This has been the biggest year of my life… bigger than leaving my whole existence in the UK a half-world behind and bigger than becoming a wife. This was Oliver's year.
Thick bronze light oozes over the landscape like lava and bequeaths my beautiful husband Charlie an ethereal luminosity as he unpacks the brie, crackers and Christmas tin housing the last few rumballs that it’s become his tradition to make. He pops the cork from the champagne. “Cheers!”
All around, families, couples and gaggles of teenagers have gathered to see in 2011 by the lake and enjoy the fireworks. I exhale.
The C-section followed an endless induction. But once the decision was made, it was action-stations and as excited as an extra in ER, I was whisked away to theatre. The droopy-eyed anaesthetist gave me an ice cube to counteract the sickness and in hypnotic tones, reassured me that I wouldn’t feel the slice. The baby was wrenched from my depths – fingers and toes splayed like a frog and screaming blue-murder. My overwhelming emotion was one of incredulity.
The shadows lengthen as the sun slips away. I shudder and reach for the cardigan beneath Oliver’s stroller.
That week in hospital knew no boundaries. Day and night merged seamlessly and unable to walk, that room became my institution. An angel showered me and brushed my hair and spoke of her daughter but by the second day, I had come to the edge of the well because I could sense it in my periphery, willing me to fall.
Screaming, buzzer, assistance.
“Try and latch him on this way.”
Screaming, buzzer, assistance.
“No, try and latch him on this way.”
And all the while I cried.
“Well, I’ve never before seen Jan defeated,” someone said of the lactation consultant. “You’ve a challenge on your hands with that one!”
My boy was starving before my body was ready to nourish him. If I knew then, what I knew now, I would’ve been stronger and asked sooner about ‘other options’. But I wanted to be good and support can turn to pressure when it’s blinkered and you too, are feeling as vulnerable as a newborn.
When I came home, the milk came but still the most natural of things wouldn’t work. I was a bad mother. The grief was overwhelming and I avoided the mother and baby group for fear of again having to explain why I wasn’t breastfeeding and sobbing to a roomful of strangers.
A chubby foot kicks off the stroller cover. Charlie sits our boy between his legs – his fuzzy head swiveling right then left, not knowing where to look first.
Back then, Charlie was my rock and gave me more than I knew he had but two weeks in, he had an overseas work trip. Like many newborns, the baby had wind and was prone to evening screaming sessions. My pregnant girlfriend bravely volunteered to stay over one night and arrived bearing a bottle of red and a beef casserole. After finally settling Oliver upstairs, I hovered a moment to blink back the tears and to trick my brain, repeat my mantra, All is well.
But when I breezed on downstairs and she asked simply, “So…how's it going?” I was in tears again; although I was laughing simultaneously which I wasn’t entirely sure was a good thing.
“It’s really hard,” I sobbed before apologising to her belly. She poured me a drink and we talked. Later, she popped in her Sex and the City DVD and lying in bed that night, I felt I had my back to the well.
But to be sure, I asked for divine guidance – something to let me know it would be okay. Then when I saw the midwife a couple of days later, her parting words to me were, “All is well”. And then it was.
It’s dark-proper now but the air’s warm and gently-spiced and I don’t need my cardigan. Raw energy reverberates amongst the spectators, eager for the show to start.
“Look, it’s the Swansea fireworks,” a girl says. I can’t see where she’s pointing because a tree blocks my view but while I’m looking skywards I see it.
“A shooting star! Maybe it's a sign for us.”
“A sign you’re a poppet?” says Charlie (a left-brained thinker).
My baby holds up his arms and I scoop him up and kiss, kiss, kiss the back of his milky neck.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…” He rewards me with his gummy grin.
The first time Oliver smiled for sure, I was feeding him. He looked up mid-suck and with eyes half-closed gave me such a sneaky little smile that my mother in law who was staying with us commented, “He’s happy. He knows that’s mine.”
And it’s true. This boy is me and I am him and now I know it has always been. Sometimes when it’s just us, I hear Guns ‘n Roses with Sweet Child O' Mine play in my head and it makes me want to weep.
I check my phone. It’s after nine thirty and Oliver’s starting to grizzle. “Maybe there's only one lot of fireworks, at midnight,” says Charlie. “Shall we go?”
“Yeah, it was still a nice night.”
He looks consoled by the acknowledgement. This was his idea.
We pack away the brie, crackers and Christmas tin. But as we follow the path back toward the car, like a banshee, a scream emanates from the lake as electric colour punctures the black. My boy’s held high in his Daddy's arms, transfixed by the extravaganza.
“Pre-tty!” I say of the shimmering spiders.
Yes, it’s been a big year but standing beside my two boys, there’s nowhere I would rather be. I squeeze Charlie’s hand and he squeezes mine back. It’s our secret handshake. In fourteen days, we’ll know if next year there will be four of us watching the fireworks.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem