I went for a run this morning – not an unusual occurrence – and whilst running, as ever, my head cleared itself, my body kicked into gear, and I listened to music. Unless I accidentally forget to charge my ipod, then I am always accompanied by considerable tuneage. The last time my ipod battery rudely died on route, I discovered that I can indeed run without the aid of music to motivate me (when I first started I had to have a beat to time my feet), but I also discovered why elderly people turn in fright as I bumble sweatily up behind them, panting down their necks on pavements like Darth Vadar with a severe bronchial infection, and it was most off-putting. So; I run, I think, and I listen to music. Today’s song choice was very poignant indeed.
I grew up surrounded by music and lyrics in a childhood that bordered on unconventional. My dad was in a band and had a huge vinyl collection which passed to me when he died. I was 12 years old at the time, and by 14 I was heavily into The Doors and spent many a weekend getting up to mischief with a very good friend of mine who lived in Waterlooville. We were passionate about music and words in general – a good lyric is a balm for the soul, and well written prose set our little teenaged worlds alight. Whereas many of my friends have pictures or symbols as their tattoos, I have Emily Bronte and Pablo Neruda inked across my feet. I truly am a nerd for literature – a beautifully turned phrased has the ability to make me feel complete. Some people get that feeling from art, or drugs, or exercise… some from all three, some – God forbid – from nothing. It is often intangible: you can look at a painting or read a book or hear a song, and you can’t say why it evokes such a response within you (and if you could explain it, then it probably isn’t that awe inspiring anyway), but you know that it does. A bit like love I suppose.
We experience a vast array of love in our lives, if we are lucky. There is, of course, the kind that we associate with passion and sex. Cynics may say it is a chemical reaction, romantics may argue for a once in a lifetime connection of souls, but either way it does indeed appear to contribute rather significantly to the survival of the species and therefore cannot be scoffed at. There is the love that we feel for our friends, our pets, our extended families perhaps. And then there is the love that we feel for our children – and oh my goodness, what an eye opener that little emotion turns out to be once those of us who are parents first experience it. And it starts even before they are born.
With my first pregnancy, I experienced intermittent bleeding from 8 weeks up until 36 weeks of pregnancy, and the fear of losing that child whom you have never even met does not leave you for a second. You assume that it may ease once your child is born and safely ensconced in your arms, swaddled in the blankets that you and your partner have purchased in John Lewis whilst cooing over the cots and fantasising about pushing the buggy that you’ve chosen with your little person actually cocooned within it (all the while being prodded by the bony finger of The Fear, who perches upon your shoulder whispering in your ear not to count your tiny chickens until they’ve hatched). And then, finally, after 99 months of pregnancy, heartburn, morning noon and night sickness, varicose veins, lack of sleep, weak bladder (I’d best stop… this is turning into a written contraceptive), your small person arrives. By which I do not mean of course that a munchkin is delivered to your house courtesy of Parcel Force and enlisted to your care, but that your child – a life that you have actually created – is born. And then, The Fear (whom you had secretly hoped might just do one and bugger off once you could see your baby with your own eyes and not those of a grainy ultrasound), jumps down from your shoulder, grows five feet, and trots along beside you, grasping your newly-parented nervous hand with theirs, and refusing to let go. Presumably forever. You realise that perhaps a baby in the womb is actually easier to care for than one outside of it, that perhaps trying to keep a nursery at 16-18 degrees during a long hot summer (not in the UK then ho ho) and sponging down your screaming fever-ridden infant in the dead of night with one hand whilst you speak to the on-call doctor on your mobile in the other (by this point The Fear has you by the throat so both hands are free), is far far harder than an average healthy pregnancy. You begin to suspect that your friends who had children before you have either been keeping something from you or perhaps they are just much better at this than you – because they never once told you how every time their baby developed a rash, or had a drowsy grouchy day of rising temperatures and useless Calpol, or projectile vomited their bottles across the room, their parental brains immediately screamed MENINGITIS in flashing florescent letters above their tired heads (whilst The Fear nods on sagely, assuring them that even when their baby is graduating from university, it will be there, bony fingers applauding next to theirs, as they watch their child toss their mortar board in the air, clueless of The Fear until they have a child of their own).
However, the love that you feel – a physical love that pulls in your chest at the sound of your baby’s cry – is all-consuming. It knocks you sideways and you know you’d kill for it if you needed to. The Love and The Fear, as I have discussed in earlier blogs linked to my husband, are almost one and the same. You cannot have one without the other. They dance side by side around you, always taunting that perhaps you could be doing better, always taking you by surprise when you let your guard slip. They caper around in the darkness as you lay in bed at night, waiting for sleep but always keeping one ear open for that lone cry that signals all is not well in your world. Your children are the most wonderful thing that will ever happen to you, yet simultaneously, they may be the people who will at times irritate and frustrate you more than anyone else you have ever encountered. They will also embarrass you beyond belief – cross reference the time that my eldest daughter smuggled into pre-school a tampon that she had stolen from a box in the bathroom and wrapped in a tea towel. It wasn’t until I collected her and saw her from the corner of my eye as I chatted to the pre-school manager that I realised what she’d done. She stood, oblivious, swinging around what looked, by then, like a bedraggled cotton ball on a string, occasionally sucking on it, whilst beaming innocently at other parents who must have wondered what in the name of arse I’d sent her in with. The pre-school manager had spent an entire day presumably blindfolded not to have noticed what my eldest had been referring to as her ‘pet mouse’.
But through all this, all the trials that we go through as parents, ‘we’ are at least fortunate enough to be parents. Because here is where language and the written word can let us down and we need to be careful not to unwittingly exclude each other. ‘We’, ‘us’, ‘them’, ‘they’ … the collective always leaves out someone. I have friends who do not want children, friends who cannot have children, and friends who have faced the unthinkable; the death of a child. The latter is the reason for my poignant running song this morning. I often listen to The Killers when I run, and last night I added Human to my soundtrack. A dear friend of mine, a beautiful friend whom I have known for close on three decades, used to dance about to that track when she was pregnant with her eldest son. He would squirm and squiggle to it, and they would bop about the house together. I think, although I may be wrong, that she was able to enjoy that pregnancy by the latter stages without The Fear, though she had experienced already the loss of miscarriage more than once. I hope that she did enjoy it, as I know that in subsequent pregnancies she has danced hand in hand with The Fear, unable to shake It off, and I wish I were able to protect her from that; to cut in and to shimmy her off in a new direction. Her eldest son passed away when he was one week old, a beautiful splash of love and creation, unrepeatable and adored. The lyrics to Human are a lesson in poignancy, and I as I ran today I listened to them and thought of the little boy whom I never had the chance to meet, but who I know is more loved than some children who have lived for decades. Because of course the exclusivity of ‘we’ and ‘us’ do not account for those parents who do not look after their children, for whom The Fear perhaps does not come knocking. The Fear may creep over us, haunting our steps, but its interchangeability with Love contributes to our protective instincts and our base needs to look after our own, against all odds.
I have other friends who, this past week, have had to wave their ‘little ones’ off to university, with varying degrees of heartbreak and anguish. When I became a parent it ceratinly made me look at my own parents in a new light – when I was a child I’d had no comprehension of the true extent of the love they felt and feel for me. I run my fingertips sometimes over the cardboard sleeves of my father’s LPs, peering back through the window of nostalgia that smears and smudges like a pane of ice picked from a puddle on a frosty day, breath misting in front of my mouth, memories wavy and a tad distorted. Memories that are drenched in love though nevertheless. I wonder at times how my mother coped, and I’m grateful to live close to her – though I’m still enough of a child myself – her child – to fall back into sulking and taking for granted on occasion. I look at my own children, when they play and when they sleep, and when my youngest, who is four tomorrow, tells a shop assistant that mummy is ‘baking buttcakes’ for her birthday, and I am over-whelmed by total love and a similar sense of completeness that certain lyrics or compositions or paintings or books can sometimes bathe me in. I say only ‘similar’ because nothing else really compares, not really, but there is something a little bit magical about gazing at the sleeping form of my children – and it is not just that they are quiet for once. A friend of mine once said that he thought you could forgive anyone if you watched them sleep. Perhaps he was right.
For now, I am off to organise the baking of some cupcakes (alas my youngest had it muddled – I am going for standard fairy cakes and swirls of frosting, not a bunch of royal icing arses on a sponge base, though with her toilet humour she’d most likely appreciate the latter), and to wrap some birthday presents for a very excited soon-to-be four year old. This time four years ago she was dancing in my tummy, and now, today, she is dancing with her sister in our living room, to a song that will forever have special meaning to her mummy.
Close your eyes, clear your heart,
Cut the cord…
Wave goodbye, wish me well,
You’ve gotta let me go.
The latter, as any parent knows, is nigh on impossible.