June 30, 2013

The Sympathy Gene

"Honey, talk to the hand . . ."
Is there a sympathy gene? If so, I think I may be missing it. I also think my daughter may have inherited the lack of a sympathy gene from me.

Last week, I got up too quickly from my desk and banged my knee on the edge of the desk. And not just any old bang, but the father, son and holy spirit of all bangs! The dead centre of my patella struck the sharp corner at full speed. I found myself sprawled on the floor clutching my knee with tears in my eyes and trying to breathe deeply in and out through the pain. I went straight into calm birth mode but without the, y'know, HIDEOUSLY PAINFUL ACT OF GIVING BIRTH.

Francesca, who had observed the whole thing, had perched herself on the chair I had so recently and dramatically vacated. As a little involuntary sob escaped my lips she peered down imperiously at me from on high and said "Well don't cry about it. Just get up mummy. You're fine."


So here's the thing. I make a really concerted effort to show sympathy when my children hurt themselves. I hug them, say things like "Ooooh, that must have hurt darling" or "Naughty chair/step/table/corner", and distract them with teddies, stickers, television, food or whatever comes to hand. (Yeah, yeah, food as comfort. Sosueme)

But my poor beleaguered husband is a different matter. Let's just say I am sympathetic to a point. The point being just shy of 'man cold' accusations, and a damn long way from "Oh you poor darling. Let me give you a massage, then get into bed and I'll make you some chicken soup from scratch."

I may even have uttered the words "Well don't cry about it. Just get up. You're fine" under my breath as John battled some awful lurgy. A certain toddler, her sharp ears unsullied by Bruce Springsteen concerts, blue light discos and Like A Prayer at MAXIMUM VOLUME on the Walkman, appears to have stored those phrases for later use.

As I hobbled to my feet under the disinterested gaze of my daughter, my tears turned into gobsmacked laughter and as I looked at her I thought, good grief, she's a mini-me. And like me, she reserves her sympathy for her children. Pink Teddy, Tiger, Baby and all her other imaginatively named 'children' receive warm cuddles and "Don't worry, I love you's" from her every day (despite the fact that most of their injuries are inadvertently inflicted on them by their loving mother). Her sister's dog was sung Oh Darling by the Beatles on rotation by way of a lullaby last month. The dog!

The next day, Francesca accidentally knocked my freshly made, unsipped, much anticipated smoothie onto the kitchen floor. With the smoothie still all over the floor, I quickly grabbed my phone and asked her to repeat what she said:

By now of course it was a bit of a joke, but please note the steely gaze beneath the cute exterior when I ask her to repeat what she said. If her handwriting is crappy too, she's going to make a hellava doctor.*

* No offence to doctors, most of whom are brilliant, warm, engaging people, but we've all had the doctor with the unaccountably shite bedside manner, yes? I'm talking to you, unknown doctor, who after inspecting my friend's ankle x-rays insisted she walk through the hospital with a huffy "it's not broken!" It was later discovered she had severe ligament damage. She was in a lot of pain. She was also sitting in a wheelchair, which I could have wheeled her in. Naughty doctor.

June 14, 2013

The Mother's Group

My mother's group 2011. What a beautiful bunch of cleavages babies.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman in possession of a baby must be in want of a mother's group. Or so sayeth the nurses at the early childhood centre. However, it is a truth only privately acknowledged that, for some of us, the idea of walking in to a room full of unknown, hormonal, sleep deprived women is a slightly scary daunting prospect.

And yet, those faces will soon become so familiar to you, those girls your tribe. For our mother's group, these were also the women that would help one of our gang weather a storm that no parent should have to.

For those of you unacquainted with the mother's group scene, here's how it goes. A nurse pops in when you get home from hospital, not only to check on you and the baby, but to tell you the date your mother's group starts. It is both recommended and assumed you will join in and, for the most part, I agree with that. The four weeks you spend attending the centre learning about settling your baby, avoiding cracked nipples and what to do when your baby projectile vomits, form an essential manual for how to work the baby when you're at home.

After the four weeks, you can decide as a group whether you'd like to continue meeting at each other's homes, or a local park or cafe. Or not.

My first mother's group, which I joined when Jack was born nearly 10 years ago, was a godsend. We inhaled each other's experiences along with the chocolate biscuits, entire mornings consumed by conversations revolving around dummies, sleep patterns and poo. We shared our children's milestones, delivered meals to those moving house and those welcoming new babies, held hands during tough times. And there was tea and wine and always cake. Strong friendships formed and firmed, or fell away as people returned to full time work or moved away, either physically or philosophically. It was enjoyable and wonderful, but also intense, exhausting and emotional for those first few years.

So for me, the thought of joining another mother's group after I had Francesca made me feel . . . y'know . . . a bit tired.

Although I have to admit I was tempted by all the cake.

I also thought it would be good for Francesca to have some friends her own age. A little mate to step across the threshold of her first classroom at the local primary school with in years to come.

So off I went to my new mother's group meeting and like Mr Bingley, once I got to the ball, I found that all the ladies were entirely agreeable and very much to my taste.

I plunged, once more, into the world of babydom, this time as the elder stateswoman. The forty-something mum who'd been-there-done-that. Unfortunately for the other mums, I have a shocking memory and wasn't much help on the advice front. Fortunately for me, these twenty- and thirty-somethings were all extremely well-informed and willing to share advice with this forgetful old women.

When I had Jack ten years ago, Facebook was merely a glint in Mark Zuckerberg's eye, so my mother's group relied on the telephone and our weekly catch-ups for sharing advice, eating cake and moaning about stuff. But with my new mother's group, we not only had the magic of Facebook, but were all having intense love affairs with our iphones which meant 24/7 access to each other when needed. Sitting on the sofa for that wearying 40 minute feed at 2am? Iphone. Facebook. Instant company! Oh those silent 2am online chats were some of the best. And they sure beat the endless Guthy-Renker infomercials (although I did find the Roto-Curler strangely alluring).

It also helped that the women in my new mother's group were simply lovely. Are lovely. Two and a half years on and we still meet every week, not just for the sake of our children, but because we genuinely enjoy each other's company.

We've also formed a bond. Not just a casual affinity created by the shared experiences of motherhood, but the kind of tight coalition that is formed when a tragedy befalls one in a group and the group surrounds her, turns in to face her, leans in to support her.

Our beautiful K fell pregnant with her second baby at around the same time as nearly every other mum in the group. It was very exciting among our merry band of mamas with so much potential newborn-cuddling action on the horizon. K's baby, in particular, was a heaven sent surprise to them as they'd had some difficulty conceiving their first child and had been on the emotional fertility rollercoaster too many of us are familiar with. To fall pregnant with their second baby naturally was wonderful.

On the 30th May last year, K's baby Jamie was stillborn at 32 weeks. He was perfect. A handsome, soft-skinned, beautiful boy.

The details of Jamie's birth are not mine to share. That is a story for K and her husband to tell. I can only tell you how it was from the outside looking in.

The initial floundering for words, the intense desire to help in some way, the uncertainty of protocol or of K's expectations upon seeing her for the first time afterwards. To hug? To console? To acknowledge? How to make the words come without cliche. How to express what a full heart feels without overwhelming. Too much? Too little?

These things are difficult to navigate alone, but with a group used to sharing the minutiae of everyday life, it became easier. In our huddle, we threw our thoughts and feelings and ideas into the middle and came out with a plan. Along with attending the funeral, planning a two week meals roster and the gift of a pendant inscribed with her two sons' names, we opened our arms and our ears, ready for her to enter when she felt ready.

K's calm bravery and generosity of heart throughout the entire ordeal was incredible, and continues to be. At our first meeting together after the funeral, we put our toes gently in the water. There was unspoken consent to cocoon her but also give her room to breathe. To speak. Did she want to talk? She did. K let us in to her world with heartbreaking honesty.

Over the past awful year, surrounded by swollen bellies and newborn babies, she has continued with that same candid courage and we have been guided and inspired by it. There have been tears and fear, enormous pain and the constant ache of what-ifs, but she has turned up, leaned in, kept moving forwards, for her two year old son, her husband and herself. I am in awe of her.

Two weeks ago marked the anniversary of Jamie's birth and death. We decided to celebrate his day. Jamie's Day. There was champagne, sunshine and, of course, cake. A birthday cake, irresistible to little fingers.


Brave mama

At day's end, the text messages went round. Drinks? Girls night? Let's do it. We washed down guacamole with champagne, toasted our brave buddy and her angel and then got lost in the meandering lanes and byways of lady-chat. Kids, husbands, holidays, Brazilian waxes, books, movies, school days, drunk days, good and bad days. The big dirty martini of life.

This mother's group - a posse, cleaved together for better or worse.

If you have experienced a stillbirth or know someone who has, you're not alone.
The Stillbirth Foundation - http://www.stillbirthfoundation.org.au/
SANDS has excellent fact sheets for friends and families as well as parents - http://www.sands.org.au/resources/

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