The Nonconformist

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When my youngest was five years old and had been attending school for just over a year, she asked me: Why do I still have to go to school everyday? I know how to read and write. She decided there and then that school wasn’t for her unlike some of the children in her class who already had a Judas after school to help get them ready to get into good schools.

We were both baffled. Me: because after figuring out that by Judas she meant a tutor, I thought we were at a good school already and why on earth does anyone need a tutor when they are five-years old and in full-time education? Her: because according to the R.E lessons she was having, Judas wasn’t to be trusted. So why have him round your house to do something you are already doing at school? Turns out good school is shorthand for free state alternative to a prep school for competitive parents. By the time she was in Year Two, my youngest was feeling the strain.

When I mentioned to her Year 2 teacher that my youngest felt anxious at school (the same teacher who had called my eldest daughter an attention seeker the previous year when in actual fact she was really ill and had to be rushed to hospital straight from pick-up) she said that my youngest daughter was an attention seeker, no surprise there. Upset, I called a meeting about it and a school ‘counsellor’ (not sure if she really was one, hence the inverted commas) sat in on the meeting and said my youngest was an attention seeker. I reminded them of what had happened the last time they called one of my daughters an attention seeker so the ‘counsellor’ switched her diagnosis to nonconformist and said that we needed to get her to conform immediately as she had a lot of school to get through.

I was horrified and started asking around for help to find someone to talk to my baby girl and help her through her worries. I was looking in all the wrong places as most people said that she needed to toughening up or conform. This did not sit well with me, as my mother used to find ways to toughen me up, from threatening not to give me any tea unless I hit the kids who were bullying me, to that usual 70s threat: If you don’t stop crying then I will give you something to cry about. Even years later, she would laugh about it and I would tell her that it was cruel and she would tell me that I was too soft. I look at my youngest and think that she must be soft too, tender hearted really. I think that she is magnificent and I would never want to change that.

My gentle girl has always felt like an lovely surprise in my life. My eldest daughter was born with end-stage renal failure and I never would have had the courage to plan another pregnancy. Thankfully, in spite of me being diagnosed with unexplained infertility and being super stressed, I fell pregnant with my youngest when my eldest daughter was five months old and had not long come home to live with us after four months in hospital since birth, she arrived with a peritoneal dialysis machine which we had to plug her into every night for thirteen hours, and a food pump.

Pregnancy second time round (well third time counting a miscarriage) was tiring and stressful and I had morning sickness but it is amazing how I learnt to ride the waves of sickness when I was setting up a dialysis machine. If had just spent three minutes washing my hands ready to handle the machine, there was no way I was going to stop to vomit, no way.

I was so stressed about bringing another baby into this world: What if this one too had no kidneys? How would we cope? At the 20-weeks scan, when the sonographer said: And there’s the baby’s heart. I was stunned, I had been so focused on kidneys, it hadn’t even occurred to me that this baby would need a heart, and a brain, and two lungs. By the time they got to the kidneys and saw two healthy ones, I thought I was going to faint. Then they said that I was having another girl and I couldn’t believe how my world was changing for the better. I wanted to call her Calypso but the hubby made me laugh by saying that he didn’t want to name her after a lolly.

When she was four days old, the community midwife who was visiting us at home, put my youngest on her tummy, and she immediately tried to crawl which amazed the midwife who pointed it out. I did wonder if it was because my youngest had literally bathed in stress and cortisol inside of me for forty-two and a half weeks. I did try to be calm but it was hard as the pregnancy was for the most part easy, but alas, book-ended by sadness. My Uncle Bill died at the beginning and then my Auntie Yolande, his wife, died at the end. They were lovely people and I was very sad and sorry that my baby girl would never get to meet them.

People who knew the story of my eldest, said that this new baby was a gift and it was meant to be. I rolled my eyes a lot at this, but it turned out to be true, as eighteen months after she was born, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and offered the opportunity to freeze my eggs as the chemotherapy would push me into early menopause. I declined wanting to just get on with my treatment to give myself my best chance of staying around to live with these two girls. Two years later, I came out of menopause and I remember feeling very tired when a nurse clapped her hands with joy and said that it meant that I could have more children.

Both my babies were gifts, but my youngest allowed me to experience the ‘normal’ things of having a baby, like breast feeding and not plugging her into machines at night so that if she cried I could walk about with her in my arms to soothe her. I put ‘normal’ in inverted commas as there really is no such thing as normal.

After transplant, it was rather like having twins, my girls learnt to walk and talk at the same time and play together as best friends, though we spent a lot time in hospital with the various emergencies and complications which come from putting an adult kidney into a 20-months-old baby, and having on- going cancer treatment over two years.

We tried to keep it normal, but again, what is normal? Normal to us was us all taking turns to try on my wig. Normal was the hospital being so familiar to my girls that the first time we packed a suitcase to go on holiday, the girls both sat on it and cried as they had thought that we were off to hospital, and the playrooms there. They were inconsolable that we weren’t. Normal was receiving a lot of gifts off people who couldn’t/wouldn’t/didn’t want to take time out of their lives to come round and visit us, so that at Christmas when the girls saw all these presents piled up, they cried, as it was too much for them.

We hadn’t had much in the way of holidays as around transplant my mum had been hospitalised for the first time and during all of my various cancer treatments had gotten worse and worse until the night she was admitted into hospital and not expected to live. She remained in hospital for six months during which time my dad died suddenly of a heart attack, so before my youngest started school she had attended her Grandfather’s funeral and seen both her sister and mother with tubes and bald heads and vomiting and stitches and lines coming out of them, and her Grandma lying in a hospital bed and then in a nursing home, looking like she was about to die and that any breath could be her last one. We had no support, so I had no choice but to take them with me, but if I am honest, having them there, playing in the garden, or complaining that some old lady had just tried to feed them chocolate cake, made me appreciate them and their loveliness in an amongst all the sadness. They were and are my favourite people.

It’s hard to say if this registered with her not, but once my youngest started feeling anxious on a daily basis, I started to believe that there was no way she could have gotten through all of these experiences without internalising some of it. When she was in Year 5, my mum died and my youngest started having anxiety attacks in school. One day, a teaching assistant (TA) had to walk her around the playground to calm her down and told her that she had to remember the good times with her Grandma. My youngest told her that she didn’t have any and the TA told her not to be silly.

The TA rang me that day to tell me what had happened, at which point I explained that since the moment my girl could walk, my mum had been dying and my youngest had only ever seen my mum lying in a bed or sitting in a wheelchair. Consequently, she had no happy memories, she was telling the truth. It was around this time, that the school felt that as her anxiety was affecting her school work, she should see a therapist in school. It seemed to help a bit but then the therapist left abruptly after one term and after foolishly promising to leave her a gift, didn’t, which crushed my daughter and made her resistant to seeing anyone else. Up until that point, that autumn term had been a good one, as my youngest had acted in a play and even though she had a small part, she unexpectedly stole the show, ignoring the teacher’s direction to die quietly, and she discovered her love of acting.

Shortly after this my eldest had to have a biopsy and the school put her at risk, again, by not following procedure or common sense. In the ensuing emails after they scrambled to look after her, I asked when the replacement therapist was coming for my other daughter and got an arsey email off the school governor trying to shame me into silence about the usual low funds, ungrateful parent, stop making a fuss, we never apologise. That summer, my eldest daughter left to go to secondary school, so my youngest went to school for the first time without her sister and ally in the playground. Then, during the first term back my youngest’s cat Pooh was killed in a car accident and she was inconsolable.

After Christmas, came the pandemic and then a total lockdown. The school moved online clumsily in comparison to the secondary school her sister was now attending who did it seamlessly. Still at the end of the academic year, my youngest got the ‘outstanding’ student award at the leaving ceremony. She is smart and pays attention and thinks outside the box, probably like a nonconformist. When the class TA kept telling everyone that she is 100 years old so everyone should listen to her, my youngest asked the TA if she wouldn’t mind sharing her first hand experiences of WWII since they were studying it. What can I say? My youngest pays attention and thinks on her feet. She is also good at mathematics even though she never had a Judas. She is also very inquisitive and used to leave notes for the Tooth Fairy, asking complex in-depth questions about her job and what happens to all the teeth.

Aside from being smart and super funny, she is sensitive, which to me is the flip side of anxiety, and I definitely believe that sensitivity is a super power. Even before starting school, she would do the loveliest things. Once she took a half chewed biscuit which her sister didn’t want after ballet class and gave it to a younger girl near her who was crying because her mum told her she couldn’t have a biscuit because she was naughty. Another time in a cafe, aged three years old, she went right across to open a door as she had noticed that a lady in a wheelchair couldn’t do it for herself, and when the lady arrived in the cafe she came over to tell us how special our little girl was.

In the middle of lockdown, it was my youngest’s turn to begin secondary school, which is a much nicer, professional, though more relaxed environment in which to learn and to feel encouraged. In the same week that she started, we moved house and yet she took it in her stride, in spite of the pandemic and the society-wide fear surrounding COVID. Understandably, she had the odd wobble, but was starting to enjoy herself and relax a little bit. Then her new cat nearly died from anaemia and was in cat hospital where it was touch and go for a while and of course, we couldn’t visit because of lockdown. The cat recovered, thankfully.

Then at the end of last summer, just as lockdown felt over and she was about to begin a new academic year, a primary school friend died tragically, unexpectedly, and not from COVID. My youngest started feeling anxious once more. Why would she not? The fragility of life and at times, its seemingly random nature is so frightening. We were all affected. I remembering standing outside the vets, waiting for the cat who had relapsed, crying as I thought about this school friend’s family and what they were going through. I have thought about them everyday since, and how they must bear the unbearable, everyday, and I can’t make sense of it for them, for us, and especially for my youngest.

Then came the war with Ukraine which has caused my sensitive girl some anxiety, especially with kids at school saying there will be another world war, which after learning all about it, even if the TA couldn’t give an eye witness account, is a scary thing. My girl takes it all in and stores it in her beautiful tender heart and I want to wrap her up and tell her that everything will be okay, but she too old and wise now to know that I cannot promise that.

I sometimes wonder if I could have done it better/differently/something else, would she worry less? Is it nature or nurture? Would I worry more if she was detached and completely oblivious to what is going on around her? Like some of the poor kids, who have had Judases for many years, and who are only focused on pleasing their parents so that they can have a quiet life. My youngest did ask someone one day: Is there pressure at home? And the poor kid replied that yes there was and was grateful that my girl had noticed and cared enough to ask. I know I wouldn’t have had her sensitivity and her vulnerability at that age and it blows me away.

Extraordinary as she is, she is still just a teenager. The other day when I asked her to tidy up everyone’s clothes from the clothes horse, she was so lovely about it and I was chuffed. It was only much later I found out that she had dumped them all at the bottom of her wardrobe, as I went looking for my favourite top, though I had to laugh at her ingenuity.

In and amongst a chat about anxiety, recently, my youngest asked me if I thought if she has had a traumatic childhood. I didn’t know how to answer that so I asked her if she had felt she had and she said that no she didn’t, and so I got to writing this blog, in part because I wrote one about her sister last year, but mainly to answer her question.

So I guess my answer is this: I found some of the things we had to live through during your childhood to be traumatic and terrible, and some were full of laughter and fun, and it is up to us to decide what it all means, to honour the bits that caused us grief and pain, and to cherish the lovely moments we experienced, so that when we move forwards we do so whole-heartedly. Through all of it though, you taught us that being true to ourselves is the only way to be – nonconformist and sensitive – a powerful combination.

I love you, whole-heartedly, and I am thrilled that you are in my life.

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