What Nobody Told Me about Having Children

Even before I had children, I considered myself clued up. I’d looked after plenty of kids as a family doctor, though my education actually began in my teen years. As a fifteen-year old, I used to baby-sit a feisty brood of five living round the corner from me. Four of the children moved so fast that I could barely tell them apart, let alone stop them wrecking their home. The baby, less mobile, needed constant nappy changes, which was a challenge as he was in a ‘frog plaster’ for developmental dysplasia of the hip

The scales fell from my eyes, however, when my own kids arrived. Here’s what I learned from having my three sons.

1 Everyone has an opinion on raising children, especially those who never had any. The fewer children someone has, the more insistently they share their wisdom. Experienced parents rarely dish out advice because they know that not all kids are the same.

2 Yep, all children are different. Before you ask:  yes, even identical twins. My own twin boys had different personalities from day one. After all, why should they be exactly alike? The environment begins in the womb, and there are always differences in the closeness to the mother’s heartbeat, to her dominant hand, even in the amount of blood flow from the placenta, to name just a few factors.

alarm clock

3 Babies need a lot less sleep than their parents. They don’t have to go to work. They can just loll about all day looking cute and innocent, and save their strength for another fun night ahead. Had I fully appreciated this, I might have stayed on maternity leave longer rather than dragging my befuddled brain (plus a breast pump) to work.

4 The best toys engage the child’s ingenuity, not the toy designer’s.  That’s why empty boxes, old saucepans, wrapping paper, and key rings make great playthings. By the way, if you’re still looking for your keys, try checking inside your boots, behind the radiator, in the toilet, and out through the cat-flap. Or keep a spare set somewhere.

key ring

5 The longer you take to prepare a meal, the less likely your child is to eat it. Strangely, letting a child make his own sandwich does not put him off wolfing it down, even if it contains the most outlandish food combo and looks nothing like a sandwich.

6 Shopping and mayhem go hand in hand. Before supermarkets provided trolleys for more than one child, I’d have to push one trolley and pull another one. This was the moment when I’d be accosted by a patient who wanted to chat over the baked goods about her test results, or even show me her painful knee. On the plus side, my kids rarely had tantrums while out shopping. Instead, they amused themselves by pulling toothbrushes off the shelves and stuffing them down the front of their dungarees.

twins at the soft drinks dispenser

7 Children have an infinite capacity for embarrassing their parents. At a neighbour’s house one morning, I was offered coffee, only for one of my sons to pipe up, “Mummy likes gin and tonic.”  Another memorable event was a job interview, the kind where you’re invited to bring your entire family (GP interviews can be like that). One of my little lads promptly removed his shoes and socks, gleefully shouting “Sock, sock!” The snag was that, at the time, he pronounced every S as an F.

8 Being a doctor helps you cope with children’s illnesses, but doesn’t make you superhuman. One of the low points was the Christmas when both twins, aged eight weeks, had bronchiolitis. Their older brother didn’t get much attention that year.  Another low was a convulsion which landed one of the boys in hospital at the age of eighteen months. The little lad was fine in the end, but my husband drove into a bollard on our way to A & E.  

9 The biggest lesson? You have to put your child first, before yourself, before anyone else. But that’s perfectly OK, because, until your own baby come along, you have no idea how intensely you can love a little person.

FreeImages.com/Helmut Gevert

If you’d like to help a new parent cope when their child is seriously ill, please take a look at Lucy Air Ambulance for Children’s Mum Matters campaign. This great initiative comes just in time for Mother’s Day.

You can find out more about Lucy Air Ambulance for Children right here

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Four Hours in the Eye Surgery Day Unit

On looking back, the signs had been there for years. First, Nadia had trouble at night from the glare. Then reading got harder, especially the day she picked up an Egyptian newspaper in Paddington. Arabic, with its tiny script and its proliferation of vital dots above and below the letters, is the least appropriate language for someone with poor vision.

She wonders why she’d got cataracts by the age of 55. Probably to do with a stupid game they used to play at the beach in Alexandria.  She, Zeinab, Chou-Chou, and of course her sister Simone all dared one another to look straight into the sun for as long as they could. Nadia still has the memory of the after-burn. How was she to know, until Simone told her, that her school friends all cheated by shutting their eyes when she wasn’t looking at them?

“The Nile has cataracts too,” says Chou-Chou. She is still stupid despite being middle-aged now.

“They’re not the same thing,” Nadia replies loftily, even though she is unsure of the difference.

Nobody gets a bed on this day surgery unit. They get an armchair, but only if there’s one free at the appointed time. There isn’t. Along with three other patients, Nadia sits in the corridor. Waiting in corridors is normal in the NHS. It was never like this in Egypt, if you could afford bakshish.

An Iranian nurse and two Irish nurses seem to run the place. Each of them asks Nadia if she is diabetic.

“I’m not diabetic.”

In a nearby office, a doctor sits with the door open. Nadia can hear her complain about the computer system. Doctors always do this.

Once Nadia is installed in her allocated chair, an Irish nurse comes in to put drops into her left eye. “Are you diabetic?”

“No.”

After two lots of eye drops, her vision is so blurred that she can no longer decipher the stream of bile about immigrants, shameless young people, and disgraced celebrities in the newspaper someone discarded.

A young doctor comes to explain the op, reeling off a long list of potential complications. “There’s a one in 1,000 chance of losing all the sight in that eye.”

Nadia recalls a handsome man at Montazah who wore tiny briefs and an eyepatch. He liked to say he’d lost an eye in a duel, though, as her sister told her later, it was really a cataract operation gone wrong. She signs the consent form, sure that things have moved on and that it won’t happen to her.

The surgery is under local while her surgeon hums snatches of an aria and asks about her family.

“There’s nobody left.” Still, Nadia cradles the hope that improved vision will help her find her lost sister.

Everything is bright with a watery blue light. A machine buzzes, and the lens fragments are washed out before a new lens is put into place. She feels nothing.

Soon he says, “All done,” and peels the plastic drape off.

“You can sit up now,” says someone else.

So many voices she doesn’t know, and her head swims when she sits up.

Once back on the ward, a nurse offers her tea and asks again if she is diabetic.

Nadia checks in the mirror that she always keeps in her handbag. There she is, a plastic shield over one eye, with two long strips of tape holding it down.

The nurse returns with tea and instructions: eye drops for the next four weeks, eye shield on at night for a week, sunglasses for a few days, and no hair-washing for five days.

Of course Nadia will wear sunglasses! If her hair is going to be filthy, she doesn’t want anyone recognizing her.

The next day, she removes the eye shield for the first time. Everything is so bright. She can see every leaf on the trees, every speck of dust on the windowsill, every wrinkle on her face. They don’t make mirrors like they used to, that’s for sure.

***

Nadia is a character from my next novel, which is set in Alexandria and London.

If you’d like to know more about cataracts, try this link from Moorfields Eye Hospital.

You may also enjoy Six Lessons from the Eye Clinic.