A letter to…. My seventeen year old self by Tom Cox

A letter to…. My seventeen year old self by Tom Cox

TOTS.PNG

 

Tom aka the Unlikely Dad is 33 and a father to his son and husband to his husband. Blogging all about life, parenthood and everything that comes with having a family over at theunlikelydad.com.

 

 

Look at you!

You have no idea what the next 15 years will bring. You weren’t the biggest fan of school I know, but in the past year at college you’ve met some wonderful, like minded souls. And this sets you on your way to becoming who you were meant to be. You realise you’re okay.  And being gay is no big deal.  You’ve recently met someone called Daniel. You’re very young (and he’s 23, a little older but I know you secretly like that). This is the guy you’ll spend the rest of your life with.

You’ll move in with him. You’ll buy your first flat together at 19. It’s a filthy little pit but you make it a home (a very, very small one). It maybe damp and cold but it’s a first stepping stone. Even now, at 33 I wouldn’t tell you not to do it and enjoy it for everything it is.  You’ll have some ups and downs. You’ll get jobs and lose jobs. You’ll see beautiful places together. You’ll be poor. Then you’ll feel flush. You’ll learn so much. All in good time.

You guys get married when you’re 26. It’s a lovely big affair. Without a doubt the best day of your life. I remember everything about it still seven years later.  A year or so after your wedding something changes. It’s subtle. But you feel grown up. Your circle has gotten smaller…but it’s now the perfect size and there is room for all your friends and family in your heart. These are the friends you’ll keep forever.  You’re an uncle to your niece and nephews and this is a new kind of love you haven’t experienced before and you absolutely love it.  When you’re 30 you’ll want your own baby.  You would NEVER have thought about this at 26 let alone 17. But something changes.  The time is right.  You’ll have your home which you take so much pride in (who’d have guessed considering right now at 17 you’ve never washed your clothes or cleaned the bathroom!), you have your family, your friends, a great community. You feel ready to be a dad.

You and Daniel decide to go on a journey. One that will change your life in more ways than anything else ever has, or ever will. The journey of adoption is a big one. There is no real preparing you for it. You meet with your social work for the first time in June 2014 and she is fantastic. She just gets you both so you have nothing to worry about there. You can often hear how invasive and gruelling the adoption process can be. But be an open book. You have no skeletons. Nothing to be afraid of.

BOURNEMOUTH

You’ll go into this so willing to learn and create your family. Yes, at times, it’s not easy. The meetings and training are brilliant. They offer you such an insight into the children that are in care. The social worker meetings feel like free therapy where you just get to talk about yourself, friends and family, your life, upbringing… but it’s the waiting.  That’s the part that you find tough. It will feel like you sail through the key stages, getting yourselves approved as adopters. You’ve done it. All that hard work is compete. The meetings, assessments, medicals… tick! But then what? Oh, you have to find (be matched with) your child. And this is the insane bit.

From meeting other adopters you’ll be told “you’ll just know”.  But you’ll find that hard to believe. How can you love a child you don’t even know?  One that hasn’t come from you. But oh my… you will.  You’ll be approved as prospective adopters in October 2014 and on December 10th that same year you were sent a profile of a little boy.  You will know from the moment you see his little face that he will become your son. You’ll both laugh adoringly at how much he looks like Daniel.

But the waiting? Yeah… this is when you’ll need to be patient.  You’ll register your interest. But don’t hear anything for weeks. All over Christmas. New Year. Nothing. Were another family also interested in this child?  It’s torture. Not being able to say anything to anyone for fear of getting hopes up. But you’ll decide not to hang around. If this boy is to come home to you forever, you’ll need to make room for him. So you do. Buying nursery furniture in all the sales. Toys. You nest.

TENTIn late January (yes, really!) the child’s social worker agrees to come and visit you.  This is your moment.  The lady representing this beautiful little human, your son, is going to be in your house. We’ve never been more welcoming and of course Tommy’s Famous Brownies™ had to be made.

Together you’ll nail it. You are told at the end of that session that the social worker would like to proceed with the match. Your heart expands suddenly. Is this really happening? She leaves… you both look at one another as well as your social worker. Tears. Hugs. Laughter. Can we tell people? Should we?

It won’t be until April that you get to meet him. You’ll have to go through another panel, this time to be approved for the match. And it will be a unanimous ‘yes’. You’ll be told “you claimed him as your own for the start” and it’s right. He was mine. He was ours. We  knew.

DADDING ITThat day before walking into the foster carer’s house, where he’d been since birth will be with me forever. Knowing that when I knock on that door, nothing will ever be the same again. I will see my son’s face. Hold him and kiss him and be his dad. For the rest of our lives.

And just like that, it’s all change in your world. You’ll no longer worry about some of the things you did before: having the latest phone, buying into the latest trends. You have everything you’ll ever need. You’ll appreciate things you never noticed before. You’ll see autumn. Properly, I mean. Taking in the leaves changing then falling to the floor as your son runs about the leaves kicking them. You’ll see the magic through a child’s eyes that we so easily lose as adults. Encourage this behaviour every day.  You’ll be tired all the time. But you won’t care. The family has grown and shows so much love for your little boy.  He was meant to be here.

At 33 you’ll feel so content. Enjoy it. Every single second. In another 15 years who knows where you’ll be and what our 48 year old self will be telling us at 33…

KAI FOUR

Right Now I’m…

Reading: The Little Book of Hygge. I have been reading it for almost a year, am sure I’ll finish it at some point.
Listening To: Troye Sivan, currently obsessed.
Watching: Ru Pauls Drag Race of course!!

 

Advertisements

In Her Words… My Abortion

linksoflondon2Harriet Shearsmith is the creator behind Toby&Roo, an award-winning parenting and lifestyle blog aimed at sharing the wins and woes of parenthood. Living in the North Yorkshire countryside with her husband (@tobyandroodad) and three feral children (four if you count Yoda the dog who even has his own Instagram account) she is a self confessed coffee addict, nerf gun ninja and all out bad ass when it comes to hide and seek. You can find Harriet on her blog here and her Instagram here.

As an advocate for women’s rights and someone who claims to be stoically pro choice, I always wrote about abortion from the other side of the table, the lucky side, the side that hadn’t had first hand experience. That is, until I wasn’t writing about it as an outsider, but as one of the club, one of the women who had made the difficult decision to have a termination for all the reasons that made sense but didn’t necessarily help make it any easier.

I didn’t have an abortion recently either, this is a throwback to dark times three years ago and yet I still haven’t been able to talk about my experience first hand. For three years I’ve defended the right to have a termination – for whatever reason – but never actually felt like I could declare I had been through it myself. Friends who have confided in me, like they are admitting something shameful and harmful have been met with my kindness but never an admission, even though I could give one. I couldn’t find the words to say that I had been there. I couldn’t do it through a fear of being judged and because everything was so raw for so long. Termination is so shrouded in guilt and shame that even when we so firmly believe that it is a woman’s right not to have to continue with a pregnancy, not to become an incubator without thought or feeling, we struggle to make peace with it ourselves.  That is society’s fault, it is the fault of lawmakers and religious nuts who hide behind politics and religion to control. That is not on us.

This is my story of abortion.

The pill and the coil had had really negative impacts on my health in the past and I was still breastfeeding so I was incredibly limited as to what contraception I could take, so Adam and I decided to use family planning. It had worked for us in the past, only falling pregnant when we weren’t really trying to prevent and were happy to go with the flow. This time however, we had a pregnancy scare and I was mortified. We both were. Edith was 8 months old, we had 3 children 4 and under and there was no way, not a chance, that we were ready to welcome another life. Not for my mental or physical health with a tenuous section scar or Adam’s. No.

So onto the pill I went. Turns out that pregnancy scare? We will never know if it was a scare or just missed because I was so early, but 6 weeks later, a completely normal period and 6 weeks of taking the progesterone only pill, I was pregnant. Shit. We made the decision that I would visit the doctor and take what is affectionately termed the ‘abortion pill’.  Nice.  At the time I was showing as only 2-4 weeks pregnant so in theory we had caught this early enough, despite the failed pill and there would be no heartbeat and the tablets would be the simplest and most effective way to end a pregnancy without too much trauma.  A scan would determine whether or not I could have these tablets – which I would later find out have varying levels of effectiveness from 20% to 80% depending on which ones you wanted to take, which is a testament to how very shit our system is in supporting the women that need this: ‘it ain’t very effective, love, but it’s your fault you’re pregnant so you should suffer through this first’ is the undeniable subtext here and no one will ever convince me otherwise.
linksoflondon
I wasn’t only 2-4 weeks, I was 6 weeks.  I sat, alone because Adam didn’t take time off work for the appointment – didn’t want to explain what was going on in order to ask for time off… after all, it wasn’t really his problem now was it? That is how it felt at the time – perhaps that wasn’t fair, distancing yourself is a good tool of self preservation, but at the time the toll it took on our relationship was huge. I took the tablets, first one and then after 6 hours another. I drove home alone, despite a warning on the tablets to have someone with you – there was no one, Adam went to football because he didn’t want to think about what I was doing, needed a bit of space. It’s one thing in our marriage that I don’t think I will ever forgive him for, but it’s a shining example of how men view abortion and why the laws in some countries are the way they are: it’s not my problem.  Even when they love you. It’s just not their problem. You are the one who is pregnant now, despite their involvement.

The tablets, which should have stopped the pregnancy and made me bleed so heavily that I felt sluggish and ill for days, failed. They failed. At 13 weeks and 2 days I went for a scan to ensure that the tablets had worked but they hadn’t, there was a foetus – a baby that had a heart beat and a 98% chance of having some kind of life limiting birth defect, that couldn’t possibly be discovered until 20 weeks, even with all the tests in the world. A combination of taking these tablets to end pregnancy and continuing with the progesterone only pill meant that the chances that this baby could survive and be born healthy were nill and if they did survive? The impact that would have on our family was not something that I was willing to place on my living children when the decision had been made weeks before, not something I intended to spend my life beating myself up over for choosing to end a pregnancy and it failing, so bringing a life I had damaged into the world.  No way.

I had to go through it all again, but this time an invasive operation that I had taken the tablets to avoid. The first time I thought I had grieved for what we both felt we couldn’t keep, but this time was different. Again, Adam didn’t get the time off work, he says he asked but I will be blunt, I never believed that he did and I don’t think that is unfair. It’s a self protective mechanism isn’t it? To distance yourself, to walk away. I try hard not to blame him for that, not to resent the fact that I felt so alone because, realistically, if he had been there I would have felt so alone anyway. You are alone in that decision. You don’t get that luxury of walking away from it or separating yourself when it’s in your body which is why the choice should always, unequivocally, be yours.

At this point the pregnancy was too far along to perform the D&C without a general aesthetic, so that is what happened, I remember such kindness and compassion from the staff – they didn’t judge, they were probably the only ones – as much as my mum said she didn’t, I always felt she did deep down and friends didn’t know.  I didn’t tell anyone until months after.  I remember waking up and I had been crying in my sleep, the nurse who handed me a glass was the same one who gave me the tablets in the previous clinic and she told me that they were ineffective but that they weren’t really allowed to tell women that. Great stuff.

I came home and Adam came back from work, he tried so so hard to be there, to make up for NOT being there when I really needed him but it was a bit little too late.  At 13 weeks, I didn’t really want to end that pregnancy at all.  That’s the truth. That’s what stings.  I did what was right at the time, I know that, it was right for my mental and physical health, right for my husband and right for my children, but it was not something I wanted to do.  It was something I thought I was preventing, something I took steps to prevent.
linksoflondon1
For weeks afterwards I would cry, sporadically. It damaged my relationship for a time and it damaged me in more ways than I care to admit.

Abortion is not the kind of thing that a woman (or most women) do flippantly.  The other 5 women in the room with me post D&C were all being collected by husbands or long term partners and every single one already had children but had made this decision for all the reasons that they felt were right. In fact, statistically, more than half of women who have abortions already have children and the majority of abortions carried out in the UK are on women in their thirties who have made a conscious and well-balanced decision.

Abortion clinics aren’t like you see on the TV, they are filled with women who are having this procedure for a number of reasons – they have no other options because the foetus isn’t viable, there is an issue with their health or mental health, they don’t have the house space for another child… so many reasons, but these were not teenagers who just couldn’t be arsed to get themselves on the pill – that is not the case.  For some, it’s just not the right time for a plethora of reasons and surely, surely that is better than birthing an unwanted child and placing it in a system that just doesn’t care.  I remember saying to a friend that I had been for a D&C and instantly her response was to assume that I’d had another miscarriage and it was something that I would be sad about, struggling with. It was, but for very different reasons, which only made me feel more alone and more ashamed.

I wanted to share my story, my personal experience for a few reasons – it’s cathartic to write about it is certainly one reason to write about it, but more than that, I wanted women who had been through the experience to know that they aren’t alone.

Statistically, one in three women will have a termination at some point in their lives but it is so rare that we talk about it.  They aren’t the only ones who have been there, who have found themselves in the position of not wanting to have a termination but feeling that there are no other options. Of choosing their living family, the ones that need them now over the potential life.  I wanted to share this because it’s an experience that so many women, far more than I ever would have expected, have been in these shoes but feel so very alone. The fear, the guilt and the self judgement are far worse than anything religious nuts or crazy pro-life activists can throw at you.

Talk about your experience and DON’T judge yourself.  You did what was right for your family, just like I did what was right for mine.
H x

body positivity

This article has been adapted from Harriet’s blog where she first posted it earlier this year.

Pass It on:
Please nominate up to three women that you’d like to see featured on The Muse

I love reading these three strong women’s posts on insta and beyond and the kindness that they truly practice and preach behind the scenes:

Hannah Flemming – @hibabyblog
Dommy Crick – @milk.mutha
Candice Braithwaite – @candicebraithwaite

A Letter To…. My son Oscar by Sarah Roberts

The Muse 2Sarah Roberts is a freelance writer and blogs at “Don’t Be Sorry” which she started to raise awareness about Down Syndrome after her eldest son was born with the condition.  As well as promoting positive awareness about DS, Sarah spends a great deal of her time talking to new parents online whose babies have recently been diagnosed too.  She gives talks to healthcare professionals about the impact that the language they use can have (because there really isn’t anything to be sorry about when delivering a diagnosis of Down Syndrome) and she’s also in the process of writing a book.  Sarah lives in Woking, Surrey with her husband Chris and their three children, Oscar, Alfie and Flo.


Dear Oscar

When I fell pregnant with you, I had all these hopes and aspirations about what it’d be like to be a Mummy. In my naivety, I thought it’d be a walk in the park if I’m honest.  I thought I’d know exactly what to do and I didn’t for a single second, ever expect to feel so completely out of my depth.

Five and a bit years ago you made your grand entrance into the world.  A distant fuzzy memory now but when I allow myself to think back to the “us” then, there’s flashbacks of alarms screeching, monitors beeping, a rushed Caesarean section under general anaesthetic, to waking up and meeting you for the first time.  There you were, completely unaware of the impact your arrival was about to have, cradled in your Daddy’s arms, peeping back at me through the bundles of towels you’d been wrapped in.

The Muse 4

Your Daddy told me everything was ok.  In fact he told me that everything was perfect. Except it wasn’t was it?  20 minutes after you were born we were told that you had Down Syndrome and right there and then, in the deathly silence of that hospital ward, it felt like my heart had been ripped out.

It took a while you see. For me to really love you. The real, all encompassing love I feel for you now. In those first few weeks and months I resented you. I hadn’t wanted different, I had wanted normal…. I’d always imagined I’d have the perfect baby.

The Muse 3

What would having you in our lives mean for your Daddy and I now?  Were we strong enough to be special needs parents?  Did we even want to be?  But here I am five and a bit years on and I wanted to write to say, I’m so, so sorry.  Sorry that I didn’t give you a chance back then.  I made an assumption about what our life would look like with you in it and how I saw you and my goodness I was so very, very wrong.

I didn’t see back then how with each milestone you achieved, albeit at a slightly slower pace to your peers, how much it would make my heart swell with pride each time.  I didn’t see back then how you would bring our family even closer together, for at the centre of that family, is you. I didn’t see back then, that for however many imperfections there are in your Daddy and I’s relationship, the one thing that we both stand united together on, is you.

The Muse 7

I also didn’t see back then the bond you’d have with your brother and sister.  That’s right, (for the benefit of others reading this), I went on to have your siblings Alfie and Flo.  They may be siblings by blood but they are your most adored and bestest of friends.  I didn’t see any of it.  The strong willed determined little boy you’d become; that you’d always make us laugh; the health related hurdles you’ve taken in your stride and overcome.  And that even though you’ve been a man of few words up until this point, you’ve always made yourself understood… there has been no stopping you.

The Muse 1

I had had an image in my mind of who Oscar would be… and the little man standing here today is more than I could have ever dreamed of.  You’ve taught me so much.  More than you’ll ever know.  And now that I’m a Mummy of two more children, of Alfie and Flo – the two “typically developing” children and the ones that are supposed to have been the perfect babies I’d always imagined having – I realise that all three of you have brought me different challenges as a Mum and I now know there is no such thing as perfect. You’re all so imperfectly perfect to me.

The Muse 5

And some days when I get you out of the bath Oscar and I wrap you in your towel, I look you in the eye and see the same baby I saw wrapped in his Daddy’s arms five and a bit years ago.  It always brings a lump to my throat, because I wish I could go back and reassure myself back then, that right now, here today, we’re doing just fine.

Love Mummy

Right Now I’m….
Watching – Call The Midwife
Reading – I never have the time to read but I have been meaning to read The Unmumsy Mum’s 1st book since it came out 3 years ago
Listening to – The Greatest Showman… Can’t get enough of the soundtrack

Pass it on:
Who would you most like to see featured on this blog?  Please suggest 3 people with their Instagram or Twitter handles.

My favourite Instagrammers:
@josephspectrum
@unlikelydad
@missyxmas_kickscount

Website – http://www.dontbesorry.net/wp/
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/dontbesorry2/
Instagram – @dontbesorry2
Twitter – @dontbesorry2

 

Charlie Was Here by Suzie Jay

Suzie Jay

For five years, Suzie Jay worked as a documentary event photographer before taking a break in 2016 to embark on her biggest job yet, Motherhood. She then went on to set up My Little Muse Photography, capturing the beautiful and subtle moments of family life.

In 2015, Suzie and her partner experienced the devastating loss of their son Charlie. This letter is written to Charlie, in support of Baby Loss Awareness week. 

 

Dear Charlie, 

Two years ago today I was getting ready to meet you for the first and last time. 21st October 2015, a date made famous by Marty Mcfly in Back to the Future. Growing up, I’d always wondered where I’d be on that day. I never could’ve imagined something so awful, that I’d be giving birth to a beautiful baby boy whose cry I’d never hear. 

Though you were born sleeping that day, you were still the most precious thing to us. We couldn’t wait to meet you, to hold you, even though we knew we’d have to give you back. The hospital agreed that you deserved the very best and everyone was so kind and compassionate. When you arrived, our wonderful midwife, Joanne, handed you to me for the first time. She looked me straight in the eye, smiled her big smile and told me you were beautiful. She never faltered for a second. My heart swelled with a mother’s pride. The most bittersweet moment of my life. 

That night in the hospital was a drug-fuelled haze of devastation. Surreal and desperately sad. We weren’t ready to say goodbye and thankfully we weren’t rushed. You lay in a cold cot by our sides while we tried to snatch moments of broken sleep. My dreams were cruel, wandering down a maze of hospital corridors looking for you and calling your name. Of course I couldn’t find you. Waking up to the banshee-like screams of other women in the labour ward felt like the cruelest reminder of what we had lost.

Charlie's feet printsDuring that terrible time, your Dad & I talked and talked. We cried and clung to each other. We planned your funeral. We became closer than ever. Eventually we laughed again. We reached out to anyone who’d listen. We experienced some of the most extraordinary kindnesses, all because of you my boy. We feel proud and privileged to have known you, if only for the briefest of times. You taught us to be open and honest with our feelings, that talking would save us. Through you we learned that life is as messy as it is beautiful, painful as it is incredible. 

And to my darling daughter, our rainbow after the storm, we are so eternally grateful for you. Every laugh, every cry, every sleepless night, every cuddle. There are no bad times. Just a rich melting pot of all the feels. And it’s glorious. Did you know that during a pregnancy, cells from a growing baby cross over into the mother? They become part of her. So even after that baby is born she carries them with her wherever she goes. I love that idea, that we’re always connected, even when one of us can’t be here. 

Love you forever my babies x 

October is pregnancy & infant loss awareness month and there are so many wonderful charities who do incredible work in supporting bereaved parents. Shortly after we lost Charlie, we set up a memorial page to raise money for ARC (Antenatal Results & Choices), a charity who gave us amazing support. If you’re able to make any contribution at all to Charlie’s page we’d be so grateful. All money raised will be donated to ARC. Thank you so much x

For Charlie’s memorial page please visit: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/charliewashere

A Letter To… My Daughter, Hattie by Katie Southgate

FB_IMG_1503300696241
Katie and Hattie.  Photo credit: Anna Southgate

Katie Southgate is the founder of Happy BobKat studios.  She designs and sells prints with life affirming messages for children which she launched this year.

Mother of two children Dexter (7) and Hattie (4), Katie has become what’s called an ‘Oncology Mum’ since the diagnosis of Hattie, then 1, with a rare blood cancer.  In 2014 Hattie became unwell with an ear infection, then a little more unwell with a chest infection, then sleepy and pale.  3 months before her second birthday, she was slowly filling up with Leukaemia. It took 2 full years of chemo treatment at Great Ormond Street to rid Hattie of the cancer.  Katie and her family live with the reality that it could come back at any day.

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness month and special limited edition prints will be available throughout September from http://www.happybobkatstudios.co.uk to raise money for Hattie’s Heroes, the charity that was set up in Hattie’s name during her treatment.

This is a letter to Hattie from her mum, to read when she is 18.

 

FB_IMG_1503300993480
Hattie during her treatment at GOSH.  Photo credit: Anna Southgate

 

A Letter To My Daughter, Hattie in 2031, aged 18

Dear Hattie,

I write with the pure hope that this letter reaches you at age 18, healthy and lively, but with the full knowledge that this could easily be taken away.  So I write every word with “hope” sandwiched in-between each letter.

You won’t know how brave you were. Or how damn hard you fought for your life. Or of the many little friends that passed away around you. What I can guarantee you will know though, is how loved you are. You seemed so small when they told me your body was filled with cancerous blood cells. Doctors told me it was in every organ in your body, yet at times in those early days of diagnosis, it was hard to believe, such as those days when you were screeching ‘DUCK’ at the top of your lungs for a plastic toy that was in fact a chicken!

Since that day, when I pressed Start on your first of thousands of doses of chemo, fear has filled me. I want to tell you something about fear. Living with an enormous level of fear can have two outcomes. It can cripple you, it can make you hide, run and bury your true self. Or, my darling daughter, it can enable you to become more you than you’ve ever felt. It can wash away grey areas and make things feel so clear. The answers become yes or no.  The tasks and trials you face are more easily and lovingly overcome. The sun can shine more brightly, because of the fear inside of you.

In times of true and painful fear I find it can be just a small sentence that can change the outcome of how you begin to cope.  I just hope I have equipped you with those words, those phrases.  I hope that when something big comes along, and at some point it will, you can stand in the face of whatever it might be and feel the power swell inside you.  Because my mighty little girl, you were born ready to fight. You are so fiercely tough.  All I hope for you is your health, because the rest I know you will excel at – regardless of what path you take, what decisions and roads you wind down as you grow up – you have a greatness in your tiny body that is entirely extraordinary.

I am proud to be your mother.

Lovingly, yours forever.
Mummy

IMG-20170811-WA0006
Hattie today.  Photo credit: Anna Southgate
Find the signs and symptoms for childhood cancers on http://www.bechildcanceraware.org if you know the signs a child will have a better chance of early diagnosis and potentially life saving information.

Limited edition prints will be available throughout September to raise money for Hattie’s Heroes.  The story behind these special prints is based on the quote “Even the tallest oak in the forest was once a little nut that stood its ground”.  This quote is perfect for Childhood Cancer patients, they really do have to stand tough against the odds.   Happy BobKat Studios has collected beautiful illustrations of acorns from incredible artists who have all exclusively donated their designs for Hattie’s Heroes.

For sale from 1st – 30th September.  Come and take a look: www.happybobkatstudios.co.uk 

1504039160969

 

Right now I’m listening to: Milo Greene

Pass it on:
Sarah Barlow: @wealdhandmade (mumma to two young kids and perfect bag designer/maker – Weald Hand Made)

Linda Tait: @lindahamrintait (mumma to four lovely kids and OtherLetters co-founder)

Mollie Bond: @bunched.flowers.rectorygrove (mumma to gorgeous toddler and owner of  Bunched, the most beautiful flower shop)

A Letter To… My 11 Year Old Self by Abbey Craig

 Image-1.png
Abbey is freshly 40 and preparing to move back to Scotland with Barry the husband and Stanley that cat (after 17 years in London) so that they can share happy times with family.  Abbey and her dad, Rikki, are writing and illustrating stories for children with life limiting illness, drawing on Abbey’s experience of having terminal breast cancer as well as her lifetime of working with children through drama.  Abbey hopes to create stories in which children can recognise themselves and their medicalised lives but through fantastical, magical tales that will give light to darker moments.

A Letter to my 11 year old self

Dear Concorde (me),
No one is going to remember that type of aeroplane by 2017. No one will have called you that for YEARS, you’re not going to be defined by your big nose. Or your buck teeth. Or your long face. Or your fat arse. Or your cellulite.
You won’t be defined by any of those things because I’m giving you this letter with this almighty tip, the best tip you’ll ever get…
Be kind to yourself.
Don’t be your own worst bully, don’t call names at yourself in the mirror. Please don’t start because you’ll never stop, not until you realise you’ve wasted so much time and now your time’s nearly out.
Right now, you’re 11, you’re at the top of your game, about to be school sport’s champion, fabulous story writer, muscular, a dancer, a keen learner, honest (ish), confident, chatty, popular and a ribby tangle of big teeth and jagged bones.
19250865_433463213677890_3212414426962408103_o
The school is going to allow a book company to come and sell books to the class and without having to get parental permission you’re going to sign yourself up for some Judy Blume books. That’s when it’s going to start in earnest, the total preoccupation with being sexualised and alluring.
Don’t buy the books, or the Sweet Valley High ones, don’t instigate the BBP CLUB (Boys, Bras and Periods).  Keep winning the races against the boys and giving them kiddy backs. You really don’t need to wear that bra you’ve been given by your older friend. Stop hoping the boys are going to notice it and don’t be thrilled when one of them does and gives it a ping.
Don’t see the other girls as competition. They are your sisters.
19452921_433464883677723_1297182478368666862_o.jpg       19441697_433465043677707_6315345604990186086_o.jpg
I’m not trying to deny your burgeoning adolescence, but please listen to me, don’t turn your back on that plucky pre-teen, she’s the better woman.
You are a better woman at 11 years old than I am at 40. Nearly 30 years of telling yourself that you’re not good enough takes its toll.
If becoming a woman is like emerging from a cocoon, you are the vibrant, bright green, juicy caterpillar and I emerged, a drag queen of a butterfly with antennae extensions and streaky tanned wings.  I suspected I was a fat moth but I wanted to be a pretty butterfly so badly!
If someone bullies you everyday saying the same things over and over again, you’ll start to believe them, without question.  So why didn’t I ever grow out of bullying myself? Why didn’t I stop judging myself as if I was a pubescent boy, obsessing over the biggest breasts and the prettiest face?
I feel such a fool for falling for the beauty myth that I told everyone else to be wary of!
Image.png-2
When I got married (yes, that happens, but he’s Barry, not Morten Harket), I had fake hair added to my own, I had eyelash extensions, a padded bra, a corseted dress.  Nothing natural was good enough. I wanted to look natural, but with the help of fake things.  I wanted to be able to dance with abandon but I didn’t want my ankles to look fat, so I got heels. I battered my skin with an onslaught of sunbeds to get a tan, I got acrylic nails. I dieted, I got thinner.
Then, just a few months later, I got cancer.
Overnight, everything I’ve spent my adulthood cultivating, went.
My hair, that I’d always thought was my good feature (although not good enough for my wedding day), all fell out.  Then ALL my hair, head to toe.
15318021_334615580229321_8912700709356147817_n.jpg
A childish, hairless landscape but with lumbering, adult curves and waves.
The eyebrows I’d thought were woeful and my long, thick eyelashes had enough of the insults and left too.
Without hair for coverage I noticed my vagina seemed to have acquired a ledge over the years.  My face puffed up and I looked pale, undefined and ugly.
My breast was taken away, the good one that had always been bigger than the other one, “Not so smug now Mrs Left” said Mrs Right. All my very expensive and hugely padded bras were made permanently redundant, push-up only works when there’s something to push.
Lots of scars from complications.  Radiotherapy tattoos, crispy, scorched skin.
Then keyhole surgery and my belly fell onto the mattress that night for the first time in my life and it’s never got back up.
An instant menopause and weird comfort eating has made things rub and chafe and I waddle.
But guess what? I don’t care.
I asked everyone to avoid putting photos of me getting married on social media because I suspected it would kill my happy memories of the day. When I got in from having my first head shave I put the photos on Facebook.
img_0937-e1502702211225.jpg        IMG_1052
I presumed no one would find me attractive anymore so I didn’t care about trying.
I decided I didn’t want to medicalise my body any further and I didn’t have reconstruction on my breast.
I took myself right out of the running and I gave myself freedom and honesty for the first time in a very long time.
For one whole year as my body recovered from the acute treatment I rejoiced in the feeling of being alive and unburdened of the black cloud of regret and bitterness at not being good enough.
I had to be brave and face the world feeling completely naked and plucked. You haven’t started to build all those layers of self consciousness yet, so don’t!
I am sad for what I’ve lost, the body that I couldn’t tolerate before but that I’d love and cherish now.  I miss flashing some cleavage, I miss squashing one breast up to the next.
I miss wearing necklines lower than my clavicle.
I miss being trussed up in ‘sexy’ underwear.
I miss my thick eyelashes that never grew back. I miss long hair.
I miss the body that was able to conceive.
I miss having no scars.
But I love being free from that need to be seen as attractive, sexy in particular.
20449141_452102295147315_7756171754105546812_o
Abbey and Barry
I was so proud of myself for getting to this point, I planned how far my new outlook could take me in life.
Then after a year of the new me, the new me that reminds me of you, I found out that I’m not going to get the opportunity to make this more than just a test drive. The cancer is back but this time it means business.
But it’s not a waste, it’s a realisation and awakening that I’m so glad happened.  I feel more fulfilled and open to happiness than I have done since I was you.
So please learn from my mistakes and be bold, like you are now.
Wear flat shiny shoes that can keep up with your strides into adulthood.
Let yourself off the hook, don’t sweat the small stuff.  Be well, be healthy, be happy and be free.
It’s the hardest thing to do, but tell yourself you’re brilliant as you are and you’re more than good enough and then make sure that’s true.  Live! Make me proud to be me.
If they call you Concorde then fly with it.
With all the love I have,
Me xxxxxxxx
P.S. I should tell you, because I forced myself not to care, I now smile and pose for photos and I laugh at the bad ones and keep the good ones. Everyone around me is thrilled I want to record our moments together with a photo.  I still see the things I didn’t like but I also see good things and I focus on those,  instead of beating myself up.  I’m no longer ashamed,  I actually like what I see, a happy photo is always a good photo.  A clever photo might be a pretty one but nothing can beat a happy one.


Abbey is currently writing books, which her dad is illustrating, for children with life limiting illnesses.  
Until recently she has also been running children’s drama workshops in London: http://www.stripeysocksdrama.co.uk

 

A Letter To… my mum by Jo Olney

 

mum68
Mum (right), 1968
It’s been one year since The Muse launched and almost everyone I have mentioned the blog to has given the same reply… “You’ve got to feature your mum! Mother to seven women, SEVEN!”.

So, Mum, here goes…

A Letter to my mum

Dear Mum,

There’s nothing quite like treading your own path as a mother to make you reflect on your own dear mum. As you lay your head on your pillow only to hear the baby start up again, as you breastfeed whilst enjoying the spoils of norovirus, as you wipe another bum, another tear, another yoghurt splattered floor and think, my mum did all this – and she did it in days before dishwashers, iPhones, Ella’s Kitchen, disposable nappies and wipes (and yes, I know many people manage fine without these things, but I am not one). So first off, let me say thank you. When I think of all I do for my babes and think of what you did for us, THANK YOU! Lord knows it’s a largely thankless experience, but let it be known that I am SO thankful – for the birthing, the feeding, the clean clothes, the nursing, the teaching, the encouragement, the love.

In so many ways you set the bar high; you made our school dresses, you won every mothers’ race on sports day, you read to us every night even though you nodded off mid-story, you returned to work after raising us all and caring for your mum and you can turn out a mean roast for 20 people at the drop of a hat.

Mama G
Mum with six of us, that’s me at the bottom.
But do you know one of the things I am most thankful for? It’s that you let us see you lose it, that you got cross, and told us to shut up when we were bickering and later apologised for it. That you got stressed driving us around when we were scrapping furiously in the back! Every day there are moments when I regret the way I handled something with the kids and I am so glad you kept it real. I know that it is fine not to love every minute, to lose it, and to believe that when things get bad, it’ll get good again.

I can’t talk about my thanks to you without mentioning the birth of my sweet firstborn. What a long old night that was. That shock of your first. You gave me the confidence to believe I could have my baby at home and you were the one by my side as the seemingly endless night became day, telling me I could do it, and I did. And as we went off to the hospital to check on our poor meconium ingested babe, who stayed home to restore order? You, dear mum. Leaving a clean tidy home to return to and a note I will always treasure thanking us for letting you share in that experience. From that day your greatest gift to me has been to trust my instinct and make my own way.

Mama G and me
Me and my mum
But I feel it is selfish to keep all the wisdom of Mama G to myself, so I have a few things I’d love to ask if you’re game:

Going back to work – back at my desk after my third maternity leave, trying to find my feet and my voice again, I am even more in awe that you returned to work after a 15 year break. Was that hard? Did you struggle to find the confidence? If you did, I never knew.

I always had in my mind the idea that, at some point, I would like to return to teaching in some capacity. I remember walking as a new first time mum past a noisy school playground and thinking that I missed that environment. I didn’t think then that it would be seven children and so many years later before I took that step back to work!

To build my confidence I initially worked as a teaching assistant, gradually building my experience by working in three different schools, with pupils with a range of needs. So it was a gradual process back to teacher status and finally to coordinating the special needs provision in one of the schools.

Then it was the juggling act with which so many women are familiar, trying to run a home, meet the needs of family (including my elderly mother) and go to work!

2017 vs 1977 – I feel like there’s a lot of pressure on my generation of parents, so many books to read, so many labels to give yourself and rods to make for your own back depending on whether you choose to sleep train, baby led wean, bottle feed or cloth bum, work or not work. I love Instagram, but as a parent you have a much wider circle of women to compare yourself to and we are not always the kindest on ourselves. Are we all overthinking it? Did people just get on and raise their kids back in the 70s?

I think your last comment is quite accurate and there was really no option but to ‘just get on and raise your kids’ back in the 70s’. You are also right that there is a lot of pressure on parents now for the reasons you give. It was such a different world then. When we brought our eldest home from hospital in 1972 there were no car seats. I sat in the back of our tiny Austin A35 with her on my lap!  We had no phone or television in the house. There were no disposable nappies and most babies started off wearing terry towelling nappies and soft cotton nighties, as babygros were only just starting to appear.

Hugh Jolly Book of Child CareThere were a few child care books to which people referred. Probably the most well known was ‘The Book of Child Care’ by Hugh Jolly. (So very dated now!) There were clinics that babies were taken to where there were health visitors, but I didn’t find them very helpful. Unlike you, I was not bombarded with a confusing array of ‘methods’ on how to raise your baby and decided very quickly that no one knew my baby like I did and rightly or wrongly, followed my instincts. I didn’t have use of a car at home in the day time, so just got together with friends in a similar situation, or visited my parents who lived nearby in the early years. There were no baby classes to attend.

I’m sure that there are good things about the vast array of baby activities that are available now and indeed the choice of equipment. You are right, however, that there is the danger of feeling inadequate if you don’t join in all these things, or can’t afford to. Similarly the range of baby equipment is overwhelming. I certainly did not have the pressure to be seen with the ‘right’ pram of an acceptable make.

When does it get easier? – With a 5 year old, 4 year old and 1 year old, I’ve never felt more in the thick of it. This stage of motherhood is so physically demanding and exhausting, but is this the hardest bit? How do different stages of motherhood compare? My fear is that it is harder when they leave home and you’re just left worrying about them.

A dear friend said to me in my early days as a mother that ‘every age has it’s compensations’ and I have found that to be true.

There are many advantages of having a large family one of them being that you learn that challenging phases actually pass very quickly. The demands of a new born or the challenges of a toddler are gone in a flash and that recognition can change the way you approach things. You can even learn to appreciate and enjoy these aspects of a child’s development!

I certainly remember having four children aged five and under as being the most demanding time! Getting a five year old to the school bus stop at the right time every morning with three others in tow was very challenging!

In some respects with young children, it does get easier when they are old enough to play cooperatively. When subsequent children arrived there was more choice of playmates, which may be easier than having two who can’t stand each other! I felt that falling out with others within the security of a family was a good preparation for the harsher elements awaiting at school and beyond.

I never did find the teenage years to be the ‘terrible teens’ (although the ‘A’ level years had their challenges!). Perhaps there was safety in numbers and I watched with pride as you all became the wonderful women that you are today. Does it get easier? No it does not! Being in control of things when you were little was probably the easiest bit. Then you have to let your adult children go with love. Once you are a mother you are a mother for life and their pain is your pain whatever their age.

The sisterhood
The sistehood
Your village – One thing I observe in our generation is that there’s a well-trodden path for a lot of parents on leave – NCT to make friends, playgroups, baby sensory, baby swimming, baby signing, baby yoga. How did you meet other mums? I guess we are making our own urban village now, whereas maybe you had an actual real village of support!

In the absence of all the baby classes and groups, my ‘village’ consisted of family, friends and good neighbours. Sunday lunch was often a way we got together with our friends who had young families like us. After lunch we would all visit a local playground or park or walk in the woods.

No one really had a large network of mum friends and I was content to be in touch with our friends who were in a similar situation to us at that time. There were no mobile phones of course and not everyone had a phone in their house. It could be quite an effort to be in touch with people if you had to walk to the local phone box!

Raising women – Being a mother to seven women, did it feel like a big responsibility at the time to be our role model as a woman? Did you have a sense of how you wanted us to grow up?

I don’t think that I actually focussed on the fact that I was being your role model. Had I thought of it like that it would probably have been rather overwhelming! I was always aware of the times when I fell short of my own standards of parenting and I hope I always apologised at the end of a bad day for being a grumpy old cross patch!  Fortunately children are very forgiving and always seemed to forget about these things long before I did.

In answer to your question, yes I did have a sense of how I wanted you to grow up. I am sure you would all have a different take on how successful I was with this!

As you became adults I did try to dissuade you (not always successfully!) from making permanent changes that you may regret.( e.g. hair dying fine, but tattoos to be avoided!) Also, to be blunt, I really hated the idea of one of my daughters being someone’s one night stand. I decided that you have to have faith in the effort you have put in when raising your children and I would tell them that I trusted them to do the right thing. I was told years later that that approach had been more effective than threats!

I wanted you all to feel good about the amazing women that you are, although sadly there were inevitable wobbles along the way. Self worth is so important.  I knew that if you believed in yourselves you could achieve your ambitions, do a job that you wanted to do and you would also know that you deserved lovely friends and a kind respectful partner.

I am so proud that the sisterhood is strong and that you will always support each other.

I also wanted you to grow up secure in the knowledge that the love your dad and I feel for you all is totally unconditional. While we are able, we will always be there for you all and our beautiful grand children.

I will always consider my seven amazing daughters as my greatest achievement in life.  I love you all.

Mum and Dad with two of their nine grandchildren
Mum and Dad with two of their nine grandchildren.