Cuddling and carrying

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Recently I have found myself talking about good things that have resulted from Sam’s birth and life. It’s now less eight weeks until the birth of a new baby so a good time to focus on the positive.

One of these conversations was about carrying Sam. Sam is almost 18kg which is very light for an almost-six year old but quite heavy for someone who can’t support any of their own bodyweight. He has various pieces of equipment to sit or stand in but every day there are dozens of transfers to be done: from bed to changing table, downstairs to specialist chair, out of chair to changing table, back in to chair, in to wheelchair, out of wheelchair, changing table, upstairs, in and out of standing frame, in and out of bath, etc etc. This is just the basics – if we spend the day doing things away from home there will probably be more lifting – so Sam can sit on top of the sculpture in the park like Eli, or to be lifted so he can see animals over the fence, or in order to sneak up on people in the woods.

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We are just on the cusp of getting a hoist to help us with some of these transfers. A hoist is a machine which attaches to a sling underneath Sam and lifts him up. We have known this is coming for a while and I find myself surprisingly philosophical. I strongly suspect Sam won’t mind – he loves swings and hammocks (and zipwires) so I don’t think he will mind repeated suspensions throughout the day. I know there is only so long we can ask others to lift him and we have a responsibility to provide an option that doesn’t endanger back muscles.

It’s the mediation of my relationship with my son through equipment that I resent. At the moment I often lift Sam like (for want of a better description) a baby, with one arm cradled under his neck and the other under his legs. He always looks up when I do this and I can look down at his beautiful little face, and he often has an expression of pure joy and comfort. Should anyone else infantilise Sam I will hate them forever (or close), but I am allowed. I have been carrying him this way for almost six years. One of the joys of early motherhood is the physicality of it – small boys who know your body better than you do and want their skin on yours. It is sad that these moments will be slowly replaced by the attachment of a sling to a hook, the pressing of some buttons and the whirr of a machine. I must find a way to keep the physical connection, for us to both remember the joy of him being on my lap.

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James does most of the outdoor carrying – he is the one helping him climb trees – but I do my fair share of the lifting, including carrying Sam up and down stairs at home. Earlier this year, before I was pregnant, we realised that if I was going to continue doing this I needed to be strong so in addition to running a bit I started seeing a personal trainer who focused on weights and strength. No-one should get the wrong idea about this – my default position is inactivity and I didn’t voluntarily run outside until I was 32. I am no gym bunny. My relationship with the trainer involves him encouraging and/or forcing me to stop being so pathetic while I deny eating a loaf of sourdough bread every week. I do not look like someone who spends a lot of time exercising (because I don’t).

But what began as a way to continue lifting Sam has been a revelation. Partly because it’s time spent doing something completely different to wiping small children, but mainly because I didn’t realise how empowering it would be to feel strong.

Then I got pregnant and as my bump has grown I have carried on lifting Sam and training at the gym. Nothing feels more satisfying than lifting (admittedly small) weights, surrounded by grunting men in vests, in the male-dominated section of the gym. Or continuing to be able to do all of the things I would normally do with Sam while 31 weeks pregnant. Sam is very accommodating of being literally pushed aside by a growing bump. I get a bit out of breath as we get to the top of the stairs when I’m carrying him, but I can do it and I will carry on for as long as I am able. There will inevitably be a month or so post-birth when I can’t lift him and even holding him might be tricky, so I’m making the most of it while I can. I am extremely appreciative of having this body, which is making its third baby and still able to carry its first.

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I have been going through a phase of obsession with the author Kate Atkinson and came to re-read a book of hers recently. I had forgotten how utterly unsuited the storyline is to me right now; I had to abandon it after a scene about a mother being murdered in front of her children precipitated some particularly heartfelt weeping. But just before that I read this passage:

‘ Their mother was wearing Joanna’s favourite dress, blue with a pattern of red strawberries. Their mother said it was old and next summer she would cut it up and make something for Joanna out of it if she liked. Joanna could see the muscles on her mother’s tanned legs moving as she pushed the buggy up the hill. She was strong. Their father said she was ‘fierce’. Joanna liked that word. Jessica was fierce too.’

Kate Atkinson, When Will There Be Good News?

I want to be strong. And when it comes to caring for my kids, I want to be fierce.

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Cuddling

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The other day my mum sent me a link to a blog by Alain de Botton about psychoanalyst John Bowlby and his work on attachment theory. “I’m not sending it for any particular reason by the way”, she added a little nervously – presumably just in case I thought she was accusing me of raising children with attachment disorders.

I know very little about psychoanalysis and so a lot of the detail is unfamiliar to me. Essentially I understand from the article that Bowlby looked at how our experience of early maternal care shapes the way we form relationships throughout our lives, suggesting that kindness does not smother and spoil children.

“Bowlby poignantly invokes loving care that a little boy needs: ‘all the cuddling and playing, the intimacies of suckling by which a child learns the comfort of his mother’s body, the rituals of washing and dressing by which through her pride and tenderness towards his little limbs he learns the values of his own…’ Such experiences teach a basic trust.”

The typical development of children is that they are wholly dependent when babies, in a tactile, floppy, defenceless way and then as they grow they get more physically and psychologically independent. They begin to sit in a highchair rather than your lap, they crawl and then run away from you, they talk to people without needing you to interpret. Much of this trajectory is stalled or disrupted for Sam; he is still dependent, he cannot move away.

This means we retain the lovely physical proximity of a child on your lap, of a small head nestled in your neck. We now know his body almost as well as he does and he knows exactly what we feel like.

In the 1950s Bowlby researched the trauma experienced by children who were separated from their parents during hospital stays, when visiting times were restricted and mothers not allowed to hold their sick children.

 “It took a long time for Bowlby’s ideas about the importance of the early bond between the mother and child to get broader recognition and support. But it did happen, eventually. There was no single dramatic revolutionary moment. Many thousands of people changed their minds in small ways: an idea that sounded stupid, came to seem mildly interesting… so that today a child facing a frightening operation is surrounded by love and kindness and her parents get to sleep in a bed beside her.”

I wasn’t able to hold Sam until he was four days old when he was still surrounded by wires and tubes. On day six we visited the hospital and were holding him for most of the day. A nurse said we should be careful we didn’t spoil him – if he got too used to cuddles he would want them all the time. I think that was an incredibly mean-spirited thing to have said to people in our position. I couldn’t imagine anything better than being able to cuddle my son all the time, and hated that we left him there overnight while we returned home. The saving grace was that we didn’t really know him yet and he was so ill that he needed nurses more than he needed parents.

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Recently we have spent two days in a different hospital while Sam has had general anaesthetics for tests. He knows exactly what’s going on and puts up with the whole thing with extraordinary patience. No-one loves being in hospital – that unique combination of lack of control, limited daylight and sitting around makes me feel more exhausted than after a run. But the bit of the day that is almost unbearable is the period of time when I know Sam is sedated and that he will wake up soon, but I can’t be certain they will come and get me immediately. So there may be a moment when he opens his eyes and he’s in an unfamiliar room, confused by the fading anaesthetic, surrounded by strangers. I don’t know if it’s a legacy of the early hospital stay or the fierce protectiveness of motherhood, but it makes me feel incredibly sad. Imagine if we weren’t there at all, if we weren’t allowed to be there.

Bowlby’s work suggests that children need parents to be consistent and loving, to meet their needs and make them feel safe. That, he argues, is how children develop into adults who can form healthy relationships.

Sam’s disability means he is dependent on many adults; he has more physical contact than an average four year old would have with people who aren’t his parents. More intimate tasks undertaken by people he hasn’t necessarily chosen. James and I can’t do all of the ‘mothering’ that Bowlby describes so we have to broaden the circle and hope that we can still produce a child who is secure in his attachment, who feels safe and has healthy relationships.

Sam needs a village, not just two parents, to tend to his washing and dressing, the feeding and cuddling. He and we are used to him being looked after by other people, some paid some not. We hope that by making sure these people are kind and competent he feels secure. He can tell whether he can trust people – whether they are holding him safely and will meet his needs.

We are looking into having someone stay at our house overnight to get up with Sam when he wakes. Almost five years of getting up most nights is a lot of missed sleep and I like the idea of someone else doing it. It is the next stage in a life that will only involve more paid carers, not fewer.

But of course, the reality is that someone else will be going in to Sam, into his bedroom at 3 in the morning, when he expects it to be me. We can interview suitable candidates and check their CVs but really you want someone who will cuddle correctly in the middle of the night and that’s tricky to test. We have to have high standards – there is nothing more important than a four year old boy feeling safe in his own bed. It is our responsibility, and it’s making us anxious.

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Top photo: Sam with my sister Maddy when he was 3 months old