When I was growing up, my Dad used to joke that his children had brought him up. I used think this was a funny thing to say; a trait of my Dad’s quirky and often outrageous sense of humour. After all, this was the man who told me from a very young age, that I had been found as a baby in a lift in Lewisham. I think I might have believed it for a time and actually, been quite proud. Such a beginning was the stuff of stories. I was Harry Potter before Harry Potter even existed and in south-east London, which is cool because it’s not cool. Yeah. I rock.
So for me, it was one of those things your parents say; a declaration of parental pride following some precocious quip or deed by my brother or me. That was until I had children. When I had children, something very odd happened (no, not that – that’s meant to happen, although flipping heck, it is odd)
People say that they change when they have children, that it alters you and makes you a better person. I agree with this in part but I actually think it turned me into lots of different versions of myself. It made me realise things that I needed to know but didn’t necessarily want to acknowledge too.
Firstly, I don’t like babies. Actually that sounds awful. Of course I like babies. I’m not a monster. I’ll re-phrase that. As a mother, I struggled with the baby phase. I thought I would be a natural; all soft and warm and maternal.
In truth? I found it exhausting, repetitive and often lonely. Feed, wind, change, repeat. I did it but I didn’t enjoy it. At this point I know there are thousands of women who can’t have children and who would love to go through this and I am sorry. I feel bad for saying it out loud but it was just how I felt at the time. Above all, I felt frustrated and sad that it didn’t come naturally to me. It was as if a vital part of my female psyche was missing.
However, this tiny, needy phase doesn’t last long and this is something else I have learnt from my children; nothing stays the same for long. This is a blessing when you’re pacing the floor at 5 am trying to remember the words to that James Taylor lullaby but actually, when you turn around and suddenly your eldest child is ten (as happened to me this year), you feel time passing like a conveyor belt at Yo Sushi. Life is short, time moves quickly. Don’t wish it away but learn to live in the moment. I don’t mean to sound like a ‘quote of the day’ calendar but actually, these adages are true and children get this. When we were children, we got this too.
When my daughter was a baby, we went on many happy trips to the park to feed the ducks (usually stopping at the café to buy me an emergency Kit Kat). My daughter would stare at the squirrels for hours as if trying to work out how they fitted in to the grand scheme of things. To her, this was time well spent; a vital part of deciphering the world she had just joined.
‘Cock!’ she would declare, pointing a pudgy finger towards a skittering squirrel before gazing up at me with confusion.
‘Squirrel,’ I would say. ‘Squi-rrel.’
She would scrutinise me with an intense frown as if I hadn’t considered the question properly. ‘Cock!’ she repeated with some insistence. We still call them, ‘cocks’ to this day.
Now her vocabulary has widened, she has ideas and lots of questions. She recently learnt about Greek Myths at school. I confess that there is gaping hole in my knowledge where Greek Myths should be, but my daughter sought to plug it as she came home every night with a new story to share. It was awe-inspiring to see her imagination so fired and wonderful for her to teach me. She is also teaching me how to play the piano and how to ‘cut shapes’, although she has made it clear that if I ever try to perform it in front of her friends, she will go and live with Grandma. Fair enough.
Similarly, my son is trying to teach me the name of all the Liverpool players as well as how to perform a rainbow flick. I almost sprained my ankle trying last week but the look on his face was reward enough.
My children were a big inspiration for my latest novel. My main character, Cat Nightingale is at the peak of her PR career, single, child-free and very happy. When a PR launch ends in disaster, she has to step back from her job for a while. This coincides with her brother asking her to look after his children over the summer. Immediately, Cat is thrown into a very different world – from her usually controlled existence to the unpredictable dramas of life with her ten-year-old nephew, Charlie and six-year-old niece, Ellie. Initially, she is terrified; a reluctant childminder in their chaotic world. However, it’s through the children that she starts to realise certain things about herself and is forced to acknowledge that she wasn’t perhaps as happy as she first thought.
Like Cat, my children made me look at myself again. They made me see who I was and who I wanted to be. They have taught me to slow down, embrace the chaos (most of the time) and be the only mother I can be; grumpy at times, indulgent at others. I don’t always get it right but that’s okay. Doing your best is good enough. That’s the most important lesson of all.