Friday, 21 June 2013

A black eye and a taste of heaven

Well, thank you for another year, Lord God.

Yesterday was my little girl's eighth birthday and she was more excited than an excited thing. We did all the stuff; we did presents, we did birthday-tea-full-of-treats-with-little-nutritional value, we did balloons, we did singing, we did blowing out candles. We did hugs and we did great big smiles. We did reminiscing, Daddy and me. 

I gave birth to Elizabeth after a rapid labour against all the expectations of the midwives. I had a single paracetamol for pain relief at about half past eight because the midwife who examined me thought I had a very long way to go and assumed I was a bit of a wuss to be asking about it so early in the game. When I got hold of the gas and air I left teeth-marks in the mouthpiece and nail marks where I had it clenched in my fist. Daddy arrived at half past nine fresh off a train from London and walked in nonchalantly just in time for the punchline. 

At 10.16pm, Elizabeth Lucy took everyone by surprise and was born on a plinth in an examination room on the hottest day of the year 2005, and all the fans were in use elsewhere. It was warm work.

I held my little girl in my arms and I was filled with wonder. Long fingers, a mass of light brown hair, button nose, little chin just like her Daddy's and a big black eye. She was brand new, moments old,  with a lusty cry before she was even fully born. 

Red and bruised, head slightly elongated, one eye bloodshot and swollen shut, little rosebud lips giving us glimpses of a little pointy tongue, the sharpest of tiny fingernails. Beautiful? Well, yes and no. Or more accurately, no - and yes, breathtakingly beautiful. A whole person made up of half me and half Daddy. Two of everything down the sides and one of everything down the middle. Breathing, crying, suckling, waving, kicking, snuggling. Fragile and yet so strong. 

I can't explain it, that thing that happened that night. The way that I went in to the hospital someone's wife and someone's daughter and came out still those things but now someone's mother too. Everything changed that night. The world tilted slightly and never righted itself; it's strange that nobody ever noticed but me. 

Even after the midwife cut the cord, Elizabeth was attached to me. She always will be. I tell her that she's my baby girl and sometimes she snuggles closer when I say that and other times she stiffens and tells me in no uncertain terms that she's not a baby, she's a grown up girl. She has a little sister, also my baby girl, and Lizzie sometimes feels the weight of older sister responsibility very keenly. Lizzie is my oldest, my firstborn, my worrier. She's my vibrant, energetic, imaginative, complicated, softhearted, fearless dynamo of a daughter.  

We found out last week after Xrays at the dentist that Elizabeth's adult teeth have not formed properly and many of them won't be coming. The dentist talked me through her Xrays and showed me the spaces in her jaw where lurking teeth should be. Her baby teeth haven't been a great success as a few of those formed poorly before she was born and so we've been hanging our hopes on their temporary nature, but alas they're going to have to last. She's got a decade or more of intervention ahead of her, poor love, extractions, orthodontics and implants, just to work on a smile. 

Elizabeth heard the dentist say that there was a strong likelihood that at the end of all the treatment, as a young adult, she'd have a nice smile. Afterwards, on our subdued ride home, she asked me, 'Isn't my smile nice now?'

That's one of those moments that made me catch my breath. 

Oh, my little love. I remember the very first smile, wide and toothless. It was the most wonderful thing I ever saw then, and still is, at eight years old with gaps and unevenness and trouble buried beneath the surface. It will be at twenty when it's wide and white and even and the braces are off and the implants are implanted and she's buried the trauma of the season-ticket to the orthodontist. If I were only around to see it I have no doubt that it would take my breath away at ninety five when only those implants remain and there are gaps once again. 

My heart hurt for her. Things weigh heavily on my Lizzie, her self-esteem sometimes is tissue-paper fragile and we work and we work to build her up. This problem isn't going away any time soon. The dentist told me that things were not as bad as they could be; there are many worse off. Of course there are. It's just that I don't want my little girls to go through stuff like this. And to be honest I don't want to go through it either; holding hands, drying tears, whispering love and encouragement and support as they struggle, just wishing that it was me, because it would be so much easier that way.  

I know it's not the way to bring up a brave, strong woman, but I'd spare her every second of pain and hurt if I could. And since I'm no stoic myself, it's nothing short of a miracle that I'd do that, and do it in an instant. But a miracle did happen that night when I had my baby. I became someone different when I became a mummy. I'm still growing into that person; I suspect it might take me the rest of my life. It's not easy.

Not easy at all, but often wonderful. I sat on the side of her bed last night at 10.16pm and I stroked her hair and kissed her forehead and inhaled the fragrance of her as she slept. When she was a baby I used to carry her with her head on my chest and I would breathe in her baby smell and I remember offering her to another family member to sniff because she smelled so beautiful. They smiled politely but they didn't get it. I wonder if it's just for me - some primal thing, some deeply profound connection just for mother and daughter? I don't know. I do know that from the moment I took my first breath as a mummy, it's my favourite fragrance in the world, matched only by that of her little sister. 

They say that smell is the sense most closely linked to memory - then maybe that's why. Last night I remembered like yesterday that night in the tiny room on the hard, high, narrow examination table, hot and exhausted and dazed, with my baby girl on my chest. 

Inelegant, undignified, undone. 

Nobody tells you these things about having a baby. Nobody tells you the true horror of the sleep deprivation. Nobody tells you about the dilemmas of high temperatures and endless crying and inoculations and school selection. No-one teaches you how to untangle baby-fine hair or comb for nits or do a French plait because that's what all the girls at school have. No-one tells you what to do when your baby girl is bullied, or bullies, or doesn't get on with a teacher. You play it by ear. 

It's a good job you don't get a glimpse of the soul searching that goes on when your baby girl has no confidence, or loses sleep to anxiety, or cries too easily when things go wrong. Was it me? My inadequacy complex was genetic? Or have I criticised too much, encouraged too little, corrected too forcibly? Crushed when I should have coaxed? Demolished when I should have built up?

Don't get me started. I'm eight years in to this motherhood thing and the truth is that I don't know what I'm doing any more than I did that night in June eight years ago. There's no instruction booklet and no map. I just feel my way. Sometimes we skip along at a lovely pace, everyone smiling, and the scenery is wonderful. I take lots of pictures and get very sentimental with souvenirs. Other times I get completely lost. I hit dead ends and unexpected detours and I have to crawl my way back. I ask a lot of questions and cry a lot of tears, inwardly and outwardly. 

 Nobody tells you how to do it. I think that's pretty normal, isn't it? 

But the most breathtakingly powerful thing that nobody ever tells you is that the whole world changes. 

The whole world changes. So much that I'll never forget a single detail of 10.16pm on that evening eight years ago and when I look down at the long, lean frame of my beautiful sleeping girl, arms flung out in her birthday pyjamas, my head fills with memories of first breaths, first smiles, first steps - and my heart swells.

Nobody tells you how much you'll love them. 

It's a little taste of heaven.


  1. Simply beautiful, Helen. Nothing adequately prepares us for motherhood and all its attendant responsibilities, joys and anguish. That baby smell lingers fresh in my mind too, though my sons are adult and one due to become a father himself later this year. Becoming a mother is such a life-transforming journey filled with thrills, spills, love, laughter, deep pride and much tender devotion. Being a mother is a lifetime achievement and activity we continually have to adapt to along the way. Perfection doesn't exist. It's a learning process. Then just as one atage in development is seemingly mastered, it all changes. Enjoy the journey, my friend, for all its complexity, bag of mixed emotions, and huge privilege that it is. Your daughters are truly blessed to have such a sensitive, caring and loving mum to care for and guide them. Xxx

  2. So very dear. Happy birthday to your sweet one, and happy-another-year-of-motherhood to you. I'm struggling and nostalgic with one nearly ready to launch the nest; the whole world does indeed change forever.

    1. Oh, doesn't it? And every time you think that you have it under control there's something else.... Thanks Ginger.


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