It is an overwhelming thing to look at a new baby, especially if that baby is your responsibility. Gazing at your infant, tiny and sucky in its nest of blankets, you are struck by its smallness, its vulnerability, its physical precariousness.
That feeling never quite leaves you. Over and over again, as your child grows up, you will be reminded, by ailments and scrapes, by bouts of acute illness or long-term conditions, that it’s your job to keep this child alive. It’s the most fundamental thing you do as a parent: try to get your child through to adulthood.
Things are going to go wrong, though. And when children don’t feel well, they can’t always tell you what’s the matter. They don’t have the words or the experience to describe their symptoms with the sort of precision called for, not least by your frantic googling.
They think you actually know what you’re doing. They don’t realise when you say briskly that some Calpol or ibuprofen and a good night’s sleep will sort it out, that you’re just playing for time. They don’t know what pain should feel like. They aren’t in a position to say, ‘sorry mum, but I don’t think “just a bruise” should hurt this much.’
Trust your maternal instincts, you’re told. Which is all very well, but my maternal instincts when it comes to my children’s health turn out to be absolutely terrible.
I once managed to send my eldest son to school with a broken arm a full 16 hours after he’d fallen over. The head teacher called me after assembly. ‘I think you’ll find,’ she said, in her voice for dealing with incompetents, ‘that he needs to go to A&E. He flinches every time he moves.’
Even parents of children who are basically pretty healthy worry about whether they’re doing the right thing. I have fretted that one of my children was eating too much (you don’t want to be one of those mothers who’s responsible for childhood obesity!) while worrying that another one ate too little. (Doesn’t he mind being the smallest child in the class? Or – oh dear – is it me that minds not having managed to produce a big one?)
You don’t realise, before you have children, that you will spend much of their childhood wrestling with anxieties of this kind, many of them pointless, misplaced, and, in my case, ill-informed. Every time they have a hint of a rash, you will rush to press glasses on their skin, you will force them to look at bright lights, you will make them nod their heads up and down. You will not be one hundred percent sure what you are looking for.
If you are lucky, you will mainly have to contend with a string of minor ailments, from cradle cap to teething pain, headlice to coughs and colds, nosebleeds to molluscum, ear infections to chicken pox. Which is not to say that, at the time, these aren’t distressing and disorientating.
The most bewildering childhood illnesses are often the non-specific ones, the pale faces, the listless eyes, the high temperatures: the sort of symptoms that probably mean they’re wiped out, have a virus, need to rest – but which could indicate something serious for which you will forever blame yourself if you don’t alert the GP in time.
Even children who are basically healthy have moments when they confront their parents with bleak terror. I once turned up at A&E drenched in blood, wearing a dress I had to throw away afterwards it was so soaked, carrying a two year-old who was spurting like something in a Hammer House of Horror movie. She had been spinning around in the back garden and fallen onto the kitchen step, cutting her temple. Who knew that a two-year-old contained so much blood? She was fine, didn’t even need a stitch. (We were living in the Middle East, it was a funny private hospital, she probably should have had a stitch, but never mind. She was fine.)
If you are less lucky, paediatric healthcare may become a much larger part of your life. On the two occasions when I have spent time in hospital with a child – once when my son had appendicitis, once with a friend’s daughter, who had cancer –
I have been profoundly grateful for the system that surrounded us, the equipment, the expertise and, above all, the care.
This is true of many hospital experiences, of course: we are usually grateful to our doctors and nurses. But it is precisely because as a parent, you feel so desperate, so lost, and so inadequate, that experiences of paediatric healthcare are so intense. It’s not just your life in their hands. It’s more important than that.
By Geraldine Bedell