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May 15

Gardening for grandmothers

Last week was I.’s third birthday, so another rain of presents descended.  Perhaps he’ll think this is normal, in which case a rude awakening awaits. Their house looks like a toyshop, I observed to Esther, who said yes, she  keeps meaning to do a cull, but a) this can only be done while I. and the baby are both asleep, a comparatively rare and cherished occurrence, and b) I. tends to notice the absence of even long-neglected items.  Still, she persists, and on my last visit the place did seem a little clearer.

At least of toys.  Everything else was thickly on display:  dirty dishes, dirty laundry, last week’s prunings still waiting in their bag to be removed from the garden … In the midst of it sat Esther, wearing the (unconscious) baby and looking panic-stricken.  What’s up, I asked.  More or less everything, was the answer.  A couple of nights previously the baby had decided sleep was for wimps, had dozed off only for the odd ten-minute interval, and otherwise had remained awake requiring more or less back-to-back feeding and de-winding.  She would now sleep only when being worn.  And to cap the delights the philosopher has put his back out again, and is now reduced to the hobbling wreck that became so familiar when they did their move last year.  It had taken him, she said, an hour – an entire hour! – to get out of bed for a pee that morning.  As for helping with childcare, forget it.  She couldn’t even imagine how I. was to get to nursery, a lifeline on which her sanity depends, but that requires pushing him in a buggy, something of which the philosopher is currently incapable, and which she can’t do because the baby may require feeding at any and all moments..

The only upside was that, I., terrified of his mother’s thunderclaps now her fuse was so spectacularly shortened, was behaving angelically – not a single tantrum all day.  He knows she means it when she tells him off – when she says, sternly, ‘I’m going to count to three,’ he pleads, ‘Don’t count!  Don’t count!’  But it had got some way beyond counting, and she was feeling guilty because the last thing she wants is to frighten him into submission.  I don’t think that was what was going on, though.  It’s more that small children are super-aware of their mother’s moods, she of course being the centre and linchpin of their lives, and in a real emergency will respond accordingly.  They know which side their bread’s buttered.

In fact it took very little time to reduce the house to order.  I put a wash on and hung it up to dry, emptied the dishwasher so that it could be reloaded with today’s dirties, rinsed out a load of plastic recycling and binned it, emptied the prunings bag, and there we were:  a few small jobs, none of them very effortful but all of them requiring two hands.  Meanwhile a combination of ibuprofen horse-pills, codeine and paracetamol is returning the philosopher to an approximation of humanity.  And his mum has angelically promised to come and stay for the nursery-run days (an excuse to see more of the baby, Esther suspects – unlike me, who can’t wait for them to grow bigger and more interesting, the philosopher’s mum loves tiny babies.)  But what do people do who can’t afford help and don’t have grannies to help out in extremis? Survive to fight another day, I suppose.  But it must be hell. Esther not only has two functioning grannies but, generally speaking, a functioning husband as well.  How single parents cope, I can’t imagine.

Esther said that when she told I. granny was coming, he said:  ‘She can do some gardening!’

That’s me told, then.

May 15

Are babies human?

I feel increasingly caddish on my weekly visits to Esther.  Here am I, leading the life of Riley, all the pleasures of family life and none of the pain.  Esther’s job, on the other hand, is compulsory and fulltime.  If she needs to escape, whether to preserve her sanity or dip back into the world of work,  it’s up to her, as mother, to make the arrangements.  In that sense being a granny’s more like being a father, at liberty to dip in and, more importantly, out again, all fully sanctioned by society.  It’s true that it takes me two hours to get from ours to theirs, and another two hours back:  a ten-hour day, if you count in the round trip.  But as I leave Esther with I. newly post-meltdown and B. hovering on the line between sleeping and waking (i.e., howling), I still feel like a heel.  When Esther was a baby, people used often to tell me how much I’d miss her when she went to school.  Speed the day, I’d retort:  in my view, babies were the punishment we had to endure in order to arrive at children. My interlocutors looked horrified, though I can’t believe I’m the only person who ever thought this. (For the record, I was right, they were wrong.  She was a charming baby, but I did not for a single moment do anything other than rejoice when she went to school.)  Acquaintance with B., and memories of I. in his chrysalis stage, have done nothing to change my mind.  ‘It isn’t as though I’m doing this for short-term pleasure,’ Esther pointed out, as the relentlessly wakeful B. reattached herself to a nipple.  How true, I thought.  How very true.

Friends ask me how B. is, but frankly at this stage there isn’t much to say.  She’s progressed, just about, from being an internal organ, but is still little more than a growing machine.  However, human characteristics are faintly visible on the horizon.  She is beginning to focus:  when I held her, she looked, intently and unmistakably, into my eyes.  And she can straighten her legs, which makes her look a little less like a baby monkey.  Next, smiles.  Oddly, although we all know her features bear absolutely no resemblance to what will eventually emerge, she does, from time to time, look unmistakably like the philosopher.  Esther thinks it’s a matter of expression:  they both look severe, even when that isn’t how they feel.  She pointed it out to the philosopher the other day.  There!  That’s how you look!  Now do you realise?  It’s very odd, because B. can’t really be said to have expressions.  Rather, she has modes:  asleep, visibly wondering where the next meal is, or scarlet and screaming, with the vibrating tongue detail that brings it all back.  Yet there’s definitely something …