We had a difficult start, my last child and me, ten short years ago this month.
Three pregnancies in four a half years, a difficult birth keeping me in hospital for several days and the demands of mothering a four year old boy and a two year old girl had left me bone-weary and ill-equipped to give him the attention he deserved in those early days.
I don’t think any of us coped very well that first year. He cried, they cried and I cried: my memories of 2006 are a blurred confusion of tears, sick, nappies, double buggies, plastic animals and plain boiled pasta. His (as then undiagnosed and now outgrown) food intolerances to dairy and egg led to prolonged screaming and endless vomiting from him and frustration from me as he tried to digest the milk I produced on my dairy and egg rich diet.
A decade on, it is almost impossible to conjure up the difficulties and the tiredness I felt then. My baby is now a beautiful, mostly cheerful, entertaining, irreverent and endlessly affectionate boy who has a great capacity for joy and who makes me laugh every single day. As the youngest in the family and the only child still at primary school, I see him now testing out a number of roles for himself – the joker, the sportsman, the Mancunian man-in-waiting, the eternal baby of the family.
At a time when I am having to reconcile myself to my older children of 14 and 12 growing up and away from me, I find great solace in the manifestations of the physical attachment to me which have thus far not left him. He is still keen to hold my hand, to sit on my knee or to ask me to lie next to him in his bed to help him go to sleep. More than this, though, he has a touching tendency to communicate the exact nature of the comfort this gives him: ‘I like this part of your shoulder the best Mummy’, he said to me recently, intently stroking a specific two inch length of my collar bone for a couple of minutes. Or, at the point of drifting off to sleep, whispering ‘I missed you in Maths today Mummy and wanted you to be on the seat opposite me so I could look at you’. As a younger boy, his class were asked to write a description of somebody and he wrote about my ‘soft hands’. In fact, he sets great store by softness generally. He has a special furry pillow case and will usually only wear soft trousers with a fleecy lining.
Another defining characteristic of my boy at ten is his enormous physical energy. I have often heard it said that boys are like dogs and, whilst it is a lazy analogy, the comparison certainly holds partly true in his case. He needs at least one outing a day, preferably more, otherwise trying to contain his energy indoors becomes painful. He has a propensity to roll in mud and chase balls and regularly comes home from school in another child’s spare trousers, presenting me with a mud-soaked bundle of his own clothes with a rueful smile.
Although there are some encouraging recent signs that he is starting to sleep later in the mornings, he has thus far in his life awoken ready for the day, metaphorical tail a-wagging, at a painfully early hour and gone into everyone’s bedroom to enquire in a stage whisper whether they are awake yet. He is constantly hungry, wolfing down his favourites in surprisingly large quantities for a boy his size, big brown eyes looking eagerly for more. When he is happy, his energy erupts from him, causing dives and rolls around the floor, leaps around the furniture and an uncontrollable, infectious belly-laugh which can make adults in nearby rooms pause and smile at the wholehearted joy of it.
He is a committed, enthusiastic and competitive sportsman who has his older brother’s achievements in his sights. He is fast, bold and strong, often beating bigger and older boys at running and football. He is fearless and heroic on the field: his spells in goal often have me wincing and shielding my eyes as he launches himself towards metal goalposts to throw himself in the path of a hurtling ball.
He is careless of injury and impressively stoical when it invariably happens, enduring the studs in the leg or balls in the face which have other children understandably crying and being led from the pitch. In stark contrast to his first year of life, he now rarely cries in pain and I feel true panic if he ever does cry. He is also stoical when ill. When his siblings are occasionally struck down by illness, they will cry or throw up where they are, rendered instantly vulnerable and requiring rescue, but, since being very little, he has trotted obediently to the bathroom to complete the necessary unpleasantnesses in the neatest way possible.
However, whilst displaying stoicism in the face of physical challenges, pain or illness, my boy at ten is increasingly showing vulnerability in other more cerebral areas, as he comes to terms with growing up in our particular family, in our particular world. He is recently tearful, fearful and jumpy, imagining that strangers will attack our home, mistaking the noise of fireworks for gunshots and worrying that we will be gunned down if we travel to Europe on holiday. He is easily spooked by the tall tales from boys at school about ghostly faces in windows and is easy prey for an (occasionally) merciless older brother, who is trying to distance himself from his own previous insecurities by mocking his little brother’s. The boy who shows no fear of physical challenges or danger can be reduced to a shaking, shivering, crying child who can only get to sleep with an overhead light shining directly in his face or a parent next to him holding his hand, the furrowed brow and quivering lip softening into a toddler-like curve of flushed cheek and swoop of long eyelash as sleep quickly overtakes him.
He is acutely aware of his place as the youngest child in the family and displays increasing vulnerability when comparing himself to the achievements of his brother and sister, particularly living in an area still ‘blessed’ with a selective secondary school system, which is now looming large for him. Whilst his teachers do not recognise my descriptions of a boy who hates school, he usually comes out of his classroom sulky and miserable and declares on a daily basis that he hates school and is no good at anything (or at least anything academic – he acknowledges some sporting prowess). Perhaps this is some sort of self-protective mechanism against his fear of failure, the result of having siblings decreed by the system to be clever and successful, or perhaps he genuinely just does not enjoy school and I am over-analysing the situation. Either way, it upsets me that my lovely, clever, intuitive boy feels this way and I am at a loss as to how to resolve it for him.
He also shows that he is testing out an identity for himself as a northern boy, in a northern town. He revels in his northern accent (consciously making it stronger and broader), prefers the nylon football strips of his sporting heroes to the jeans and jumpers I buy for him and spends time perfecting his goal celebration signature moves, usually involving thumping his chest, running around in circles whilst acknowledging the adulation from an imagined thousands-strong crowd and sliding on his knees. I gave him dolls and even dressed him up in his sister’s princess outfits in his early years, but he has rejected all my attempts to avoid stereotyping and deliberately chooses mannerisms, actions and clothing which signal his preferred role models to the rest of the world.
My last child entering double digits is a rite of passage for me. For nearly fifteen years, I have found my identity as a mother to young children. My last child leaving single digits heralds for me a brave new world of less physical parenting, more time to myself and the need to develop a new relationship with my son as he grows, when I know I will still see the face of the beautiful baby he was in the face of the beautiful, complex boy he is becoming, when I turn off the bright light shining in his sleeping face.