Sunday, 28 February 2010

Having 'a couple of children' at 14 is not a good idea.

For me, 1990 was a year spent humming Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares to You and Maria McKee’s Show Me Heaven. It was a year of homework and daydreaming about an as yet hard to imagine adulthood. More significantly, it was the year that Nelson Mandela was released from prison and the year of poll-tax demonstrations. It was the year that Iraq invaded Kuwait and the year Margaret Thatcher resigned. It was also the year that I first fell in love. In 1990 I was fourteen and according to Hilary Mantel’s comments in the telegraph, ready to have a baby. Mantel insists: ‘I was perfectly capable of setting up and running a home when I was 14, and if, say, it had been ordered differently, I might have thought “Now is the time to have a couple of children and when I am 30 I will go back and I'll get my PhD.”’

After I’d finished laughing, I had the following thoughts. In order to begin a PhD aged 30, Mantel’s 14 year old self would need to complete GCSEs, A Levels, an undergraduate degree and a postgraduate degree. That’s 8 years of education to catch up on while simultaneously raising a child/children. Fortunately, when I started having my children aged 21, I already had GCSEs and A Levels, leaving me with just 4 years of education to catch up on before beginning the PhD: lucky me, I had a head start on Mantel’s 14 year old -easy peasy then - NOT (as 14 year olds like to say).

The first decade of motherhood rattled my brain into a wibbly jelly of tiredness, a sort of mummy miasma that made it difficult to read and even think at times: dividing myself into four (see left) was tricky at best. No author that I have come across portrays the stultifying effects of motherhood better than Helen Simpson. Perhaps Mantel might benefit from reading some of Simpson’s short fiction. Simpson’s collection of stories entitled ‘Hey Yeah Right Get a Life’ captures all the frustration and demands of motherhood in beautiful, observant prose. Simpson also captures the wonderful moments: 'he climbed into bed and curled into her…gazed into her eyes and heaved a happy sigh. They lay looking at each other, breathing in each other’s sleepy scent; his eyes were guileless, unguarded and intent, and he gave a little occasional beatific smile'.

Aside from the personal cost of early motherhood and the resultant juggling of aspirations and familial responsibilities, there is often a physical cost associated with early child bearing. USAID works to provide education and contraception to adolescents in the developing world. Research shows that: ‘Increasing the age at first birth for a woman will increase her chances of survival. Currently, pregnancy and childbirth complications are the leading cause of death for women 15 to 19 years old in developing countries. Children born to mothers in their twenties are fifty percent lower risk of dying by their first birthday than children born to teenaged mothers. Young mothers are not often physically mature enough to deliver a baby, leaving her and her child at risk for death or disabilities from obstructed labor, fistula, premature birth, or low birthweight.’

In addition to these dangers, teenage mothers are more likely to face a life of poverty than older mothers. In a BBC news article, Hilary Pannack of the sex education charity Straight Talking said that, ‘Teenage parents statistically are much more likely to become parents of children who themselves become teenage parents. That means generations of child poverty, which we need desperately to tackle.’

1990 was the year I selected my GCSE options, it was the year that hurricane force winds killed 39 people in England and Wales and fortunately, it was not the year that I gave birth to my first child – in 1990 I was too busy being a child, which is how I believe it should be.

(Here is a short story by Helen Simpson.)

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Hurrah for Tomboys!

Sometimes life isn’t funny the first time around, that’s why it helps to write about it. In the story that I was working on last week I wrote about a little girl who wore swimming trunks to a swimming lesson and then wished that she hadn’t. The swimming trunk part of the story was actually true. Alice did wear a pair of her brother’s trunks to a swimming lesson.

With three older brothers it is probably not surprising that Alice has turned into something of a tomboy. She steadfastly refuses to wear skirts or dresses and given half a chance she would have her hair cut like a boy – if it wasn’t so wispy and fine I might just let her. It seems that she is part of a dying breed. Stephanie Theobald pays tribute to tomboys in her piece in the Guardian, ‘Hurrah for Tomboys!’ Theobald laments the fact that ‘Nickelodeon recently redesigned the Dora doll to make her more "feminine" (read "profitable"). Instead of being equipped with tools, map and backpack, her new accessories include halter-tops, tiaras and glittery hairbrushes.’ This article discusses the trend towards accessories and clothes like those now worn by Dora and takes a look at the clothes that famous little girls are wearing. It made me feel pretty good about the tracksuits, jeans, t-shirts and hoodies that Alice chooses to spend her weekends and holidays wearing.

Once she was standing on the poolside, Alice changed her mind about wearing her brother’s trunks. As a parent I hate situations in which I can’t make things better. We had to settle for an experience that probably comes under the ‘learning a lesson’ category: it’s okay to wear your brother’s trunks at the beach where you don’t know anyone, but in the pool with all the other girls wearing their pink frilly stuff you might feel a bit daft was probably the lesson learned. And yet if she wants to wear the blasted trunks again I’ll let her. I'll just remember to pack her (blue, frill-less) costume as well.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Connected by cake

I made two birthday cakes this week. As I made them I wondered about the tradition of birthday cakes. It’s thought that the history of birthday cakes can be traced back to the ancient Greeks who took round or moon shaped honey cakes and bread to the temple of Artemis. Artemis was the goddess of the moon. Candles were placed on the cakes to make them glow like the moon. I thought about this as we turned off the lights and waited for the candles to be blown out; it was pleasant to think that there was a connection between us and the humans of a couple of thousand years ago .

I am aware of wanting to make these sorts of connections for my children. I tell them about things I used to enjoy, things their grandparents used to enjoy and I hope that they will enjoy them too. Invariably though, they aren’t especially interested. Alice had a party today. I had a large bag of prizes and a long list of games to play. Within five minutes of arriving the children were playing Let’s Dance on the wii and nobody wanted to pin a tail on a donkey or sleep like a lion (quietly, apparently). When it was time for the children to go home the prize bag was still full and I wondered if they had really enjoyed themselves. Then I remembered my Dad telling me the story of how he used to buy a bag of sweets with his pocket money and make it last all week. He probably told me the story one day as I was scoffing a whole bag of sweets at once. His story was like a pill, remonstration coated in reminiscence. I found myself doing the same thing this afternoon: when I was your age we used to play games at parties...

The search for connections is likely a symptom of my age; an effort to make the children’s relatives three-dimensional, to give them a back-story, to search for common ground that links us together. It’s quite likely that at some time in the future one of my children, as a grown up, will stand at a birthday party and announce that when grandma was younger she used to play a game where everyone had to sleep like lions. And the observation may well be perceived as remonstration disguised as reminiscence. But when the lights are switched off and small faces are lit like lanterns in the glow of the candles, the children will echo the humans of thousands of years ago in an unintended connection that seems unlikely to ever be broken.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Who do you think you are?

Yesterday was my daughter’s 6th birthday. Without being too sentimental about it, I think that my daughter is fabulous. I alternately feel overjoyed and overwhelmed by her fabulousness (I think I may have made that word up, but it’s been a long week, so I don’t care). I always imagined myself with daughters. Sometimes I imagine things because I want them to happen but other times I imagine things as a way of warding them off, as a form of vaccination. My imaginings about daughters have been largely hopeful: after my daughter Libby’s death I thought I would never get to see a daughter grow up.

Libby’s life exhausted my imagination for some time. There was a moment following her birth when I revelled in my good fortune. I can still see the view out of the hospital window, the back of the midwife as she wrote Elizabeth on the hospital tags – a name Libby was supposed to grow into. Until recently, if it was possible, I would have chosen to press pause at that moment, that I’m the luckiest person in the world moment and keep everything as it was right then, before the day was split by sirens, before unfamiliar imaginings crept around new words: brain damage, cataracts, lumbar puncture, ventilation, transfusion, critical...

All of my recent writing seems to be about mothers and daughters, I don’t know why, it’s just coming out that way. After Alice was born I was determined to snatch my second chance and make something wonderful of it. When I write about mothers and daughters I often use the writing as a way of discarding my pessimistic imaginings. Three recent stories contain alternate versions of my real life experience with daughters and I’m itching to write more.

This week I read Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are? Munro’s exploration of mother/daughter relationships is wonderful. I took the book with me on the morning of Alice's birthday when my Gran asked me to drive her to the doctor’s. I took it with me as I drove her straight to the hospital after the doctor had listened to her heart. I clutched the book on my lap all morning and afternoon as I watched her shrink into the hospital bed. I read it as I waited outside the x-ray room. I folded the corner of a page over as I told the hospital porter of course she is fine on her feet, you should see her on a bike, but even I doubted the truth of my words as my imagination crept around her silence and smallness. Her, I don’t want to die yet was met with assurances that I was unqualified to give, but gave anyway, sliding into mother mode.

We spent the evening at the hospital, Alice blew out her candles at home then off we went, armed with knitting magazines, chocolate éclairs and jelly babies. After visiting time was over, I dashed off to university to catch the end of a reading by visiting author Nicholas Royle. When I arrived, he was describing a story that his mother told him about women searching for amber on the beach. I thought about the stories my mother told me and the stories I tell in turn. I took my Gran home from the hospital this afternoon; that she didn’t tell any stories is a mark of how tired she was. When I said goodnight to Alice last night I told her the story of when she was born, it is one of her favourites: it is one of my favourites.

The urge to press pause at a perfect moment in life has passed, the present is too absorbing to countenance it. Before I went to bed I finished Who Do You Think You Are? In typical Munro fashion, the ending of the book takes the reader back to Rose’s childhood before catapulting her into the future. This technique allows the reader to see that Rose is many things – daughter, mother, lover, sister, child – all at once: she is an accumulation of her experiences. Tomorrow I’m hoping to start work on a story about a violin and an aging relative: it will be a case of examining my accumulated experiences and employing the vaccinating kind of imagination: describing things that I hope never happen. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if there isn’t a hopeful interlude at some point involving the appearance of an utterly fabulous daughter.