Esther Walker: ‘One child is a pet but two is a zoo’

Esther Walker
Esther with Kitty and Sam

I revelled in Sam’s newness, the way I was unable to with Kitty because she frightened me so much. Like with Kitty, I pretended to breastfeed Sam for about a month and then gratefully switched him onto gallons of formula. He slept, on and on and on. All day and all night, on any available soft, warm, stable surface.

But I was pressed for time and I had other commitments. When Kitty was out and my husband was out and I was alone with my sleeping son I switched off my phone, ignored the landline and refused to answer the door.

I knelt on cushions by the sofa where he slept, putting my face down next to his and tried to remember everything about the moment, the sleeping baby, the quiet house, the clock you could only hear ticking when it was truly this quiet. I knew that this was it, the last child, the last baby.

Looking after a baby and an under-three at the same time means that no-one is really having that much fun.

Time was always up too soon. Someone came home, wanted something, there was a pressing need for water, crackers, a nappy change.

For a long time after Sam was born the overwhelming feeling was that someone was always being propped up in a corner, badly ignored. I don’t know if that’s still the case or whether I’ve just got used to the constraints of dividing my attention three ways, rather than just two.

Looking after a baby and an under-three at the same time means that no-one is really having that much fun. If both children are having fun, then you are probably not. If the child is having fun, the baby is being ignored, if the baby is having fun, the child is being ignored. Fox, chicken, grain, fox, chicken, grain.

Sam hated the sling, as Kitty had done, so it was not the case that I could just roam freely round the swings with Sam while Kitty got on with it as I saw other mums doing.

My solution was to divide and conquer. Beg, borrow or pay childcare to look after either Kitty or Sam while I took the other.

Sam needed to be held all the time, and he was heavy. There were also only tiny snatches of time between Sam’s feeds and sleeps, so he could only really be out for an hour at a time, whereas Kitty could go out all morning or all afternoon if she wanted to.

My solution was to divide and conquer. Beg, borrow or pay childcare to look after either Kitty or Sam while I took the other.

Individually they were wonderful: Kitty was flying – now nearly two and a half she really loved playgrounds and was obliging and ‘got’ swings, slides, climbing frames and other toys.

If she was feeling stubborn she was easily bribable into and out of cars, towards and away from playgrounds with small biscuits or Jelly Tots. As long as you had your hands free you could really have fun with her, rather than just constantly steering her away from broken glass, snarling dogs and fag butts or standing about while she opened and shut gates for twenty-five minutes non-stop and obsessively fiddled with latches.

All the things that people say about life with two children are true: one is like having a pet and two is a zoo; two children is not like one child plus one, it’s like one child squared.

And Sam was at a similarly easy stage. He just gazed around himself, sucked his dummy, dozed. He was easy to be with, too. It was just the two of them together that was so hard.

All the things that people say about life with two children are true: one is like having a pet and two is a zoo; two children is not like one child plus one, it’s like one child squared. The to-do lists are horrifying but I can’t now tell you why or what’s on them. Just everything.

Everything! Periodically I would look in the fridge and see that there was absolutely nothing there. But hadn’t I only just done a huge Ocado order?

When I did have spare time I sat down and didn’t know where to start. There was no point in writing a list down because I would lose it. There was no point in writing a list down on my phone because when I came to sit down to get some admin done, I would have by then forgotten that there was even such a thing as a list on my phone. Nothing really got done, ever.

Mornings were just an insane headfuck, trying to keep Sam quiet and occupied while also making Kitty’s packed lunch for nursery, fielding the vast number of questions my husband seems to have between 7 and 9am and also finding time to put my clothes on in order to leave the house.

I started telling my husband that there was no point in asking me to do something verbally because I would instantly forget. I would instruct him to email me the request and then keep emailing me every day until I had done whatever it was he wanted.

The biggest thief of my time was food. When Sam was weaned onto a selection of purees, all of which I made myself, time just went up in vast belching clouds of smoke as I chopped, cooked and pureed my life away. It slowly trickled back once Sam approached the age of one and he and Kitty could eat vaguely the same things.

They’re still far off being able to amuse each other, though I have always been touched by how affectionate Kitty is towards Sam.

From the start she would want to hug him and stroke his head. We never had a thing about giving the baby back to the shop or not liking the baby.

Once Sam was on the move and mostly wanted to grab Kitty’s clothes, or launch himself at her with his mouth open in order to express his affection for her, Kitty became less patient and dealt out small bops on the head or little shoves.

Occasionally I have seen glimpses of how they might be together if they end up getting along – sometimes in the bath Kitty will gargle water, which makes Sam cry with laughter. Or they will blow raspberries at each other. This happens for maybe a minute at a time but during every second I feel like I’ve hit some sort of life jackpot.

Most of the time, I feel rather unfairly that it’s me and Kitty against Sam, who is often screechy and almost always hell-bent on destruction.

Most of all, he wants to join in with whatever Kitty’s game is, which almost always means completely ruining whatever she is doing. ‘Please take Sam awaaaaaayyy!’ wails Kitty, as Sam waves the remote control around, switching off whatever Kitty is watching, or starts to eat, or put in the bin, jigsaw puzzle pieces.

Sam being such a late walker hasn’t helped. At the time of writing he is 17 months old and although he can walk independently, he can’t do it confidently. I’m convinced that being able to walk properly and independently will herald a new era in his relationship with Kitty!

Come on, a girl can dream …

This extract is taken from Esther Walker’s new book Bad Mother. If you can’t wait for the next instalment, buy and download the whole book here

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