My Imaginary Friend

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I’m beginning to feel as though I’ve got an imaginary friend. I talk about him all the time, and require my friends and family to listen. I talk to him, although he never replies, and I don’t expect him to. I find him entirely fascinating, and am convinced that he’s uncommonly beautiful and talented, even though I’ve never actually set eyes on him. He has a name; but he didn’t tell me it, I just made it up.

I refer, of course, to my unborn child.

My burgeoning relationship with him has something in common with my relationship with my cat. “She thinks such-and-such,” I say, even though what my cat thinks is one of the great Known Unknowns of my life. Therefore, I feel as though I’m actually being anthropomorphic in the way I talk about my son – even though, if the scans are to be believed, he is quite literally human-shaped.

This, of course, is the way it’s got to be. If parents didn’t talk to their babies as if they could understand, none of us would ever learn to talk. If we weren’t obsessed by them and willing to cater for their every need, the human race would very quickly come to an end. (Which Gaia, beset as she is by her infestation, might deem a Good Thing, but my Selfish Genes wouldn’t agree. See? Anthropomorphism – a game everyone can play.)

I think the pre-birth construction of an imagined relationship is, actually, specific to mothers – in its intensity, at least. It’s the instinctive desire to be close to one’s children. Perhaps it’s partly due to the physical reality of having a small being booting you in the guts every now and then; some fairly intense psychological resetting is necessary in order to make you happy about that.

“Happy Fathers’ Day!” I said to Baby’s Daddy a couple of weekends ago.

“Jumping the gun a bit, aren’t you?” he said.

“You mean the paternity test hasn’t come through yet?” said his brother.

But I knew what I meant, and what he meant, and with a seven-month bump you aren’t a mother-to-be, not really. You’re a mother already. You just don’t quite know who your child is.

In Nick Hornby’s “A Long Way Down”, one of the protagonists has a profoundly disabled son who has no ability to communicate. She invents a character for him – desires, personality, preferences in sports and music – and decorates his bedroom according to what that imagined character would want.

Question is, do we all do that? And doesn’t it hurt when children don’t turn out to be as we imagine them, even if there’s nothing actually wrong with the way they are? After all, we hate to have to change what we think.  The cliché of the child who doesn’t meet his parents’ expectations is so embedded in our culture that decades ago Monty Python satirised it by imagining the Working Class Playwright whose son appals him by going into mining. Sometimes, the mismatch between the real and imagined reality is so great that parents have only got two ways out of it. Either they can reject the reality of their parenthood – throwing the child out of the house with the traditional dismissal, “You’re no son of mine!” or, more commonly, refusing to believe the reality of the way the child has turned out – becoming another cliché, the mother of an unremarkable man who thinks her son is a genius.

But maybe it isn’t generally that way. Much as we like stasis, we expect our children to change. Therefore we ought to be able to deal with a gradual transition in terms of how we see them, from the imagined, in-utero version, to, hopefully, something more grounded in reality. Since babies are, after all, genuine people, I suppose they can’t help but to start to think and act for themselves. And that ought to be a good thing for us.

Perhaps, every time they reject a carefully-chosen toy in favour of a paper bag, or start to beam and nod their little heads in time to “Nights in White Satin” (insert your least favourite musical offering here) our children are actually helping us to come to terms, bit by bit, with the world being the way it is, and not the way we’d like it to be.

 

 

Being a Kidult

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I was a kidult in my thirties. My God! I excelled at it. As I’ve said before, I spent at least some of my time cracking up. When I wasn’t doing so, I put the same sort of boundless passion into singing and related activities; I somehow managed to employ the relatively well-behaved worlds of folk and choral music as vehicles for boozing and staying up late in strange places. (And I’d never been all that much of a wild child.)

Needless to say, I was a terrible employee. As well as the odd day wiped out by hangover, there were a great many bolshie fights with people further up the pile than me. This was at a time when most of my colleagues were either caring for their children, or for their elderly parents. But this just made me worse. They, I reasoned, had laudible and unselfish motives to be good and avoid getting into trouble; with no such responsibilities, I was as badly-behaved as I liked. I somehow managed to hang onto my job… until I packed it in.

I dressed out of charity shops, cooked scrappy meals from random things in the fridge, and consoled myself for their shortcomings with chocolate biscuits and wine. My constant prayer, if I’d had one, might have been the traditional supplication: “Oh, Lord, make me good…but not yet.”

After all this, what better way to rehabilitate myself (in my own eyes, at least) than to become a Mum? To put myself, rather belatedly, in the next generation up, giving myself absolute responsibility for another person’s physical and emotional wellbeing? Wouldn’t I be a grown-up then? (And, hey, it’s an obvious manifestation of some Adult Pastimes.)

Perhaps it was when my mother was chasing me round a beach squealing “Come out of there, now!” that I realised it doesn’t necessarily work like that.

It turns out that a woman in her first pregnancy is in a curious in-between stage, part child and part adult. She is, as I’ve said, welcomed into the fold of mothers with many open, practised arms, but in that context she is a novice and is treated as such. Second-hand cots and baby clothes come packaged in advice and travellers’ tales. She is cossetted, sometimes almost symbolically. Are you cold? Are you comfortable? I think it’s time you had a rest.

Am I complaining? Good Lord, no. Occasionally it can be irritating. There have been one or two social occasions where I’ve felt that I’ve been irrevocably relegated to the Women-and-Children corner and nobody is ever going to talk to me about anything interesting EVER AGAIN; and, being a chronological adult, I reserve the right to disobey any recommendation that I disagree with. However, to be honest, I like the attention, and it’s generally such a manifestation of love and positivity that it’d be churlish to grumble.

Besides, being treated as a child in an entirely positive way gives you carte blanche to enjoy behaving like a child. Sandcastles. Ice-cream. Silly games. The tendency to reject things because they’re “so babyish”, which we develop when we’re really still babies, is, it turns out, as limiting as the adolescent tendency to reject things because they’re not cool. It’s completely normal, and perhaps we need to do it, but it’s liberating to cast it off.

So to return to being chased round the beach. We were on a family holiday on the west coast of Scotland. My nieces, who seem to be made of asbestos, had splashed into the sea, the previous day, grinning broadly as they immersed themselves in the bone-chilling waves. Out of bravado and a desire not to be outdone, I said I was going to do the same, and I put on my borrowed maternity tankini and waded out. Bloomin’ heck, it was cold.

I was up to my knees when my mother started shouting “Come out of there, now! That’s far enough!”

“What’s the matter?” I said, wading back (I did intend to go back in).

“The sea’s FULL of jellyfish! Just look at them!” And she tried to seize my arm and pull me back out.

“They’re harmless!” I said, skittering away from her and giggling, “they’re moon jellyfish. It says so in the Spotter’s Guide to the Seashore.” I doubled back. She was too quick; she managed to grab hold of me and, to avoid a full-on wrestle, I had to let her literally push me back up the beach away from the terrifying depths with their nameless, threatening creatures waiting therein, while the rest of the family laughed their heads off. It was much too cold to go in properly, anyway.

What, after all, is being childish? What is being a grown-up? One of the greatest things about growing older is that you realise how much you’re allowed to pick and choose the good bits from any situation you find yourself in. So – yes, not having got there yet, I’m led to believe that mothers can’t re-adopt all childish tendencies. Utter irresponsibility, for example, and – well, I was going to say, “wetting yourself” but I’m also led to believe you don’t always get the choice. Never mind. However, maternity gives you the latitude to embrace the positive childish side that you didn’t think you were allowed any more: being silly, and finding delight and amusement in simple things; allowing yourself to accept other people’s care and love. Living in the moment, even though, as an adult, you know it’s transitory. Maybe, it turns out, in order to look after a child, you’ve got to learn how to enjoy being one yourself.

 

 

My Bump and the Bottle

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I miss booze – but only in a symbolic way.

I’d never have thought that it would be like this. For decades, my relationship with alcohol has been intensely affectionate and largely untroubled. Booze has been the slightly raffish friend who sometimes leads you into disreputable or ill-advised places, but whom you always forgive, because, after all, you’ve had such a good time together. When social gatherings threatened to become awkward or dull, I was always pleased to see it. When it wasn’t there, I missed it. Sometimes, affected by dire warnings, I’d keep my distance from it for a while, just to show I could; but I was always cheered by the thought that it wouldn’t be for long.

Tales of love for the bottle often end with messy regrets; but increasingly, my relationship with booze became cosy rather than dramatic. Like long-standing lovers, we could spend an evening together without fireworks or loss of sleep. I was as happy at home with a good book as I was propping myself up in a bar – well, happier, actually – as long as I had a glass of wine by my side.

So I’d always wondered, humanity being as fallible and weak-willed as it is, how on earth the medical profession has managed to make pregnant women give it up. I mean, look how badly they do with exercise! “Just twenty minutes three times a week,” they plead, “a short walk round the block – a little low-intensity yoga…the wafer-thin mint of physical activity…” and people sigh as they collapse back into their comfy chairs and say “Not for me. I haven’t got time.” If I ever envisaged myself getting pregnant, I couldn’t imagine giving up my constant friend for nine months. It would have felt like betraying it.

How strange it is that I don’t miss it! Isn’t it odd that, as never before, I can sip orange juice while others down pints? Provided, that is, that they don’t breathe beery fumes at me.

But I am of the culture I live in, and a drink isn’t always just a drink. A few weeks ago there was a Family Celebration. All the cousins I hadn’t seen for years were there with the children I hadn’t met, and we had a lovely laugh at things we used to think hilarious when we were teenagers, and everyone said “Ooh, you’re showing.”

When the tall glasses of fizzy wine came round I really wanted to take one, because then I’d be able to join in the drinking of toasts properly, instead of pretending, with the wrong kind of drink in the wrong kind of glass. But I didn’t want to have to drink the wine, because it would smell sharp and yeasty, and taste of corruption, and would make me feel tired and sick. Then, later, I might burp and taste it all over again, which would be even worse.

In “The Starlight Barking,” the sequel to “101 Dalmatians”, all the dogs on earth have been recruited by the Dog Star, Sirius, while humans fall into an enchanted sleep. The dogs have no desire to eat or drink, but are content merely to follow their leader. At one point, Missis, one of the protagonists, says to her mate Pongo that she misses peppermint creams. It’s not that she wants one, or would eat one if she could; what she misses is the desire to eat them.

That’s the way I feel about the sort of drinking that means something. I miss the delicious anticipation for the Friday-night beer that says Down Tools, or the glass of wine that says Special Dinner, or the pint in the pub at the end of a long walk that says “Well done!”

My body’s been good to me; for the sake of my passenger it’s liberated me from a desire that would always have been frustrated. But there’s something oddly disorienting about not wanting to join in with a rite of family or community, and I hope I get it back in the end.

The Sticky Embrace

I’ve never done anything as quintessentially female as this in my life. Any fool could have got him/herself a wedding dress, for goodness’ sake. And yes, I do sing quite high, but so do grotty little boys with scabby knees. Being with child, however, with very few exceptions in humankind, is entirely, earthily feminine. I’m blossoming, like the spring. Developing young hillocks.

The only problem is that I’m such an old bag. I’m in pretty good health for my age – hey, I seem to be functioning – but there’s very little of youthful bloom about me. I’ve got friends of about my age with grown-up children! Who were born when I was younger than they are now! Cripus. I feel rather less like this

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than this

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However, from everyone else’s point of view, that doesn’t really seem to matter. The other day I went to get my hair cut. I haven’t got a complicated haircut. My hair’s dead straight and rather fine, and it won’t grow long, and it works out better if I pretend that’s the way I wanted it. So I have it sliced off at jaw level. It should really only take a couple of strokes of the shears.

But when I left I saw that I’d been in there over an hour!

My first reaction was one of Puritan guilt. Hadn’t I got Stuff to Do? And.. surely I’m not the kind of woman who spends hours in the hairdressers? What on earth had happened to me?

I’d been welcomed into a feminine embrace, of course. Everyone in there was really happy to talk about all the pregnancies they’d known, how big the bumps were at given points, how the mothers had fared, etc. Whether they, the young girls of Psyche Hairdressing, thought they might have children themselves (yes, of course) and when (not now – not until they were twenty-two or so). I probably encouraged them to talk. I was enjoying my moment in the spotlight, enthroned like a pot-bellied Buddha, surrounded by women wanting to celebrate my fecundity.

Likewise, the mothers among my family and friends really wanted to take me with them. I understand that there is a wardrobe of maternity clothes which have been passed from woman to woman in my generation; they’re knocking around Hull at the moment, and when I get a bit bigger I will be entitled to claim them. Passing things on is rarely just about generosity, is it? Sometimes it’s a sort of statement of solidarity. The passed-on possessions carry an implication of shared identity. It would be simpler to give the clothes to Oxfam, but that wouldn’t help to reinforce the maternal group hug. Maybe that’s why you don’t find that many maternity clothes in charity shops.

Curiously, therefore, despite being described as “elderly” for the first time in my life, I’m also, for the first time in my life, defined as a woman not by how old I am but by what I’m doing. And there is something really quite hopeful about that.

Reaching through Despair

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A few years ago, I was staying at my aunt’s flat in Edinburgh. Probably, she was away for the weekend and I had gone up to check on my grandmother, who lives nearby. In the morning, I found that she had left some yoghurt and cereal for me, and instructions to pick some raspberries from her garden.

Outside, the morning sun struck through the spires of lavender, alive with bees. As I stepped through the french windows into the garden, the flags were warm underfoot. The raspberries were at blood-heat; crushed against my tongue, they tasted like a concentrate of summer. Bowl in hand, I flung myself down upon the grass and basked in the sun.

But, although every sense was gratified by that lovely, teeming garden, in the fullness of its midsummer glory, nothing could soothe or blind me to my ever-present distress.

I was an anxious child and a histrionic teenager. In my late twenties, the anxiety hardened into a paralysing despair. Concerns about climate change, the future of societies and, above all, artificial intelligence, obsessed me so much that I gradually withdrew from thinking too hard; it always led me to reiterate my despair. I came to fear any reminders of it, even though it was omnipresent. I was scared to read the news in case it featured a story about technology. I was scared to use public transport in case I ended up trapped next to someone using a smartphone.

Sometimes, during my thirties, I functioned reasonably well. I hung on to some of my old friends, and even made some new ones, which says a lot about the tolerance and kindness of the people I know. I did a lot of singing, and held down a proper job for a while.

At other times despair made me intemperate. Since I was constantly obsessed with hopeless thoughts, almost anything could make me break down entirely. Kindness and unkindness alike, and above all, music, would take away the last of my self-control, and I would weep and rage at anyone who would listen, and many who wouldn’t, perhaps, have chosen to. (It is a sad fact that nobody will ever be able to give a very depressed person quite as much attention as she is able to absorb.)

During those years, whenever anyone announced a pregnancy to me, I was hard pressed not to reply, “What on earth do you want to do that for?” What stopped me was not so much consideration for my friends’ feelings, as an unwillingness to give my terrors life by talking about them. Children represent the future; therefore, the idea of bringing people into the world who would be growing up in the terrifying, dark and insecure future of my imagining seemed too dreadful to contemplate. Certainly I didn’t think I would ever have children. I was haunted by the climactic event in Toni Morrison’s classic novel “Beloved”: the protagonist, Sethe, who has escaped slavery and knows she is about to be recaptured, kills her baby daughter, Beloved, to save her from it. It wasn’t, of course, that I thought my comfortable life had, or was likely to have, much in common with that of a nineteenth-century slave; what I recognised was the despair. We sometimes read sad little stories in the news of mothers who kill their children and then themselves. I feared for what the future might do to my hypothetical children, but I also feared what I might do to them.

What changed? It was a gradual rather than a sudden process. A lot of people did me a lot of good turns, and I had a couple of strokes of good luck, and my friends, family and husband showed their affection and care for me to be so resilient that I had to reassess my belief that anything good must be shifting and insecure. Last autumn I found myself, almost by chance, associating with various environmental campaigners and academics and having lots of fun talking and arguing about sustainable development – albeit not making all that much money. For the first time in decades I found myself in a position where thinking was  – interesting, rather than terrifying; laudable, rather than transgressive.

Which is probably why the effort needed not to get pregnant didn’t seem so important any more, because I wasn’t spending so much time in the pits of despair.  Which is why I became pregnant.

My reaction to this was, predictably, not jubilant; but nor was it appalled. I assumed that I would simply have the pregnancy terminated and that my life would return to the semi-stasis that I had decided was tolerable.

Then I dithered horribly.

“I’m more interested in you than I am in any other hypothetical person you might produce,” said my husband, “and I don’t want to be a father if you don’t want to be a mother.”

I didn’t know the answer to his implicit question. I asked carefully-selected friends what to do about it. Not happy mothers, oh, God, no. Hardly any parents at all. Childless people of my own age or older, mostly; nobody who I thought would be likely to undermine my determined nihilism. And, damn their eyes, they nearly all told me to keep it.

Or, perhaps, after all, that’s what I wanted them to tell me. Why? Because if they told me not to, they would be supporting and reinforcing my own despair. I realised that, while all the reasons for keeping the baby – a new phase of my own life, giving someone else a pitch at existence – were positive, the only reason I had for not keeping it – to avoid a horrific future – was entirely, unremittingly, negative.

(This isn’t, by the way, an essay about the redemptive power of rejecting abortion. It’s every woman’s right to decide what she wants to do with her own reproductive organs. It’s an essay about the redemptive power of rejecting despair.)

And so I came to cling, gratefully, to everything that my friends said that opened up the possibility of a new and more hopeful way of being: me believing that my child could have a happy existence.

I can’t remember the exact words one of them said to me, but it was something like this:

“But we never know how long we have in this world. What we know is that it’s here, now. And don’t you think – when you look outside – that it is so beautiful,  that it makes it worth living in, for however short a time? That maybe – that’s enough?”

I thought about that when, almost lightheaded with nausea, I took the train through the Tyne Valley to meet an old friend – one of the mothers whose advice I’d shunned. I was looking forward to telling her about the baby; and the weak winter sun, breaking through the clouds, lit up the grass in the sodden fields next to the curve of the river, and the slender graceful trees which fringe it. So much beauty and so much love for my child to bask in.