In sickness and in health

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The 2016 memes are hard to avoid, if you live in certain circles. Many of us have learned to our cost that surrounding ourselves with only the views of those who think as we do can give just as blinkered a view of reality as those whose opinions we decry.

As I write this, the world is reeling from terror attacks in Berlin and Turkey. Civil war continues to rage in Syria and I can’t quite bear to find out the latest from Aleppo. For each still crying newborn rescued from the rubble, how many innocents lie undiscovered in shallow graves? The world seems unsure and frightening. The path we are travelling is untested, following leaders I would never have chosen in a direction which every inch of my being says is wrong.

I don’t know how the history books will look back on 2016. Will it be seen as a pivotal point in history as the western world takes a step to the right, turns its back firmly on those who don’t look or sound like us and sets the scene for increasing political and civil unrest, a rise in global poverty, a rise in ‘acceptable’ racism and the emboldening of those who have long held deeply unpleasant beliefs? None of us know and only time will tell. I do know, however, that 2016 will be an important part of my personal history.

Shortly after the EU referendum, my husband began to act a little ‘odd’. In a time of angry rants on social media, of  Brexiters, Brexiteers, Bremainers, Bremoaners and an increasingly unlikely number of portmanteaus, my husband’s posts could have been seen as part of the bigger picture of discontent in certain sections of society. But to me, something jarred. Something wasn’t quite right. He applied to assist at a field school in Laos. He was going to apply to Oxford University for a Masters degree. He was going to get a tattoo. Of a God. He became more and more irritable. Never good at listening, he became incapable of having a conversation with me without interrupting. His mood swings were sudden and violent. He once shouted at our elder daughter – for interrupting him – in a restaurant so loudly that a nearby family looked over in absolute horror.

It hadn’t been plainsailing since he was diagnosed with psychotic depression and at the time I was warned there might come a time that we needed relationship counselling and, after a completely unnecessary argument about Tom Daley’s sexuality (yes, really) it became apparent to me that time was now. Heaven only knows I was more irritable and less tolerant and, if I am completely honest, harbouring some resentment about the role I had been forced to take when he first became ill at a time when our baby daughter habitually woke every two hours all night, every night. But underneath these relationship concerns, hid a deeper worry – was he becoming ill again?

It didn’t feel like last time. It wasn’t scary in quite the same way. But it didn’t feel right either. There were plans being made, all the time, plans which had no basis in the realities of being a married father of two reliant on the income of two parents. It wasn’t until he mentioned that two colleagues had raised concerns that he seemed stressed that I was able to convince him to return to the doctor. I had, in fact, to agree to first go to the doctor on my own account, then he would see her, then we agreed we would give Relate a try.

I don’t know what I expected. I didn’t want him to be ill. But if he was given a clean bill of mental health, I feared that had a lot of not very positive things to say about our relationship. Not to mention my lack of trust in him. If he, in full possession of his mental faculties, believed the way he was behaving to me and to our children was acceptable then there were some fundamental differences in our attitudes that needed to be addressed and there wouldn’t be any easy answers. I do truly believe that marriage is for better and for worse and you do have to take the rough with the smooth – but the man I was living with bore barely a shadow of resemblance to the man I married.

The first time my husband mentioned the words ‘bipolar disorder’ I thought he might have misunderstood. It wasn’t written down on the letter to his doctor which he was copied in to. When the first doctor called to have a chat with me to get my perspective, he talked about how anti-depressants can sometimes send people a little ‘high’ so they would be taking him off them. Wrong medication, it seemed. Had my husband got it wrong? But when I was invited in to the next appointment, it was pretty stark ‘I think we can be clear that you have bipolar’. The consultant at the next appointment confirmed the diagnosis. It’s in writing now. And it is finally starting to make sense.

In the new year, he will have blood levels taken and will start on lithium (one of the few medications for mental illness that almost everyone has heard of). For now he is on anti-psychotics again. The list of possible side-effects is as long as my arm. He is much closer to ‘normal’ since taking the medication. But I know that at some point in the future he won’t be. This is a lifelong condition now. The lithium may mean the highs and lows are less extreme, shorter and less frequent. They almost never go altogether. My children are thought to be ten times more likely to develop the condition than the general population. Our marriage is two or three times more likely to end in divorce.

The information I have read so far, the forums I have joined, indicate I am doing almost everything wrong already. I’m finding it hard to take in. I’m finding it even harder to allow him to make his own bad decisions – because the decisions he takes have a direct or indirect impact on us. My well of sympathy, patience and understanding has been drawn on heavily over the last few years. I need to dig deeper and find more. Each day I resolve to think of a way to demonstrate to my husband that he is loved. Unfortunately I am all too human and flawed and too bloody tired so when the moment comes to demonstrate that act of love, more often than not something sparks my frustration instead. It’s not fair. He didn’t ask to be sick, to submit to a lifetime of medication and medical intervention. It’s not his fault. But then, sometimes it IS his fault. Sometimes, it won’t be the illness. It will be him being an arse. Because he is human too.

By 10th January, when David Bowie died, 2016 already had a black mark against it. Can we strike it from the record? Or can I just mark it down as the year I learned to play the harp and crochet (although not simultaneously, that’s my task for 2017)?

I can’t be happy about my husband’s bipolar disorder yet, or about Brexit, or Trump, or a world without Alan Rickman and Bowie and Prince and Harper Lee, where bombs fall on civilians and refugees with brown faces are not welcome and children have to declare their country of birth when they register in schools. I can’t change these things. But I hope I can come to terms with what I cannot change and support those best placed to change the things which can change. Hope and a sense of humour will see us all through. It has to. That and the harp.

 

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The pain threshold

When you become a mother, received wisdom (not to mention excruciating personal experience) tells us our pain threshold is taken to the limit. We stretch, tear, push and, by and large, we cope with it. If, like me, you were unable to take the conventional route and had a sun-roof baby, you are sliced open and the ensuing and subsequent pain is often strong enough to require strong opiates to alleviate it. I can’t compare it to the agonising pain of those with debilitating chronic conditions or the full body assault of cancer, nor would I choose to. I can only imagine the kinds of pain so many have to endure (and without a tiny dependent human to lessen the suffering or the knowledge that the pain will only be temporary). In any case, most would agree that once you have children, you have a greater threshold for pain. You’ve gone through labour (or major abdominal surgery), you may even have chosen to do so more than once. You can take what the world throws at you. It can’t be worse than childbirth, right?

There is a pain threshold, however, which, for most of us, moves the other way once we become mothers. The same is probably true for many fathers, although perhaps in a less visceral way. I am talking about emotional pain. What once I could bear stoically, has become unbearable. What once made me wince reduces me to a sobbing mess.

I recently read a book by an extremely successful author renowned for presenting moral dilemmas, posing questions for which there is no obvious ‘right’ answer. Her books often – but not always – have a significant twist in the resolution of the dilemma. I was tucking into this novel, which involved a teenager trying to get to the bottom of an event in her past, when I reached the denouement. It stopped me in my tracks. Hidden behind the clever prose was an act of such horror it makes me sick to recall it even now.  The teenager had been brutally beaten to death as a toddler. All the characters – except one ‘medium’ – were dead. I could barely read the description of the medium and the narrator finding the broken bones of her tiny body.

Sometimes, when I lie awake at night, the memory of this story comes back to me. I was so unprepared for the revelation and the very idea of it makes me recoil. It hurts too much to think about it.

This is just one example of how my emotional pain threshold has weakened. It takes me next to nothing to reach the tipping point. I have to censor myself when I read a newspaper or watch the news – I am extra careful as to what articles I click on. I don’t really like the expression ‘triggering’ but it seems that anything that involves the neglect or abuse of small children – particularly those close to mine in age – has the effect of triggering all those feelings of disgust, fear, anger, shock, horror. I don’t want to know about the parents who shook their baby so hard they ended up brain damaged. Or those who deliberately overfed their toddler salt. I still have nightmares about the film Precious. I know the stories that become wider public knowledge are the tip of the iceberg. I know that every night there are children who go to bed in fear, hungry, neglected, beaten, abused, alone.

I can’t comprehend such behaviour. I look at my two girls – perfect angels and the source of unimaginable joy but also often annoying, whingey, loud, demanding, violent (we’re talking the toddler here, the five year old knows better than that now), infuriating, defiant, rude, wilful, pigheaded – and I still can’t see how you can go from the worst possible behaviour a child could have to violence, to abuse. Thinking about it hurts me.

I knew all these things were awful before I had children, of course I did, and working in a regional newspaper I often had a more intimate understanding of some of the truly awful things people will do to each other. It was often sickening. But I could ‘bear’ it. It didn’t provoke a physical response in the same way it does now – a gut-wrenching twist. Nausea. A physical ache. A visceral need to know where my children are RIGHT NOW.

Many years ago, I remember having a debate about capital punishment in an English class when I was in my early teens. My teacher (who I slightly idolised) told us, eyes shining with passion, that she believed the Yorkshire Ripper should have been put to death. I rather think she fancied doing the job herself. She had two young children and lived in the area he prowled. Her maternal instinct to protect was working in overdrive.

It makes me wonder, though, does that visceral pain ever go? Does my mother still cry at the thought of losing her babies (now in their 30s) when there is some horror in the news? Can she tolerate tales of evil against the small and vulnerable? Does it soften and you become able to cope, once more, with the prospect of the unimaginable? Most parents, when surveyed, would save their children ahead of their spouse in a disaster. Is that still the case when your children are grown? Would my mum leave my dad to make his own way out of a fire while rushing to the upstairs room to rescue me? The idea seems slightly bizarre (and is obviously not a very likely scenario) but the question fascinates me. It’s an instinct which colours much of what we do, many of the decisions we make, whether they be political, professional or personal. My children are always in the background when I take any decision which affects my life. It’s hard to imagine a time when they might not be.

Whether my pain threshold eventually raises or remains weak and fragile, is irrelevant really. I can choose to protect myself from that physical hurt by not reading horror stories but far more important I can protect my children so that they do not become victims of all the awful things out there. I am obviously not talking about wrapping them up in cotton wool, I hope they have the full range of life experiences including some which will involve disappointment or even pain. But it is my job to protect them. To advocate for them. To make sure that they are always loved, always safe, always fed, always warm. I know my children will have that. I also know there are many, many children for whom that is not the case. I think I need to do my part to protect them too. It hurts me to think about children drowning as they flee wartorn homes. Children being forced themselves to commit atrocities. Children seeing things they should never see. Children never knowing what it is to be loved. Someone needs to care for them. If not me, then who? Everyone has a job to protect the most vulnerable. I hope I can find a way to make sure I am doing more than just looking inward to my own family but also looking outward to those who desperately need someone not just to hurt on their behalf but to do something to help.

 

 

 

Let me take you to a foreign land

I am, for the most part, a fairly careful driver. I obey speed limits. I stop when I am told to do so. This sensible approach was crystallised some years ago when one of my closest friends was in a car crash. Her car flipped and she escaped with whiplash. Afterwards, she said to me ‘I never want to get somewhere so much I don’t mind dying’.

I hear you nodding, thinking yes, well, who would? But actually, I can think of someone. Not just someone. Not just tens of people, or hundreds, but the thousands of people fleeing Syria. They want to leave so desperately that they will take the risk of death by drowning, suffocation, the bloody carnage of a failed attempt to board a train. And not just for them. For their husbands and wives. Their brothers and sisters. Their children.

This is not a political blog and my politics are fairly irrelevant to my readers.  Many more (and less) qualified to comment have begun to bang the drum about this issue. Policy may change. More help will be forthcoming. Maybe more lives may be saved. I certainly hope and pray that will be the case. But awareness, support, and a desire to make a change are not the only reason I have  been moved to join the ranks writing about this.

Yesterday I saw a photograph. I am sure you did too. I did not want to see the photograph. I actively tried not to. But with the desperate inevitability of such things, I saw Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach. I will never be able to unsee that photograph. I did not avoid it because I didn’t want to be jolted out of my comfortable life, or because I found it unpleasant. I did not want to see it because I believe it is profoundly wrong and macabre to use the imagery of dead children – dead people of any description – to provoke an emotional response. It borders on pornographic. It also makes me incredibly sad that such a move would be deemed necessary.

There has been much talk about the language used to describe these desperate people fleeing their country. We call them migrants, rather than refugees. When we admit they are refugees, we can afford to offer our sympathy. These are ‘good’ migrants, as opposed to those who come here simply in search of a better life. They are economic migrants, illegal immigrants. They don’t deserve our sympathy. We should turn them away. We don’t want to become a safe haven for such undesirables.

‘I never want to be somewhere so much I don’t mind dying’. Well, these people do. What could they be leaving to make crushing yourself into a lorry the better, safer option? Setting sail in a rusty tin can dangerously overloaded with frightened people clutching their pathetic possessions above water? Crawling under a train and clinging desperately to it for mile after mile?

That awful photograph shows something which has been happening, is happening, all the time. And it angers me, as I sit here, warm, well fed, free from persecution and free to write what the hell I like without fear of reprisals. It angers me that this life was not judged to be equal to that of my daughters’. That this could be allowed to happen to anyone, anywhere, if anything could be done to help.

These people are refugees in the truest sense of the word. But actually, I’m not sure I care. A full 15 years ago I wrote my university dissertation on the representation of immigrants and the language used in the press to describe them. William Hague, then shadow foreign secretary, envisaged a situation where levels of migration became uncontrollable. “Let me take you on a journey to a foreign land”, he said.

When my first baby was born by caesarean section, the doctor who delivered her was an immigrant. The specialist who oversaw my husband’s recovery from a serious mental health problem was not born in this country. Nor was the nurse who took gentle care of my grandmother in her final days and made her smile. Nor my cheery dentist. Nor the cleaner who always says hello to me when I am first in to the office in the morning, nor the cheery porter who happily moves the dozens of boxes we seem to accumulate at work. None of the taxi drivers who take me home after my very occasional nights out were born here, nor the mayor of my city. And on a more personal note, many of the friends who enveloped me with their support when I struggled with the pressures of having a mentally ill husband and a challenging young family were born far from these shores.

I cannot imagine a life without migration. As an island nation, go back far enough and we are all immigrants. Only two generations is necessary in my case. Because my grandmother came here from the Netherlands and married a doctor, does that make her a ‘good’ immigrant? And why is it when we choose to leave this country in search of a better life, or a more exciting one, we are not economic migrants, we are expats?

What is happening now is a genuine crisis. I hope that picture galvanises those who were previously disinterested, felt in some way inconvenienced by the crisis or had no sympathy for those who desperately need help into doing something – and there is much that can be done in terms of donating to the charities working with refugees, collecting much-needed clothes or tents. But this is just one crisis. They happen all the time. They were happening back in 2001 when William Hague echoed Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech. When things stabilise, will we harden our hearts, put our blinkers back on and firmly close the doors again? Welcome only the ‘right’ migrants? Continue to enjoy the countless contributions people born elsewhere make to our way of life without paying heed to those who make it possible? I truly hope not. Call me crazy, but I would like to live somewhere where every life is considered equal. Irrespective of the accident of birth which chooses to place you in a wealthy Western home or a poor Middle Eastern one.

I have faith in people. I hope they don’t disappoint.

A sobering anniversary

A year ago today I received a text message from my mother while I was at work. I was 36 weeks pregnant and on crutches thanks to rupturing my Achilles running for a bus and a week away from maternity leave. My sister was in hospital. She had been having convulsions due to severe alcohol withdrawal. I thought she was going to die. It was a week before her 30th birthday.

The months leading up to this moment had been pretty horrendous. She was kicked out by her husband just before Christmas after a drink-related incident, the exact nature of which I will never know. This permanently separated her from her two step children and effectively split her from her own daughter, who moved in with her father. Two drink-driving convictions followed.

I watched my parents become thin and drawn with worry. I saw all our expressions turn from sympathy to thinly veiled disgust. But always underlined with worry. I listened incredulously as my parents gave dire ultimatums and deadlines I could never have imagined them issuing. Even as I saw how helpless they were in the face of her addiction. How helpless we all were.

I received calls late at night and stumbled heavily pregnant to the phone, terrified by what I might hear. Only for it to be her calling to see how I was. For a chat. She dropped my three year old while holding her on her lap, she had so little control over herself. She talked a lot about how excited she was about the arrival of her niece. The thought of what to do if my sister was still in this state when my baby arrived kept me awake at night. Should I stop her from seeing the baby? Ban her from holding my tiny, fragile, precious newborn? What new depths would she sink to if denied this human contact she so craved?

She moved into a hostel. She went to a lot of groups. She didn’t stop drinking. She gave varying accounts of why this was, the advice she had been given. If I go cold turkey, she told me, I’m afraid my level of dependence is so high it might kill me. She refused to take the anti-withdrawal medication she had been prescribed due to their catastrophic interaction with alcohol should she fail to stay dry. She wanted to do it as an inpatient. She was on a waiting list. I thought these were excuses to continue drinking. That she hadn’t really resolved to stop. She was existing in some kind of limbo, fooling herself.

That day she had decided to go cold turkey, two months before her detox bed would be ready. She had not taken her librium. She had not underestimated her addiction either. I had. Her withdrawal symptoms were extreme, debilitating and severely unpleasant. But it didn’t kill her. And she hasn’t had a drink since.

Every day I think about her. She has lost everything – her home, her family, her job, her driving licence. She is slowly starting to rebuild her life. She has a new job now and is no longer consigned to the shared bathrooms and regular police visits of the hostel. She has her own front door: a space where her daughter can stay over. But there are things she has lost she will never get back.

It took me a long time to appreciate my sister was an alcoholic. We were a convivial family and alcohol, food and merriment flowed freely when we came together. I tended to see her on occasions where having a few drinks was not out of place. I didn’t think about it as much as I should have. I enabled her drinking, looking forward to boozy dinners at hers. Of course these were rare occurrences for us. For her they were the tip of the iceberg.

Not all alcoholics get a happy ending. When I was 14 one of my father’s closest friends died of alcohol poisoning. He had drunk no more that day than most others. On that day, it just happened to be enough. I have painted one picture of an alcoholic but there are countless others. Having a glass of wine every day does not make you an alcoholic. Needing to have one might do. The person who can go for weeks without a drop but will only ever drink in excess to get drunk may have a problem. Or the ‘lightweight’ who after a couple of glasses loses all control and has little recollection of their actions the following morning. The solo drinker, the person who will always finish a bottle of wine once it’s open, the mum who cracks open the gin as soon as the kids are in bed, the person who is economical with the truth when asked how much they had last night. They might all be just fine. They might not be.

I still drink occasionally but every time I have a glass I feel conflicted about it. I am very conscious that it is a drug. It has power. It can take away my power. I would plead with anyone who has concerns about their own drinking or someone else’s to do anything apart from ignore it. Talk to them. Talk to someone else. Make a change – maybe just one small step at a time. Put yourself back in control. Don’t let alcohol win.

Growing up

They say children grow up while you’re looking the other way. Endless days and nights, short, short years. So close -literally and emotionally – as we mothers are, the constant subtle, tiny changes are almost invisible until you take a step back and see your tiny newborn has gone way past the fourth trimester, out of babyhood and lurching unsteadily towards toddlerdom.

The smaller you are, the more you change – the more there is to develop. There is everything to learn, everything to grow. Babies change and develop at a phenomenal rate, comparatively. New and amazing things are learned all the time, some that we see, some which are going on inside that tiny pressure cooker unbeknownst to the outside world. And yet with all this awe-inspiring development going on, it is is easy to get bogged down in trying to keep your baby from putting their hands in yet another pooey nappy, in the daily drudge of feed/sleep/change/soothe/clean.

I am as guilty of this as the next person. Perhaps more so, having thrown the dice and drawn a baby who sleeps fitfully, wakes regularly and makes a thousand demands on my time when all my body cries out for is sleep. So it is worth, every now and then, standing back and trying to see beyond the hazy fug of here and now and every day to the bigger, bolder picture.

In the last two weeks, my baby has changed. A lot. It seems she has almost grown up over night. She was a toothless wonder. Now her first two teeth have broken down. She was happily immobile, preferring to sit and endlessly examine things than work on getting from A to B. Now she has developed a graceless but highly effective split leg crawl, half way between a bum shuffle and a normal crawl. Nothing is beyond her reach. She used to communicate largely by high-pitched pterodactyl noises interspersed with Walking Dead style growling, with the occasional tired and tearful mumumu. Now she is babbling away making recognisable sounds.

No doubt her brain has been working on all these things for some time, but they appeared almost unannounced. Maybe they were the cause of a few wakeful, restless and fretful nights, the explanation of at the time inexplicable sadness. I will never know. There is too much going on in that developing brain for me to ever be able to say x was caused by y. That’s okay, though, I don’t need an explanation. I do, however, need to let myself sit back and enjoy this (while obviously running around removing all the new hazards which mobility brings) because quick as a flash and it will be something new. The wonder of her first unsteady shuffle across the room will be forgotten, the memory replaced by a new skill, a new challenge. I will try and seal it inside me, that feeling, the pride, the shock, the swell of emotion. But that daily grind will erode my ability to pause and admire that glorious, ever-changing picture.

This new phase was all initiated by my daughter. At the same time, I have forced a new order upon her. This week she has started at nursery. She has spent her first full day apart from me, fallen asleep in someone else’s arms for the first time, taken food from a stranger and milk from a bottle. She has done remarkably well. I too seem to have coped, so far. But the timing fascinates me. Just as she has given me so many new things to deal with, in turn I have given her a whole new routine. As she grows up, constantly and irreversibly, I too need to grow strong enough to see through changes in our way of life, our daily routines, our time together. I may not cry and whinge and fuss all night long in readiness for the change. But these changes will affect me in no less a way. I hope that we may grow together and thrive and flourish.

End of an era

Yesterday I officially returned to work after over nine months of maternity leave. It was the end of an exhausting, busy, fleeting, yet endless time of frustration, joy, tea, cake, sleep deprivation and laughter. As it is Easter holidays I am not actually back at work but it seemed a good moment to reflect on what I have and have not achieved.

Lots of mums see maternity leave as a challenge – or possibly a void of days empty of adult company to be filled with something, anything. Or they want to make something meaningful of their time, which is obviously a laudable aim. I’m not sure I set myself any particular targets, but just for fun here is a list of things I did NOT manage to do during maternity leave:

Write a book
Learn a new language
Take my daughter to a regular, educational group involving more than tea and biscuits for myself
Put make up on before leaving the house
Shower and wash hair every day
Carefully coach my baby to learn new skills such as clapping, waving, crawling and meaningful babble
Visit museums, historic buildings and places of interest so my daughter could absorb culture by osmosis
Plan an activity to take us out of the house every day
Teach my elder daughter to ride a bike
Dress myself and both children in tasteful outfits which complement each other
Leave the television switched off except for specific occasions
Keep the house clean and tidy and the clothes beautifully ironed and pressed
Sort through and selectively dispose of the thousands of pieces of ‘artwork’ my daughter has created

But on the plus side, here are a few things I DID do during maternity leave:

Feed both children, myself and my husband every day
Get the children up, dressed and to school during term time
Get the children up and dressed the rest of the time
Experiment with new breakfasts – thank you eggy bread for coming into my life
Manage a possible reflux/ dairy intolerance
Hold it together while my husband was suffering from a serious mental illness
Wash, dry and put away everyone’s clothes
Use reusable nappies
Read with my elder daughter every day
Venture to new places to meet new people
Make dozens of virtual friends who have become very real
Hold a million beautiful babies
Hold my beautiful babies
Help my daughter sleep through the night (which is the subject of another post)
See my elder daughter grow into a proper schoolgirl while attending parents’ evenings, literacy and numeracy workshops culminating in her shock win at the Easter bonnet competition
See my baby grow from a tiny newborn to a person in her own right with her own unique personality
Soothe a thousand tantrums, wipe away a river of tears, kiss away pain that I cannot see or understand and rock and cuddle sadness into oblivion

I think I can find meaning enough in there. Maternity leave is not housework leave. Most of us will not have time to start anything new or complete any big projects or fulfil any ambitious goals. The mothering part of maternity leave is pretty full on and full time. And it won’t stop with my return to work, although I can thankfully relinquish some of those tasks to others.

It has been a blast. Filled with cuddles and kisses, laughter and tears from all of us, minor and major crises both averted and confronted. I won’t ever have this time back again and I don’t regret any of it. The next phase will have new difficulties, frustrations, excitements and rewards. I hope I am up to the challenge.

Five fingers

Sometimes when I go to my daughters’ room to feed my baby in the evening, my elder girl is not yet asleep, or rouses enough to engage in whispered conversation. As I sit on the rocking chair, nursing my tiny fierce baby back to sleep, a little hand snakes out from the bed next to me. As rhythmic sucks grow slower and eyes grow heavier, my big-hearted big girl gently strokes my hand and I do the same to her. My heart melts a little as I sit there, pinned down by so much unbearable need and unqualified love. Sometimes I cannot help but whisper what is on my mind – “I love you more than anything”. This evening the whispered reply came: “I do too mummy. I love you too much. I love you so much I think my heart might break.” Her unconditional innocent love is so beautiful and powerful it actually hurts a little.

I was going to write, tonight, about stereotypes. It was going to be witty, thoughtful, even a bit political. I was planning what I would say as I stood in the shower. But I find myself writing about love instead.

I have not had an easy week. Sleep has been hard to come by, sudden inexplicable sadness has been a frequent visitor and I have found myself snapping more than is usual or necessary. So there was a degree of annoyance when I stepped out of the shower, still dripping, to be greeted by my wet-cheeked, whimpering daughter, eyes bright with tiny tears.

As I sat down to feed her, I looked down at her hand, five fat fingers placed firmly on my breast. And again, my heart melted. Those fingers poke, prod, fiddle, scratch, all day long and most of the night. Here they were, still, just in that moment. Holding me close not out of desperate need this time, nor pulling and pinching, but anchoring her where she belonged. After a few moments, her hand moved up and down. Not frantically as it so often is, not violently, but a warm, gentle, and oh so soft stroke. She too was telling me how much she loved me.

I need moments like this when the days are long  and the nights seemingly endless, when my girls take it in turns to challenge me in new and imaginative ways. The funny thing about love is it doesn’t ever run out. Great big undiscovered wellsprings of it lurk underneath, just waiting for the right trigger. In this case, five fingers, twice over. One set slender, covered in marks of unknown origin, nails bitten to the quick. One set fat and short and soft and squidgy. Both with more power than their owners’ may ever know.