When I was in primary school, a friend gave me an autograph book. I thought it was great fun to get all my friends and family to sign it and write a little message. Most of them were silly rhymes or jokes, but there was one message I still remember. It was from my Dad. He wrote, “To my second red-headed daughter and nicest Christmas present I’ve ever had. Love Dad.” He was referring to the fact that I came home from hospital on Christmas Day.
Something about those words from my father spoke very powerfully into my young heart.
I still find it hard to understand exactly why that message was so precious to me.
Maybe it was simply because they were words of affirmation that were written down for me to keep.
Written words endure. They carry the weight of intention. We know that the person wrote them deliberately, so they somehow mean more. We have evidence of being loved, special, cherished.
Perhaps it was the idea of being somebody’s gift that resonated with me. And not just any gift, but a Christmas gift! To a child, Christmas presents are really exciting. And not just any old Christmas gift, but the nicest one ever? Really? Could that be true?
My Dad is very much a present person. He would always buy extravagant gifts for all of us, but especially for my Mum. Each birthday and Christmas she was showered with expensive lingerie and nice perfume or dresses that cost a week’s wages, even when we couldn’t afford it. Then she would model the new clothes and we would all join in with admiring comments, while Dad said something appreciative like, “Whackydoo!” From his actions, it was clear Dad thought that presents were important. Gift giving is definitely one of his ‘love languages’. So being called a present by my Dad was a poignant expression of love.
The idea that children are a gift is not a new one.
It dates back to ancient times. The Hebrew Scriptures say, “Children are a gift from the Lord. They are a reward from him.” Harsh words for anyone going through recurrent miscarriage or infertility, but the part about children being a gift, that bit I can relate to.
Last year on my birthday I unexpectedly discovered I was pregnant.
My one-year-old had just weaned herself and we had plans to go out with friends for karaoke, so for the first time in almost two years I was looking forward to having a few drinks and letting my hair down. I also knew it was technically possible, but extremely unlikely, that I could have fallen pregnant recently. Just to rule it out, I did a pregnancy test. I almost passed out when I saw a feint line appear in the positive window.
For so many women, seeing that line would have been a source of joy – a gift, even. But for me, pregnancy is scary. I’ve been pregnant nine times and have two children. I’ve had far more sad endings than happy ones and some of my experiences have been unusually traumatic. So when I found out I was pregnant, the overwhelming emotion was one of fear and anxiety, of feeling incredibly vulnerable, while still wanting to be hopeful.
At the time, I didn’t tell my family – I didn’t want them to be anxious for the next twelve weeks. So I kept my feelings to myself and went about my day as if nothing had happened. I had lunch with my parents, I went out as planned but drank mineral water – (not what you need for karaoke!) – and I made a passable show of trying to be relaxed, while on the inside I was stressing about how I would get my hands on the specialist medications I needed before the looming Christmas break.
In spite of my worries, the pregnancy went smoothly. At thirteen weeks, we had a very thorough scan in which we were told that the pregnancy could now be considered low risk. I started to believe we were having another baby. I started to change my plans for the New Year and make new ones around the baby. I started picturing my family with three kids and wondering how on earth I would get dinner cooked every evening with my husband on night shift and a toddler and a newborn hanging off me. I started telling my friends we were expecting again. Then at a routine check-up, just before sixteen weeks, there was no heartbeat. Later that night, I was giving birth. And for a few minutes, there was a tiny, purple, perfect little boy, wrapped up in a blanket on my bed. And then he was gone.
“I lost a baby.”
So here’s the thing. I don’t want Alexander’s life just to be an accident. A mistake. A regret.
When I think or speak of Alexander, I think or speak of loss. But when I think or speak of my other, living, children, I think of them as a gift. When really the only difference is the amount of time I got to keep them for. If Caillie or Molly died tomorrow, I hope that I would still consider their lives to have been a gift to me. So I hope that one day I can see Alexander like that too; as a precious gift, not just as a loss, because every baby deserves to loved, special, cherished.
Right now, it still hurts too much, but one day I hope I can write:
“To Alexander, my second son and the best birthday present I ever had…”
The other day my husband taught me a vital lesson in the art of listening… to our kids, that is. (Of course, I always listen to him!) It was about 5 o clock and getting cold outside. I wanted to start cooking dinner. Molly came in from outside and started tugging on the baby gate near the back door. I assumed she was getting cold outside so I opened it for her and stood aside to let her come in. She said, “NO!” very crossly and slammed the gate shut. Then she burst into tears. Assuming she still wanted to come in, I opened it and again she slammed it shut, cried “NO!” and burst into tears. I figured she must have wanted me to come outside with her so I said, “I’m not coming outside, I’m cooking dinner” and she got in a huff and ran back outside to Dad.
A few minutes later Chris comes in and says, “Aren’t you listening? Can’t you hear Molly calling to you? She’s saying, ‘Mumma, push. Mumma, push.’ She’s asking you to come and push her on the swing.” As soon as he explained it, I could hear exactly what she was saying. But because I’d never heard her say that before, I couldn’t understand her until I had the translation.
I actually think the most important thing we can do to encourage our babies to talk is to make the time to listen. And I mean really listen. Getting down on their level, looking them in the eye, waiting patiently and really listening to what they’re trying to tell us.
Obviously it’s also important to talk to your baby, play with your baby, read to your baby, include them in whatever you’re doing, but children will absorb language from all around them, whether you deliberately teach them or not. But to speak they need to be motivated, and the best motivation is when using words gets them the result they want, whether that’s getting a push on the swing, a bottle of milk, or simply getting Mummy’s attention.
Since that incident, I’ve been making a more conscious effort to listen to Molly and try to understand what she’s saying, but it takes commitment. Just yesterday I was pulling up weeds in the garden when Molly climbed up on the double swing with Caillie and said, “Mumma, push. Mumma, push.” So immediately I dropped the weed I was tugging and started pushing her in the swing. But even while I was doing it, she kept saying, “Mumma, push, Mumma, push,” and I thought, “What now? Mumma is pushing!” Then she made this little musical sound, “Mumma, do do do do, la la la Push!” and I realised that she wanted me to sing the Wiggles song I always sing when she’s on the swing. “Push me on the swing, feel the air, through my hair, swinging, swinging, on a swing.” That was what she wanted all along! That’s why it had to be Mumma push, not Daddy push or Caillie push, because she wanted the song. Sometimes, even when Mummy thinks she’s listening really well, it still takes a while to get the message!
I had a proud mum moment last week.
My eldest daughter had a friend over for a play date and there was a moment when the two girls were playing with a little pink pretend iPhone. Caillie’s friend waved it around in front of Molly as though she was going to give it to her and then snatched it back at the last minute. When Molly burst into tears, Birdy very firmly turned to her friend and said, “Hey, don’t be mean to my little sister!” I didn’t say anything at the time, but on the inside I was doing a little happy dance.
I was really excited to see that protective instinct coming out in Caillie because my big sister was always protective of me. There was one time in particular when my fearless big sister saved me from a very sticky situation on a harbour cruise with a bloke who wouldn’t take no for an answer. (I’d already said it at least five times.) My five foot nothing sister grabbed the back of his shirt, wrenched him away from me and gave him a piece of her mind. Things turned pretty nasty, but even when he tried to physically intimidate her with violence, my sister stuck up for me and put my safety ahead of her own. What a blessing it was to me that she was there to look out for me. It’s not a nice subject to talk about and I pray my daughters never find themselves in a situation like that, but I also pray that they’ll always look out for each other. Girls need to do that for each other.
The other thing I really appreciate about both my sisters is that we always help each other out. I’m starting to see my girls do that. A couple of months ago Caillie and Molly did their first ever job together, filling up Grammy’s Twinings box with teabags. It was a good job for them because the different blends of tea come in colour-coded packets, so even Molly was able to match them up. It was so nice to see them working together side by side for the first time.
Even just in the week or so since Molly started walking I’ve started to see a lot more signs of sisterly bonding. Birdy has been sick a lot in the past few weeks which has limited what she’s capable of doing physically. In a way it’s also brought her down closer to Molly’s level and as a consequence they’re interacting a lot more than they usually would. Just today as they were sitting together on the back steps, Molly reached out for Birdy’s hand and asked her to walk with her out into the garden. Birdy was delighted, because normally Molly would have automatically reached for one of her parents. She said, “It’s like Molly has just realised that I’m her sister!” The timing of that was rather extraordinary, given that I’d already written most of this post about sisterly bonding!
I’ve always believed that a lot of bonding happens when we’re asleep. My girls sleep in the same room and Molly’s cot usually ends up pushed right up against Caillie’s bed. Over Easter we stayed at a friend’s house, and their bedroom was a lot bigger so the cot was about five metres away from the bunk beds on the opposite wall. My girls couldn’t cope with being that far away from each other so I had to drag the cot over to the other side of the room so they could be closer. Now most days when they wake up, Caillie climbs into the cot with Molly and calls out to me to get her up. Even just a few months ago, Caillie would have climbed into our bed in the morning without giving Molly a second thought. But now she won’t leave Molly alone for a minute because she doesn’t want her to cry. It’s so sweet and it’s nice to see that maturity developing.
One of the other wonderful things about sisters is having fun and being silly together. Now that Molly is getting older Caillie is always putting on a show to make Molly laugh. The other night when I was reading Molly a Spot book, (Spots First Walk – also known in our house as Spot Jalan Jalan Sendirian) Caillie pretended she was an interpreter and after every paragraph, she would make up her own translations into her pretend foreign language. And for whatever reason, Molly thought that was hilarious. It reminded me of the many times my sisters and I would laugh til we wet our pants when we were kids. I’ve also noticed that whenever Molly hurts herself and starts to cry, Birdy will start acting the clown to cheer her up. She’ll start up on some crazy song and dance act until Molly’s forgotten why she was crying and is giggling her head off instead.
But more than any of that good stuff, I love seeing my girls be kind to each other because I know they’ll take good care of each other after we’re long gone. I’m sure in the future they’ll help each other get over broken hearts, coach each other through childbirth and kid wrangling, baby sit each others kids and hopefully ask each other the tough questions like ‘Why on earth are you going out with him?’ or ‘What are you doing with your life?’ My sisters have done all that for me and more and I’m eternally grateful. Where would I be without my sisters?
Have you seen signs of bonding between your children? Were there any obvious turning points? What do you value about your own siblings if you have them?
Now I feel like a cuppa… with my sisters!