Sunday, 25 January 2009


First words are the new buggies.

Does that sentence make any sense? Not much. And I am the person from whom my son – 10 and a bit months – will learn this wonderful language of ours.

I slowly realise that everything I say is being absorbed and processed and will very soon be regurgitated in some truncated form … and of course, ultimately, used against me. But we don’t have to worry about that just yet.

It is an unnerving thought, that my constant internal dialogue which, when Snooks and I are alone, usually becomes audible, is being heard and perhaps even understood.

When I am feeding him – yes, still breastfeeding (pause, for a moment to feel the polite silence which usually follows that statement) – I can be in full swing before noticing those startling blue eyes considering me. I am cautioned by the recollection of an infant I know whose earliest months were not the easiest, and whose first words were ‘Fuck You.’

When they were all born - Snooks and his gang - the talk was all of buggies. The first symbol of one’s intentions towards the child is the size, the cost, the colour and the vintage of his wheels. (It is a sign of my vintage that I want to say ‘pram’ or even ‘trolley’. When did they become ‘buggies’?)

Now the talk is of who has spoken, what they said and did they really mean it.

‘He said mama!’ we cry in delight the first time it happens. But just once, as some card points out he was looking at them when he said it.

After that I take to coaching him, holding him in front of the mirror, noticing my slightly hysterical pitch, - “See, there, Snooks (point), and there, Mummy (point)!” Nothing. I show him photographs. “It’s me, look, the one who keeps you alive. There I am. Mummy.”

I feel this is fair, to redress the balance. He gets a lot of ‘Daddy’ talk when I explain the comings and goings of the Engineer to him, “Daddy’s going to work” and “Daddy’s coming home” and of course, “Daddy’s asleep.” I am there constantly, and so rarely the subject of conversation.

I tried a new tack this week, hoping to turn him into a wunderkind political mascot as we watched together the inauguration of President Obama on the BBC news. For the price of a hot cross bun he was willing to watch the president’s inaugural speech in reverential silence and even crawled over to the television when Mr Obama stumbled over the oath, perhaps empathising with the man under pressure to say the right words, to make everyone’s dream come true.

But despite all my emphasis of the syllables, “Ohh – Baammm – ha!”, even raising a triumphant fist and punching the air, an action which unleashed a sudden tearful gush of excitement in me at the tremendous event, he said nothing.

I draw the conclusion that actually he can talk but, rather like the Engineer, unless he feels something merits comment, he will not make one, no matter how uncomfortable the silence.

Gradually I notice that he does say a word, frequently, and to my great surprise and endless pride, I realise it is not just a word but in fact he has started with a whole sentence.

Every now and then he raises a little pudgy hand, sometimes holding an object - a piece of toast, his rubber giraffe - and sometimes not, sometimes just gesturing to the trees, the sky, his landscape and he says “This.”

I am stunned at the profundity of his statement. I cannot think of any thing to say in response. His first word is so great it has silenced me.

It reminds me of how, during the first few bizarre weeks of his life, when sleep deprived and insane with joy and shock, I kept thinking that he had come from another planet, that he had lived somewhere else before and it was my duty to show him around earth, like some kind of cosmic estate agent.

“Have a look around. We have trees and birds and lovely shiny fish. There is Beethoven and ice cream and the sea. I think you will like it here.”

So when he utters his “This”, I think he is giving his verdict on the place. I think he likes it here. I think he is here to stay.

Saturday, 17 January 2009


Jesus has been cropping up a lot lately.

The Engineer and I are tuning in for the excellent Channel 4 series, Christianity: A History, although despite our best efforts it took three goes before we could watch a full episode without both falling asleep. I must stress that this is no reflection on the programme but more to do with Snooks’ opposite ends – bottom and teeth – which are making the otherwise rather quiet early hours of the morning, quite a busy affair.

Also, I noticed Snooks observe him, (Jesus that is, not the Engineer) up on the cross when we took him to Mass recently. I quickly turned him around to look at Mary Magdalene instead, a lovely serene redhead smiling down on the congregation. I can’t expose my baby to images of torture just yet, though heaven knows, it won't be long.

And now we find ourselves singing about him (once again, Jesus) on a Friday morning instead of lounging around eating toast.

I was faced with a dilemma this week which forced the profound and as yet unanswered question ‘Who the hell am I?’

It came after a mumfriend suggested we come along to a new weekly singing session for babies. There would be toys and coffee and song – oh yes, and Jesus. The group is held in a church hall where Snooks already enjoys a weekly singalong with his friends but of a purely secular nature. You know, Old MacDonald and all that lot. Black sheep, Jack and Jill, even Contrary Mary - but no gods, Christian or otherwise.

The new group however would encompass a couple of prayers and a bit of mild bible reading. It sounded harmless enough but nevertheless produced in me an instant, internal resounding No.

Days later I was exhorted to take Snooks along to another event which fills the same Friday morning slot. (Having a full social diary is essential to maintaining one’s sanity while at home full time with a baby. No really. I am not joking. There is plenty of evidence that isolation is the main cause of post natal depression and yet the provision of services for new mothers is haphazard at best.)

This group is council funded, held in a ‘shabby’ hall on a 'dingy' estate. Three of the four helpers running the sessions wear a hijab. The fourth is a man who displays the kind of rapport with children usually reserved for bus drivers. Maybe that is his main job. Praising any lord here, at least audibly, would definitely not be on the agenda.

Yes I would do that I thought as I pushed Snooks’ buggy along the road, grimly noting that he would meet a more representative group of Londoners there than in the bright, sunny new church hall down the road. He is 10 months old.

I am a liberal inclusive type, I said (by now talking aloud to Snooks, who listens attentively). I want my son to know that everyone deserves the same respect and to not be frightened into racial stereotyping through ignorance of other cultures.

On the other hand, I had to admit, I had had him baptised into the Catholic church at the first opportunity, barely able to wait the few months it took to organise, in case he died and went to Limbo in the intervening period.

I had to admit it. Who am I kidding? I don’t want to take him onto a dingy estate to play with shabby toys. I want the bright shiny god thing for him with bells on. I want him to feel at home. Let someone else be inclusive for a change.

My mother would turn in her grave. My mother who dragged me along to every mind-opening experience she could find, who insisted I invite our Jewish neighbours’ children to join in the annual apple fight (hurling the windfalls at each other until someone got hurt) whether they liked it or not and who whisked away our toys before they were barely worn in, to give to a more deserving soul.

Well I would give it a try I decided. I would open my mind to all possibilities, putting aside my own embarrassment at publicly singing about God’s love (in the context of the Mass this perfectly acceptable, provided there is no hand raising) and let Snooks have a go at God-bothering. However, I would draw the line at any speaking in tongues and would run at a sniff of creationism. And on our return, the Engineer would read to him from On the Origin of Species for good measure.

In the end, he spent the morning making out with a giant Winnie the Pooh while I stood and made windmills with my arms to describe how the Whole World is filled with God’s love. Does that include the shabby hall down the road? I don’t know yet. We shall find out next week.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009


I am new to this and I started late.

I gave birth for the first time (a prima gravida no less) at 43. Before that I was a ‘career woman’, of sorts, though I didn’t know it then, and had lived a largely independent, self-sufficient life.

Now I am a housewife. A housewife! What an odd thing to be in the 21st century. This is now my job, wife to the Engineer and charged with 'running the house'. It occurs to me, with a shudder, that perhaps this means I should wash the cushion covers. But I justify my apparent lack of productivity with the notion that I am here primarily to bring up our baby son – Snooks - who has just turned 10 months old, a turning point at which most of the mothers of his cohort are returning to work.

This leaves me in a rather freakish groove. Staying at home to bring up baby is not de rigueur these days and I am viewed by my peers with some pity and suspicion for my choice.

Not rich by any means (in fact the Engineer’s employment, like many others, has been somewhat precarious of late) we decided together that this would be my new job.

I am asked if I get bored and have often borne in grim silence, the remark that it would be ‘good to use your brain occasionally’. I do wonder how these other apparently brain-dead mothers manage the daily circus without engaging theirs. One can only guess.

The truth is, each day seems to offer some new mental challenge requiring gymnastics of the organisational kind, and sometimes even physical, to perform the simplest of tasks while caring for a frantic minor.

Here is a for-instance. While bathing Snooks the other night, I noticed he had the toenails of a small koala having never had them trimmed since his birth. The fingernails are hard enough to tackle. I had not contemplated the feet. Covered in shame, a familiar garment since motherhood among the supermums arrived, I set to it the next day. All dressed and washed the following morning, (Snooks that is; I now have to wait my turn) my son sat for a second watching curiously as I drew his feet onto my lap. He then made for the toy box, managing a 180-degree revolution while I still held his foot in my lap. Clipping those tiny toenails is hard enough, but with the near sight of a post 40 year old, it is a dangerously hit and miss affair.

Just at the point that I growled at him and saw his face freeze in confusion, I remembered how difficult it is to entrust one’s toes to another person armed with a sharp instrument. I know this because I reluctantly hand over my feet once in a while to the Engineer who cuts my toenails with a pair of small side-cutters, which he insists are more accurate and of course much sharper than nail scissors. I have to practise some kind of meditation and prayer to leave my foot in his capable hands for the duration of the operation. The urge to withdraw it is overwhelming.

So, I did what all good stay-at-home mums do: I put the telly on. Perched on the settee, entranced by what seemed to be some kind of stuffed horse who had the job of keeping the donkeys in order on the beach (I wasn’t really watching), Snooks sat in still serenity while I pedicured away. I hugged and kissed him with relief and gratitude when it was all over, provoking a puzzled, patient smile from the child.

Inconsistency, I thought to myself. Inconsistent parenting. This is what produces the criminal, the violent, the withdrawn-suddenly-burst-out-one-day-psychopathic adult. I am bad at this, I thought.

Dragging my poor dulled brain out of its lethargy, I turned to a book I have been reading recently about how my child’s brain is actually physically shaped by these very early experiences – shaped in a way which will determine his ability to cope emotionally for the rest of his life, and was relieved to find the word ‘chronic’. I have to be consistently inconsistent to really fuck him up.

It is not like, as one friend put it, I am sitting him in front of the television each day while I lean out of the window smoking and texting my boyfriend.

I resolve never ever to be cross with him again, pull him onto my knee to cuddle and kiss him and realise I have only done one foot. It is 11.30am and I am still wearing pyjamas.