to me when I need to go for a piss.

Me: Can you wait outside please?
Her: Mummy, I love you.
Me: I know. I’ll be out in a sec.
Her: Wee or poo? Oh I hear a wee, good girl mummy!

On another related note, sniffing a stain to ascertain if it’s chocolate or poo. Without reservation.

  • Toddlers are particular. Sometimes Ali gets a notion that she can only drink out of a pink cup. She has to have a special pink teddy going to bed. And if you tell them to eat three more bites, they will only eat three more bites.
  • Toddlers don’t understand ‘Mummy’s tired/sore/too lazy to play with you’. Not only do they want you to play with them, they want you to become fully involved in their imaginative play. Now don’t get me wrong, kids are kids, but there is something degrading and plain wrong with crawling on your hands and knees around the garden and mewing like a cat/barking like a dog. What, don’t tell me I’m the only one that does that? Ye haven’t lived!
  • Young children tend to imitate what they see and hear. I was getting a little frustrated the other day and said to Ali, ‘Right, let’s swap places. I’m Ali, you’re mummy.’ Excited by this new game, Ali readily agreed. When ‘mummy’ asked ‘Ali’ to eat her dinner, I said ‘no, don’t like it,’ and pushed away the plate, and  ‘mummy’ responded by saying ‘right. No Jumping Jacks and no playschool any more’ and I just thought to myself,  ‘wow, I am so annoying.’
  • It’s against every rule in the book, but occasionally you will have to resort to bribery. Recently, I promised Ali a few Buttons when she ate all her dinner, and by God, the second the last morsel crossed her lips, she instantly asked for the Buttons. Sometimes, Ali can be disappointed. For example, just tonight I was encouraging her to put on her own PJs and hearing my hubby come into the house, I said, ‘I have a surprise for you’. she put her pyjamas on faster than lightening and her daddy came in, delighted to have made it home for bedtime. Ali looked at him and said ‘where’s the surprise?’ to which John Paul replied ‘I am the surprise’. Thinking we were joking, Ali smiled and said, ‘No, really.’ I felt the love. I know JP did too.
  • Toddlers/young children can be a little economical with the truth. A few months ago, I caught Ali drawing on the floor behind the couch in the sitting room. I of course hit the roof, but Ali said, ‘no mummy, it wasn’t me, it was my friend’. (Ali was holding the marker in question in her hand at the time, and her friend wasn’t in the house, at all). She also told an elaborate lie one evening about a cat who broke into the house and stole her good flowery jacket and carried it off to his family. Damn you, neighbour’s cat and your jacket-stealing tendencies.
  • Toddlers can also be very sensitive. Around the time of my mother’s anniversary, I was a bit teary and Ali discovered me crying in the kitchen. ‘Mummy, what’s wrong?’ she asked. ‘I miss my mummy’ I explained. ‘Oh, here’s a big hug and a magic kiss, and now you feel all better.’ Little hug. Silence. ‘Mummy, are you okay now?’ ‘Yes hon’. ‘Great, you’re Elsa, I’m Anna’. (on a bad day, I’m Olaf the snowman).

Ultimately, raising a toddler has been one of my most interesting and insightful experiences to date, and while I may not always get it right, we all have fun learning through our mistakes. And Alison has tremendous fun testing the boundaries. Well, they say kids learn when they’re enjoying themselves, right?

Alison has not only taught me how to be her mummy, but also how to be a better person. I’ve become more patient, more understanding, gentler (to Alison, anyway. JP may beg to differ). Most importantly of all, she gives me great hugs and superb writing material, so thanks hon. Love you! xxx

Creating a positive body image for our toddler daughters

What do our children see when they look in the mirror? How can we as parents ensure that they like what they see?

Anorexia and bulimia, disorders which are most associated with teenagers, are now being diagnosed in children as young as five. Therefore, it is crucial that we as parents encourage our children to love themselves and to define themselves by who they are and not how they look.

 

Being a parent in twenty-first century Ireland seems to be so much more difficult than it was twenty years ago. The media has become much more influential, with young children being exposed to thousands of advertisements relating to body image. However, it is all too easy to use the media as a scapegoat for the rise in eating disorders in young children. If we as parents want our children to develop a positive body image, we must ensure our children know how to love themselves.

My three year old daughter has been defined by her weight and her appearance from the moment she was born. At birth, Alison was 8lbs 4oz, ‘a fine weight’, and her skin was blemish- and eczema free. In the absence of a personality, this is how she was described. From about six months onwards, a phenomenon that psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan refers to as ‘The Mirror Stage’, Alison began to associate her reflection with herself. Henceforth, her appearance became an important part of her identity. She has been told by many people, including us her parents, that she is beautiful. Consequently, when Alison stands in front of the mirror, she likes what she sees.

Furthermore, Alison’s obsession with Disney princesses, especially the heroines of Frozen, Elsa and Anna, has greatly moulded her perception of what defines beauty. When she twirls around in Elsa’s trademark dress, her imagination allows her to become Elsa, Queen of Arrandale with flawless skin, perfectly groomed hair and ridiculously petite physique. Disney is renowned for their formulaic composition of the stereotypical princess, and despite the rise of feminism, Disney princesses continue to equate beauty with being painfully thin and blemish free.

Although USA Today reported in September 2013 that it is the mother who has the biggest influence over their daughters’ body image, responsibility for the development of positive body images lies with both parents. According to an article by Margarita Tartakovsky entitled ‘Dads, Daughters and Body Image’, daughters who have healthy relationships with their fathers ‘tend to be more self-reliant, self-confident […] and less likely to develop eating disorders’. One advantage of having mothers in the workplace is that fathers are spending more one-on-one time with their children. Tartakovsky recommends that fathers use this time to play with their young children, thus boosting their self-esteem, as well as teaching them to question the unrealistic body images presented to them by the media.

As a mother, my priority is to raise a daughter who is rounded, and who learns to love herself as a person, not just in terms of her appearance.  Sadly, not every mother shares my view. ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’ is a toddler beauty pageant show in the US, in which pushy mothers shamelessly dress up their daughters in over-the-top costumes, apply makeup and fake tan and train them to compete with other toddlers for a prize. Psychologist  Dr Allan Schwartz has criticised the show, saying that such shows ‘reinforce negative female body issues that result in eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia [among children].’ In addition, these pageants serve to sexualise our toddlers, which is unacceptable, argues Schwartz.

Thankfully, it seems that Ireland is not ready for toddler beauty pageants. Voicing her opinion in response to the cancellation of toddler beauty pageants in Belfast and Cork earlier this year, Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald agrees that the sanctity of childhood needs to be protected by the State. In March 2014, the Seanad unanimously passed a motion to ban all child beauty pageants in Ireland. Included in this motion was an appreciation of ‘the difficulties and pressures faced by children and parents as the distinct space between childhood and adulthood becomes increasingly blurred through media, advertising and popular culture’ as well as a belief ‘that every effort must be made to protect children and childhood against sexualisation’. While Ireland may not be ready to embrace the absurdity that is the toddler beauty pageant, it cannot be denied that we have become a society obsessed by external beauty, and if we fail to challenge this,  we run the risk of our children developing eating disorders in later life.

Ultimately, our children are not princes and princesses. They are unique individuals, who need to be allowed to explore who they are, both inside and out. Here’s how we as parents can promote the development of a positive body image, according to Margarita Tartakovsky and Elizabeth Ward, who is a dietician in the US:

  • Be a good role model: refrain from saying things such as ‘I need to lose weight’ in front of your toddlers, and do not openly obsess about your toddler’s weight
  • Encourage a healthy diet;
  • Limit the amount of screen time. Discuss advertisements’ and programmes’ treatment of body image openly and honestly, and point out unrealistic portrayals of body image;
  • Teach your child that everyone is unique, including in their appearance;
  • Spend time playing with your child, which will boost their self-esteem. Exercise releases endorphins which promotes happiness.
  • Focus on other attributes and talents other than appearance.

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week runs from 23 February – 1 March 2015. For more information on eating disorders in children, visit www.bodywhys.ie.

Happy birthday, dear Ali!

My daughter and my proudest achievement, Alison, turned three years old at 11.52am today. It feels weird to be typing that sentence for several reasons. Firstly because up until I had Alison, I was on a mission to prove that I  was severely allergic to small children. I mean, they were cute and all, but I would have bawked at the idea of changing nappies or mopping up vomit. I can’t face cleaning my own. Secondly, because three years of my daughter’s life have passed by so quickly, and although I am delighted to be rid of the nightmares that were colic and reflux (aka, the Spawn of the Exorcist), I know that all I have now are memories, good and bad. Thirdly, because I want to freeze her time right now. I want to always remember her as she is, right now.

Alison Mary is now three. We named her Alison after one of mum’s favourite singers, Alison Krauss, because mum had died in 2009 and I didn’t particularly want to call her Una, plus we liked the name. Depending on what mood we’re in, we call her Alison or Ali. Alison is freakishly tall, and there’s no doubt that she will be taller than me by the time she’s nine. Her hair is grand when it’s washed but turns into a  mat of knots within 48 hours. Cue detangler spray and a lot of cursing from whichever parent has pulled the short straw  to comb out said mat.

Ali is intelligent. Well, I think so, so it must be true. She said ‘hi’ at eight weeks, and could count to five at sixteen months. She knows most nursery rhymes, and she also knows that she can get around daddy easier than mummy. She can count to ten in Irish now, thanks to playschool. She can spell ‘Tesco’, and knows daddy works there. I don’t know much about kids but I do think this is amazing.

Alison is currently a ‘Frozen’ fanatic, and her note-perfect rendition of ‘Let it Go’, complete with actions is highly entertaining. She loves singing and dancing, although I find the bum-wiggling a little disturbing. She also loves costumes (we have a future actress on our hands, perhaps?) , and would be equally happy dressing up as Elsa or Bob the Builder. Ever the diva, Alison loves being rescued from burning buildings (aka overturned toy boxes); the trouble is once you rescue her once, you have to rescue her ten thousand times.  Sigh.

I could describe what it is about Ali that I love so much until I’ve bored myself, but instead I’ll let the following anecdotes give you a better insight into her world.

1. Ali accidently walked in on her daddy while he was using the loo the other day. Next time she went to the toilet, she pulled down her pants and stood beside the toilet.

2. Ali loves sucking her thumb. And the more you tell her not to, the more she does it.

3. Ali doesn’t go to sleep at night until she prays for every single person she knows. Including someone called cucumber. We have no sodding idea who that is. When we ask her, she just smiles. I’m always a little nervous at this point, waiting for somebody to hop out of the wardrobe.

  1. Ali loves teddy bear picnics, at which she is always the guest of honour. She probably sees a picnic fit for a queen; what I see is a pile of toys. ‘Surprise!’ she yells, delighted with herself.
  2. Ali is fascinated with eyebrows and their texture. She loves rubbing eyebrows, and if she rubs your eyebrows, it means she likes you!

I could go on, but don’t worry, I won’t. What I’m trying to illustrate here is that Ali is very much her own person, and each day I fall more helplessly in love with her. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to be her mum. She is so loving, patient (of me), understanding and kind that I sometimes wonder who is the mummy, her or me? Honestly, I think I need her more than she needs me.

So, happy birthday to a truly remarkable child and the best daughter any mother could possibly dream of. I promise to love you and be thankful for you every day, because

Baby, now that I’ve found you, I won’t let you go,

I’ve built my word around you, I need you so,

Baby even though,

You don’t need me, you don’t need me, oh no. (Alison Krauss)

Thank you for bringing so much happiness into all of our lives xxxx