Do You Remember When?
I really love my children’s birthdays.
Less so the noisy parties with their friends, but celebrating the day together and indulging myself with an amble down memory lane is something I really enjoy. Last week it was my eldest’s 8th birthday, which has a particular resonance simply because it was her arrival which catapulted us into parenthood, marking a distinct point in time between the idea of what it would be like to have children and the reality of becoming a parent.
When I was pregnant, I was preoccupied with how the labour would go, listening with intent to others’ birth stories to try and gather together as much information about what could go wrong; I knew it would be messy, but what would be the least traumatic sequence of events I could hope for?
… to my great surprise, on her due date, mild contractions starting as I woke up. We had totally ruled out having a prompt child. We got a cab to the birth centre around midday. The cabbie wouldn’t take a fare for the journey, on condition we named the baby after him (forever sorry, Gary). We got sent home as I wasn’t far along enough to be admitted, which was horrible because once back at the flat things really moved along; all I really remember now is clinging in turn to the fireplace surround and the towel rail, moving back and forth between the lounge and the bathroom and begging Tom to ring for another taxi and get me back to the hospital.
By the time he did, it was rush hour, the cab took forever and we got stuck on the Euston Road, so near and yet so far from where I wanted to be. At the hospital we saw the same midwife we’d met earlier that day. She wondered where we’d got to and wanted to know if my waters had broken (they had, in a pleasing but minor splash in my bathroom), though I remember being more concerned about having sick in my hair. She wasn’t bothered about that; I was 9½cm dilated and just had time to have a go on the gas and air and get in the birthing pool before Greta was born.
She was out, the pain was gone and it felt like a good day’s work, about 12 hours from start to finish. I could not stop marvelling at how lightly I thought I’d got off. More surprise and wonderment as I got to meet our baby, who was – to my incredulous mind, neat, round headed perfection. Mostly, she was here and she was safe. Further astonishment at the sight of the umbilical cord and the placenta, truly awe-inspiring. I was high as a kite, fearless and suddenly knowing, warrior-like; not just in my bloodied, beaten state, but feeling as if a switch had been flicked, unleashing a new but latent power. Strangely, I felt like I could take on anything, though it became apparent that clearly wasn’t the case.
Something nobody had told me about was the anxiety which would follow.
The weight of responsibility to keep this perfect creature alive seemed to fit squarely on my shoulders (next challenge: learn to breastfeed), and was made worse by that rocket-fuel adrenalin and any number of other hormones pounding through my veins. I couldn’t sleep, electrically connected to the baby and her every breath, listening out for every noise she made and tuned in to fulfil any need I might perceive her to have. My body ached, but my mind resembled a burnt-out building.
On day 3 we attempted a walk outside, destination: the pub, clearly pretending to ourselves that having a newborn baby shouldn’t prevent us from living our lives as we’d done before. We were so naive, and I was so tired and very, very wired. Tom was pushing the buggy when I tripped over a paving slab and comprehensively took myself out on the pavement. My only thought was whether the baby was ok. She was, of course, oblivious, snug and calm, but all I could focus on was the vastness of the cold world encircling her and the lunacy that had gripped us in bringing a child into it.
Fortunately, several things helped to chill me out a little bit: half a Guinness in the warmth of the pub, Tom’s permanent calm rationality and unwavering presence over the next six weeks or so, the business-like but ultra kind team of midwives who came to check on us every day, the fact that it was winter and we could legitimately hibernate whilst getting to know our new flatmate, but mostly the passage of time and the gradual growth of confidence in our abilities to keep a small baby alive.
Now, time takes on a strange double identity…
… with that period of our lives feeling at once vivid and bright in its memorability but also one million years old because so much has happened since then. In many respects everything is different now, but there are so many constants, especially the fact that we are still learning as we go along.
There was one other thing that helped me in that post-natal stage, and it was, of course – food generally and sugary things, specifically. I’ve never before or since been that permanently ravenous or had such a sweet tooth. It was like fuelling a furnace. This must be the true purpose of birthday cake, to remind mothers that sugar is your friend. This year I made Greta a carrot cake with almond brittle /nougatine to decorate it, but there was lots of nougatine left over. I froze it, and then incorporated it into these brownies for added chewy deliciousness. Birthdays come but once a year, so it seems like a good plan to go the whole hog and make the celebrations last a full week.
For the nougatine (this makes a double quantity):
125g caster sugar
4 tablespoons of water
2 tablespoons of vinegar
60g of flaked almonds (I also added some sesame seeds)
For the brownies:
150g dark chocolate
200g caster sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
35g ground almonds
- To make the nougatine, grease a baking sheet before adding the sugar, water and vinegar to a saucepan.
- Heat on a medium high heat until melted, bubbling and amber-brown.
- Keep the pan moving to stop it sticking, then remove from the heat and stir in the almonds (and sesame seeds if using).
- Work quickly to spread the contents of the pan onto the greased baking sheet, spreading it out thinly and leaving it to cool.
- Once completely cold you can freeze half for future use.
Now make the brownie mix.
- Melt the chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl over a simmering pan of water.
- When molten, take off the heat and stir in the sugar, the eggs, vanilla, ground almonds, flour and salt. Mix well.
- Preheat the oven to 180ºC, and spoon the brownie mix into a lined baking tin (mine is 20x24cm).
- Snap the nougatine into large bite-size pieces and press them lightly down into the mix, leaving some gaps.
- Bake for 25 minutes, then leave to cool completely before taking out of the tin and cutting into squares.