If you’re here I’m going to take the huge mental leap that you like my writing (That or you followed a random Facebook ad because of a rather cute picture of my daughter and now you’re terribly confused as to who is writing all these long sentences… In which case: Welcome!).
But did you know that you can have some of that writing for your very own?!
I love writing, about anything. And, with a new-ish baby to work around I have recently set up as a freelance copywriter and web content creator.
“What is that?!” I hear you cry!
Well, for a small fee, I will write blogs for your website (as me, or as you, or as a fictional Great Aunt Margaret, depending on your target audience), or all the words on the “About Us” page you’ve been struggling with, or the email newsletter you committed to sending out to your contacts regularly and now dread when it comes around each month.
Wherever you (or someone you know) is having trouble putting your thoughts down to reach out to your audience, I can create engaging, relatable and interesting content to help you communicate more effectively.
I am just starting out, and I would be so grateful if you would put the word around, and suggest me to your friends when you’re all catching up before the start of the Zoom quizzes that will probably start being a thing again now (#ruleofsix).
If you have any questions then please get in touch via the facebook and instagram pages, via email: email@example.com , or in the comments.
Do you know how I can tell that I’m slowly inching out of the baby fog? For the last two days I’ve worn matching underwear for no reason other than I like wearing matching underwear!
Hmm…probably too much information for some of you…
Taking care of myself hasn’t been at the forefront of my mind these last few months. I’ve fit in my regular exercise, but I’ve mostly lived in nursing bras and activewear. My tube of mascara has never lasted this long before, and my hairdryer is thinking of packing up and finding another family to live with.
The first few months with a new baby lend themselves, naturally and rightly, to a more relaxed view of your own appearance. But this has been compounded by lockdown and the fact there hasn’t been anywhere to dress up to go to!
Now we are back on the school run, which would usually mean daily catch-ups with the lovely parents once we’d thrown our children through the school gate, and maybe moving on to impromptu coffees when we decided that we’d probably been hanging out in the car park for too long. But Covid has put pay to this, and we’re limited to a quick “How are you?” over the top of the car before heading home and leaving the site secure. I’ve turned up much more frequently in leggings and an un-brushed ponytail this week than I would usually.
But last weekend we were invited to a (socially-distanced) wedding and I realised that I was really going to have to put on makeup and do my hair.
There was actual panic…real people wearing real clothes and, at least half of them, real bras. Having to find a dress that I look half decent in that I can feed a baby all day in (a baby who now gets distracted by a bee sneezing and leans back to be nosy whilst leaving my boob exposed for all to see), and fits my “not quite looking 6 months pregnant anymore but definitely not back in all my nice clothes” size. Wearing heels…whilst carrying said baby.
In the end I had to slightly adapt my dress (which, with my amateur skills meant unpicking the neckline and fixing it together with a tiny (hopefully invisible) safety pin). And I practised walking in my wedges (although not on grass or gravel, so I ended up mostly looking like an oversized baby deer for most of the day). The one thing that hadn’t crossed my mind was how unused to me wearing earrings Erica would be…cue very painful stretched earlobes and at least a couple of hours only wearing one! We had a lovely time, and I don’t think I flashed too many people, but the run up brought home to me that I may be inching out of the fog, but I’ve still not made it to clear skies yet.
I read something on instagram the other day, as I was scrolling at 4am feeding Erica in the dark: “The fact that we describe having a shower as self-care shows just how little we value the basic needs of mothers.”
To be fair, getting up and having a shower each morning during the first few weeks did help me mark the difference between day and wake-filled night, and remember that I was still a somewhat-functioning human as well as owner of a late-night milk bar. But the pinnacle of self-care it is not.
I am not very good at putting my own needs first at the best of times. The usual societal pressure on girls to serve and nurture others was exacerbated by a childhood spent in a strict church environment which, while full of lovely people, spent a lot of time telling us to be self-sacrificing.
Motherhood does have to mean a little bit of moving yourself down in the pecking order. Just because you need 8 hours sleep a night, doesn’t mean you can ignore the baby that is hungry at 2am (who am I kidding: 12am, 2am, 4am…). Your needs do often have to take a temporary back seat. But I often think about the safety spiel that they give before your airplane takes off: make sure that you put your own oxygen mask on before you try to help others with theirs. Unless your needs are met, then it is more difficult (and sometimes impossible) to help those you are responsible for. This is why I’m a bit militant about my workout time. And why I try extra hard to factor having adult conversation into my day (even if that is often over Zoom at the moment).
I can be the mum who forgets to brush her teeth until lunchtime and snacks on cereal bars for a bit while Erica’s needs are urgent and frequent, but it’s not a long term healthy plan. Clawing back time for myself – to get out of the house for a walk, or to write something, or to sit in a bath with a large glass of red wine – is overdue. So that’s my challenge (made harder by the news that Covid rules are about to get stricter) for the next few months. My children are incredibly important to me, but I am incredibly important to me too, and I will be a better mother if I feel as if I’m getting some of “me” back.
If you’re visiting the blog then either you know me in real life, or you like how I write (or maybe both!).
Well, you might like how I talk too! I had a conversation with Youth Work mentor Jenni Osborn about my experiences and how parents can help their children of any age work through bereavement and loss. It’s on anchor here, but you can find it in all the usual places you get your podcast goodies.
I’d love for you to check it out, share it with your friends, and let me know what you think.
I’m episode 3. Jenni has previously talked to Hansa of Holding Space about supporting young people’s mental health, and Ali Campbell of The Resource about supporting our young people as they head back to school.
The lovely Ellie at @feelfituk has a podcast called #projectbodyconfident and she invited me on to talk about transgenerational patterns in health and fitness, how things in sport and nutrition have changed since my Gran and my Mum were younger. We had a really interesting chat, and now its all up online!
You can find the podcast on apple podcasts, and our episode is also on YouTube:
When I met Nick, making sure Ethan was comfortable with him was key. I got a lot of stick/raised eyebrows from some quarters when I admitted that Nick had met Ethan 3 weeks into our relationship. “Far too soon!”, “What if it doesn’t work out?” But there was a reason. Ethan was, and is the most important part of my life. And the most time-consuming (although Erica is now giving him a run for his money). As far as I was concerned, there was absolutely no point in investing time and babysitting credits in getting to know someone if they weren’t going to get on with my son, or if he wasn’t going to get on with them, or if they came out in a rash at the mere sight of a 4 year old Lightning McQueen obsessive. If this turned out to be the case and I’d already fallen for the guy then how emotionally stressful would that be? Frankly, I’d rather check first.
Ethan was fairly used to lots of people staying over in our house. That sounds terrible…let me try that again… Since Mark had died, our wonderful family and friends had rallied around us, and those that didn’t live nearby often came to hang out with us/check on us and stayed for dinner/overnight. A new or vaguely familiar grown up around the place didn’t phase Ethan, he was very sociable and confident around grownups. But still, I did want to do it sensibly. Once I was sure that I’d like him to stick around, Nick and I devised a plan. Nick helps out a friend with his rally car, and he was delivering it somewhere that week. Ethan pretty much thinking that Disney’s Cars was a documentary, we decided we’d meet at a local park (neutral space) where Ethan could play, and Nick could show him around the car (make a good first impression). Fabulous plan, we thought, how clever we are!
This was planned for the Wednesday, a few days after his 4th birthday. On the Tuesday Nick came over after Ethan had gone to sleep, and was planning to leave around 5am. He overslept, and at 6am we heard little (elephant) feet plodding up the stairs to the loft room. Nick dived beneath the covers and I jumped up to usher Ethan out of the room with an overly bright “Why don’t we go downstairs and have some breakfast?!”
…4 stairs down…
Excellent, free and clear!
…6 steps down…
“Why isn’t HE coming for breakfast?!”
I popped back upstairs to Nick. “Ok, so you’ve got options: you can either come downstairs and go straight out the front door, or you can come for breakfast?”
Instead of our nice, well-planned, neutral space, something to talk about meeting, the 2 of them met over cornflakes and a large mug of tea, on Tuesday morning. And they’ve been fast friends ever since.
Getting married for the 2nd time is always odd. There are things you can and can’t do, hurdles to leap, feelings to consider, endless tiny things that you wouldn’t think would be an issue but pop up during planning. There is also the constant danger of the phrase “Well, last time….” popping up far too often. When you’re a widow and not a divorcee there is an added layer of complications. Here are a few that we faced:
I was wary of implying by my new choices that any part of the 1st wedding had been inferior.
It had been a lovely day, that I will always cherish. Mark and I got married in a flint church in Worthing. I had just started my job as their youth worker and we thought this was a perfect way to introduce ourselves to the community. It was a very traditionally church, so we had the full-on robed choir (singing Bread of Heaven along with the plethora of Welsh voice in the congregation), the bells, the flowers tied to wooden pews, traditional vows and the wedding breakfast in the 13th century Bishop’s Palace down the road. Ushers in Prince Edward jackets and a 3 tiered- white wedding cake. All-in. There were the usual arguments about who made the guest list cut, whether there should be an open bar, the assumption by many that a sit-down wedding in a hotel was the only way it should be done. These things happen when you’re young and everyone feels as though they have a stake (sometimes because they do actual have a financial stake!). But we were proud of our music choices, of the food we sorted, and of the atmosphere we created.
The thing is, 10 years had passed, and I am a very different person than I was at 25. A lot has happened to that eternally optimistic fresh-faced youth worker who was ready to change the world holding hands with the equally ambitious, if slightly more realistic Welshman.
Fast forward to 2018. I am less concerned with tradition. I want relaxed and easy. I’m not prepared to stress about guest lists and who “should” be invited because we went to so-and-so’s wedding. I’m not interested in table plans – people can sit wherever they want, and move as frequently as they want! Micro-managing is not my thing. Nick and I wanted to create one of our favourite places – a festival! The 3 of us were happiest hanging out listening to music at Carfest each year and had the opportunity to create something we really wanted – away from usual wedding expectations. We wanted live music and kids running around with no shoes on eating ice lollies and street food and late night wine drinking around the firepit. And so that is what we planned. We found the lovely Hampsley Hollow – a camping site outside of Calne – and hired it for 5 days. And in it we built our festival. A marquee, a bandstand under which to say our own vows, haybale seating, a farmer’s market full of all our food, a gin wagon, an airstream caravan serving pulled pork, and later a wood fried pizza oven, a firepit, deck chairs and picnic blankets, bunting and bell tents, free-flowing wine, a freezer full of ice lollies and a cake made entirely of cheese…oh, and even fibreglass cows we borrowed from a local hotel!
Two very different days (with quite a few similar attendees), with very different vibes, and, you know, different husbands… But both equally full of love and joy.
As we sat in our holiday apartment, excited at our new adventure, and planning the wedding of the century, one thing was front of my mind (apart from how we could somehow get Mumford and Sons to come and play us down the aisle!) – how we were going to make sure Ethan felt included. I was hyper-aware that he shouldn’t feel like this was something Nick and I were doing alone, we were all getting married – making our little team official. This wasn’t about me moving on and starting a new family, leaving the old one behind. This was about Nick (and his family) joining ours.
Ethan was Nick’s best man – he (and his knitted Yoshi) carried the rings. He stood with Nick watching me walk down the aisle, and with us as we exchanged our vows, and he helped us come up with ideas to make the day as fun-filled as possible. As we were planning and discussing the day we would always call it “our” wedding and he would say the same thing when talking to other people (leading to some confusion at school!). When we were looking for suppliers, he was either with us, or mentioned copiously! We wanted to make sure that we had a photographer who knew how important it was for the 3 of us to all be considered and Annamarie did all that and more. We wanted a celebrant who could deal with things sensitively and include Ethan in the ceremony, and it was oh so helpful that our wonderful friend David was a registrar! He was perfect! Ethan got to help with the guest list, and he spent a lot of time at the site with us, so that he felt totally comfortable and could host his friends when they arrived.
We had a children’s area, with games and toys and a bouncy castle. The dance floor was colonised from early evening by all the children skidding along on their knees – just as all children should do at weddings! I was flicking through photos the other day and noticed pretty much everyone, parents or not, dancing with a small child at some point! For me weddings should always be about all the generations coming together in celebration. As far as I’m concerned it’s not a proper wedding until Granny has boogied with the nearest toddler! Ensuring Ethan felt included added an extra level of importance to this.
I still felt part of Mark’s family
I will always feel like an O’Brien, just as much as I feel like a Waters-Dewhurst (my, ever-so-brief maiden name!). I have 3 wonderful Welsh brothers, and 2 wonderful parents-in-law. As well as the loveliest extended Welsh family.
To be perfectly honest, the whole concept of marrying again was difficult and weird for me. A lot of wedding imagery and tradition involves leaving one family for another: The father giving away his daughter, the changing of names, the archaic meanings behind cake cutting and wedding rings. For me, moving away from Mark was never an option, even if I had wanted to, and neither was moving on from his family. I think that a lot of the Welsh contingent were reticent about their firstborn bringing home an English girl, but I like to think that they’ve gotten used to my weird ways, and the experiences that we’ve had have bound us tight together. Being back in a context that reminded me so much of Mark and the dreams and plans we never got to reach for made aspects of this day bittersweet. There was no point in ignoring it and hoping it would go away. We had to think of this milestone differently.
They have all been so welcoming of Nick and we both wanted them to join us in our celebration. For some of them it was too hard – and this was something I completely understand. It would have been too difficult for them to watch me walk down the aisle to marry someone else. I appreciated the love and good wishes they sent in their stead.
But I still look at the photo we have of the youngest generation of the O’Brien clan sat in our photo “booth” and smile so hard – it makes me so happy that they were there, sharing the joy with us. And looking back at how hard I have worked to build and keep our relationship with them it is one of my proudest moments.
The technical stuff
What to do about names….I remember my sister and I took Ethan on holiday about 6 months after Mark died. I’d heard horror stories of women travelling with their children but without their partner/husband and being interrogated by border officials. We were going to Turkey, a place with not the most feminist of reputations, and I was pretty anxious about it. I brought a copy of Marks death certificate with me and was actually asked to produce it as proof that I didn’t need my husband’s permission to travel with our child!
So after Nick proposed, in my typically ridiculous fashion, I started worrying about what I should do with surnames. I didn’t want to further complicate any travel plans by having a different name to my son. I didn’t feel as if I could ditch a name that represented such a huge and important part of my life. I didn’t really want to have a different name to Ethan, regardless of legal complications. It would have felt weird. But I also wanted to recognise the connection that Nick and I were making, to honour him in the process. And we were now beginning to think about another baby, so I didn’t want to have a different name to them either. My head did nearly explode.
Ethan’s answer was that Nick should change his name to O’Brien because it was 2 against 1!
In the end we decided on a compromise. As a recognition of both where we were coming from and where we were going, Ethan and I have legally changed our names to O’Brien-Day. I grew up with a double barrelled surname, so this feels in a weird way like going home. Nick and Erica are both Day (although if they wanted to join us in being more interesting then they’d be very welcome!).
In the end, the freedom we had in being able to create our own ceremony and celebration meant we could tailor it exactly to our needs. We got “legally” married (again with our friend David as the celebrant) two days previously, ticking all the boxes. But as far as we are concerned, the real celebration and the real joining of our families was on the 18th August 2018. Standing in front of all of our friends and family in a festival that we had created making our promises to each other was the important bit. As the 3 of us walked back down the aisle towards the prosecco and cookies (hand baked by my fabulous friend Susan) I really felt that we had honoured our special circumstances, in all their complicated glory.
We are about 4 weeks into this whole weaning thing now.
I am enjoying watching Erica explore new tastes and textures, and it’s a relief to be able to feed someone more of a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, compared to Ethan’s apple, broccoli, carrot, sweetcorn rotation.
I had forgotten the sheer relentlessness of food at this point. Preparing something interesting, varied and easy to pick up/gum to death, then picking up the things she throws on the floor over and over again, and then cleaning her up, and then washing the chair/mat/floor as needed. And by that point it may as well be time to breastfeed her and put her down for a nap. When you factor in also preparing food for an 8 year old and two adults at the moment I feel like my entire life takes place in the kitchen. It’s a good job I like my kitchen.
Ethan is finding it a bit tough – for a boy who will happily eat his own bogies, he is remarkably squeamish about watching his sister mangle a piece of watermelon…. Which is slightly baffling.
Nick is getting the hang of it all. He did forget a bib the other night. And in a dinner that began with watermelon and escalated to pasta and tomato sauce it wasn’t brilliant timing….
I’m having trouble with the waste.
I’ve done this Baby Led Weaning thing before – it worked really well with Ethan in terms of motor skills and a varied diet (although that just goes to show that pre-schoolers will be pre-schoolers – he’d eat avocadoes and green beans and peaches and cauliflower, anything, until he was about 3. Since then he’d happily be on a cheese and beans only diet.). It also suited my lack of patience for blending and pureeing and portioning food. Getting to the point of them eating what we eat as quickly as possible was the goal.
So I know what I’m doing, now that I’m in the swing of things and can remember how the first time went. I am fully on board with the twee “Food’s for fun until they’re 1” thing, the need to explore a gag reflex and steadily develop fine motor skills. I don’t mind the “oh gosh I seem to have pushed this piece of carrot a bit far back in my throat” noises, or the messy vests/leggings/hair as we move onto squishier fare. I don’t have a problem with spending time making her something only to have it rejected – I’ve had enough practice with the 8 year old: “WHAT is this green stuff in my rice, Mummy? I can’t eat it, it tastes spicy!” I’m not precious about my food with kids – adults however are a totally different matter. If you’ve come over for dinner and rejected my Pad Grapow chicken then I will be swearing under my breath as I make the coffee…FYI.
But I had forgotten how hard I find throwing it all away at the end of a meal. She’s obviously eating some of it – I’ve changed the nappies and…well, I’m not going to talk about watermelons anymore….. But at the end of each meal there is a sizable pile of mushed pear, squashed pancake, and pulverized raspberry pieces. Her gums may be effective, but they are only gums, and she’s still only really swallowing some of it by accident, I think!
I grew up food bank poor (before there were actually food banks but you get the idea). We were children whose packed lunches revealed a rainbow of supermarket reduced stickers, who hid trip letters at the bottoms of our bags so that our parents didn’t have to worry about not being able to afford them, who blackberry picked not because it was a lovely wholesome thing to do, but because scurvy wasn’t cool. I have been a poor student, eating pasta, frozen peas and grated cheese and scraping together the train fare to get back home for the weekend, and there were times after Mark died when I was seriously concerned how the next set of standing orders were going to be dealt with. Widows are not always rich, you know: there are bills to pay and funerals to fund and the running costs of a house which used to need two wages to consider while also putting off going back to full time work so you can be there for your children.
I like a full fridge and a full fruit bowl – that’s my thing (if the wine rack is populated, I’m also happy, but that’s not quite as compulsory!). I get nervous the day before the online shop arrives and we’re running low on most things. I am well aware that I am much more comfortable than I was in my childhood, but poverty does things to your brain that are not easy to shake off. The idea of throwing away a decent chunk of food (yes, even food that has been squished by baby fists) makes me very uncomfortable. Every time I go to the bin at the end of an Erica-feeding session I find myself thinking about another way of doing this that would result in less waste. It is the only reason I would be tempted to throw myself on the conveyor belt of baby puree. But having talked to friends, I’m pretty sure half of that ends up on the floor as well – it’s just harder to pick up afterwards.
Every bit of this new baby journey only serves to remind me that I am a mish mash of issues. Some are old, some are new, some are borrowed, don’t think I have any blue ones (I digress). Some of my issues I have spent a lot of time working on. This doesn’t mean they are gone, it just means that I can recognise them when they rear their head, acknowledge them, and decide not to let them influence my actions today. Some of them I have yet to delve into – because they are too hard, or because I am too busy – and these can blindside me. Perhaps once I’ve wandered out of the baby trenches again I will have time to do some more work on me. I suspect that some of them will never be addressed. After all – how boring would life be if we all got over our issues? This mish mash makes me who I am, for better or worse (which I think is probably why that sort of thing gets included in wedding vows). The most I can do is notice when they stop me doing things that are good for me and mine.
Erica is currently holding a green bean in one fist and an oatcake in the other, and she looks pretty happy with her life…
So I guess we need a compost bin. Or perhaps the chicken needs to start getting used to squashed watermelon and cheese sticks….
Those of you who follow me, as opposed to the blog, on Instagram (@peta.obrien in case you’re wondering!) will know that Tracy Anderson, who’s workout programme I have followed for years, lost the father of her 8-year old daughter to cancer recently. For obvious reasons this news sent me down a bit of an emotional rabbit hole, and I found myself flashing back to a lot of the trauma and difficulty surrounding Mark’s death and the effect it had on Ethan.
I am the sort of person who wants good and productive results to come out of everything bad that happens. If something shitty is going to happen to you, then you might as well learn some lessons from it and find some positive within all of the sadness. So I thought I would have a think about what helped me, and Ethan in the time around Mark’s illness and death. Some are practical, some are emotional, some are purely tied to our particular circumstances, and not all of them will/would have been helpful to everyone.
A lot of my ability to cope with supporting a pre-schooler in losing his father has come from my 15 years as a youth worker. I gained indispensable knowledge of child development and had the huge benefit of attending training in helping children and young people deal with bereavement as part of my job 2 years before Mark’s death. (something which I’ve always found remarkably lucky).
I’ve also added some things at the end that, in hindsight, I think I did wrong. But in the spirit of using my experience to help others, here they are. If you have any to add, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
Using age appropriate and clear vocabulary
One of the clearest lessons from the bereavement course I went on was on the importance of using the right terminology when discussing death. I heard countless stories of children being told that Mum, or Grandad, or the family dog, have “gone to sleep” or “gone away”, and growing up with huge anxieties surrounding going to bed themselves in case they never wake up, or another loved one going on holiday in case they never return. Children need clear and age appropriate vocabulary in order to talk about and try to understand what is happening. And they will only get it from us. However, as adults, we tend to shy away from using such bald words as “died” or phrases such as “never coming back”. Partly this is because we’re all scared to death (excuse me) of death, and don’t want to talk about it ourselves, but partly it’s because we think terms such as these as too adult for children to deal with. So we try to sugar-coat it. However, take it from me, no airy-fairy phrases are going to lighten the load of a child who has just heard that someone they love is dead. They will just be confused. I told Ethan that Mark had died the following morning. It was terrible. But I used phrases and words that I hoped would begin to give him a framework within which he could begin to understand what had happened. I used the word “cancer” and biological language where appropriate. And then, as he got older, we filled in the story.
There are many ways you can address this and it very much depends on the age of the child. But, in our case this is what I said:
“Daddy was very sick, and his body was very broken. The doctors tried really hard to fix him, but they couldn’t and so he died. He won’t ever be able to come back and see us. He loved us very much and he didn’t want to die, but his body was too broken and it couldn’t carry on working anymore.”
It helped that we had been open and clear (again in an age appropriate way) that Mark was sick from the point of diagnosis. Ethan had seen his Daddy deteriorate and been to visit him in hospital. So we had already set the foundation for his understanding and it all didn’t come out of the blue.
Having the patience to keep answering the same questions
Oh my word. The questions. I think about 10 times a day for the first 6 months I had to answer the question “Is Daddy coming back?” or “When is Daddy coming home?”. Over and over again. Other members of the family found this very upsetting, and I totally understand, I did too. But it didn’t mean that he had forgotten about the situation, he was just at an age where the concept of permanence didn’t make sense. It was heart-breaking to have to calmly repeat myself over and over again, frequently whilst crying, but it was so important for him to hear the same thing so that it made an impression in his mind, and so that he felt secure in what had happened.
We based much of our conversation on a fabulous book by Elke Barber “Is Daddy Coming Back in a Minute?” which she wrote to help her 3 year old son process his father’s sudden death. It(and it’s companion “What Happened to Daddy’s Body)” are the most wonderful fabulous books. My mum found them for us and Ethan liked me to read them to him constantly. In it she explains in clear language and friendly pictures, what happened and what this means. When Ethan started at nursery, and then school, and his childminders we bought copies for each setting so that he always had access to them, whenever he wanted to revisit the subject, and so that staff members were clear about the kind of language we were using, and had something to help them deal with a difficult topic. He still occasionally asks to read them now, I think they are a sort of comfort blanket for him.
Having a strong network of support
Understandably, Ethan began to become concerned about other members of the family, particularly me, and whether I was sticking around. Again, sugar-coating things for children just leads to problems later on, and I have never believed in lying to my son (over and above “no, there is no ice-cream in the freezer”!). So I didn’t want to tell him that I wasn’t ever going to die. Instead I talked about how long people usually live for, and how far away 100 (!) was for me. I explained that I probably wouldn’t die for a very long time, but then we took a giant piece of paper and wrote down all the people who loved Ethan on it. It was a very full sheet! I explained who would look after him if I died, and who would look after him if they died, etc. This might seem particularly morbid (And I’m not sure how my friend’s Ali and Bekka felt about me discussing their deaths!) but it helped him feel comforted that he would always be safe and looked after, and it reminded him (and me) of the wonderful and large network of support and love that we had around us at all times. We still have the piece of paper and we call it (the not so concise name of) “Ethan’s list of all the people who love him”. It will always make me smile.
Explaining to him what was going on when people showed hard emotions
People cry when someone they love has died. This seems obvious, but often we try and shield children from this inevitable and natural occurrence “in case we upset them”. They are already upset. But children thrive on certainty, and seeing a trusted adult hide in the corner or come out of the bathroom sniffing whilst saying “Nothing’s wrong, I’m fine” makes them feel insecure and frightened. If we don’t model how to deal with tough emotions for our children then they will never learn to do it themselves. There is nothing wrong with crying in front of your child. The important thing is to explain to them what is going on, why you are crying, and that it is perfectly natural to be sad. It’s also important to explain that you can be happy too. Even when you have gone through a bereavement, there are things which will make you laugh and smile (especially when you’re living with a small and very amusing boy!), and it’s important to convey to them that being happy doesn’t mean that you have forgotten your loved one, or that their death no longer makes you sad. All emotions are ok. Communication is the key.
Support at school
As I mentioned, when Ethan started nursery I spent a long time talking with the staff about the language we had used, and how we were dealing with Ethan’s emotions. I was very clear (possibly to the point of lecturing!) that we wanted them to use the same language. Generally this was dealt with very well, apart from the one member of staff during a holiday club who responded to Ethan’s “My Daddy is very poorly” (something he used to say more often than “My Daddy is dead”) with “Oh well, I’m sure he’ll get better soon”….I think this well-meaning sentiment set us back about 6 months.
In the end, as Ethan grew, and aspects of his anxiety began to cause us concern and effect his academic performance, we made the decision to move him to a smaller school with better pastoral facilities. Teachers are wonderful, but many schools are strapped for cash and time, and his state of mind was getting missed. He’s now in a fabulous place with teachers who notice when he’s having an anxious day, and have the time to work with his need for security and routine.
Talking about Mark
I’ve talked in previous blog posts about how we, as a family, incorporate Mark into our lives. We talk about him frequently, and there are pictures of him around the house. Ethan and I often spend time watching videos or looking at photos, and Mark’s family are wonderful at relating memories of him or pointing out to Ethan the ways they are similar. This is so important to me. Ethan is so lucky to have a second father figure in Nick. But I always want to make sure that he feels as close to Mark as possible, and can tie his physical features, skills and interests back to his father when appropriate. We also, however, are careful to remember, not fetishize. Mark was not a saint, and we don’t want a shrine. He was a human being. I don’t want to hold him up as some paragon of virtue that Ethan can never live up to. We are realistic about faults as well as merits. We don’t move on, we find a different way to weave our loved on into our lives and walk forward.
Taking his emotions and questions seriously
Small children are often ridiculous, but sometimes thoughtful. Ethan would occasionally talk about how he thought maybe Mark was in a cloud looking down on him, or how he was up in the stars. He would ask me detailed questions about how Mark had died, and sometimes he would say he was sad but didn’t really know why. Small people’s emotions aren’t small, and they should be taken seriously. At the same time, it was really helpful for me to know about “Puddle jumping”: Children don’t deal with emotions the same way that adults do – they are unlikely to stay in one emotion for very long, however deeply they feel them. There were occasions when Ethan would be very sad about Mark dying, crying even, and then he would wipe his eyes, ask me for a biscuit and run off laughing at something. I think that some of the family found this difficult, as if he wasn’t really bothered by the whole situation. But this is just the way his brain worked at that age. It was important to me to remember that it didn’t mean he had forgotten, and that it was totally normal.
Finding a consistent babysitter
Carole was my lifeline. She meant that I could go back to work (running my youth project meant 2 evening sessions a week) knowing that Ethan was safe and secure with someone who cared about him, rather than cobbling together a rota of loving friends and some family. This also meant that I wasn’t “using up tokens/favours” for work related babysitting and so could still ask them to cover for me to do other things. It It might seem self-indulgent or incomprehensible when you’ve lost a partner to want to leave your child for a few hours, it did to me at first. But it was key for me to feel as if I had a life outside of caring for him, even if it was just going to a church hall and caring for some teenagers! It was also really nice to come home after a few hours at work, and have an adult to talk to! Carole was privy to many a debrief and probably couldn’t wait to get back to her own, quiet home after a while. She also took on Ethan-sitting duties (he started to object to me calling it being “babysat”!) when I dipped my toe back into dating. So crucial was she to the beginnings of my relationship with Nick that she even came along to the wedding!
Getting in touch with the experts
I was desperate when I contacted Daisy’s Dream. A few week’s previously I’d phoned the Health Visiting team in a panic, hoping that they would be able to help me with Ethan’s sleep – to work out what I was (without any sense of perspective) doing wrong. But after a 2 hour run of, increasingly intrusive, questions, she told me I had done all the right things and she really couldn’t think of any other advice to give me – it was probably a phase and he’d grow out of it. I cried tears of frustration and exhaustion when she left.
I called the Reading-based charity Daisy’s Dream as a last resort. They sent a wonderful lady out to see us. She watched Ethan play and talked to us both. Calmly and authoritatively, she told me that he wasn’t traumatised, that he was obviously a very well-adjusted child, and that I had done really well. To be honest, this was such a weight off my shoulders. I thought I was doing the right things, but to have someone experienced tell you this was invaluable. But then she helped me devise a plan that would be kind to Ethan and I, but also result in both of us getting a lot more sleep. There aren’t as many groups devoted to helping bereaved children as there are adults, but the help is out there. Winston’s Wish are another great, child-specific, resource.
Ok, now a few of the things (amongst countless others) that I should have done, but didn’t.
Let him in my bed
I spent a HUGE amount of time panicking about making a rod for my own back with regard to sleep. Ethan was never a good sleeper, but it got steadily worse after Mark died, somewhat unsurprisingly. He obviously felt some kind of insecurity and anxiety surrounding being alone in his bedroom. It got to the point where it was taking 2 hours of screaming to get him to go to bed, and then he would wake up every 45 minutes. I was a broken woman, and I’m pretty sure there were mornings when I wasn’t safe to drive to work I was so tired. I had decided to “stand firm” and not just let him come into bed with me when he woke up. Partly this was because he is, and always has been, a wriggle monster, and this would mean a not-very-restful night for me, partly because I still wanted to carve out a sliver of adult space in my life, and partly because I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to be alone forever, and, to be honest, that would be a difficult sell to whoever did come along. In hindsight, I should have been kinder to myself, and to him, and not panicked so much about it being a habit he would never break. After speaking to the wonderful woman from Daisy’s Dream, I felt more confident about it being a stage. We also decided that sometimes life is about survival, and I couldn’t survive with the current situation. Having him in my bed from 2am so I got enough sleep to function wasn’t the end of the world. And we were right – granted, he didn’t sleep through the night consistently until he was about 5, but he didn’t spend all of the intervening years in with me.
Stuck it out with counselling
The staff at the hospice where Mark spent his last few days were beyond lovely. They helped with arrangements and belongings, and they set me up with a counsellor once all the initial madness had settled down. There were 2 problems, however. One was timing. Looking back, it was far too early for me to even think about processing any of the shit that was going through my head, or the trauma I had faced. I was still having flashbacks to Marks final days, I was sleep-deprived as previously mentioned, and there were still so many practical things to deal with that I had no head space.
The second problem was me. I need to feel productive in every setting. I’ve always been rubbish at relaxing, and I needed to feel like this hour away from my son (something that was hard won, tough to organise, and didn’t happen very often) was a productive use of my time. This meant we had to actually talk about things and come to conclusions. Whereas, at that moment, what usually happened was I cried for a while, got cross about crying, and then tried to stop myself crying. Rationally, I know that this was a perfectly ok way to use the time and space, but I felt like I as wasting her time and mine, and that of whoever was looking after Ethan that week. In addition, I had, by this point, spent 10 years as a youth worker, specialising in mentoring young people through issues in their own lives. I wasn’t a trained counsellor, but I knew a LOT of the strategies and techniques needed to help people work through their emotions. The counsellor was a lovely woman, but she did a lot of reflecting back to me what I was saying or the stock “so how did you feel about that?” It sounds really egotistical, but I wanted someone to help me who knew more than I did. And it didn’t feel like the case here. A few years later, after realising that I really hadn’t dealt with a lot of the issues resulting from Mark’s death, I did find a wonderful counsellor, who did know a LOT more than me, and did have the confidence to call me on my bullsh*t. It was a revelation. And I dearly wish that I had come back to the process earlier, either by finding a different counsellor who was a better fit, or by waiting a few months and trying again. Either option would have resulted in much less heartache.
I think that is perhaps my greatest takeaway from all this: Finding help is important, but making sure it is the right help for you is invaluable. Just like boyfriends, you don’t have to settle for the first counsellor who comes along!
You will always do something wrong. There is no way of getting through being a parent without messing up your child in some way. This is the case even if both parents stay alive and together through the whole 20-odd years of their children’s lives. You can’t predict and mitigate every possible issue. And when a parent dies, the parent left behind has even more to deal with alongside having even less capacity. There will always be something you miss – and that’s ok. Love your child, love yourself, and know that everyone who cares about you is rooting for you. Including me. x
We planted loads of veg at the beginning of lockdown. We plant some every year, but we were very excited about our new raised bed and more space. We planted aubergine seeds and tomato seeds and carrot seeds and cauliflower seeds, and we tended to them so they would grow into tasty vegetables that we could eat. As they grew big enough we repotted them outside and watered and weeded conscientiously, excited for our crop.
However, while the carrots and cauliflower made it to our table, the aubergine seedlings I transferred into this pot were not, it turns out, aubergine seedlings. They were weeds. I had been watering and weeding weeds for 3 months
It got me thinking about the things in the everyday that we spend out lives and time on. I tend many things: my children’s growth, the memory of Mark, relationships with family and friends, my marriage, my health. But I also tend my score on Candy Crush, my knowledge of useless celebrity trivia, the wine rack in my kitchen… And I don’t tend to some things as much as I should: the pile of books waiting for me to read them to expand my mind or improve my parenting, the connections with those I haven’t seen in a while…
What we tend to, thrives. And perhaps I need to be careful where I spend my time and efforts on a daily basis. Where I do my weeding and watering. Otherwise I’ll end up with no vegetables, just big tall, thriving, unhelpful weeds….