It’s thirteen years now since you changed my life irrevocably. After a lengthy labour, I am told you were blue when you came into this world (trust me to miss your arrival, duh. Unfortunately a general anaesthetic had rendered me unconscious). I am told you had to be revived. I didn’t realise how close I came to losing you until the paediatrician sought me out the next day to tell me how “lucky” I was that you had survived. (Some conversations you don’t ever forget. That is one of them.) When I came round you were placed in my arms and I got my first look at you. You were pink and had a head of soft brown hair. People say newborn babies can’t see properly. I know this not to be true. You could see alright. You searched my face, more than a little bewildered. As I held you, inches from my face, your eyes darted about, taking me all in. I couldn’t believe how perfect you were. Ears, eyes, nose, lips, everything in its place. I think I expected you to look a bit crumpled, a bit battered even, after being cramped inside me for 42 weeks (you were determined to be an Aries, weren’t you? Never let go of that fighting spirit, my little warrior). You weren’t crumpled. You were perfect.
A woman old enough to be my mother cleaned me up, chatting happily to me as she did so. Her name was Dot. I’ve never forgotten her. She was an auxiliary nurse. She literally cleaned my arse, throwing my legs up onto her shoulders. There was so much blood, much more than I expected. I felt ashamed to be laying there, helpless (at some point I’d
screamed for opted for an epidural and so could feel nothing from the waist down. Yes, you hurt that much. But it’s ok. I forgive you).
They wheeled us up to the ward, settled us into the designated space, drew the curtains around us. I unwrapped your blanket, wanting to look at all of you. I held you up, making sure everything was where it should be. Your head seemed huge compared with your lower body. You were vaguely tadpole-shaped. You had the skinniest little legs I’ve ever seen. Your feet looked like flippers in comparison (sorry, you got those off me) and the skin on them was scaly. You shed that skin over the next few days and I remember not wanting to throw your ‘old’ skin into the bin. It felt like I was throwing part of you away (don’t worry, I didn’t keep it – unlike the clip which was attached to your umbilical cord stump, which as you know I have kept, along with the little piece of umbilical cord still attached to it). I turned you over too quickly and you threw your arms apart, alarmed. Your back was mottled pink and covered in fine, blonde downy hair and you had the tiniest little bottom I’ve ever seen. I turned you back over and examined your head. You were bleeding – or, rather, you had been – from two cuts on top of your head. Concerned, I rang the bell for a nurse. One arrived and explained patiently that the cuts were superficial. They’d been inflicted whilst you were still in utero. It’s how the medics check the unborn baby’s oxygen levels (or something – don’t quote me on that).
I held you close to me and rested my nose on your head. That’s when I experienced it. The best smell I have ever smelt. Ever. Seriously, if someone could bottle that smell, they’d make a fortune. It was like nothing else. I struggle even to describe it. The closest descriptive I can think of is ‘earthy’. I drank you up in that moment. I relished it. As you may be able to tell, the memory is still vivid. That memory is the one I will cling to until my dying breath.
It occurred to me that you might be hungry, so I put you to my breast. You didn’t seem interested. Your eyes closed slowly and I watched you sleep. All around us, on the ward, I could hear babies crying and mothers’ soothing voices. People came and went. A nurse popped by. A woman came and started quoting the Bible at me (I don’t need to tell you what I said to her. ‘Short shrift’ covers it). Another woman came to ask if I wanted a cup of tea and some toast (you were born just after tea-time, you little bugger). My sister – your Auntie – came to see us, her eyes filling with tears when she saw you. It was too late for other visitors – they would all come over the next couple of days. For the time being, I was thankful that it was just you and me.
I didn’t want to put you down. I settled myself in bed, cradled you in my arms and dropped off to sleep, only to be awoken by a nurse chastising me. She was afraid I would drop you (I wouldn’t. I knew that. But she didn’t). She took you from me and placed you in your little crib next to my bed. You barely stirred. The ward settled down for the night. I watched you until I fell back to sleep.
I don’t know what time it was when you woke me. Your cry was urgent, heart-wrenching (to me, at least. No doubt all the other mothers were cursing you). I tried to reach for you, but couldn’t. The epidural had not yet worn off, and I was effectively paralyzed. I buzzed for the nurse and she arrived a short time later. She plucked you from your crib and placed you in my arms. She stood over me as, tentatively, I put you to my breast. I didn’t have a clue what to do. I thought it would just ‘come naturally’. It didn’t. The nurse showed me the best position for you. I fed you and the nurse faded away. You didn’t feed for long – your stomach was so tiny.
I lost count of the times you woke that first night. One thing I do remember is the time when the nurse arrived and took you from me. She would put you in the nursery, she said. I was alarmed at being parted from you. The nurse told me to sleep. I wish I could say I lay awake, fretting over you, but I’m sorry. I didn’t. The tiredness was too much. I slept. They brought you back at some point for a feed, and then they returned you to your little crib. We both slept some more.
By the next morning, I had regained the use of my legs. Excitedly, I got out of bed and peered down at you. You slept. And slept. And slept. I went to the bathroom and freshened myself up. When I hurried back, you were still sleeping. I was dying for you to wake up (ha! The times after that when I would be wishing you would just sleep are countless). When you finally started stirring I picked you up and settled back into bed with you in my arms. I sang to you (sorry – as you know, I’m tone deaf. Also, I forgot the words of the song and ended up going ‘la-la-la’ like an eejit). I chatted with the other mothers on the ward. One woman opposite me was in having had her third child. She gave me some cream for my sore nipples (sorry – TMI) and some friendly advice about how to get you to latch on.
A nurse came round and informed us it was Bath Time. She asked all the first-time mothers to identify ourselves and one woman cautiously raised her hand, along with me. The nurse set up a baby bath on a stand, filled it with water, squirted in some baby-bath stuff. She decided my baby would be the one to be bathed, and asked me to undress you. I did so, trying not to look like the amateur I was. I passed you to the nurse and her capable hands grasped you and plonked you in the water. She showed me and the other first-time mum How To Bath A Baby. I watched her and suddenly, from nowhere, I was gripped with fear. What if, one day, I didn’t feel like bathing you? The enormity of the task I had undertaken hit me so hard I felt physically winded. I sat down, fighting back the panic. (Oh and you screamed for the entire duration of the bath, but then you know that don’t you? You know that you screamed for the duration of every bath you ever had for the next five years of your life. You know this because I’ve told you often enough. It’s ok. I’ll get my own back one day).
When the nurse passed you back to me, I dried you and put your nappy on. It took me about half an hour to get you dressed because I just couldn’t figure out how to get sparrow-like limbs into doll-sized clothes. When I finally managed it, I settled back into bed and held you close to me. I buried my nose in your head – and then I cried. Oh, how I cried. The bath had washed away that earthy smell. You smelt of baby-bath products now. I wept and wept and wept.
Now here we are, thirteen years and countless baths later, and I find myself wondering: where did those years go? I feel like I blinked and I missed them. Where is she, that two-year-old who screamed like a banshee when I lifted her off the bouncy castle (you were getting trodden on by older kids)? Where is she, that four-year-old, posing awkwardly for her first-day-at-school photo? Where is she, that six-year-old, who wrapped her tiny arms around me when she caught me crying one day? She is here, you are here, but now you are a teenager and suddenly you seem all grown up. You are – as you have always been – kindness personified. You are affectionate, funny, clever. You are fair, compassionate, sensitive. You are transforming into a wonderful young woman and I struggle to keep a lid on my pride whenever I introduce you to somebody new.
I won’t lie to you, there are times when it’s been a long, hard slog. I know this won’t be news to you. Mothering is hard work. Single mothering is doubly hard. It’s the biggest adjustment I’ve ever had to make in my life, bar none, and it was a sledgehammer I was wholly unprepared for. It took me some time – years, perhaps – to get used to motherhood. To accept that a part of my life had ended and that I could never return there. At my lowest moments, I thought the responsibility would overwhelm me. ‘I can’t cope!’ I would scream, inwardly – but, of course, I could, and I did, and I have. Now, despite everything, despite my moods and my short temper and my propensity to embarrass you by singing at the top of my voice with the car windows down, here you are, this well-adjusted, personable, happy thirteen-year-old.
I was looking at your hands today – remember, we were comparing sizes. You opined that your fingers were “chubby” and I told you (and the entire cafe – sorry) not to be so ridiculous. Whilst you were still giggling at that, I looked at those hands of yours – not quite a child’s, not yet fully-grown – and I was reminded of that little set of handprints of yours I have in the kitchen. You know the ones. You ‘made’ them when you were in nursery, for a calender you were making for me. I’ve just looked at that calendar. The date is 2004. You were two years old. It seems like only yesterday since I hung it on that little nail I hammered into the wall. (More to the point, *how* has that calendar survived being hung up in our kitchen for eleven years?! There is only one little splash of food on it. That’s quite an achievement, I feel).
Anyway, if you’re still reading (you better bloody had be) you’ve indulged me for long enough. You have your whole life ahead of you and I remember how exciting that feeling is. Enjoy it, my girl. Live, and laugh (a lot. Laugh a lot). Go out with friends, have holidays abroad, discover the world. Develop happy memories of a youth lived to the full. Don’t put up with any bullshit – ESPECIALLY not from boys *raises eyebrow*. You will be hurt – it’s life, I’m afraid – but you know I’ll kick the living shit out of anyone who ever hurts you. And take it from someone who knows – the person who truly cares about you will not deliberately hurt you. That sounds very simple, but it’s good advice. Remember it. When a person shows you their true colours and you don’t like what you see, walk away – no matter how much they beg you, no matter how many apologies or bunches of flowers they send you. The person who does it once – whatever ‘it’ may be that hurts you – will do it again. If you believe me on nothing else, believe me on this.
Be aware of your worth, as a woman and as a human being. Have confidence in yourself. Don’t ever be afraid to speak out – your voice, your point of view, is worth just as much as anyone else’s. YOU MATTER. Don’t waste your youth on stupid diets or worrying about how you look – believe me, in ten or twenty years’ time when you look back at photos of yourself, you’ll kick yourself for having had such insecurities. You are beautiful inside and out, you just don’t know it yet.
Happy Birthday, my love