I had my first shot of the vaccine today, which feels momentous. Are we allowed to acknowledge that light at the end of the tunnel yet? Are we allowed to feel a tiny moment of relief? I bought myself a very sugary treat of a donut to mark the occasion. I breathed out for what felt like the first time in a long, long time. We need a new storyline.
For the last year, I have grounded myself with daily rituals to keep me on an even keel – yoga (badly) walking (slowly), and journaling (daily, mainly about how badly I am sleeping) – the usual. The term self-care makes me want to punch someone, mainly because it’s used to sell you something or make you feel guilty for not doing it enough, so I won’t use it – but lockdown forced me into it.
I found a community of people online hosting women’s circles, offering photography courses, sharing creative journeys. I carved out time to pick up The Artist’s Way again, once on my own and the second time hosting a creative cluster, and the coming together online, WhatsApp, social media has been life affirming.
Storytelling has been my touchstone throughout
I have been a story teller my whole life, writing short stories as an eight year old, making up vast imaginary epics, with a propensity for being the Bad Witch. You could have so much more fun when no longer constrained by Being Good. I knew this at eight
By my teen years, I had switched up the story telling into Very Bad Poetry, vastly misunderstood, furious at everyone and trying to figure out what story captured me best. Around this time, as girls’ bodies’ stop being their own, our stories started being told for us. To teachers, older brothers of friends, random men on the street I was; lazy, troublemaker, slut, mall rat, druggy, stoner, cock-tease, smart mouth – all before I was 16. While the Bad Girl story line felt so much more freeing than the alternative, it started to take on a more sinister side, which I know now, had nothing to do with me at all.
In my twenties, I had a slightly better sense of who I was, but warped by some catastrophic relationships, my self-confidence was smashed to bits as I attempted adulthood. I had moved countries, thinking I could really start my own story now, with a blank canvas to play with. Predictably, I slipped into many of the old tropes and by the time I was 26 found myself with a new story line to add to the mix –hitting rock bottom and getting sober – and, not having a clue which story made sense anymore, I threw them all in the bin.
By thirty-six, I had woven myself a new clean and tidy narrative. A thread that included ten years of hard won sobriety, a husband, a small son, a mortgage and a cherished career in my dream field. A thread that had very little room for messiness. Or misbehaviour. But I had done it. This is where all the fairy tales end right? The stories you hear about turning your life around. From the Gutter to the Stars. Rounds of applause, closing credits… and then?
Sitting in amongst the detritus of a family home punished by an Actual Plague, the battered backdrop of The Perfect Ending, I am trying to answer that question. What next? It’s very much not the end. I am not even forty.
If the last year has shown us anything it’s that life is precious. And short. We are all going to die. Plague, or climate change or old age (if we are lucky). I can’t keep straining to keep with one worn out story. While I could do without the soul-destroying co-dependency and the brain itch of addiction, I miss my Bad Witch, my Trickster, my Bold Adventurer, my will-try-anything-twice-fuck-it-why-not mantra.
I want to reclaim that something lost, our stories matter, and we get define who we are in them. And this couldn’t be more important than now, staring into a very possible future where our rights begin to be stripped away.
I have been exploring this in self-portraits, which is hard. To be confronted with my unfiltered face and the reality of my body, has undone me – which is kind of what I wanted – but also totally terrifying. A call to challenge myself, what I have accepted as ‘normal’ and to be confronted with the things I usually try to hide. I figure I am onto something
As we all come out of this cluster-fuck of a year, I am experimenting with that storytelling, through portraits. I want to mark this transitional moment as we slowly, tentatively come out of lockdown. What story are we telling ourselves? What are we emerging as? How have we changed? What have we lost? What have we gained? What has kept us tethered? What are we leaving behind, and what are we hoping for?
I’ve had a few brave volunteers to join me on this trip, if you want your portrait taken, and are happy to explore these questions, let me know – I’d love to have you along for the ride
I have been waking up at 3:30am most mornings now for the last four years or so. I hear a bell, clear as you like, and its the reverberation, a low hum, that gets me out of bed. I used to reach for my phone and scroll through the recent updates pouring in from Oz or the West Coast of the US. Long ago, almost forgotten acquaintances in their lively early afternoon vibrancy, the artfully curated feeds of people I no longer know well enough to call, but could tell you where they are on their weaning journey, broccoli splattered over their children’s gummy smiles, in 35mm hash-tagged glory. It kept me awake at night, digging through twitter trying to dissect the latest outrage, or meme. I have managed to put that to one side in those deep dark hours, but the ticker tape persists.
Do we have enough milk in the freezer? How can I have a more balanced life? How are we going to get our son to eat vegetables, or a vegetable? What if I don’t find my purpose? Is that a fox or a woman being murdered? Please be a fox. Yes it’s a fox. Have I booked swimming lessons for next months? Does Tier 2 mean I can leave London? Define London?
And somehow, around 4am or thereabouts, the white noise subsides enough to let sleep take me again, usually to dream about not being able to remember my husband’s mobile number in an emergency. The numbers just escaping my memory as I try to find the right buttons on the phone. I wake up most mornings feeling furious with myself.
‘It’s the patriarchy’ a very stylish and wise friend says to me over the phone. I can hear her smoking while we are talking and for the first time in years I crave a Marlborough Light above all things. The silver paper, the flick and catch of the lighter, the first sharp intake of pure unadulterated relief. The patriarchy has a bell? I wonder this while spraying anti-bacterial cleaning product on every surface in the flat we live in. I’m not sure it’s the right brand but it smells astringent and lemony and makes me feel better. I am not convinced. ‘I think its hormones’ I say definitively. She laughs, she is just that much older than me that her laugh can make me feel about 12, with ease. ‘Don’t be daft, you’re not even forty. You’ll know all about it when you hit that change, and that fucking bell won’t wake you up any more because you’ll stop giving a fuck’.
I am trying to give less of a fuck.
I stopped shaving my legs sometime around lockdown in March. I am setting firm boundaries (I think? Right?). I am being frivolous and fanciful and buying things that give me joy (but not the Malboroughs) and writing endless endless endless journals that chart my inner world and my to do list with excellent precision. I am carving out time, increments, a minute here, an hour there. To be myself, with no fucks given. And in that time I am spraying anti-bac on the bin. Throwing out old underwear and sourcing the right kind of cheese for my son. The hour, the minute is interrupted – the dentist appointment needs to be moved and I still can’t find any plimsolls for my son’s PE lesson. Nowhere. Not even at the big Tesco.
‘Can’t blame the plimsolls on the patriarchy’ I say to my true and manicured friend. ‘No my love, that capitalism – it probably has a big bastard bell too.’ I want to throw the phone out the window.
I try to give less of a fuck and send my son to his PE lesson in his normal day to day trainers. The world does not end. I rejoice. I do not spray anti-bac on the bin that day. I read a book I have been meaning to, I buy some more film for my camera. I begin to dream of a quiet night, velvet and midnight and heavy. That is until we forget to pick up the trainers up from school and have a weekend of NO DINOSAUR SHOES. Which is the same as being in hell for my son.
No good not-giving-a fuck goes unpunished.
I am standing by the garden door at 3:25am watching the blue night. There is expectant silence that settles around this time, into which a glass might break or an alarm may sound, the door slightly ajar. But tonight, with Tier 2 locked in and sanctioned there is little to hear other than the clock ticking in the kitchen. A dog bark a few streets away. There are no fucks to be given at this time of night. Perhaps that’s why I am up. Wrapped in a hangover of white noise and notifications. To be silent at 3.25am, and awake.
I try to explain this to my well read, sharp witted friend. The quiet, the sinking moon, a hushed expectation. Jesus, she says, just stay the fuck in bed.
When COVID 19 hit Asia we were paying it very little attention from our cottage in the Cape, in the middle of our annual escape to the southern hemisphere. It was very much, just the flu, far away, not a cause for concern, even when we saw passengers wearing masks in the airport, we rolled our eyes, an overreaction, performative. We are now nearly 8 weeks into lockdown in London, watching our friends don the very same masks and head to the frontlines. Lose family. Go stir crazy in the goldfish bowl of quarantine. Revel in the slowness of the day to day. Drown in the anxiety of what’s to come.
A family emergency unfolds, as they do daily, but this crisis is hitting mine and I am not there. I am in London, they are in South Africa. There is no way I could even get there if I wanted to. This global lock down in full effect. No ruby slippered passport to wing me there in under 12 hours. There is no way home.
Home is now a tenuous thing. It should be a centred thing, a tethering. A feeling of being on course. The people there are the blood and bone roots of the place, and we branch out, explore, but ultimately stay entwined. Now I feel the distance more keenly when we are forced apart. We watch the whatsapp light up with typing… and wait for the response. A beat behind, an hour ahead. We are all at home, sheltering in place, but not anchored.
Where would I rather be? Here or there? Between the places we are born and or where we bore our children? Post COVID this ability to skip shores and try on cities for size feels dangerous, deadly even. Careless.
Right now, without hesitation I would be back in the Cape. I would hire a car and head out towards to Whale Coast. Most tourists when venturing east of Cape Town head towards Hermanus, (for the whales) or for the very wild at heart out to Gaansbaai (for the shark diving). Most will take the scenic Sir Lowry’s pass over the mountains, and save a chunk of time rushing out to see the beasts of the sea.
But I would take the R44 past Gordon’s Bay, and into Rooiels, along Clarence Drive one of the most spectacular peninsula drives in the world. Featured in luxury car ads, movies and photoshoots, Clarence Drive has it all – unrivalled ocean views, hairpin turns, the occasional rowdy baboon troop and on the very rare occasion, the reclusive Cape Leopard.
My husband gets vertigo driving this particular stretch of the road, even as a professional driver he finds the view to distracting, the twists too intense, the imagined drop into the breakers too close. Although I don’t have nearly the same experience behind the wheel, I have driven this road countless times over the years and feel at home nudging its curves and shifting gears as the road opens up towards the mountains and closes again towards to sea.
This drive then has always given me that beginning of the summer feeling. It feels like freedom, and lightness and ease. The sense of peace and connection and, more recently a sense of rootedness, of history, of home. Which is complicated.
I left South Africa at the very beginning of 2003, a freshly minted BAHons in my hand, and a casual idea of pulling pints, picking strawberries and waiting tables in London. For a year. Just a year. I was 21, blissfully naïve and filled with all the courage that being so cavalier brings. That was seventeen years ago now, and here I am very nearly 39 a woman, dreaming of driving this road with my husband and 4 year old napping in the back seat of our rental.
Home is now London. That too is complicated. It has been for all of those years. I have had ten addresses in various postcodes over that time. A heady mix of sofa surfing (NW9), co-habiting (E14, SW19) house sharing (SW19, SW11, SW2), cohabiting (again W10, NW2) and finally purchasing our first home in 2017. Our mortgage has us here for the foreseeable, our borough caters well for the needs of our autistic son. I feel settled. I drive through our neighbourhood and I know the locals. I’m on first name basis with the wonderful owners of the café in the local park, we have found a great school. We are involved in the community, which under lockdown has been invaluable. Counting rainbows in the windows, waving to the kids at a distance, dropping off shopping for those that can’t leave their front doors. Lockdown is definitely bedding us in, like it or not.
But there is something missing. I get a taste of that something when I am negotiating the bends on Clarence drive, mentally checking off the points until we hit Betty’s Bay and I can breathe again. Over the years I have learned to make peace with this missing piece. This part of me that is inaccessible here in the UK and that opens up exponentially when looking out at the ocean from our cottage by the sea.
I get catches of it in the UK, the whiff of gas when I light the hob, the woomph of the catch. I remember my father lighting the gas lights in the bedrooms, while we waited to see if the 9’ oclock moths would flutters against the windows, or better yet the curtains, desparate for the light. Their wings soft and dusty. The flutter both horrorific (what if it got into your hair!) and exquisite. I catch it for a moment. Its safety and warmth and an irrevocable belonging. A foundation.
Some of my earliest memories are in this place, and my most precious. Collecting shells with my beloved gran – who would point out the rare ones, and talk me through their names (cowry with the crinkled curves, baby toes all pink and white and almost good enough to eat, fan shells intricate and in every colour of the rainbow), carefully folded into palms, pockets, skirts – rinsed with sea water, and taken back to the cottage to dry and varnish for safe keeping. I still have a collection. Faded and chipped, in my small bathroom next to a picture of the beach where they were found.
Fishing for ‘klipvissies’ (rock fish) next to the old lighthouse in Hangklip, with fishing wire and sticks and periwinkles skewered on hooks. My Gran very diligently showing us how to gut them and cook them, even though there was very little meat to find between their spiny bones
Swimming across the lake (a rite of passage at 8), being doused with sand by my endless array of cousins, hiking with bleeding knees and sunburned shoulders, sunning ourselves on the rocks in Palmiet river, weeks of eating fresh bread from the tiny village shop, biltong from the town, and endless tea and cake with aunts and uncles and our parents friends visiting.
And later, heading to the beach on the full moon, sneaking out a bottle of wine or a few beers, trying to get our lighters to work in the howling south easter. Making friends with the local surfers, heading to town to play pool, figuring out what constituted as easy or fast and that the Joburg rules differed massively to those in the Cape. Wearing too much make up to ever blend in, being so self conscious that I might fade away. Later still bringing friends and boyfriends to visit to reclaim some sanity, some calm, and a place to be.
For the past 12 years, my husband has come out with me once every 18 months or so, and he’s fallen in love with it too. We briefly entertained the idea of buying some property here, selling up in the UK and opening a B&B, and in fact it still a conversation we like to revisit, a comforting idea. So we explore it and build our perfect house with lovely Western Cape furnishings and dream it, with the freedom of those who know they won’t have to commit.
Unless we did.
I have been toying with the idea for years and have since put it on hold while our son was being assessed for Autism. South Africa has yet to embrace the neurodivergent community so that has been a huge consideration. Would my search for belonging mean he wouldn’t? Returning is a privilege, not often without price, and this feels too high to contemplate. This is the reality.
Like most immigrants will tell you, when you go home you bring the world with you. And the world is changed, home is changed. You are changed. I am not who I was 17 years ago. I left blindly optimistic and overwhelmingly sure of what I was leaving and going towards. I return feeling sure of very little. I don’t recognise street names, understand the local vernacular as effortlessly. This is the reality.
South Africa is conflicted, complicated and unsettling. So while there are these pickets of calm, shored up in my nostalgia, my history, the reality of my position there is not clear cut. Being descended from colonialists and voortrekkers, and brought up in the violent death throes of Apartheid, before the country birthed itself anew. State of emergency was declared as I was heading to nursery, and civil war threatening around the time I was finishing Grade 7.
I was not blind, but I was protected from the sheer brute force of it. My white skin afforded me, my family, my ancestors access to better housing, education, healthcare, security over generations – and while not being explicitly taught my entitlement by my left wing parents, it was implied and insinuated in our schooling and our socialisation. It is the cultural air you breathe, in the media consumed, in the in jokes in the playground. Hate and fear, like an accent, tainting everything. The reality is that it remains, quieter, different – but there. I hear it here too.
As Guante said, in his magnificent spoken word poem How to explain White Supremacy to a White Supremacist – ‘Remember : white supremacy is not the shark, it’s the water’
Confronting this privilege is deeply uncomfortable, vital – and I will be unpicking and unlearning for the rest of my life. With this comes my interrogation of ‘a home’, the idea that there is a place where you are welcomed without question. The very idea feels impossible now, almost an affront. How dare we even dream it?
London has given me back to myself time and time again. Sucker punched, disco danced its way into my heart and broken it. Served up my fragility in a church hall in Portobello, let me run through it streets with hundreds more, under the cover of night, chasing time. Let me weep on benches at 4am without a soul to witness it, made me laugh, mouth wide and careless, falling down stairs, into the arms of friends I will have for a lifetime. London delivered me a tattooed husband and a son more beautiful than we are ever able to express. This whirlwind carousel, I can’t help but think it’s time to give someone else needs a turn.
Perhaps those of us who had the privilege to choose where to be, get to ride that carousel, sacrifice that idea of home entirely. That is the price.
Would I pay it again?
I don’t think I’ll ever stop asking that question.
We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time. Through the unknown, remembered gate When the last of earth left to discover Is that which was the beginning; At the source of the longest river The voice of the hidden waterfall And the children in the apple-tree Not known, because not looked for But heard, half-heard, in the stillness Between two waves of the sea.”
‘Remember: white supremacy is not a shark; it is the water. It is how we talk about racism as white hoods and confederate flags, knowing that you own those things, and we don’t… as if we didn’t own this history too, this system—we tread water’ Gaunte
Spring 2020 has announced itself with a worldwide pandemic, a lack of loo roll in London and my son declaring there are daffodils growing in our ramshackle garden. A year ago, we were wringing our hands about Brexit (now we’re just washing them), I had planted a ton of bulbs that were all pulled up to make space for the new fence, and we received Sam’s Autism Spectrum Condition diagnosis.
A good friend had the grace and wisdom to tell me, while I recounted our meeting with the diagnostic team through hiccups of tears, that the first year would be hard. That even though the diagnosis was expected, and requested, to go easy on each other and myself. That I was allowed to feel all the things all at once. Relief, fury, confusion, fear, hope, worry, sadness to name only the ones I could articulate. There were many I could not. A relief that I could now parent with impunity. That I had permission to no longer follow the rules, a gut instinct I knew to be right but which had been so at odds with the norm was now validated. A pass to be ourselves.
Our bossy and jovial speech therapist advised that I spend some time wallowing in the often forbidden emotion of self pity, in order to really feel it, and get it out of my system. But not to ignore it. We had to run the gamut of it all to move forward. She spoke from her own experience, and was kind.
Of course I ignored her and in a bid not to feel it, I spent most of the first few months reading all of the literature I could get my hands on. I reached out to people online, I read biographies, I swatted up on all of the council’s recommended guidelines. I went to conferences on the weekend. I started to feel heavy with the weight of it, the stats, the lack of resource, the negativity. I got completely consumed by it and had to stop or risk full burn out.
Somewhere between the academic journals, the blogs written by autistic adults on ethical therapies, and the forums on Facebook I realised I wouldn’t be able to study my way out of this. Our road map was in front of us, making words out of magnetic letters on the fridge and collecting every peg in the house to create a rainbow on the carpet, singing Iggy Pop’s ThePassenger on repeat.
I started listening, and crucially, began accepting help. With the support of an amazing team in our borough, we transitioned Sam from mainstream nursery to a setting that caters for his needs within a mainsteam pre-school. We started working with the utterly brilliant and committed head teacher there and started unlearning and re-learning. We have accessed parent support groups and training, and finally after many many months of WORK (alongside, you know, normal day to day work) we secured Sam his Education, Health and Care plan and a place at a wonderful school in September.
For the first time in a year I feel like I can lift my head up, take a breath and enjoy the view. It’s amazing, in its quirky, definitely not normal way. Today, we have fifteen multicoloured balloons in the bedroom, five rainbow coloured hourglasses dotted around the house to remind us when we’re due to redo the puzzles. An assortment of magnetic numbers part way through sums, part way having adventures with their letter counterparts. A selection of musical instruments propped up next to their corresponding letters. Calendars and wall charts and pencils for colouring and writing and drawing, literally everywhere. On any given day our flat looks like a pintrestcraft board exploded. Chaos and order humming together seamlessly to the tune of the Go-Jetters theme song.
Its become more and more important to celebrate these moments of joy. Grab them out of the ether and commit them to a memory, guard them with ritual. We make up happy dances, and bounce around way past our collective bedtimes. We eat chocolate buttons for breakfast.
Uncertainty has become a strange and constant companion this last year, nothing has been guaranteed, and very little remains set in stone. We now have a few hard won dates we can start to build around, carefully and with an eye on the horizon, but if I were to look for silver linings they would be this. I am more equipped to navigate difficulty in all its forms, I can pivot and realign quickly and calmly. I have found a steely sense of purpose, a kind of laser focus that has meant I can see very clearly what needs doing when. I have been forced to get clear about my boundaries for my health (physical, emotional, spiritual). I am still learning to enforce them. I know who I can rely on to help. I have learned to ask.
My son asks to go outside and see the moon (and Venus mummy), and it will be full tomorrow. We’ll put on our wellies and our coats and step into the front garden and look around for the moon rise, perhaps just above the Wembley Rainbow as its known here. It will be cold. But it will be bright and we’ll talk about the time we saw the moon in South Africa above the mountains, and when we saw Orion. And the Southern Cross. He’ll insist he can see Jupiter. I don’t correct him, just maybe he can.
I have to call time on a great love of mine. After almost exactly 10 years it’s time to call it quits, and let go. I am extraordinarily bad at this and will dither about for years avoiding the obvious. In this case I have ended up with the professionals weighing in and suggesting I move on. ‘Literally to anything else’ said one, ‘and there’s plenty of choice.’ Right?
Running has been my go to for 10 years. I ran the whole of West London solo while finding my stride on C25K, and then commuting from Ealing, running Holland Park, discovering The Scrubs. I joined Run Dem Crew and ran the whole of East London, scores of us in black & white shirts shouting ‘BOLLARD’ as we dodged revellers on Brick Lane. I ran in South Africa while on holiday, beach runs and quiet coastal roads. New York while working, joining the Bridge Runners in the height of the summer and Berlin for fun (my half-marathon PB). I ran on treadmills in Dubai when it was 50 degrees out. I ran in Thailand, I ran and ran and ran. I wrote a blog about it. I bored my friends to death about it. I forced my husband to run a half marathon in Brighton on no training. I started a running group for new mums on maternity leave. I ran with my son in the buggy, I ran with new colleagues. I mapped out new cities on strava.
Discovering running was a huge part in rebuilding my health. But more importantly, what running gave me back was my mind and the will to get re-acquainted with what my body was capable of. This much neglected, battered up and hugely underrated vessel that recovered slowly at first and then bounced back , was actually pretty spectacular. My legs could go for long walks in winter and not get tired, cycle through mountains in France, run around the streets of Berlin. They could still dance until way past stupid o’clock in Spain. This body that responded immediately to good food, that developed actual muscles, that got faster. Like magic.
It changed my life.
I have learned more about what I am capable of both physically and mentally through this one sport, this simple act of lacing up trainers and putting one foot in front of another than just about anything else in my 39 years. And then I ran out of steam
My left hip started to act up about a year after I had my son. Juggling full time work, a family and my travel schedule meant my haphazard approach to fitness and general self care got worse and I have since had to have surgery to repair the joint to get me walking without a limp. I am currently recovering while on crutches and seething at my life choices.
While I am heartbroken, there’s also an element of relief. Like at the end of most relationships, I had tried and tried to get it to work around my new life as a mum with a myriad of priorities. I couldn’t get it to work. We just weren’t going to get back to our heady days of running races in Berlin and casually signing up for half marathons without a training schedule as the base line was solid. No more of that. Now 2 miles brought tears and pain. The back played up. The trainers weren’t quite right. The hard cold fact was my heart wasn’t in it any more.
Not all is lost. I have made lifelong friends, collected a decade’s worth of memories and medals, found a love and respect for exercise in all of its forms and I’m excited about what will be next. I have already committed to a cycling challenge in August (more news to follow) and everyone is raving about Boxing. An old flame of mine…. ! As I approach my 5th decade, its exciting to know I can start something new and have the time to make it count.
Support. The comfort of knowing you are held up, and that your decisions are validated. That someone has your back. That you will not be let down. That there is someone to help you when you need it. That you are not alone.
I am obsessed with support. Writing out endless forms to get my son into the appropriate preschool, and to secure funding for said preschool. There is support available. But there are hoops first, a veritable cornucopia of obstacles. May the odds be ever in your favour.
Anyone who has crossed paths with the local authorities knows what these forms are like. DESCRIBE THE WAY(S) IN WHICH YOU NEED THIS SUPPORT, they shout at you in thick bold letters, on inscrutable PDF formats that don’t format correctly when amended. GIVE EXAMPLES OF THE SUPPORT REQUIRED & THE TIME IN MINUTES EACH TASK WILL TAKE.
I do my best to list and correlate and describe in intense detail exactly what support he needs, in which areas of his development, and at which time of day and how frequently per week. Forty pages at the last count. NOW PLEASE GO TO PAGE 72 and DETAIL ALL HEALTH PROFESSIONALS (and their national insurance numbers in birth date order). I would do it. Because we need the support.
In a flurry of weeks ahead of a looming deadline, we do the work. We jump the hoops, we wait. We wring our hands and chase up on the phone. We leave polite but anxious messages. We fill in more forms. We wait. And then….We get the place. JOY! We do tiny dances in kitchens and whoop with the key workers and write effusive thank you letters to the people that have helped proof read, add supporting documents and counter signatures. We kick start the next round of logistical planning. We almost remember to take a breath and then forget.
Three days later I sit in the humid front room of my counselor’s house with my head in my hands and breathe. The windows are all flung open onto a very smart street in Hampstead, but the curtains are closed to keep the strength of the afternoon sun at bay. It gives the room a strange illicit feeling. Like she should be burning joss sticks and smoking opium. Maybe she does. I don’t know this woman well. We have had a few sessions. She mainly listens and asks pointed but relevant questions. She frowns far too much. I think it might just be her face. This is my chosen support. Cobbled together fairly last minute when I found myself crying on the tube and unable to sleep. I’m unsure about it at this point.
During this session, I have been waffling on a bit, not really sure what I am getting at and feeling irritated with her quiet nodding. Exasperated, and probably a bit on the dramatic side, I sigh
‘I just feel like I need more support’
She frowns from her wicker chair in the corner where she sits like a sphinx, both arms perfectly still on either arm of the chair. She cocks her head to one side,
‘What support do you feel you need?’
And there it is.
I have no fucking idea.
Outside of that room, I am at a loss. A friend of mine who manages large teams in a high profile job, and a big family, puts a question to me. Its the same one she puts to her employees who say they are finding it hard to get the work life balance to make sense, she asks, ‘What do you want me to do about it?’
Not in an aggressive or defensive tone, but as a real question. What do you need from me to help you? What does your unique set of circumstances require?
I realized, while sitting on this very worn sofa in semi darkness somewhere in NW3 that I needed to to know the answers to these questions. What support do I need? What does it look like? How often will I require it? Does it require input from a different department (family) or additional funding (HA)? If I were applying for support for myself – what would I say on the forms? As a grown woman approaching 40 I need to get better as knowing the answers to these questions, and when someone offers to help, to say YES and explain where it would be needed.
If I have learned anything this year its that you need a team around you. We have a brilliant one in place for our son now, its flexible but has a solid foundation in the right health professionals, independent third parties and outsourced advice, so I don’t feel if one had to go we’d be bereft. I’m looking at building something similar for myself. Starting with family and working my way out. Looping in new connections, making sure there’s a good mix of advice, and time to be on my own. For me support is equated with finding time not to be a mother/wife/boss/general of life admin. Support is getting help with those things, asking for specifics. And letting go of the rest.
Opening the door to an empty house is a novelty I am not used to. Returning from a work trip, foggy with jet lag but jumped up on caffeine I braced myself for the usual onslaught of a bouncy three year old and the cacophony of kitchen chaos that soundtracks most of my mornings. A click of the lock and a swish of post of the floor – almost silence – and I remember my family are happily scoffing scones in Cornwall. I have 36 hours to myself before they return.
Its a rare thing, time to oneself. I’m lucky enough in that I travel with my job. I have hours up in the air with a kindle full of almost-books to read ahead of publication, and time to revise notes, presentations. None of this requires wet wipes, there are very rarely tantrums, and I get to tune out for as long as we’re cruising at 31,000 feet. But its not strictly relaxing. Low level anxiety that spikes when the turbulence kicks in, a last minute delay which has a knock on effect on the meeting schedule. All inane and completely able to ruin a tightly planned week, so the ticker tape of ‘things-that-must-be-done’ switches from tantrum wrangling, to currency conversion while we’re waiting on those magic words from the pilot – ‘Cabin Crew : 20 minutes to landing’
Away we go, passport control queues, ‘How Long Are You Planning In the United States Ma’am’ and sometimes ‘Welcome Home’ (when I’m in South Africa) but mostly ‘Please Look Directly At the Camera’ and ‘Four Fingers on Your Left Hand Here Please’ – the flurry of coats and bags and belts and restricted areas, visa requirements, taxi lines, hustling bag handlers, checking in, finding wifi and adjusting the body clock. There is an expectation, a calm order in the chaos tightly wound beneath all of the hustle and bustle. I find it very reassuring because compared to my day to day as a parent its predictable. If things go wrong there’s travel agents and insurance and teams to help. Not so at 3am back home in London when fevers top 40 degrees, the calpol is running low and no one can find the asthma pumps
Its been 3 years since we have been lucky enough to find ourselves here, parents. We have found our own ways to manage the night time crisis, tag team the pick ups and drop offs, the day to day hum drum minutiae that comes together to make a family tick, although never like clockwork – and unique in its quiet rhythm. It’s that off beat singularity that surprised me. I had assumed that we are more similar than different, and at the heart of it we probably are. In that we love our kids. We’ll do irrational, crazy stupid things for them, that sleep deprivation fucks us all up, that nothing is as we expected to be. Sometimes its better. And sometimes its not. But we share the first smiles, first steps, first milestones together. We can count on sharing birthday cakes at parties, and moan about nursery fees, and fret about schools, we do this together, at roughly the same time. Comparing notes.
Until we don’t.
We noticed Sam wasn’t picking up language at the same rate as his peers around the 20 month mark. I wrote it off as being a Super Tiger mother who was expecting far too much of her toddler son. When he refused to engage in playgroup activities, preferring to investigate the out of bounds church offices, or to just literally try to climb the walls – I told myself he was probably shy and introverted and just didn’t like new people. And when he bolted off into the sunset without even a backward glance at literally any given opportunity I scoffed and said he was incredibly confident and independent and my weren’t we doing a marvelous job at making him feel secure. He wasn’t making eye contact because he was shy, and therefore not interested in strangers. He was used to us anticipating his needs so didn’t need to speak. He was, just Sam. And all of this is just my very normal parent anxiety
And it is. Until it wasn’t.
We met the Pediatrician who diagnosed significant speech delay with attention/social & communication difficulties. And so began the building of The File (all parents of SEN kids will have one, or a drawer, or an entire wing dedicated to the paperwork). I still can’t read the first report without feeling queasy. Its blunt and medical and objective. Which as a parent you can never be about your kid.
We were referred for everything and introduced to ALL OF THE TEAMS. A few were exhausting – OT (rejected once, appealed, waited a year, jury’s out), and Audiology, (four appointments where he refused to wear headphones, ironically he loves them now). There are others who are nothing short of my personal heroes, our amazing Speech & Language Therapy team, which we would be lost without but who we can NEVER call (its like that episode in SATC… she can reach me, but I can never get her…).
Not forgetting the secret SWAT team that appeared out of nowhere -the brilliant Early Years Inclusivity Team who have coached, cajoled, answered stupid queries and fought battles for us with nurseries and waiting lists and impossible switchboards.
All of this has been happening over the past year, mainly behind the scenes, between the usual routines of work and childcare and college. I have been lucky enough to have had a very supportive & flexible work place and a self employed husband so we can just about keep up with the barrage of admin that comes with each department at each stage. But its taken me a year to get my head around the parenthood that we have found ourselves in. My head is still catching up with the reality of where we are now. A feeling not dissimilar to jet lag.
So where are we?
We’re not sure. Its not where we expected to be. But its not without its charms. Sam adores his speech therapist and is making huge progress every day. He is so damn smart. He loves his nursery and drives them crazy by refusing their lunches and demanding jam sandwiches. He gets all his pronouns wrong which is hilarious and his echolalia makes for interesting listening – it like having a spy at nursery. He’s obsessed with colours, letters, shapes, numbers and fascinated with words – like hes making up for lost time. He wants nothing more than to jump on trampolines and chase his pals while shouting. He loves cuddles and lemon yoghurt, diggers and the 182 bus to Brent Cross. His laugh is magical, and he laughs often.
The CAMHS team assessed him for ASD today and we’ll know more on May 22nd. But whatever the outcome, if this year has taught me anything its that help has come from unexpected places. That there are extraordinary people both health professional and friends who will listen to me cry about ‘labels’ and gently remind me that the more information we have, the more we can share with others to help them understand Sam. That the fear is of the unknown. That people will surprise me. Friends (online and IRL) who will educate me about policy and politics. They will text me their experiences warts and all to give me the heads up on what not to do, and what all the acronyms mean. My mini guide book on WhatsApp. You know who you are. Thank you.
Next up. Choosing a school. The fasten seatbelt signs are now on.
2018 is nearly done! There were a few big mile stones this year but the one that hit home was the 20th High School Reunion. I had mixed feelings about acknowledging this. Two decades have passed, I live in a different country, and the friendships that have lasted are the ones I have invested in. Why dig up all the old acquaintances? But my friend Kat drew me out with an infographic on Facebook with a Happy House soundtrack. It didn’t take much.
Kat was our head-girl, diminutive in stature (we had to get her to stand on a box so we could see her above the podium) but larger than life, characterised by her generosity and kindness – and not a jot of that effervescent energy has diminished over the years. Together with a few other alumni she set up a fundraiser to raise school fees for pupils who need the financial support.
Kat had tagged the event ‘Our Reunion, Our Stories, Our Legacy’. A reunion with a difference, less awkward posturing and more investing in the next generation.
I found myself in the whatsapp group sharing in the intense flurry of messages – emojis from Hong Kong and Amsterdam and lots of updates on families, careers and lives lived – reminiscing on all the wonderful, uncomfortable, cringe-worthy high school stuff. Most of it pretty standard. Except the stuff that wasn’t said.
Into this emotional upheaval I threw Nanette , which if you haven’t seen I recommend you stop reading this, and watch that. Coupled with end of the year reflection, it got me thinking about how we use our stories to define our legacy, and more importantly, what do we leave out? I won’t spoil Hannah Gadsby’s show for you, but there’s a very key point she makes about omission, and its been on my mind for months.
Here we had this reunion whatsapp group sharing stories of the beautiful babies, and loving partners and glittering careers. Add Instagram filtering out the dried on weetabix or the mummy blogs that glamorise the dirt as a paid for promotion for #fairyliquidcleans. The lifestyle influencers culturally appropriating everything at a whim #soblessed. The fake news. The truth is obfuscated. Or photoshopped. Or rewritten. Or forgotten.
I’ve looked back at my patchy diaries, my half-finished blog posts and my email updates to family over the years. Highlighting the good stuff and down playing the harder stuff. Leaving gaping holes in the narrative. By toning everything down, and airbrushing the detail what have I forgotten in the process? So many things unsaid, along with all the grime and the shame, the mundane day-to-day. The head splitting hangovers, the prescriptions, the tears in the bathrooms, the mind-numbing commuting. Not all of it warrants high-definition recall, and a lot can and should remain private. But some of this bears remembering.
My rock-bottom was scribbled down on a piece of paper in my wallet. I tried to find it the other day, but 11 years after the fact it has since been swept off my desk or lost on a plane, or crumbled up by the toddler while posting my credit cards through the floor boards.
It served a very important purpose. A tangible and real artefact that I could access at any point. A talisman against the madness that for a very long time felt incredibly close and extremely violent. Perhaps because I had it written down I have been lazy about remembering it. Today I panicked because all I have is a crystallised segment in my memory, a shard of it, dull from lack of use. Will that be enough to ward off the furies when they come for their due?
My rock-bottom wasn’t gritty. Or horrific. There have been toothpaste commercials with more implied menace. Because my journey to rock-bottom wasn’t linear I had been near there before and in much, much worse places but not felt that gut wrenching sickness. That day I did. I made a phone call. And because this was not new, there were one or two people who knew what was going on behind the layers of denial. The beaten to bits, arrogant, fuck-you-I am-fine me. The part of me that was tired. The part of me that wanted help but couldn’t ask. I called the people who would tell me the truth when I asked for it. One was a friend. The other was my psychiatrist. It was pure luck one answered the phone. I don’t know what prompted me to dial that number that day. But I did. And here we are.
The darkness feels different today. The chaotic urgency of before has been replaced with a soporific distraction. Having rebuilt myself and then a life, I am very proud of what I have achieved in those 11 years since. I set out to fulfil some of that potential I had when I finished school. And now 20 years on, I have managed to meet some of those goals and while I have failed at many more, I am still here.
I’ve built up enough distance from the unmanageability of my past that I am less in danger of stumbling back. But I am in much more danger of harming myself through straight forward neglect. And I’m not sure which is worse. One is damning and explosive, the other slower, more insidious, and – lets face it – more likely to win.
Like any classic story, the counter to the darkness then, is the truth. And telling the truth. Not just sitting with it as a mind-experiment, letting it roll over your tongue until it dissolves and you’re left with nothing to say. The truth. Your truth. So I wrote it this as a starting point. A buffer, a stab at self-care. An acknowledgement that with that little bit of luck you need a ton of hard work to keep on keeping on, and I owe it to myself to keep well. And maybe, this helps prompt you to tell yours, to pick up the phone. And if we do that we have a chance at shaping our legacies, and get given the chance to give back.
It’s March. I’ve been back at work full time for 2 months, Samson turned one and we are house hunting. Our current flat is a tip. The dust has dust and the garden looks like a vacant lot. Never before have I felt the need for another hour in the day or day in the week. Shit just does not get done. And being the A type, ENTJ type, or control freak if you must, not getting shit done is not an option.
Except it has to be.
I caught up with a friend at work who has also just returned from mat leave and she asked me what was ‘still standing’.
‘You know what I mean’ she said counting off on her fingers, ‘out of Baby, Work, Marriage, House, Friends… what’s still standing, because you sure as hell won’t have all five’
Most of us can’t have all five, well certainly not all running on optimum all of the time. Right now I can say we have Work and Baby firing on all cylinders. Samson is learning to climb, walk, talk and cause havoc so he is more than fine. I haven’t fallen asleep at my desk at work or absentmindedly replied all with an emoji so we’ll call that a victory.
As for the rest? I have seen a handful of my friends, but chances are if you don’t work in my office or live next door I probably haven’t seen you since October. I rely far too heavily on social media to keep in touch which really doesn’t cut it.
As for my long suffering husband who is getting his head round the daily grind of full time childcare – he’s a marvel, but a marvel I see for about 45 mins every week day and a few hours on the weekend. When I drag him around London looking at dreadful flats we can’t afford.
We tell each other its not forever. It will get easier. Its just a phase, and I really am sure that all of that is true. Thanks to my sleep shy son we all learned to function on 4 hours’ sleep so surely anything is possible right?
What I am a little more concerned about is the silent number 6 in all of this. The self care bit. Finding time to recharge when there are a million other demands that need to be met. I’ve always been good at prioritising, but in this area I am appalling. I can’t seem to justify the yoga class at lunch when there are meeting to be prepped for, or the run on the weekend when the dog needs vaccinating.
There is always something. And everything needs to be negotiated. The run on the weekend in return for the other half’s lie in, the week night dinner for picking up the dry cleaning, the midnight trip to 24 hour tesco for.. hell anything you want if I don’t have to go. Every moment counted and weighed and bartered to keep the balance right and resentment to a minimum. Never has there been a more misused phrase than that of ‘free time’. What are you doing with your ‘free time’? No. Such. Thing.
I suspect too that it will all get a whole lot easier when I stop obsessing over the dust on the bookshelves or the weeds taking over the patio. Because ultimately everyone is fed, clothed and not too grubby so I am taking that as a win.