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

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

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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!!

 

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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.
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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

A Letter To… My Daughter, Hattie by Katie Southgate

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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.

 

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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

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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 

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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

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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.
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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.
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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!
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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

 

In Conversation with… Nadia Shireen

Nadia Shireenchildrens book author and illustrator

Nadia Shireen mainly writes and illustrates children’s picture books, (although she does write and illustrate other things as well). She lives in London.

1) How did you end up doing the job you do?

I took a very long-winded route to get here. I’ve always loved drawing and writing, but when I went to university I thought I should be sensible and get a law degree. My English teacher was furious. She glared at me, shook her head and angrily whispered, “That’s it… you’re going to be a bloody lawyer!” (Mrs Aldridge, if you’re reading this… I’m not a bloody lawyer.)

It became clear about half an hour into my law degree that I hated it. But I pointlessly slogged through it. In fact, I carried on and did an MA in Criminology… which was even more pointless!

I eventually moved down to London, rented a very cheap room from a kindly relative and started working in the magazine industry. Everyone told me it would be impossible to get a job, but I just kept turning up to the same office, trying to make myself useful and essentially refusing to leave. I wore them down in the end.

I worked as a sub editor and production editor on a variety of magazines for the next 10 years. I had a lot of fun… but eventually it had become a bit of a drag. The work was unsatisfying and I was bored. I started doing evening classes in illustration to perk the week up. Then I found an illustration course in Cambridge where I could study part time, allowing me to continue working four days a week in London. It took two and a half years. At the end of it there was a degree show, where I displayed my end of term project – a dummy of ‘Good Little Wolf’. To my utter shock and disbelief, some publishers liked it and offered to publish it. I can’t tell you how surprised I was – it was a bolt from the blue – but it was fantastic and it changed my life.

2) What are you working on right now?

My next picture book, which is about a plucky young girl with black curly hair who challenges a big, horrible, powerful monster… Any similarities between any persons living or dead, etc etc…

3) Who or what has been your biggest source of inspiration to date?

Music has always been the thing that takes my brain to new and unusual places, so I’ll go for the pop stars that formed my musical foundations: The Beatles, ABBA, David Bowie and The Pet Shop Boys.

4) Who would you most like to work with?

Well, it’s not something that can ever happen, but I always loved those ridiculous Monty Python annuals. I think I liked them more than the tv programme. I love all the funny annotations, the way they’d mess around with layout and type and all that. And obviously Terry Gilliam’s drawings and collages are brilliant. I wish I could have drawn a few bees and hedgehogs for them way back when. It might be fun to collaborate with some funny writers and create something similarly silly.

5) Where do you feel most inspired ?

I get really inspired by being outside, ideally in wild, quiet places… places far away from noise and humans, where the sky feels huge and open. That’s when I feel relaxed and insignificant. It’s liberating to remember how little we matter, in the grand scheme of things. I grew up in Shropshire, and you can get to the Welsh border in about 20 minutes. I think about the places we would go to when I was a kid, like Lake Vrynwy, Church Stretton, a little place called Inwood. Now I live in London and don’t really get out into the open much, and I miss it. The closest I get is having a very slow jog around Hampstead Heath. I hate running but also secretly quite like it. I like it when my legs get muddy and achy, and the wind stings my cheeks. It’s good when I can allow my brain to drift into a different gear, so that creative ideas can breath and move around a little.

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6) What did you want to be when you were little?

I wanted to be a cartoonist and then I wanted to work for Smash Hits magazine. I’ve sort of managed both, so I’ve got nothing to complain about.

7) What was the best piece of advice you ever received?

Always start with the strongest colour, or the most extreme idea. You can tone it down later if you need to.

8) What has been your career highlight to date?

I never thought I’d have a job that would take me into schools, but now I do. When I see children getting enthusiastic about drawing or writing stories, it gives me a huge buzz. Once I watched a class perform a play based on one of my books, where they had winningly adapted ABBA’s ‘Money, Money, Money’ into ‘Honey, Honey, Honey’! How good is that? I feel privileged to do what I do, and meeting young readers has been a hugely rewarding aspect of this unexpected career.

9) What’s the biggest challenge you face in your day to day?

I procrastinate a lot, which feels like an even bigger sin now my working hours are mostly dictated by childcare.

10) Who is your favourite fictional female character?

It’s a toss-up between Rizzo from Grease and Darlene from Roseanne.

Right Now I’m….

Watching: Hey, Duggee and Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom (not entirely my choice, but they are great.)

Reading: The Sellout – Paul Beatty;  The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole 13 3/4 – Sue Townsend; Head On – Julian Cope.

Listening to: I typically start the day with the Lauren Laverne show on BBC 6 Music. And then I play around on Spotify for the rest of the day. There is so much music, and not enough time to listen to it all, and that makes me anxious and annoyed.  At the moment, my most recently played albums are by: Solange, The Blue Nile, Eluvium, Julianna Barwick, Childish Gambino and Anna Meredith. I also enjoy making comforting playlists full of the same old songs in slightly different orders.

Pass it on:
Who would you most like to see featured on this blog?

Anna Phoebe, violinist @annaphoebe

Chloe Lamford, Set designer @chloelamford

Harrington & Squires, letterpress studio @bobandhorace

A Letter to… Our Last Embryo

author picRachel Cathan is a writer from Bedfordshire. In 2001, a mutual friend introduced her to a part-time pub DJ in Southend-on-Sea. A month later, they had moved in together, around seven years later they tied the knot, and a little while after that – just like so many couples before them – they made the exciting and terrifying decision to start a family. And then, like a growing number of couples today, well…not a lot happened.

Throughout the subsequent years of fertility investigations and failed treatments, Rachel kept a diary of her experiences, and it’s from these first-hand encounters in the world of infertility and IVF that her first book, 336 Hours has been adapted.

Rachel is mum to Ruben and Delphine.

Website: www.rachelcathan.co.uk

 

Dear Speck of Dust (for that was the size of you when we met five years ago),

You might never know how we used to talk about you, even wave to you on occasion as we drove past the turnoff for the fertility clinic where you lived.

‘Hello, little one’ we would call out, and just for a moment my heart would lurch in recognition of the life that could one day be mine. But then I would check myself, realise my foolishness, and feel the searing shame of knowing that this was as close as I could get to calling myself a mum.

Six months had passed since the day you were conceived, and finally the day had arrived to thaw you out from your frozen state and bring you back to your home.

You won’t recall any of this, of course. And nor will you recall the trusty weekend staff who had given up their Sunday morning to perform your transfer; a compassionate gesture since your mother had (typically) ovulated on a day that was not conducive to normal opening hours. But I can see them gathered around us still, the embryologist holding out a miniature straw, no bigger than a sewing needle, containing our last embryo.

‘Mrs Cathan’ he told me, ‘I need you to confirm this is yours.’

I can feel the sweat trickling down my arms and prickling the skin behind my knees, as your transfer was performed to the sound of Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 in D-Minor. As we laughed uncomfortably at the dramatic choice of soundtrack, I attributed my sweat-drenched self to the uncharacteristic 32- degree heat outside. But we were in a state-of the-art, fully air-conditioned laboratory, and the truth is I was as scared as I had ever been.

I feared so badly that you were destined to be only a dream, like a beautiful town, glimpsed from behind the closing doors of a train, whose imagined possibilities would haunt me for a lifetime.

Is this what you would come to represent? The road untravelled; the opportunity missed; the one that got away?

The next two weeks passed in an agonising time-warp that seemed to last for months. Like Schrödinger’s cat, you were hidden out of sight, arguably both dead and alive. I analysed every twinge, every pulse and every pinch. Even quantum physics could not bend my mind like the days that would determine your fate.

But that was five years ago. It’s 2017, and I now know the result that those two weeks would bring.

All I can say is it’s just as well that the embryologist couldn’t tell us too much when he introduced our embryo in a straw. He couldn’t tell us that what he held between his thumb and forefinger was a time-travelling collector of dinosaur relics, a superhero fanatic, and a swashbuckling leader of a mutinous pirate crew: the infamous Caption Walrus.

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He omitted to mention that, if successful, this embryo would be leaping from armchair to sofa by day, a cutlass whistling through the air above his head. And then sprawling diagonally across our bed each night, a tattered blue rabbit fiercely tucked under one arm.

I’m so grateful that there was no information sheet explaining how the contents of our straw would grow. Because how could I ever have borne the responsibility? How could I have survived the two weeks before the pregnancy test, and indeed the nine months that followed, knowing the scale of catastrophe if I didn’t get you into this world?

You had to be here; it’s so obvious to anyone now. How could our planet ever have been complete without that miniature John Travolta dimple in your chin? How could I bear to be awoken without your face a millimetre from mine, demanding I answer an urgent question about the dubious superpowers of Popeye?

It’s just as well, too, that our embryologist was at a loss to share the less enchanting traits of your character: your stubbornness, which would turn every remaining dark hair on my head a solid grey, and your night-time alertness of a bat.

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They offered me no advance warning on that fateful August day that you would be a plunderer, not only of treasure, but also of sanity and sleep. I didn’t realise that the world and its many failings would soon be solely my fault, or that I would so often be walking the plank.

But just as you have no idea of your beginnings, you are probably also unaware that I am secretly enjoying these things to which you drive me each day: every eye roll, every coffee, and every sigh.

I will be forever thankful that you pulled me through those closing doors and on to the other side. And that, whatever happens from here on in, I would every minute choose the reality over the dream.

336 Hours cover copy

Rachel’s first book 366 Hours is available now from Amazon and all good bookshops.

Right Now I’m….

Watching: Andy’s Prehistoric Adventures on CBeebies and Catastrophe on Ch4 (not with the same viewing companions, I should add)

Reading: The Unmumsy Mum Diary and Hurrah for Gin (must-have reads for bad parenting days)

Listening to: BBC Radio 2 (I’m no longer fighting the fact that I’m old)

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

Rachael Rogan: @RogansBooks
Rachael owns a fabulous independent bookshop in Bedford and made a trip to London to meet with Lucy Mann and Sophy Henn last year. She would be a great contributor to The Muse!

Rosanna Slade: @RosannaSlade
Rosanna runs her own yoga practice in Bedford – inspiring woman with a great outlook on life and now a new mum.

Delyth Johnson: @Thischangedme
Delyth is the co-creator of the app, This Changed Me – an inspirational way to use technology to create a better work/life balance and achieve personal goals.