The Peter Pan Principle

•January 7, 2012 • 2 Comments

When you’re young, everyone asks you what you want to be when you grow-up. A fireman, a teacher, a doctor, a train-driver – perhaps that’s how kids see the adult world. As a job, a series of labels.

As a child, if you’re lucky, grown-ups are safe and comforting, they provide money, food, warmth, security. They give us everything, teach us everything, mean everything. Surely then – they know everything?

My first proper “business meeting” was a complete con. There I was, thinking lacquered boardroom tables, power suits and commanding, take-charge types to took decisions and Made Things Happen. So it was something of a shock to realise it was all a little more cobbled together than that. That really, most people don’t actually know all that much about what they’re talking about, that even having an agenda is a rare treat, and that really, there’s an awful lot of hot air gusting about. It’s a sad day when you finally realise that most grown-ups are really just like you – complete and utter frauds. Big kids who still feel 15 and don’t have a clue what they’re doing.

But has it always been like that? Or is today’s society of gaming for “kids of all ages” (meaning adults, of course), 24/7 entertainment, dumbed-down media and uber-rich celebrity envy slightly to blame? Have we stopped growing up?

As a child you think of grown-ups in one of two ways. Like your mum, or like your dad. Real people who do real jobs and don’t let you down (if you’re lucky, of course) Those men and women going off in suits to the office, it was inconceivable that they’d actually be sitting at those high-powered computers in front of those high-powered office windows tweeting about their lunches, checking Facebook or having a cheeky race or two with that bloke in accounts who’s really just a big kid too and goes to sci-fi conventions every month. Yes, the Finance Director, that’s him.

It’s a funny thing – when I’ve known someone since childhood, that’s how I see them forever. Only when I have met someone as an adult can I see them as a proper grown-up. Perhaps that’s why parents have such a hard time taking their kids seriously.

Parenthood should perhaps have been the final thing to make me realised I’m not just a shy, ineffectual, unrequited child anymore. It should. But like nearly all parents I know, we’re all still waiting for someone to come and tell us we’re not qualified for the job. Sometimes I see or hear myself and realise I am putting on a pretty good show of it, this grown-up lark. I accept my responsibilities as a mother and I don’t resent any of the sacrifices, if that’s what they are. I’m not sure if that makes me grown-up or not. But since no-one else really seems to either – it’s just going to have to do for now.

Signs that you’re really a grown-up

– You start thinking you ought to have shorter hair

– You huff and moan about the washing up / laundry / ironing / food shopping / cooking – but you still get on and do it

– You never run out of essential food

– The local older kids shuffle out of the playpark in their hoodies when you go in there with your kids

– You put your own needs and wants and impulses to one side for the good of your family

– You stop being ungrateful to your parents and realise how much they did for you

– You stop finding crude jokes and slapstick quite so funny (OK, this one’s more for women. Some women.)

– You realise you probably should have worked a bit harder at university and wish you’d spent a bit more time in the library (or is that just me?)

– A year feels really short

– You start not hating the idea of being a grown-up

What are your criteria? Please share…

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Always a sucker…

•June 10, 2011 • 2 Comments

I know, I know, the world and his wife has blogged about breastfeeding. Even I have – a rather ranty affair about resisting the brainwash attitude about “breast is best”. For the record, I do believe that, in the majority of cases, it’s true. It is best. There are health benefits for mother and child, documented, factual health benefits. Accepted. And in fact I’m not trying to argue the point. But what I object to is the angle of breastfeeding being so supremely superior to the extent that mothers end up feeling intense guilt, even feelings of abject failure and depression, if they are not able to feed, an exclusively feed, in this manner. ThisI have blogged about before and I shall try not to repeat myself too often.

However, I am in a slightly odd position and it has made me think. My little girl is now very nearly 16 weeks. Just before she was born, new research seemed to recommend that, once b/f is established, combination feeding can in fact be superior to pure breastfeeding. Heard that one before? If not, don’t shoot me – I didn’t say it first.

But I decided before L was born that I wasn’t going to beat myself up about topping up with the occasional formula if I felt it necessary. I remember when J was little, the first time I gave him formula (because I was producing virtually nothing, he was having a growth spurt, had been feeding all day, I was exhausted, ill, and not doing him any good at all) I cried. A lot. I felt like a complete failure. I felt I had let him down, that I wasn’t a proper mother, that I would somehow ruin him. Needless to say that was ridiculous, he’s fine, and I still maintain that if a mother is exhausted and run down, or ill, it is better for the child to get their nutrition from formula – mother’s principles be damned, I’d rather cry about it than see my child go hungry. I know there are many mothers who physically can’t breastfeed too – I wish society could be a little more accepting of circumstances, and not so universally judgmental. But I have the ability, and therefore, it’s entirely my choice how to feed my children.

So with L I started off b/f all the way, then at around 4 or 5 weeks I offered a bottle early evening. She didn’t much like it at first, but soon got used to it. Last week, worried I wasn’t producing enough milk again, I gave her an extra bottle mid-afternoon. She took the whole thing with bright, happy eyes, and had the best night’s sleep of her little life. So that’s become a habit already, the whole 2 bottles a day thing. Her weight is back on its previous curve, which it was just starting to slip away from, and she is clearly happier and more comfortable. I am sure I am doing the right thing, the thing that is making her happier. I harbour vague hopes that this will make weaning easier later on too – not sure of the logic behind that part, but still, it’s a thought.

So why the hell am I still feeling guilty? Why do I still feel like I am letting her down, letting motherhood down, being lazy, not living up to my responsibilities as a mum? That I should be trying harder, expressing morning, noon and night to encourage more milk production (whilst simultaneously cursing people who suggest such things because how on earth are you supposed to have the time, never mind the energy, when you have more than one child?), eating more, drinking more (though I drink enormous amounts of water etc)…. the list goes on. Where does this immense guilt come from?

Feeding is of course the tip of the iceberg. Guilt and motherhood go together like toddlers and sticky fingers. From “I’m not spending enough time with either of my children” to “I can’t believe I blogged about not bonding instantly with my daughter, what if she reads it one day” to “hang on, surely I’m still an immature teenager, I shouldn’t be allowed to be responsible for anyone” – despite being 34 – and so on. I felt guilty for secretly hoping the baby was breech so I could have another c-section without having to make the choice myself. Guilty for having another child at all, dividing my attention from my amazing son….

Where does it all come from though? Motherhood is such a natural, biological thing, it amazes me how bound up it is in psychology, and a very self-effacing psychology at that. I don’t know any mothers who don’t beat themselves up on a daily basis about their failings. Perhaps we should all go a little easier on ourselves, and remember that if our children are happy, and well-fed, and safe, then we are pretty much their heroes, if not our own. Surely that is more important than living up to our own weirdly impossible standards.

I wish I could listen to my rational side once in a while, and actually believe it. But then again – when has rational thinking ever had anything to do with parenthood?

Falling in love again

•April 9, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I have blogged before about my anxieties and concerns about having a second child, while I was pregnant and even before. I have ummed and ahhed about whether or not to blog on this subject for many reasons, but want to get some of it out, so have decided to go ahead. It may be a little self-indulgent and overly long – you have been warned. I am not looking for comfort, for support or advice. Just an opportunity to get some of it down in black and white – it’s all a bit easier to cope with in that beloved format.

Nearly seven weeks ago now, on 20th February, my daughter leapt into my life for real, and the whole experience has been nothing like I imagined. From labour to every day life, everything has been different to the first time, and it’s taken me completely by surprise.

First time round, labour started at night, late, suddenly, intensely and frighteningly. It lasted 23 hours, was excruciating, and ended in an emergency c-section, complete with general anaesthetic and all. This time around, comforted by the prosaic light of day on a grey Sunday morning, I didn’t even realise I was in labour until about 2 hours in, managed to cook American pancakes with bacon and maple syrup for breakfast and even played with J a bit too, before finally conceding that yes, something was definitely happening and perhaps I should phone the hospital.

The pain was still there of course, but it was so much easier to cope with this time. Perhaps just having been through it before was enough – though J was back to back, so perhaps it really was just slightly less painful this time. Who knows. Got to the hospital delivery room at 1pm, expecting to be sent straight home, only to find I was at 4cm and well on the way. 3 1/4 hours later, Lara was born. I shall spare you the specifics, as this post isn’t meant to be about the birth, but it does have some relevance to what comes next, so I do want to say this. The “head” part was the most profoundly painful experience of my life, and one that induced a strange sort of horrified, bottomless panic in me that I haven’t yet managed to shake off. I came out of it all feeling rather as though I had survived a Saw-style ordeal, rather than the most natural, beautiful thing a woman can experience. I still feel slightly like that – I’m sure the feelings will fade in time, but I honestly felt quite traumatised by it, despite having had a rather textbook labour and birth, all in super-quick time.

Afterwards, several people made comments that I must be really proud of myself, doing it naturally. For some reason this rankled slightly. A) I was just as proud of myself the first time around – I never saw having a c-section as a failure. That was just how J needed to come into the world, and I was just grateful that modern medicine allowed both of us to survive it. B) I didn’t feel proud. I felt awful. I felt sore and tired and, in all honesty, slightly humiliated (nothing like an hour of stitching with your legs in stirrups to make you lose a little self-respect) I just couldn’t muster any feelings of pride – I suppose maybe I feel differently about it a few weeks on, but not really. Maybe that will change in time.

Above all though, I felt a bit detached from everything. And it is that feeling of detachment that has really marked these first few weeks for me. I worried enormously before that I would struggle to love two children equally, and my fears were not immediately put to rest, as so many of my friends’ had been. Now, things are evening up, and more importantly I have accepted that I will feel differently about each one of them, and that that is OK. It doesn’t mean one is loved more than the other – although for a while there I thought it might – but there are differences. For one thing, the relationship I have with J is 2 1/2 years in the making, so has had so much longer to mature and intensify. Lara is brand spanking new, and it will take time for us to get to know each other in the same way. After all, just as no two people are exactly alike, no two emotions are either, and all our relationships change over time.

When J was tiny, the sound of his cry would make me want to do the same. I find that second time around, the crying is much easier to endure, and doesn’t provoke nearly the same level of reaction in me. At first I mistook this for lack of bond, but suspect it’s something a little more practical than that – nature seems to know how tough it is juggling children, and perhaps just makes a little adjustment once you’ve been through the initiation of first time parenting.

Overall, I haven’t found it as hard as I thought it would be – or at least, not for the reasons I thought. I was worried about the practicalities, things like bath and bedtime for two, leaving the house, feeding one while trying to placate the other. But that side is really OK – not saying it’s always easy, and I certainly won’t be hitting the high street for some time. Internet shopping is my saviour in that respect. Even the lack of sleep doesn’t seem so bad this time. Maybe our new arrival is a better sleeper than her big brother, or maybe having done it before, and spent the last 2 1/2 years waking for J when needed, it’s just not such a shock to the system. In simple, practical, day to day terms, I am coping; I’m calm and capable and managing fine – though the ironing does build up a bit and I really must hoover the stairs more.

The hardest parts are the ones I didn’t expect so much. I worried about how J would react – in truth he seems to love his sister, despite occasional moments of understandable jealousy. But I didn’t expect the shock of him feeling and looking different, almost immediately. When I returned from my 24 hours stint in hospital, he felt bigger, his features larger; he was heavier, more grown-up, his hands holding mine felt alien. I wasn’t at all prepared for that and it hurt like hell. I cried over that more than almost anything else. My baby, my boy who I had spent the last 2 1/2 years with, the centre of my world – suddenly he had changed, and I wasn’t ready. Even now I notice things that seem different, but now I find it easier to accept. It was a horrible shock at first though.

The guilt factor was one I expected, but still wasn’t quite ready for. Never feeling that I can devote enough time to either one, always feeling guilty for spending time with one and not the other. Looking forward to J going to bed so I can spend time with L, and looking forward to her napping so I can spend time with him. It was like I knew how to love each one individually, but hadn’t got the hang of how to love both at the same time. It was like they couldn’t co-exist, that I only had enough of me for one of them at once. That feeling still remains at times, and will take time to work out completely, but it’s better now – quite simply, I don’t have the time or the energy to worry about it as much.

J starting at pre-school has been a big transition too – and one I could probably fill another rather long blog post about. I may do so as well, so apologies if I repeat myself. Having never really been away from him, never trusting anyone else to care for him, it has been tough for me to see him go. His first session was great, but then illness made him clingy and upset, so the next three were pretty terrible, and I was worried it was more than just illness, that he was going to hate it and miss me too much. Perhaps secretly I wanted him to miss me wildly. But our children never quite love us the way we love them – how could they? Now free of his cold, he had a lovely time on Thursday and seems much happier. Pleasingly though, he does still seem to miss me, and for two 3 hour sessions a week, I think I can let him go. Of course, I then feel guilty that I am enjoying my time without him – I really should have been Catholic, the amount of guilt I seem to accrue on a daily basis.

There are strains elsewhere too, which I shan’t go into in detail – the physical recovery from a natural birth took me by surprise slightly, as I’d always thought it would be quicker and less painful than the c-section. In some ways it was, in that I was more mobile and able to pick J up for a cuddle as soon as I got home. But that was about it really – personally I found it slower and more painful, and with less support as everyone assumed it would be the opposite so there wasn’t the same level of help – or maybe that was just me, stubbornly insisting I could just get on with it from day one. Obviously the lack of sleep and preoccupation with a new baby, couple with OH starting a new job recently have combined to create strains there too, which we are working through steadily – like everything to do with children, there are phases, and they too will pass.

I know everything I am saying is perfectly normal, perfectly par for the proverbial course, but as with anything to do with pregnancy or child-raising, it’s hard to believe anyone else has ever felt the same way or been through the same things. I know plenty of people have it far worse too, though that doesn’t stop me occasionally feeling sorry for myself. Most people I know who have two children didn’t have the detachment or bonding issue with the second. Not that it was an “issue” as such – I just didn’t feel what I had hoped to feel. And then, the other day, I was out with a friend and looked down at my sleeping girl, and suddenly realised that it had happened – I was in love again.

Perhaps I spend too much time thinking about and searching for feelings. By definition the two are discrete – perhaps by thinking about it all a little too self-indulgently, I forgot to actually feel anything. Feeling tends to happen in the moment, it takes you by surprise. Thought is so much colder, more detached – and is not always quite accurate. How you think you feel about someone or something is not always the case – but when faced with something dramatic or threatening, thought doesn’t stand a chance. So for once I am trying to stop thinking so much, (ignoring the rather long blog entry to the contrary) and just get on with it. I have always been guilty of overthinking, of being too conscious of everything I am thinking or doing. Perhaps if I could just shut my head up for a while, it would give my heart a chance to catch its breath.

Hypocrisy, Parking and Pregnancy

•January 24, 2011 • 4 Comments

OK, I admit it. I am a hypocrite. Before I had a child, I used to curse mothers. As I drove around car parks searching fruitlessly for a parking space within a mile of where I was going, I could never understand why so much space had to be reserved for them. After all, didn’t they all have buggies or pushchairs to take the strain? They could even hang their shopping from them – no bags to carry, wheeled transport for their ungrateful offspring… why should they get the spaces right by the door? And did they have to take up so much room? Oh how I grumbled.

And then I had a baby. Suddenly, my perspective changed.

You see, car seats are not small. Babies wriggle. Toddlers are like a cross between a miniature Houdini and a landed fish, thrashing wildly to be released. If you have more than one child things are even harder, and once one of them is walking, even a very short distance can seem to stretch on like the London Marathon. I have seen the light. And now my plea has changed.

We need more of them.

Recently I found myself with a moral dilemma. There I was, in a massive rush at the supermarket, for once child-free. I had guests arriving within half an hour and I had clearly suffered some sort of mental breakdown on my last trip to the shops, having bought none of the essentials that I needed. Another side-effect of motherhood, perhaps. So there I was, circling the car park with an increasing sense of panic. And there it was, a shining beacon in front of me. An empty Mother and Baby space. I had a car seat in the back, who would know? I headed towards it – then then turned away, and drove to the other end of the car park and found a hideously small space. But as I squirmed my way out of the impossibly narrow gap between my door and the adjacent car, I knew I had made the right decision. I could not have lived with myself.

So why do so many people seem to think it’s OK to use these spaces? Every time I visit the supermarket (an inefficiently frequent event) I see cars and vans parked in the spaces that clearly have never had a child in them. Car seats, as I have mentioned before, are not small things, and as children these days are required to use one until they’ve practically left school, it is immediately apparent which cars are breaching this law of trust.

In a moment of uncharacteristic bravery, I reproached a couple today, climbing out of their van in the space next to me. Yes, there was a car seat in the front. No, there was no child. I asked why they had parked there when they had no children with them. “We do have a son, actually” replied the woman, angrily. “But not with you,” I replied, surprised at the fury they were failing to conceal. “If there aren’t parent spaces we normally park over there,” she continued, pointing to the disabled parking area, “So why don’t you do the same?” (This last was delivered in a tone that suggested what she’d actually done was told me to go to hell – or similar) “That doesn’t exactly solve the problem, does it?” I asked, pointlessly. “We’re picking him up in 5 minutes, we don’t have time.” Strange that they were still there 45 minutes later when I left after my own weekly shop…

Vast swathes of disabled parking spaces create deceptive areas of peace and quiet in these car parks. Yet mother and baby spaces are often limited to a mere handful. How many times have you walked around a supermarket or shopping centre and seen a mum or dad with a young child? Too many times to count. For every annoying cry or scream that you, the non-parent, hears in the aisles, for every raised eyebrow and disapproving expression, there is a stressed out parent trying hard to maintain a fragile grasp on their own sanity. And every single one of them needs that parking space. Parent parking spaces are significantly outnumbered by disabled spaces – and why? Because of the negative press any store would receive in the unlikely event that a disabled driver was unable to find a suitable space. Parents, it would seem, do not create so much PR.

There is no legal obligation, it transpires, to provide parent child spaces. There is a set percentage required for disabled drivers, but all the major supermarkets stated that they provide these spaces out of consideration for their customers. Few have the resources or inclination to police their spaces, trusting to signs threatening fines for improper use. You can hardly blame them. And it’s probably not such a big deal – really, there are plenty of bigger issues in the world. But when you’re 8 months pregnant and carrying a crying toddler towards the trolleys through the rain because you can’t park within 200 metres of the shop – it damn well feels like it’s important.

A brand new supermarket in our local town is installing licence plate recognition technology to ensure that no driver leaves their car parked for more than the permissable three hours. Yet there is no plan to monitor the parents spaces, according to a staff member, nor impose any punishment on drivers using the spaces undeservedly. It’s a shame such a measure is remotely necessary – a shame, but by no means a surprise. It would be nice to help maintain the sanity and reason of parents, by far their biggest demographic. After all – every little helps.

 

Genetically engineered to want to suffer?

•October 6, 2010 • 3 Comments

With the birth of my second child getting gradually, slowly, inchingly closer, I am thinking more than ever about the birth. The baby part will sort itself out – yes, it’ll be tough, but we’ll handle it somehow and hopefully muddle through like we all do. But the birth part – wow. That’s the bit I’m dreading.

First time around we did the ante-natal classes and swotted up like proper little students. We’d have passed exams in the theory of childbirth. And I knew what I wanted to happen. Yes, I knew it would hurt – but holy mackerel was I in for a shock.

So, one 23 hour labour, every type of pain medication and a general anaesthetic emergency caesarean later, I face the prospect again. In my braver days I choose to listen to the (vast majority of) friends of mine with two children or more who say it’s much easier 2nd time around, that you know what’s happening, it tends to be shorter and so on. And the magical words – you heal faster from a natural birth. But on my less brave days, I become very, very aware of the fact that this time around, I have a choice.

Having had a c-section, I do have the option of an elective caesarean this time. One of my best friends, due this month in fact, is having one. She ummed and ahhhed for along time, and eventually it was the logistics of it all that swayed her decision. Like us, she doesn’t have family on the doorstep to babysit at short notice when she goes into labour and, less easily solved, her husband works in a job where he not only works shifts, in other countries no less, but also cannot book flexible paternity leave, but has to book a set time slot up front. Their first child was born 2 days before he had to go back to work. This time, that won’t be the case.

I have the same issue with family being far away, with husband not working close to home (although not in other countries, fortunately, and with flexi-leave) So why is it that I am shying away from the idea of it? Are we genetically programmed to feel the need to suffer to have our children?

Perhaps that’s it. I can’t help feeling that somehow, booking in a slot and going in for a neat little op which will produce a baby with minimal fuss, a few days in hospital to bond with the new arrival and then home, stocked up with pain-killers. A few weeks later, all fine. No 3rd degree tearing, no hideously, mortifyingly embarrassing procedures while you’re in labour. No throwing up everywhere or screaming or lying in your own blood for 8 hours. (Really, really sorry, to anyone about to give birth for the first time – chin up, everyone’s different, remember!)

And yet I can’t quite give in to the temptation. I know having a c-section is not a “little op”, that it’s a fairly major operation. but at the moment it’s the one option I am more familiar with, that I know how to cope with. I can’t bear the thought of being away from my son for 3 days, nor of not being able to pick him up when I get home. But still, I can’t shake it off, this fascination with the choice.

Perhaps it’s the choice itself that makes it harder. If I’d had a natural birth last time I wouldn’t have the choice this time and would just have to get on with it. Somehow it’s harder, knowing I could choose to avoid it all. Maybe, when the time comes, the fact that I chose it will actually help me deal with it. We can but dream.

But where does it come from, this inbuilt feeling most women seem to have (certainly all my friends do anyway) that you have to endure enormous pain and suffering in order to have a baby? There’s plenty of hardships afterwards to make up for it, so why don’t we find it an easier choice to opt out?

I suppose it’s hard to shake off 33 years of being told that that’s how babies come into the world. It somehow just seems too easy, too neat and tidy, to just have it all planned like that. Maybe there should be pain, maybe there should be uncertainty and risk and blood and screaming. They’re a hell of a prize after all, it has to be said – so maybe it’s no bad thing that we have to fight hard to win them.

Here we go again…

•September 29, 2010 • 2 Comments

Being pregnant for the second time is a rather different experience to the first. Completely, utterly different in fact, despite the obvious similarities. Not everyone experiences it of course, and for many it’s just the same second time around. But for me – and many of my friends – it’s a completely different beast.

For a start, let’s talk motivation. There was no mystery second time around, no particular feelings of broodiness or excitement at the idea of creating a human life. Rather more practically, we had decided we didn’t want J to be an only child, and thought 2 1/2 to 3 years would be a nice age gap. We didn’t want a Christmas baby, so we started trying in May. And got pregnant. In May.

Now, just to stop you there, we were not being complacent, nor taking it for granted in any way that we would have an easy run of it. But it was carefully, almost clinically planned. And it all worked, (so far, touch wood, cross fingers etc etc etc) according to that plan.

In the first three months, it was very easy to forget about almost entirely. Now, the first time, I could think of nothing else. I didn’t mean to be so obsessed, but it absolutely consumed my every waking hour. I spent more time scrutinising pregnancy sites than on anything else, gleaning every tiny detail about my tiny baby’s development and growth, at what stage he or she grew fingernails or what piece of fruit or vegetable matter they were the same size of in any given week. We both cried at the scan. This was the biggest event in either of our lives.

Second time around, it’s all rather less emotionally charged. We told some people much earlier, for once thing, out of sheer practicality, and a little laziness. The first scan was still lovely, but I didn’t shed a tear, and was far more concerned about whether my son was enjoying himself and could see the picture on the screen. The triple test came along to try us yet again – a higher risk result than last time turned out to be low risk thanks to the NHS lowering its cut-off rate in between pregnancies. So, more risk, with no option of reassurance through testing. Great. And yet still I feel less than last time. Our amniocentesis was awful, one of the hardest things we ever decided on, and fortunately it all went fine. This time I had been building up to it, so not to have one felt anticlimactic to say the least. Now I sit here waiting for the 20 week scan, still with very little bump (though around a stone in unsatiable-appetite-generated unwanted extra weight) to show for it. It’s next week. Perhaps once that is over, if it all goes OK, I can start to relax and maybe enjoy it.

But here’s the thing.

It is absolutely impossible to imagine loving another baby even a fraction as much as I love my son. I am taking it on good faith from every mother I know who has more than one child that I will feel the same emotion again, but I can’t imagine it. The first time you can’t imagine it either, yet it magically happens, so perhaps all these other mothers know something I don’t. A friend’s (very wise) mother described it as opening another room in your heart you never knew you had. I quite liked that idea. I suppose the human capacity to love is not finite.

Enough cheese. Quite apart from the love issue, there’s the rather more overwhelming feeling of guilt. How can I possibly share my son with anyone else? He’s mine, he’s perfect, he’s my entire life. And yet. Things will change, move on, and our relationship will change. And that terrifies me. I don’t want things to change, I don’t want to share him. I want our cuddles to last, our little private jokes, our arguments. Our life together, that, as I gave up work to be with him, is everything, for both of us.

Most pregnancy sites and magazines are aimed at first time mothers. Second time around, you get fewer appointments, fewer things aimed at you, and you don’t really mind. You have the same worries and concerns that things might not go well, and the fear of the birth itself is, to be honest, immense. But none of it is as all-encompassing, as emotionally involved. I still forget about it, from time to time, and feel very little about the whole thing, if I’m honest. I am taking it on faith that it will all change when the new baby comes along. Perhaps when my friends have their 2nd babies I’ll start to appreciate how it all works, and maybe even muster some excitement. All I think about at the moment is how tired I am already, how little I look forward to those awful nights in the first few weeks, how tricky it will be doing the simplest thing, like nipping to the supermarket. Oh I know it’ll all be fine in the end, and that it’s what we all want, that it’s not just for me and my husband, that J will love his little sibling. I know it all perfectly well. I just don’t feel it.

Judgements of the Literati

•June 20, 2010 • 2 Comments

This observation is not particularly new. It’s not particularly novel, if you’ll pardon the literary pun. But it seems to be getting more and more common, and, in a rather self-reflexive fashion (bear with me, you’ll see what I mean) the more popular it gets, the more it annoys me.

I am talking, of course, about how quick the “literati” are to condemn popular fiction to the scrap heap of mediocrity. JK Rowling, Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer (in spades), Steig Larsson… it seems almost inevitable that once a book reaches a certain commercial level, it is written off as rubbish. Is it as simple as jealousy? Or are the enormously popular books in question really as offensively awful as people seem to think?

Allow me to bail out here. I am not here to critique the books (though I have at least read all of them, in their entirety, unlike some. I am sure to some of you that will actually count against me – how could I possibly have read all of them? Don’t I have a brain of my own? Do I look to Richard and Judy before I select a new book?) I am merely pondering the fact that there appears to be some inversely proportional relationship between commercial success and literary merit.

Media in all its guises seems quick to tell us that the everyman is deeply stupid. Yet the stupid everyman seems to dominate our screen time. Everyone seems equally up in arms about it – so who ARE these faceless people who think Meyer is a literary mastermind, who think not a word of Larsson’s trilogy should have been edited out post-mortem?

Truth is, there aren’t too many of them. Because it seems to me that most people just don’t care all that much. Not saying they don’t care about the books, the characters, the worlds created – I just mean that the majority of people are more bothered by the story than by the literary merits of the author. They don’t really cared that the books and films they love are flawed. Who of us isn’t?

We are all entitled to our own opinions, of course, and there will doubtless be comments left at the end of this saying “Yes but she CAN’T WRITE”

Oh, but you see, she can.

There is an expression I had to come to terms with, studying English Language and Literature: “Language IS usage”.   Therefore, whilst it pains me enormously to see apostrophes misused all over the place, infer and imply slowly merging their meaning, and an absolute inability to understand the difference between to / too and  there / their / they’re, it seems I am outnumbered. Even the wonderful Stephen Fry seems a happy advocate of linguistic evolution. I may not like it, but it happens. Otherwise we’d all be speaking Anglo-Saxon and frankly, it’s a bit rubbish, as languages go.

Well, by a similar token, books are readers. The gargantuan popularity of series like Twilight and Potter tells us one thing. People love a good story. Of course, there is some argument as to whether these books ARE good stories, but to the people who read them, buy them, love them, obsess over them, they are. Yes, both play into the hands of modern media, with fresh-faced teens reeling in the tween and teen market; yes, Larsson’s books were probably only made quite so popular because he died straight after handing them in – but there is obviously something about all of them that appeals. And my point, which is not necessarily related to any of the specific books I mention above but is a much more general point, is this: Just because something is popular, it isn’t automatically rubbish.

A comment on Twitter the other day got me thinking. It said (and forgive me, I can’t remember who tweeted it) “What’s worse: having read the whole of the Twilight saga or the whole Millennium trilogy?” Well I’ve read both and am not especially ashamed of it. When Dragon Tattoo came out it was hailed as a bloody masterpiece – it’s only because it’s become popular that people are now hiding behind the good, old-fashioned barricade of insult to put it back in its place. Yes of course it should have been edited more and yes of course much of it’s absurd – but no more so than most, and it does make you turn the pages (the later books less so…)

There seem to be thousands of self-declared critics out there who are afraid to like something that other people have professed to liking. Who think that a book hitting the number 1 spot and being made into a film means it must be derided as widely and hyperbolically as possible. No, Meyer is not Shakespeare, yes, her characters might be 2-dimensional and predictable, and yes, maybe she did totally chicken out of a more hard-hitting ending, leaving everyone happy-ever-after and no moral lessons rammed home (the ending really was pretty unforgiveable). But does miserable automatically equal good? To the people who love these books, it’s not the language they fall in love with, it’s the characters, the story, the ideal, the escape.  What’s wrong with a happy ending once in a while?

I must confess that I find many books that are so-called literary masterpieces pretty damn dull. I find some of them amazing. Some writers shush me into an awed silence and humbled inadequacy. Others buoy my own writerly ego. There are many I am jealous of, many I resent, many I feel are genuinely not very good. But just as every book (hopefully) is unique, so is every person, and so there will never be identical opinions about them. What makes one book great, another mediocre? It certainly doesn’t seem to be the sales figures. Or even the criticism. Reputation can carry an author a long way, once-established, and allow them to get away with things first-timers would be crucified for. I have read 600 page books that appear to be about nothing, and others where protagonists are simply subjected to 400 pages of unutterable misery. The older I get, the less patient I get – what is wrong with a bit of escapism, a bit of fun, a bit of life other than the real one? Not for nothing is The Princess Bride one of my favourite films. (And no, I don’t write fantasy, before you ask).

But the thing is – us writers, we need to look at ourselves pretty closely. Anyone can be a critic; but not many of us are at the top of the bestseller list. We can all belittle the work of others – it’s harder to prove that we’re really any better. I am coming to terms with the fact that I am not likely to write anything that’s going to win a Nobel prize – but I’m starting to hope that maybe I can tell a decent story, that a few people will fall in love with. And at the risk of sounding like a total Robert McKee convert – isn’t that what it’s meant to be about?