The truth, the whole truth and not always the truth.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA few months after our sons moved in we went to visit a dear friend who was dying, he had arranged for somebody to buy presents for the boys, he engaged with them and he gave them lots of attention. Even though he was very poorly and in quite a bit of pain he made every effort to smile and welcome them and he clearly left an impression.

Although they saw him only once again they still remember him and talk about him, as far as we know this was the first death the boys had experienced and we did our best to be totally honest and to give them as much understanding that we felt their 5 & 6 years merited.

Of course they had questions, some simple matter of fact queries, others quite deep and difficult to know how to respond to. The most difficult was in response to my saying that death was very natural, that everybody dies and it wasn’t something to be afraid of. To which our 6 year old asked ‘so are you going to die and leave us Daddy?’. They had been with us for just over 6 months at this point and we had been reassuring them almost daily that we were a forever family and that we will always be here for them.

The temptation was of course to say no, which is no doubt what he wanted and maybe even needed to hear, but instinctively I maintained the honest approach we have when confronted with any questions from our sons and said ‘yes of course like everybody else I will die’, but added that hopefully it will be a long time from now when they are both grown up and maybe have families of their own. This appeared to work and seemed to put his mind at rest.

However, the subject of my death did raise its head in little remarks here and there quite a few times over the next couple of months, which made me realise that it was clearly something he was still thinking about and was possibly worrying him.

Eighteens months later the boys experienced another death and this time is was much closer to home when my sister died, she had built a wonderful relationship with the boys and they both thought the world of her and in fact our youngest seemed to have a particularly close bond with his special new Aunty.

Again lots of questions which we answered as honestly as we always have. However 18 months older meant that their questioning had a little more maturity behind it and that they were less willing to simply accept our answers at face value.

My ‘when you are both much older’ was now met with ‘how old Daddy?’ And my response of ‘when you are grown up and both men’ resulted in uncharacteristic on the spot mathematics and them pointing out that I would be nearly 70 when they were 20 and that people died much younger than that, like their Aunty who was only 53.

More attempts at reassurance and I pointed out that both their daddies (we are 2 dads) ate well, that we didn’t smoke, that we drank very little and that we were reasonably healthy which meant that there was nothing to suggest that we would not live until we are in our 80’s and that by then they would probably have children of their own. I also pointed out that their other daddy is almost 8 years younger so would likely be around a lot longer than me.

Again we could see them considering this and then with rather a glum expression we were met with ‘our uncle is older than Aunty and she died first’ A slight pause and then ‘and what if you both die together, who will look after us then?’
At which point we caved in and all our principles disappeared as I replied ‘Don’t be silly, that is never going to happen. I am sure that you will always have both of us and that we will always be able to look after you’.

Not the thruth that I put so much value in of course, but not exactly a lie either. Most importantly though it was clearly the reassurance they both needed as our deaths have not been mentioned since.

My secret weapon

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I was struggling,

I had no idea how much I was struggling.

But living and coping with daily threats of violence, verbal and real takes its toll in a cumulative way. Previously I became angry when struggling with these difficult behaviours but then something changed and I stopped being angry and became devastated.

Was this aggressive, disruptive child the one we were going to have to lead through life. Would they ever be able to cope with the demands of day to day living? I spoke my deepest fear to a counsellor, what if I wasn’t enough for them?

Then I went to the Doctors; he prescribed antidepressants. That day I stopped crying, I started brushing things off, I started smiling more, I became calmer. And my child did all these things too.

Learning how interlinked my own mental health was with my child’s was extraordinary and daunting. The pressure feels immense. But for now things are better and I am able to feel that completely overwhelming love for them with joy, not fear.

Always be by your side.

Photo by Lili Gooch

Photo by Lili Gooch

A few months back my 4 year old daughter astonished me by suddenly opening her eyes as she was drifting off to sleep and whispering “I’ll always be by your side Mama.” She gave me a sweet little smile afterwards and I was so taken aback that it brought tears to my eyes.

It’s not something I had heard from her before, nor is it a phrase I use so it was surprising and delightful to me. I will never forget it and for a time, it became a bit of a theme for us. We would say it to each other when perhaps previously we would have said “I love you”. It also became something of a weapon in times of conflict… “I don’t love you, and I’m not going to always be by your side” she would emphatically inform me, incandescent with rage over something I had done. My usual response would be “That’s a shame but I still love you and will still always want to to be by your side” But there were no concessions from her at times such as these.

Eventually we forgot about our little phrase and went back to the normal “I love you mama, up to the moon and back” that we had used for years.

And then something happened.

Her grandfather (my father) died and we were all thrown into the chaos of profound grief and bereavement while also attempting the day to day stuff of normal family life. Somehow I was supposed to carry on parenting when I felt like a child myself.
I did try to explain to her that there would times when mummy and daddy got a bit sad over this event and that it was ok if she did too; but this only served to make her feel guilty that she wasn’t as sad as us so I backed off it a bit. I was also worried about the funeral and the carnival of grief that would surround it, but she was surprisingly fine. She admired the flowers, took out her little box of crayons and colouring book, a few My little Ponies and grinned at everyone. She even said “Ooh I like your dress!” to one of my aunties.
For me, it was a day of joyous celebration of everything my father was and in the main I was pretty upbeat and happy to remember him… except for one tiny moment when I wasn’t and I faltered. Quick as a flash a little hand slid into mine and pulled me round to face her. She was smiling so broadly that I couldn’t help but smile back. It totally lifted me and after a second, a little voice rang out “Don’t worry Mama, I’ll always be by your side.”

Beatings

20160728_110151It almost broke my heart. She wouldn’t leave my side to join the hordes of screaming girls running up and down the stairs at the birthday party. And I told her I had to go, at first imploringly, but then a little tinged with anger. She held on to my leg and begged me not to. So I stayed. But not with good grace.

She sat on my feet while the other girls were playing musical chairs and bumps. I pulled her up and pushed her forward to get involved. She pushed back against my insistence. She didn’t want to. She sat back down on my feet, and I audibly sighed. So I jiggled her up and down in time to the music, playfully yes but with a slightly graceless undertone of pushing her forward again. And asked her why she didn’t want to join in. “I just don’t”, she said. I felt sad and frustrated.

She got up halfway through one of the games and went part of the way into the dancing crowd, all the while stealing little looks back at me. I smiled at her. She made the last three and won a sweet.

Then joined fully in pass-the-parcel and won some stickers. She helped a 2 year-old boy sitting next to her to join in the game.

She went politely down into the kitchen to sit at the table with the other girls and wore her party hat, but managed to find herself seated at the end of the table with nobody opposite her. She thanked the hostess politely each time she received some food. The other girls were chatting away; she waved at me and smiled.

After the cake, there were 15 minutes left before the end of the party. I spoke to some adults about Trump and tennis, while she came back into the room on her own and played with the birthday girl’s dolls’ house. By herself.

I felt embarrassed. I just wanted her to have fun and make friends; or I just wanted her not to be the one who wouldn’t join in, the shy girl. I just wanted her to be confident, to be the one the others wanted to play with.

I know she is a little shy. But she’s considered. She’s considerate. She’s exuberant at times and introspective at others. She’s fun and funny. She’s thoughtful, she’s joyful, she feels deeply.

So I beat myself up over my feelings and the way I behaved towards her.

And then we left. She said thank you to the parents and happy birthday to the girl.

On the way home, she was bubbling over with talk about the party and what fun she’d had and told me all about one of her friends who was going to see the film at the cinema that she had seen the day before, and chatted about all the girls and the little boy, and skipped along looking into her party bag and asking me what the things were; she’d had the best time.

And I realised that the sadness and frustration, embarrassment and lack of grace were all my own. I realised that I just didn’t want her to be me.