(This is part of a longer piece in the collection of my memoir A Wall of Hearts. It is a very raw, emotive and personal piece of writing that at first I was reluctant to share. However I can imagine many other parent’s have felt/feel the same).
Tiny Hands and Tiny Feet.
My son is wonderful, curious, excitable, loud and vivacious. He is hyperactive, talkative and a whirlwind. He is 6 years old. We await an assessment that the school have put us in for, phrases like ADHD, ADD, high functioning autism, have been thrown at us. Each one hits me in the chest, catches my breath, winds me. Why? I don’t want to label him, I don’t want his personality to be put in a box he can neatly (or not so neatly) fit into, him and his character forming part of a diagnosis. But equally as a family we need help. I need ways to communicate with him, calm him down when he’s angry and disruptive, understand him when his frustration becomes bigger than he is. So maybe a ‘label’ a name for his behaviour will become a good thing, become something positive to grasp too, help me as a mother and us, as a family to move forward. Learn new ways to approach him and his frustrations.
I question myself, is it my fault he can’t sit still? is it my fault that he sometimes awakes at 4am and sneaks downstairs to build lego towers or watch TV, later being exhausted at school? Is it my fault that he cannot hold his tongue and speaks what he sees; ‘Why you got dirty teeth?’ ( an elderly lady at church). As his Mum I am always blaming myself. Is it because I work night shifts? Sometimes miss breakfast then dinner working 12-hour shifts at the hospital, putting someone else’s family above the needs of my own? Has my job caused him to behave or function in this way?
The burden of motherhood only intensifies with time, it gets heavier and heavier. Oh of course the awards get greater and greater, the laughter the fun, the love, but it is still a burden. Each day can bring unchartered territories. Situations where those little people you have raised turn to you expecting an expert answer, expecting you to direct them the correct way. There’s no training to be a parent, no exams or essays to write. Unlike nursing, I have a degree, a Masters, I have attended an abundance of courses over the years I am skilled and competent.
When I was initially approached by my son’s teacher, her face smiling but her eyes nervous and worried, as she wanted to discuss my son’s difficulties. I felt this almighty need to protect him, to hold him, to shield him from whatever it is to come. A guilt engulfed me. He’s 6-years-old, a kid who has grown up in a world of Covid isolations, missed parties, missed playdates. But also missed human contact, not just with the outside world but also with me. So many missed cuddles from extended family, from his nursery teachers, from his friends. And so many missed cuddles from me, his Mum.
Arriving home from a day shift in May 2020, the hospital full of covid patients. A day spent rushing patients to ITU to be intubated and ventilated, some we couldn’t wait so we intubated the on the wards. Me holding the phones up explaining to patient’s loved ones they should say goodbye, to tell them they love them, and no I’m sorry I can’t promise that they would come back out of ITU again. A few minutes of a phone call which potentially could be there last. Is it in my hair? Has it seeped into my skin? Has it already infiltrated my lungs, I don’t know because we can’t see covid, it’s invisible to the naked eye. I think of the patient’s I’ve looked after who have delusional parasitosisa, a condition where they believe they have an infestation of bugs. To them the image, the sensation, the feel of the tiny feet crawling all over them is so vivid, so real it causes them to scratch until their skin bleeds, they pick up invisible insects throwing them to the ground. It’s both fascinating and heart-breaking in equal measures to watch. I imagine covid as tiny bugs, crawling all over my skin, invisible to the eye, but infesting my pours, my crevices, my organs, by blood stream. If it is, if it has, I won’t know until it’s filled my lungs and I can’t breathe. Tiny little covid feet tap dancing in my chest.
As I opened the front door, the children run to greet me, but I’m not in Mum-mode, I’m still potentially covered in covid, I am still drenched with the heartache and the pain of the nursing day.
‘No, stop, remember we don’t touch Mummy, we have to wait.’ I stand in the open-door way, take off my commuter clothes, my shoes, my socks. The children watch, although we are a few weeks into this ritual now, their instinct to touch to hug to kiss Mummy is still stronger than the memory of yesterday’s arrival home from my shift. We can’t touch until Mummy has showered, hair washed, and I’ve soaped my skin multiple times. The children watch as I walk upstairs, my body heavy with a sadness that thankfully they will never know anything of. It hurts not to be able to touch them, feels so unnatural, so against all my instincts. In the shower I rub soap all over my body, my hands are cracked and dry from the alcohol-hand-gel and the constant hand washing, they sting with the hotness of the water. I’ve never liked hot showers, but now I use them as an additional safety net. How good, how efficient is my PPE? We don’t really know yet, we know health care professionals are catching covid, some dying every day. We just don’t know how efficient our PPE is, we just don’t really know enough about Covid yet.
Later my hair wrapped in a towel, my Pjs on, I hold both the children, I kiss them as they do me. I’ve worked over 12 hours, it’s now Mummy time, but our time is limited as it’s their bedtime. Now they are cross, they don’t want me for a only a few minutes, for only a bedtime story and a quick cuddle. They want Mummy, they want more of me. After over 12 hours in the hospital, I don’t have much of me left to give. Little did we know in May 2020 that this ritual would last many months.
And now as we wait for the additional educational needs assessment to take place, I can’t help thinking how it must have affected my children. How my son’s need for a Mummy who could hold him, touch him, who was available, was neglected throughout Covid. How could it not be? How can a 4-year-old (the age he was when Covid hit) fully comprehend the reasons he had to wait for Mummy’s touch was because she may have been covered in a deadly disease. Is this why he is now struggling, is this why he can’t verbalise his frustrations, is this why he disrupts his class? Why the anger bubbles up inside him, a volcano erupting its lava, destroying everything in its path. And I can’t help wondering if it is my fault? The mental load of parenting sits heavily on my shoulders again.
I have a job I love, a profession I am proud of and have indeed played a part in history, But I have a son (and a daughter) who needed me. And with every Covid death, every covid patient taken to ITU, every cancer patient who missed treatments, every mental health patient in crisis because their services had been stopped, with every sadness I witnessed, my own children’s need for me grew. As I withdrew into myself, into a grief that could not be articulated, could not be shared, my children’s need for me deepened.
We await my son’s assessment but as we do, I take great comfort knowing that now (on most occasions) he can cuddle, kiss and jump on me the minute I walk through the door. Now I can touch him, comfort him. Smell the strawberry shampoo in his hair as I kiss his little blond head. Only this morning I awoke to find his still so small body entangled with mine, his tiny hands resting on my torso and stomach. His tiny feet wrapped around my thighs. Almost every part of his 6-year-old body touches a part of my flesh, we are almost one being. One creature with 4 arms and 4 legs. We are a two headed monster.