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Saturday 14 May 2016

Forced adoption has to stop!

(I wrote this story for a news website but since it's not up and published yet, I've decided to publish it here on my blog in the meantime - not my usual fare but I feel very strongly about this subject.)

Imagine a place where a new-born baby can be torn from his mother’s arms just minutes after delivery, and placed up for adoption without her consent. Where secret courts rule that children should be removed from loving families on the say-so of experts who peer into their crystal balls and declare them ‘at risk of future emotional harm’.

Imagine if that secret court didn’t even have to give a reason for the removal of a child; where the word of social workers and experts were considered sufficient to have the child removed forever, and where the parent has no recourse, no appeal.

Try to imagine a parent, distraught at the theft of their baby, going to the newspapers in the desperate belief that if they can just get their story out surely somebody will care, that common sense and justice will prevail, but instead find themselves jailed for ‘contempt of court’? Treated worse than a convicted murderer who at least has the right to appeal their conviction, these bereft parents have no legal right to complain about having their children spirited away out of their lives forever.

And in a sickening twist, imagine that same parent opening up the local newspaper and seeing their precious child smiling out at them in an adoption advertisement.

Unfortunately, you don’t need to imagine such a place, because I’m describing Great Britain in 2016 where the ‘care’ system seems to do anything but, and where in excess of 25,000 children are being removed from their homes every year to feed this cruel and massively profitable industry.

It doesn’t seem possible that in a so-called ‘free’ and ‘democratic’ society such cruel and barbaric practices can happen, but this is the biggest strength of the baby-stealing machine. Nobody with any sense of justice could possibly believe this is true, the numbers are too dizzying; surely social workers are there to help keep families together? There’s no smoke without fire; surely if a child is removed the authorities must have a very, very good reason for it? But as thousands of British families are learning each year, children can and are being taken for little or no reason at all.

I am not talking about the baby Ps of this world; this poor tragic baby’s case and those like it are horrendous and should never have happened. Baby P was visited 60 times by social services and yet nobody took that child into care. In this column I’m talking about children taken from parents for reasons ranging from easily fixable to non-existent.

When young couple Leonardo Edwards and Iolanda Menino discovered they were expecting their first baby they were over the moon. Leonardo, a businessman and Iolanda, a fiery Portuguese woman who works in cardiology, planned a homebirth and looked forward to a bright future with their new baby.

What should have been a straightforward homebirth went downhill quickly when their midwife showed up just ten minutes before the birth and was more concerned about getting a parking ticket than assisting the delivery. Iolanda lost two litres of blood after a botched attempt to deliver the placenta and was rushed to hospital by paramedics. In the hospital Iolanda went straight into theatre where the placenta was safely delivered. At this point it became clear the hospital was behaving in a hostile manner towards the couple, repeatedly asking for a name for the as yet un-named baby and generally behaving in an unkind and unprofessional way towards them. It’s hard to know at this point if the couple’s baby had already been targeted for adoption, but certainly at best there was a cultural and personality clash occurring. Iolanda was eventually discharged and they returned home with their baby to begin a new life as a family of three.

Their happiness was short-lived. The following day a midwife arrived to their door demanding to be allowed in to see the baby. Iolanda, exhausted from having not yet slept turned her away telling her to come back with an appointment. This may have been her first big mistake; it is implicitly understood by women in the UK that it is a midwife’s God given right to be allowed access to your home and baby following birth and only the bravest would turn her away. Being Portuguese, Iolanda was not aware of this and so wasn’t intimidated. Shortly afterwards a policeman arrived at the door demanding to see the baby, when Iolanda once again refused he asked her to simply hold the baby up to the window for him to see. This she did and satisfied he went away. A couple of days later they were instructed to return to the hospital with their baby to have him checked. Wary after the previous incidents, the couple had already taken the precaution of having an independent midwife assess the baby and declare him to be in perfect health. However, the hospital disagreed and claimed the baby was suffering a serious case of jaundice and hurriedly removed him from his parents for his own safety, placing him in foster care.

That was three months ago and apart from them being allowed occasional supervised contact meetings, the couple are still without their beautiful little son, Santiago.

In an interview with UK-based radio show host Richie Allen, Leonardo tried to make sense of what might have led to this nightmarish situation. Leonardo’s business involves selling the controversial alternative health treatment MMS (miracle mineral supplement) and last year was the subject of an undercover report by the BBC where Leonardo was portrayed as a charlatan, selling ‘bleach to babies’. (I won’t try to defend or condemn the product here, but I recommend doing a little reading on the topic before jumping to conclusions).

Leonardo feels this story had an impact on their baby being taken.

I do believe it has a big part to play in this. MMS is not illegal in any country. MMS is not lethal, no one’s died from it. People can go and check the environmental protection agency’s own bureaucracies which show it’s safe and also the poison index will show it as safe.”

So if MMS is legal, which it is, what could the objection be? Were authorities afraid the couple would give their baby MMS?

Iolanda reasonably points out, “a person that sells alcohol is not going to give alcohol to their babies!” She added that she doesn’t believe MMS plays any part in the theft of her baby: “Last year 30 children were taken from Portuguese parents [in the UK]. Until April 2016, 17 children taken from Portuguese parents – are these people selling bleach?”

The couple talked about the 90-minute contact meetings they are permitted with their baby where they discovered to their utter shock that the ‘contact practitioners’ – those charged with assessing their behaviour with their baby – were also the foster carers.

The very people that are sitting there assessing us - are we good enough parents - are the people that get paid £400 - £500 a week to foster the children!”

A foster carer can foster up to four children which means potential earnings of £2,000 per week, tax free. “Why have I studied cardiology?” says Iolanda, “when I could be taking care of babies!”

In Britain more than 25,000 children are removed from their parents each year by secret family courts and the figure is rising year on year – roughly 97% of these children are never returned. There are almost 70,000 children in care at present and it is estimated that annually, 10,000 of these children simply ‘disappear’.

The UK is unique in that children can be removed from parents for ‘risk of future emotional harm’. In other words, a child’s life can be utterly destroyed by being removed from their loving parents due to a vague prediction of future possible behaviour. As a mother of six, I can think of few situations a child would find more traumatic or ‘emotionally harmful’ than being removed from the family they love – possibly forever – particularly if the reasons are unfounded.

But when it’s an industry which generates £3 billion year – as the UK ‘care’ industry does – it’s unlikely the child’s well-being is a priority.

Local authorities pay voluntary adoption agencies in excess of £27,000 for each child placed in an adoptive family and there’s a long list of so-called experts who are paid large fees to declare parents unfit or emotionally abusive, often without even meeting them at all, but simply by reading the social worker’s report. The assumption of innocence until proved guilty, one of the core principles of British justice, is absent from the family courts where hearsay is treated as evidence against a parent and by the time it reaches the judge is treated as fact, regardless of how unfounded it might be. Once it has been established that the parents are a risk to their child – a conclusion which has almost always been reached from the outset - the order is put in place and the wheels are set in motion to have the child adopted. This all happens at such speed that often the parents have no time to learn the necessary legal ropes or realise they need to speak up in their own defense. Again, the system relies on this ignorance.

Each year more than 200 desperate mothers and fathers are jailed for ‘contempt of court’ for breaking the gagging order placed on them by the family courts. What parent wouldn’t try everything in their power to let people know of this horrifying event in their lives?

Every year 5,000 children are adopted and 96% of those have been forcibly removed from their parents.

Mother of three Emma Ibbitson, runs a production company with her partner Pete. Every year they make a drink driving video for the West Yorkshire police force. In 2012 she fell foul to social services when her nine-year-old daughter – who had begged to be in the video – played the role of a victim of drink driving. Emma was accused of emotional and physical abuse and of – unbelievably – having her daughter run over by a car! A three-year-old could tell you the ‘accident’ in the film wasn’t real, but they came for her kids anyway.

We were in shock for days [after the children were taken], for five hours we didn’t speak a word to each other.” Emma was ordered to visit her youngest daughter’s school and tell her she couldn’t come home. “I couldn’t wish that pain on any mother, it was heart-breaking. To have to tell your little girl that mummy says you can’t come home…”

Her children removed and nothing left to lose, Emma did what came naturally to her, she made a film, Traffic, which is a powerful documentary revealing the truth about social services. It is banned in the UK.

There are several groups in particular who seem to be targeted more than others – single mothers, non-English speaking families, families where the mother has reported her partner for abuse – domestic or sexual - towards her or her children and women who spent their own childhood in care. There are other things that can mark you out as a target such as unexplained bruises on a child or being aggressive or resistant to the interference of social services – as Iolanda discovered the hard way.

However, as the story of Tory MP Lucy Allan proves, unwanted attention from social services can happen to anyone. Back in 2011 Lucy was suffering a mild depression (as reported in Sue Reid’s article in the Daily Mail ) and visited her GP in the hope of being prescribed some ant-depressants. It was a decision she lived to regret when the GP – a female locum - told her she would be referring her to social services to see if the family needed support.

The locum consulted a Dr Peter Green, a consultant forensic physician and head of child safeguarding in the area Lucy lives. Dr Green concluded that Lucy was ‘very self-centred’ despite the fact he had never met her, he elaborated by saying his conclusion was a ‘gut feel’. Green has written thousands of reports for the family courts.

Based on Dr Green’s report, Lucy was reported to social services as being of significant risk of harm to her son. They hired a private psychiatrist to write an ‘expert’ report, despite meeting neither Lucy or her son, which concluded there was an ‘urgent need for Lucy to be assessed and treated’, and that there was ‘no way her depression would not have a significant impact on her parenting’. This was in spite of the fact that her son’s school reported him to be happy and thriving.

Meanwhile Lucy visited an independent psychiatrist for assessment who concluded she was neither a risk to herself or her son.

Despite this she was subjected to many more interviews and assessments by social services and experts who twisted her words or took them out of context. For example, the confession that she shared a bottle of wine with her husband most nights was reported as ‘alcohol abuse’ and the prescription drugs she took for insomnia and anxiety would, they claimed, render her ‘barely conscious on a daily basis’. Remarkably, throughout the entire process Lucy’s husband was not interviewed once by social services.

It took a year and £10,000 for Lucy to finally clear her name and be rid of social services for good. Lucy is one of the lucky ones, she had the resources to fight the system and lived to tell the tale. She can also talk about her case as it never got as far as the closed family courts. Most are not nearly as fortunate.

In the same article Reid writes, “In another extraordinary case, after a woman was found by a psychologist to be a ‘competent mother’, the social workers are said to have insisted on commissioning a second expert’s report. It agreed with the first.

They then commissioned a third, which finally found that the mother had a ‘borderline personality disorder’. All three of her children were taken away for adoption.”

Another woman was deemed ‘mentally unfit’ by experts for burning the toast. She lost her child too.

‘Kafkaesque’ is a word much used when talking of forced adoptions, but there are few words more befitting the task.

The theft of a child is enshrined in our culture as a parent’s greatest fear; from stolen babies swapped with changelings in Celtic folklore to the demonic Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, we have always been taught to fear those who seek to steal our babies. The scandal of the Irish catholic church’s wholesale export of the babies of unmarried mothers to American couples during the 50s and 60s is still fresh in our minds, as is the stolen generation of Australian Aboriginal children who, during much of the 20th century (right up until the 70s), were removed from their families and either adopted by white families or placed in care homes where they suffered neglect and abuse.

Rightly we view these two examples of institutionalised child-theft with outrage but if nothing else they should serve as a warning. Because here it is, happening again in just as cruel and systematic way. I wonder if it has occurred to the authorities that 20 years’ hence – less perhaps – there will be a national scandal as this current stolen generation decide to seek out their birth parents, as is every adopted child’s right. Or will our society have descended so far into totalitarianism by then that those children will no longer have that right? Can the state afford the tens of thousands of court cases headed their way when these children seek to be compensated for a life they were not permitted to live - spent among their own flesh and blood - because of half-truths, fabricated events and downright lies? Or again, will strict laws have already been stealthily and firmly put in place to prevent such cases being brought?

But let’s not forget the many thousands of children who aren't young enough or cute enough for adoption who are sentenced to a life of foster homes or care homes, where they are often neglected, abused and damaged for life.

Either way, being removed from loving parents will have life-long consequences for these children. Psychologist Rebecca Eyre (www.theearlyhumanhandbook.com) says, “Babies and children are highly vulnerable and they desperately need a safe and loving maternal attachment. Any separation or feelings of abandonment will be experienced as intolerably painful and these feelings and subsequent defences can last a lifetime. The baby is highly likely to become deeply traumatised and terrified and they will shut down emotionally as an act of self-protection which unfortunately will have lifelong repercussions.”
                                                                   Brian Rothery

There is a network across Europe which aims to help these mothers escape from the UK before their children are taken – in many cases before they are born. Ian Josephs (www.forced-adoption.com), a British businessman based in Monaco helps women flee the UK, offering legal advice and sometimes assisting with their ferry ticket to France to begin a new life. Brian Rothery (www.ectopia.org), an ex-journalist and author based in county Wexford also helps many women escape to the safety of Ireland’s shores. Between them they have given hundreds of women the opportunity to be a parent to their children.

Josephs, a law graduate, suggests two simple law changes which could remedy this scandalous removal of children from their parents:

1). No child should be taken into care from law abiding citizens. This tragic event should only occur if a parent has been charged with or convicted of a serious crime against their children or other children. If charges are dropped or a not guilty verdict is returned, the baby or young child should be returned to its parents. No punishment without crime!
2). Parents should not be gagged if they wish to complain publicly about their plight and should also be allowed to identify publicly themselves and their children if they wish.

There is hope. The Justice for Families campaign (www.justice-for-families.org.uk), headed by ex Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming, campaigns to improve the operation of the family courts (including the court of protection) in order to treat families with respect. According to their website:
The current system is driven by the demands of the state and operates for the convenience of the state with multiple miscarriages of justice.
The end result is that often the wrong children are taken into care.  Some children are wrongly removed from their families and others are left to die from abuse and or neglect when a more independent evidence driven system would have made different decisions.”

Hemming, along with journalists Christopher Booker and Sue Reid, is one of the few voices out there talking about the horrors of the family courts and working to change it.

Forced adoption is a national scandal, perhaps the biggest of its time and must be stopped. This issue should have us out on the streets in protest. The institutionalised theft of children is not just wrong it is horrendously cruel. How many parents are out there right now, heartbroken for life, wondering if their baby is alive or dead, and wondering if they will ever lay eyes on them again. These people deserve better from this government, we must demand change from them. We must write letters and refuse to vote for those who won’t address this issue. Because make no mistake, nobody is safe from this because no parent is perfect; the next baby they come for may be yours.

In Iolanda and Leonardo’s case, they are not taking the theft of their baby lying down. They’ve created a Facebook page ‘Our babywas snatched by social services’  and despite the judge in charge of their case warning them that their publicity campaign to win their baby back might be the very thing that prevents this from happening, they are not backing down. They’ve given many interviews on Portuguese TV and radio and have served legal papers to The Hague. A decision about whether baby Santiago will be put out for adoption is to be made on May 20, but they remain optimistic that if they steadfastly keep up the pressure and remain in the spotlight, they will eventually get their baby back. Please help them by signing their petition

Friday 18 December 2015

The magic of Christmas needn't cost a fortune...

(An edited version of the column appears in the December 2015 edition of Good Taste Magazine, Dubai.)

To be fair, this is rather gorgeous....
The other afternoon I found myself surfing eBay for Christmas-themed duvet covers. The selection on offer was impressive; from tacky Santa designs to tasteful Nordic patterns, there was something for everyone and I started busily loading up my virtual shopping cart with one for every member of the family – me included – smug in the idea that I was making Christmas magical for the children. But as my mouse hovered above the ‘commit to buy’ button and I fantasised about tucking the children in to their Christmas-themed beds on Christmas eve, full of excitement on that most magical of nights, I paused for a moment and asked myself the question I often ask myself while shopping on eBay – ‘what on EARTH am I doing?’

You see, I am victim of an ever growing obsession among modern parents of trying to make every moment magical for my children, particularly at Christmas, where it’s not enough to put up a few decorations and some gifts under the tree anymore, now we have trips to Lapland and personalised video messages from Santa, and yes, Christmas-themed duvet covers! We’ve become a generation of parents devoted to making every waking moment a memorable one for our little darlings, and we seem to be under the impression that without our intervention – and money – Christmas simply won’t be as magical as it was for us when we were kids.

The pressure these days to provide a perfect, Kodak-moment childhood for our children is immense, from the Frozen-themed birthday party – complete with Elsa party host and matching fairy cakes – to the miniature castle fort built at great expense at the end of the garden (which they never play in), we’re simply trying too hard. And what’s more, the kids don’t want it.

Mum comes under fire for seriously splashing out on her kids at Christmas
Overdoing it a tad?
A story went viral last week about a mother of three who instagrammed a photo of her Christmas tree with what can only be described as an obscene amount of gifts underneath it. The woman was widely criticised for spoiling her children although she staunchly defended herself by claiming she was a savvy shopper and actually runs a blog on money saving tips.

To be kind to the woman I would say that she is a product of a generation of over-consumers who are encouraged on a minute by minute basis via the media to buy, buy, buy! From the tacky looking (and rather sinister in my view) Apple iWatch to the bombardment of Christmas ads by the big supermarkets and department stores, we are constantly reminded that the true Christmas message is to spend as much cash as possible - and in a world where credit is freely available, whether we have it or not!

I know from experience that if you spend too much the children simply won't appreciate your efforts - there's usually a couple of toys they were hoping for and they will probably devote most of their day to playing with those - unless of course there is a large box about, in which case they will spend the day in that - and so apart from a couple of very much wanted gifts, in our house everything else comes from the Pound Shop or similar, just for the joy of unwrapping them. I've even been known - rather cruelly - to wrap school books and put them under the tree, although my son specifically wrote on his Christmas list this year, 'and please Santa, no grammar books thank you.'

Last year IKEA Spain made a Christmas advertisement which demonstrated this point beautifully. They asked a group of children to write two Christmas letters – one to the three kings (the Spanish version of writing to Santa) and one to their parents. Without fail the children asked the three kings for expensive toys, while asking their parents to spend more time with them and when told they could send only one letter, chose to send their parents’ letters (check out the ad below and have a tissue handy).

The happiest memories from my childhood are of exploring castle ruins with my father or curling up on the sofa to watch old Hollywood musicals on the TV with my mum. In short, spending time with them. Sadly time is a luxury many modern parents juggling busy careers and work commutes don’t have, which is why they understandably try to overcompensate by spending large amounts of money.

But we don’t need to because Christmas IS magic for kids and a reindeer-themed duvet cover won’t enhance that magic one jot. The magic comes from snuggling under the covers, confident that Santa Claus is in his sleigh at that very moment, flying through the night’s sky drawn by nine flying reindeer.

The magic is the twinkling lights in town, your mother stringing paper chains from one side of the living room to the other. It’s the smell of cinnamon and ginger from the Christmas cake or the mulled wine on the stove - all to the dulcet tones of Bing Crosby on the sound system. It’s seeing family members you haven’t seen in months, or everyone putting on their best clothes and paying visits to friends. It’s a million different things but rarely anything to do with how much money is spent.

With all this in mind, and unsure of what response I might get, I asked my eight-year-old what made Christmas magical for him. Without hesitation he said ‘having dad home all the time and seeing our relatives’. I was rather taken aback by the simplicity of his answer, and resolved to let myself off the hook a little this year, at least financially (which to be fair, with another baby on the way isn't entirely optional!).

So rather than stressing in long queues to visit contrived ‘Winter Wonderlands’, or spending several hundred pounds on duvet covers which are only appropriate for three or four weeks in the year, I shall curl up on the sofa with my kids, put Miracle on 34th Street on the DVD, and just enjoy the fact that I’m creating magic memories for them without even trying.

Happy Christmas everyone!

Sunday 22 November 2015

Why the closing weeks of pregnancy are nothing like the scented candle ads...

It's just under five years since I wrote my last 'closing weeks of pregnancy' blog and I never thought I would be doing that again. Ever.

But here I am, with seven weeks left and am starting to feel the full weight (pardon the pun) of what I've elected to put myself through again, as well as recalling all the stuff I'd conveniently forgotten.

I feel a little like this woman...
In the early days of this pregnancy I was filled with wonder and awe that my body was still capable of an activity mainly reserved for women at least half a decade younger than myself.

Feeling a baby squirm and kick inside you, while your ageing eyesight causes you to you squint at small print through those £1 glasses from Poundland, feels a little like rearranging the furniture on the doomed Titanic. At once my body shuffles towards its inevitable decline, while simultaneously prodding me daily with evidence of this last bloom of fertility, as each new stretch mark and quivering belly confirms new life within. In all honesty it's been the first pregnancy where I didn't feel aggrieved from start to finish at the restrictions placed upon me. This time it has absolutely felt like a privilege.

But these feelings have started to wane as the pregnancy approaches its final weeks and I'm now being reminded of the many and varied drawbacks.

The simple task of bending down to pick something off the ground is fraught with guilt since inevitably I forget until it's too late that there's a human in there who doesn't like being squashed in the act and I find myself yelping, "Oops sorry baby!" about a dozen times a day.

I do hope he's OK in there...

Drinking so much as a cup of coffee results in a good two hours of heartburn as my body reminds me I'm not permitted the simple pleasure of a caffeine hit every now and then, since my sole purpose on this planet currently is to serve as a one-woman incubating pod for child number six - my own selfish needs and desires no longer relevant.

My cravings are an odd mix of short term comfort followed by long term discomfort as I'm compelled to repeatedly munch my way through entire trays of icecubes, followed by bags of rocket leaves, leaving me feeling bloated and bilious and requiring at least two Rennies to counteract the effects.The other day I was forced to drive to Daventry after a scout of my local shops turned up not a single bag of rocket. I wondered briefly during the drive home what fellow drivers made of me as I sped past, shoving handfuls of leaves into my mouth and chewing them in bovine fashion.

In previous pregnancies I've enjoyed a glass or two of wine of a night but I'm finding this is neither appealing nor worth it due to the aforementioned heartburn and I'm desperately trying to recall why I love alcohol so much in real life...it scarcely makes sense to me at present although common sense and a deep self-knowledge assures me I'll have rekindled my former love affair with a chilled glass of white within days of the Grand Exit.

And as before, breathing has become a luxury I can only expect to fully enjoy during daylight hours, and sleeping in any position other than on my right hand side has become an impossibility if I or the baby are planning to actually survive the night since lying on my back, my weekly emailed pregnancy bulletin assures me, will cut off the baby's oxygen supply, and lying on my left leaves me feeling as if I'm having a stroke.

Not that sleeping is a huge concern; the hourly trips to the loo ensure I'm kept nicely alert during the night which is useful as it gives me many hours to ponder the massive arrears on my Irish mortgage or whether DH is going to drop dead on the commute home from work one day soon, from the stress of having so many dependents, leaving me destitute and penniless with six children. (Note to self, google life insurance policies.)

As I wrote last time, I'm convinced women are hard-wired to forget all the unpleasantness which goes along with pregnancy and childbirth, otherwise only a drugged up sado-masochist would have more than one baby. The early months can be tiring and nauseous, but nothing is as incapacitating as having an almost fully grown human baby living in the front of your body, no matter how charming the maternity wear ads make it look with their docile looking mothers gazing smugly at their perfect bumps, dreaming of a drug-free, orgasmic birth, surrounded by Joe Malone scented candles and a sensitive husband.

Anyone who's actually been through childbirth knows that this image bears as little resemblance to real childbirth as Boden's Christmas catalogue resembles actual Christmas and a more accurate comparison would be 16 hours spent hanging upside down on a hook at the local abbatoir, for example, or something worse.
Boden fans have mocked images of a tanned, underwear-clad model in the brand's Christmas catalogue because she doesn't represent the real customer
Silk underwear and cashmere socks are my outfit of choice for putting up the decorations...naturally....

Um..14 steps? Am I doing it wrong?

In fact when the midwife recently asked me during a check-up if I had a birth plan yet, I automatically replied without thinking - 'yes, to get the child out as quickly and painlessly as possible!' much to her look of confusion. I think my plans were supposed to include scented candles and an Enya CD but, I mean, what else is there to say?

Childbirth didn't get any easier for me as I clocked up each child, it remained steadfastly ghastly right up to child number five and I don't anticipate this one will be any different.

Several hours of agony, weeping and indignity await in the not so distant future and as always, I try not to think about the attention this child's portal into this world will receive. I'm always struck by the irony that the one time - THE ONE TIME - it matters what my ladygarden looks like, i.e. when there are a room full of people looking at it, is the one time that I can neither see it nor tend to it for maximum attractiveness beforehand.

Not that this is of great concern after 10 hours of labour when you've reached the pushing stage. I always imagine this stage is not dissimilar to having a large chicken bone wedged in your throat. Logically you know it has to come out, it can't go back in as it would kill you - and besides, it hurts like hell - but you wish desperately there were some other way. I've never understood those women who feel aggrieved at having a C section, claiming they've missed out on something magically maternal and natural. There's nothing natural or magical about crouching on a table in front of a bunch of strangers, trying your best to push a human through a filter usually reserved for a tampon, hoping against hope that you're not propelling your bowels into any sort of activity while you're at it.

It's not pretty or fun and the male equivalent (for any male readers who are curious) would be like placing your balls on a table while someone dressed as a nurse repeatedly pounded them with a mallet while exclaiming 'good boy, that's it, just one more!'  over and over again, while you wept and prayed for death to come quickly.

Journalist Caitlin Moran puts it best when she writes in her brilliant memoir, 'How to be a Woman' -

"The breaks in between contractions were like licking a dripping tap in a burning house - a second of relief, but, when you turned back, it was so hot that the moisture burned from your lips; the walls had gone up and there had never been a door or window in the first place. The only way to get out was to turn inside out, like an octopus, and fly out through the magic doorway in your bones."

I simply can't add anything meaningful after that brilliant summation, so I won't even try....

Monday 12 October 2015

For my mum...

Almost a month ago, I received the phone call that every emigrant with elderly parents dreads.

"Mum's not well," came my brother's voice down the phone, "the doctor doubts she'll make the end of the week - you'd better make some plans."

I knew this day would come, in many ways I hoped it would be sooner rather than later. Mum had dementia and had been non-verbal for almost seven years and missing for oh so much longer than that. After my dad had died - nine years earlier - she had declined massively within a short period of time, and had been living in a nursing home since then.

To my shame, I hadn't seen her in four years.

A woman who up until the last decade and a half had taken great pride in her appearance, mum had taught us girls how to be ladies; she placed great importance on good manners and a groomed appearance - she didn't understand the laddish culture I grew up with at all and consequently, and apart from a brief stint as a pint drinker, I never quite embraced it myself. It sounds so quaint, so old-fashioned now, but the little rules mattered; 'never eat or smoke in the street', 'always ensure your shoes are clean and shiny - no matter how old or shabby your clothes' and the mantra which has stayed with me and which I find myself repeating to my teenage daughter (although rarely follow myself these days), ' which would you rather be - the best or worst dressed in a room?'  For her, the answer to this was obvious.

She would have been horrified at the hunched little creature, shrouded in shapeless nylon and slippers, that she had become. This is the woman who once - following a day trip out in the car - refused to join the rest of us for an impromptu round of pints in the pub on the way home because she was wearing boots!

She visited the hairdresser twice a week for many years.

The week that she was dying I stayed near the phone and laptop, obsessively checked the cost of ferry crossings and surfing the Debenhams website for black maternity dresses (surely a most depressingly macabre item of clothing?).

"You are not seriously looking at funeral clothes while your mother is still sick?" DH demanded, appalled at such bleak insensitivity.

"Of course I am!" I shot back, "it's what mum would have done herself!" 

And she would have; I had heard the story about how in the days following the death of my dad's father, many decades ago, she had gone shopping to buy funeral clothes for her children, and how shocked and appalled everyone was with her - who on earth does that at such a time? But I understood; there is enough to worry about when someone dies, without showing up looking ill-prepared and scruffy when paying one's final respects.

Always look your best.

I mentioned to the children that we might need to go to Ireland for a few days and then hated that they were so excited. The grandmother they had hardly seen in the seven or eight years since we left Ireland meant little to the older children and nothing to the younger. This is one tragedy of living abroad which I deeply regret, although in truth dementia would have robbed them of her regardless of whether they'd seen her regularly or not. But still, the glee with which they asked me about this impending trip both annoyed and saddened me.

The morning she died, I had phoned my brother to ask him a banal question about a water softener. A sob came down the phone; "She's gone." was all he said. 

She had slipped away with my eldest sister beside her. I'm glad it was her; although mum loved us all equally, this particular sister always had special meaning for mum. A few years before mum married my dad, she had a baby out of wedlock which she'd been forced to give up for adoption. For three months she cared and nursed this baby in a mother and baby home until one day a family showed up and took the baby away, leaving mum to wander back out into the world, childless and shattered, to resume her life. None of us could ever understand the pain, grief and sheer trauma this must have caused her, but when my sister was born a few years later, mum held on to her tight, and loved her fiercely. And who could blame her?

The following ten hours were a whirl of phone calls and emails - hotel and ferry bookings to be made,   cancelled music and maths lessons, absence notes for the schools. All the seemingly vital aspects of daily life are surprisingly easy to cancel when the need arises. The trip to Ireland which we had meant to make so many times since we arrived in the UK from Australia a year earlier, was suddenly on. The money we couldn't afford for hotels and ferries was suddenly found and I packed up the funeral clothes I had bought earlier in the week, grateful I had done so; one less thing to think about now.

What is the protocol when someone close dies and you're not physically there? At a loss, I popped out to our local store to buy a bottle of wine - no idea why, mum hated wine. Selecting something expensive, which seemed only right, I stood waiting to pay as a mother I vaguely knew from school joined me in the queue. 

Looking at my bump and the wine bottle, she greeted me with a confused smile. I considered telling her my mother had died that morning, then concluded it would be a meaningless comment made only to garner a little sympathy from someone I barely knew. I held up the bottle, "For my husband!" She smiled and nodded.

My sister - who lives in our home town - had commented that everywhere she went around the town she received condolences and sympathetic comments. And as annoying as this may be, there is a comfort on the shared knowledge of your grief, a sense that the community is grieving for you and will in a way take care of you. Within hours of mum's death she had people visiting with plates of sandwiches and offers to help clean windows and tidy around the driveway. People rally around you in a small community, confident you will pay it forward in the future.

Standing in that queue holding the bottle of wine, I kept thinking, 'my mother died today...that's massive really...I mean, my MOTHER died today - MUM! -  who gave birth to me, and I'm standing in a queue in the Co-Op...!' I handed over my card with a fixed smile. The unreality of death is even more surreal when you are the only one who knows about it.

I hadn't seen my family in four years and to be honest had fallen out with some of them over that time. I was worried about what sort of reception I would receive from them. I vowed to be stoic and aloof, if not exactly frosty; I would embrace them but would remain at a distance, hurtful words can't be taken back and not even my mother's death could change that.

Within seconds of arriving back home all this nonsense fell away as I and my children were subsumed into the bosom of my family, together again and without tension, just unified in our blood, loss and memories. Oh how I loved them all and how petty I felt for the three odd years of silence.

When you live abroad without support, you start to see yourselves as a self-sufficient unit, without any need for extended family or any connection with home. You read the local news from time to time, but with a sense of distance; the places seem exotic and far removed from your day to day reality. You begin to think none of it matters any more.

I had even started to think I would never again live in Ireland, that our Irish identity was some silly romantic notion with no basis in reality. My kids' accents are a strange hybrid of Brit, Aussie and mid-Atlantic drawl, with little to hint at an Irish background. They don't know the Irish language, or GAA, and apart from a spattering of Irishisms such as 'ya feckin' eygit' and the Mayo jerseys they wear everywhere, there's little to hint we're Irish at all.

I didn't see this as sad, I saw it simply as the reality of living abroad but within hours of our arrival, as the children were swallowed up by cousins and uncles and aunts, all eager for hugs and questions about their travels, I realised that this can't be bought or substituted. Yes we can try; we can surround ourselves with good friends, but nothing can replace a group of people who knew you when you were small, laughed at you when you had a bad perm, who remember the time you fell over on the stage during a ballet show when you were three. Even as we sat around mum's coffin* with guitars, drinks and laughter, we snorted that mum would have hated all the noise, and would have insisted we move it into another room.

(*In Ireland we take the body home for a night or so to wake it...not as bad as it sounds!).

There is a comfort to the Irish grieving process, something I never fully understood until now. There is a pattern, a process, which removes all thought for a while, providing you with something to do with your hands, your body, your mind. The rhythmical comforting beat of, 'I'm sorry for your loss, I'm sorry for your loss,' as the congregation line up to shake your hand at the front of the church, before moving on to the next family member. You look at them and struggle for the name...'Oh it's you...I didn't recognize you!' you think, as they disappear down the line and the next person grabs your hand.

So mum is gone now, although in reality she's been gone for some time. The closing years of her life were deeply unfair to her, a woman who loved gossip and fags and cups of tea, dementia left her a human rag, bereft of speech or spark or interest, just a frightened old lady who had a permanent look of fear which said, 'what the hell happened to me?' We couldn't answer her because we didn't know either.

Dementia is a cruel and spiteful illness, robbing everyone in its path. All traces of my mother's personality had slowly dripped away over fifteen years or so; the kindness, the warmth, the humour, leaving her selfish and frightened, a stranger to herself and to us. Although, as the priest said during his wonderful eulogy at her funeral mass, while mum might have forgotten why she loved us during her final years, we never forgot why we loved her. He was so right.

I will recall her as the warm and loving mum who never left me in doubt of my importance in this world, who smothered, spoiled and fattened me with love. The mother who taught me to ride a bicycle - running along behind me - and who sang hymns to me at bedtime because she didn't like reading stories; whose face, on my first day of school, stared anxiously through the glass diamond in the door, as I wept on my teacher's knee. The woman who followed me to the shops - dodging behind trees all the way - on my first excursion out 'alone'.

I'll remember her as the mother who loved her family with the ferocity of a mother lion, caring for her cubs and her man, and who would have absolutely adored the little brood of characters I'm now raising. And although she didn't know them, nor they her, she's with us in this house every single day. She's present in my thoughts and words and actions - in my 'posh' phone-answering voice and my no-nonsense approach when it comes to my children. In my daughter's forthrightness and startling physical strength, and in her beautiful, lilting singing voice. She's present in my son's occasional self-doubt and earnestness, and in my five-year-old's head of dark curls, passing along through the generations.

She's with me now.

Tuesday 15 September 2015

Fertility, plastic choirs and why I'm luckier than I admit to...

I had a sort of revelation recently. I was sitting in a doctor's office in the maternity ward of my local hospital, and the 24 year-old-doctor asked me if the baby was planned. Without missing a beat I giggled and said, "NO, of course not!" I then had to sit while she talked about the importance of contraceptive measures at six weeks post-partum, feeling like a skittish school girl.

Sitting there, listening to this - well - child, lecture me on contraception made me realise something I've never admitted before; I WANTED  this baby and what's more, I wanted every one of them.

This sounds elementary, obvious even. But for 14 years I've been acting as if the big family happened by accident. I even, to my shame now, once wrote in a magazine column that when asked why I had so many children, replied that I was both excessively careless and excessively fertile in equal measure. At the time I thought this was clever, funny even.

But at 42 with my sixth baby on board, it's time I 'fessed up and said quite simply that, "yes, I wanted a big family, I think I always did."

As a little girl I had a troupe of dolls; baby dolls, long haired dolls, one who used to be able to walk until her leg fell off and she had to be duct-taped together. There were about 12 of them, and my mother knitted matching jumpers for them and I made miniature kilts out of cast off tartan I found in the craft box. They were my travelling choir and I used to bring them to all the cities of Europe - conveniently dotted around my sitting room and bedroom - where they would perform to vast audiences, Von Trappe-style.

At night I would pile them all in to my bed, plastic arms and legs poking into me at odd angles as I tried my best to get comfortable. My mother would frequently have to remove them all out from under the sheets once I was asleep, although on more than one occasion she found me asleep on the floor beside the bed, having given up trying to get comfortable alongside my bizarre collection of plastic bedfellows.

As a child who grew up alone (my siblings had all but left home by the time I was four), I craved company and I suppose my rag tag collection of dolls gave me a sense of belonging.

When I had my first child I felt a little embarrassed; my friends were working their way up their various career ladders and I was in a dead end job which I had no interest in. I was more than happy to ditch it to stay with my baby daughter, but at some level I felt I had let feminism down. I was a sell out.

And although I couldn't wait to have my second child, so wonderful had the first experience been, I still felt a strange doubt that I was some sort of sad sack who had chosen domestic life over a full social life and career.

My way of dealing with this was to denigrate my chosen way of living, dismissing the growing professionalisation of motherhood as ridiculous (I'm still not keen on it) and staying as far away from mother and baby groups as I could. I avoided other young mothers who were full of baby talk, their children the centre of their worlds. I wasn't like them, I was different to them.

I acted as if the whole being a stay at home mother was a bit of a drag, something to be endured but not enjoyed. I was doing it ironically, I knew it wasn't real life and I would get back to more important things eventually...

Deep down I don't think I really felt that way, after all having babies sort of saved me (as I've written previously), but I acted that way. And I continued in that vein for many years.

When baby number five came along, five years ago, something shifted a little, but I still protested the whole thing was a mistake and I'd roll my eyes and claim victim-hood to my fertility.

The FIFO year, of which I've blogged several times, taught me many, many things, one of which was that my children are my lifeline and kept me going through those dark, dark times. But when a family member, whose intention it was to hurt me, commented that I did nothing but put my children down, I had to take a long hard look at myself and ask why she had said that, and was it true?

One girl and five boys...oh boy!
As spiteful and unnecessary as her comments were, at a time where I was losing all hope, I knew there was a kernel of truth in them. And I had to face why that was. I did face it and stopped treating the whole experience as an inconvenience, and from that time on I've worked at embracing the mother role I'm so lucky to find myself in, and to genuinely cherish all those moments which I had allowed to, or at least had pretended to, irritate me.

Since then I've chilled out enormously, both with the children and myself and I've found my relationship with them grow and improve to the point where I can honestly say, they are fabulous, loving, curious and well-behaved children and I'm proud I've put so much of my time into raising them - I wouldn't have it any other way. I really mean it.

Which brings me back to that doctor's office and the boy-child gently baking inside me.

I'm happy to report this, my sixth and final child, and promise myself I won't apologise, roll my eyes or claim it was an accident. Because it wasn't. I wanted one last baby while I'm still lucky enough to be able to carry one, and fortunate enough to have a husband who is indulgent of my choosing home and babies over a bank balance-boosting job. We can't afford holidays, or a smart car. Meeting the bills is a struggle, sometimes we eat pasta for more days in the month than I'd like to admit. We get irritated when the music lessons don't seem to be yielding any results and question the cost of them. Finding a home big enough for us all is costly but vital - our home is our world.

But this is the path we've chosen - a path far less travelled these days than it was when our parents or grandparents were our age. The average family in the UK now has 1.7 children, which I find sad, and which makes us an oddity to some and perhaps stark raving mad to others.

In my opinion it makes us very, very lucky...

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Back to normality, but what is normal?

I realise I haven't blogged much over the past few months. I'm not really sure why this is. Perhaps living in the UK feels a little un-noteworthy - a little prosaic - after the exotic challenges presented by living upside down on the other side of the world where Christmas is in midsummer and July is a little chilly, or in a place where you are woken at 5am to the crackling sound of the Muezzin wailing the Call to Prayer as it splinters through the morning air. Is living here just too 'ordinary' to write about?

Of course the answer is it's far from normal here, since in truth at this point I really don't know what 'normal' is - what is 'normal'?

I still send the windscreen wipers hurtling across the windscreen every time I click on my indicators when out driving (did the same thing in Australia for three years - they drive on the same side but for some reasons the wipers and indicators are reversed). I still - after spending the first year in Australia asking for 'cash back' instead of 'cash out', find myself momentarily struck dumb when using my card at a check-out - which is it? 

I no longer need to ask for a flat white when out for a coffee, a white coffee is understood, or simpler still a black coffee with some milk please. And like the first few months in Oz , I'm back to trying to decipher school notes (of which there are, sigh, sooo many) - what on earth is a Tombola? Or a Jarbola for that matter? I remember receiving a school note from our school in Helena Valley, and having to pull my friend aside and ask - what is a sausage sizzle? What is footy tipping? What is a sports carnival - some sort of parade or funfair?

I'm having to unlearn and relearn the little codes and rules which apply in this part of the country, not least that the strong arm of the law is never far from reach. For example, DH was caught speeding and was forced to go on a half day training course or face penalty points on his license. It was his first offence, you'd think a fine would suffice. He was most vexed although in fairness hasn't been caught speeding since so perhaps it works... And when my daughter missed quite a few days from school during her first two months - a combination of no car for a while (and missed buses), several orthodontic appointments and my ignorance in reporting said absences properly, I was summoned to the school for an interview to 'get to the bottom of it' despite my protests that nothing was wrong. I half expected them to follow it up with an inspection of my house and a monitoring of my parenting skills! (perhaps they still will!) And my rental invoice each month arrives with a big 'DEMAND' written at the top and I can't help but feel that I'm in trouble, even though I'm not quite sure why. Most unpleasant. Can't imagine how fearful life is on benefits here..

One thing that strikes me about here is the sense that everything is at is should be, with little room for enterprise or opportunity. This may be to do with my location, but I don't feel I can carve out my niche here, as I felt in Australia or the UAE. In those countries the concept of 'chancing your arm' is alive and well and opportunities abound if only you're open to them. In the UAE I walked into an English teaching job following a very relaxed chat with the school manager and got my own magazine column with little more than this blog attached to an email. Likewise, in the bush I secured plenty of work with the local Shire magazine simply by asking.

And there were plenty of other opportunities which I simply didn't take out of fear or laziness.

Here it feels a little strangled, as if it's all been decided and the only thing for someone like me to do is volunteer at a local charity shop or stack shelves overnight in Tesco. Neither are particularly appealing.

Perhaps I'm being a little negative there, perhaps...

On the plus side, the house we're renting is lovely - I was adamant that a move to the English countryside necessitated a house made of stone with wisteria on the front and that's exactly what we got. Rents are criminally high here but we have quite a gem considering we'd be paying roughly the same for something on an estate closer to town. With this many children it is our preference to be away from prying eyes and listening ears, this family is LOUD.

Tragically the house is on the HS2 death row, meaning it is set for demolition in future to make way for a highly controversial high speed rail link between Birmingham and London, a development which will carve up some of the most stunning countryside in the UK, taking many stately homes and listed buildings with it.

This I find most upsetting since we've mentally laid claim to this house now (although in reality couldn't hope to afford to buy it in real life) and I may have to declare squatters rights and chain myself to the gate should the demolition team ever show up.

The village school is but a short walk away and the children love it although are at times perplexed by the introduction of religion into it, not least because the schools here are secular.

They attended a ceremony in the local church before Christmas and my eight-year-old, highly annoyed by the whole thing commented -

" There was a nun on the stage!"
"Really? Was she nice?"
"It was a 'he' - he was wearing a dress!"

Ah...a priest on an altar then...Sister Margaret Mary from the Sacred Heart School would shudder in her grave at the little heathens I'm raising...good...

Thursday 18 June 2015

School performances and why I was once an accidental pushy mum...

(An edited version of this column appeared in Good Taste Magazine, Dubai, in April 2015)

A text pinged up on my phone the other day. It was from my brother in Dublin.

“AM SO BORED,” it read. Twenty minutes later another one: “AM HERE INSTEAD OF WATCHING RUGBY, NO JUSTICE!” Ten minutes later: “TEN YR OLD MURDERING A SONG FROM CATS!”

These increasingly hysterical updates were the result of an afternoon  in a concert hall where his daughter's school was performing in a musical.

He's not a heartless man, and dotes on his daughter, but let's be honest there are times when kids' performances can be trying.

I know this intimately; with five children I've sat through countless performances, some good, some mediocre and some so bad you want to stick pins in your eyes - or clean the oven - anything but sit there for a moment longer. It's not necessarily my own children I object to watching (although there have been moments), after all I'm contractually obliged to clasp my hands and beam with pride when they're on stage.

However, I do object to having to watch someone else's little Freddy spend five minutes scraping out Greensleeves on the violin - creating a sound not dissimilar to a cat giving birth – when it's clear he's only ever had two lessons, leaving you wanting to yell 'Why the violin Freddy, WHY?' before running from the auditorium with your hands over your ears.

Two of my children were in a production of Aladdin a few weeks ago. It wasn't bad, honestly, but at  over an epic hour and a half long, it was a hard slog.

Forty minutes into the performance my husband, who rarely makes it to these events, was alarmed to discover we weren't even half way through. “Can't we just sneak out now and come back at the end?” he whispered hopefully. “Don't be ridiculous!” I hissed,  “even if I wanted to leave - which I do - I couldn't, this lot would lynch us!”

Looking around at the sea of iPads and camcorders (including one particularly enthusiastic parent who had set up a tripod) I realised I was in an hostile environment. A sharp-faced women threw me a withering look before turning back to watch the performance through her iPad.

I wondered briefly what these people did with all this footage - I mean, did they watch it again, and if so, how often? - then suddenly recalled a dinner party I once attended where the host, having cleared away the dessert dishes, herded everyone into the living room to show us 20 minutes of her son's swimming gala. What was most bizarre about it was the fact he didn't win anything, and since the camera was trained solely on him, we didn't find out who did.

But I could be accused of being a pushy mum myself, albeit unwittingly. Several years ago my daughter entered a talent show at school and despite the fact she has the voice of an angel, insisted she wanted to do Irish dancing (even though she's only ever had one class and was asked to leave after pushing the teacher from behind - to be fair she was only three, but I was keen for her to start her dancing career).

I tried my best to talk her out of it – she has two left feet – but to no avail. To make matters worse, she refused to allow me to teach her any steps (stubborn isn't the word!) so what she was planning to do on stage was a bit of a mystery to me.

On the day of the talent show I slid anonymously in to the back seat of the auditorium, hoping it would be over soon, and quietly smiled and applauded through several dozen performances before it was her turn.

As she approached the stage, a quick discussion ensued between her and the pianist culminating in my being summoned to come forward to help find a suitable piece of music.

Red-faced I was forced to make my way down to the stage and hum an Irish reel while the pianist tried her best to repeat it on the piano. Finally I was released to return to my seat, all eyes on me while the audience – having been subjected to this little display of pushy-mumism – expected a performance of Riverdance proportions.

The piano struck up the reel and my daughter, arms rigid by her sides, thundered around on the stage like a baby elephant, feet going in all directions, making up all the steps as she went along. The performance was both terrible and courageous at the same time and I watched with a mixture of horror and admiration at her unflinching self-confidence.

At the final note she promptly stopped, bowed and confidently strode off the stage to a rather confused applause. Clapping with relief that it was over I glanced about me, certain someone was composing a text at that very moment: “SAVE ME FROM TALENT SHOWS!” *

So what's the moral of today's diatribe? I think the word is tolerance. If you tolerate my clod-hopping dancer I'll tolerate your cat-murdering violinist – I'll even applaud – but if you invite me over for dinner, please, no home videos. 

*Unsurprisingly, she didn't win, or achieve a placement in the competition. Also unsurprisingly, she sang at the next talent show. And yes, she did win!