I have always been very good at hiding, probably because I’ve always been quite small (lumpy, but small), and good at fitting into tight spaces. When I was a kid I would fold up and shut myself away from everything when I got overwhelmed.
As an adult I hide behind a smile. In humour. In familiar, re-read books. In the comfort of my routines, my distractions. Away from the things and the thoughts that are too big and too scary for me to hold on to. Things my mind shies away from. Things that still make me want to curl up in a ball and forget.
Because If I look away, if I pretend they’re not there, they aren’t as real. And they can’t hurt me.
But looking away isn’t always a good choice. Sometimes we have to look. We have to make ourselves. Because if we don’t have the courage to see, to feel, to let it – whatever IT is – thunder through our bodies, buckle our knees and break our hearts, something even worse will happen. Something we can’t choose to avoid. Something that doesn’t have words. Something that will break everything.
So this is a post about coming out of hiding. About looking. And this week I stopped hiding from – and started looking at – Aleppo.
Oh God. I’m not in the mood. Yes, yes it’s bloody terrible, and horrific, but it’s Christmas, and I’m tired and busy and broken, and I want to be happy, and for my kids to know magic, and I can’t cope with much more, and I can’t do anything to help anyway because I’m too small and too far away, and how can I solve the world’s problems when I can’t even solve my own?
That’s pretty much where I’ve been. Avoidance. Abdication. Distraction. Distance. (All personal specialities). And it’s so easy to not look when you can fill your newsfeed with mum blogs and celebrity gossip, and turn off the 10 o’clock news because it’s bedtime, anyway.
Until the Big Small Person asked me a question, as small people are wont to do, that floored me.
I’m not always careful enough about my phone, you see. When I crack under the inane monotony of Mr Tumble, or the sodding Twirlywoos, or – God help me – the millionth episode of Peppa Pig, I get my phone out. And on this occasion Big Small Person eyes looked away from the big screen to the small one, and saw a picture. A picture I was scrolling past. A picture of a boy from Aleppo. You’ve probably seen it too – or many like it.
So I explained, in child friendly terms, that there were a lot of old, old fights in another part of the world far, far away, where different groups of people disagreed so much about so many things they thought it was worth a war. And the ordinary people living there got caught in the middle of their argument. Ordinary people like the boy in the picture.
“Is he hurt mummy?” She asked.
“Yes”, I said. “But he’s getting help now.” And I braced for more awkward questions.
I wasn’t expecting this one.
“But,” asked the Big Small, with small person logic, “if he’s hurt, why isn’t he crying?”
I found I couldn’t answer.
I was once accused of being an attachment parent. It made me laugh – not because I in any way disapprove, but because if I’d actually given my parenting that much thought I’d be considerably a better at it than I flagrantly am.
I have no particular parenting style or philosophy, but what I have always had is an aversion to screaming.
In common with proper attachment parents, I have always picked up my babies when they cried. I never really put them down, to be honest. I have spent nearly two years with the Small Small Person napping ON me for nearly two hours a day because she cries when I try to place her in her cot. (Feel free to judge me for my weakness – I do).
Meanwhile the Big Small is the world’s most sensitive child. We still sing her to sleep every night. She howls when someone so much as brushes past her, and at every minor injury or slight slight (hence, I suppose, her particular question about this particular boy). Although this is occasionally irritating, I’ve found the problem is best and swiftest solved with sympathy and cuddles. Because I don’t want her to have to toughen up, or suck it up. I don’t want her to learn to hold it in, or to hide away from the things she finds painful.
But most of all, though, I don’t want to have to hear her cry.
Whenever there is a cry – of any sort – from anyone, I rush to be there, to soothe. And I do so simply because I CANNOT BEAR THE NOISE.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, even before kids my sensitive ears (over compensating, I believe, for my myopic eyes) couldn’t stand their incessant caterwauling. But afterwards, Lord, afterwards it grinds on my soul like flaking, fungalled nails on an old slate blackboard. That grate. That weight. That excruciation.
As a parent I think this either happens to you or it doesn’t, but that noise is pure torture to me. It has pulled me up and out of the most exhausted newborn-phase coma, dragging me like a puppet on invisible, intractable strings straight through the heart and – if breastfeeding – through the nipples. It physically HURTS.
Even now they are older, my very worst parenting moments are still when both the smalls are screaming at once, and I am alone, and too powerless or too useless to help everyone who needs me, and I can’t give anymore, and I’m not enough, and I can’t handle the noise, and I feel like I’m going to shatter under the sheer, unrelenting awfulness of it. Sometimes I even cry, too. Sometimes I even scream.
I basically spend my time plotting and planning how I can minimise the day’s crying, and I count my good days in terms of hours of non-wailing harmony.
It never occurred to me that there was something worse than crying. Not until my daughter asked me that question, and the answer hit me like a sledge hammer.
That boy in the picture isn’t crying, BUT HE SHOULD BE.
He isn’t crying because he is in shock.
He isn’t crying because there is no one left to comfort him.
Because crying doesn’t work.
Because there is no help, no relief, no one to tell him it’s all going to be okay.
Because he knows that it’s not going to be okay.
Because it doesn’t matter whether he cries or not.
Because the sudden nightmare of his life doesn’t go away when he opens his eyes, or when tears fall from them.
Children are SUPPOSED to cry. It’s how they communicate before they can talk, or even think. It’s their voice. And we are supposed to help them. We are supposed to be there. We are supposed not just to look, but to respond. We are supposed to make it better. It is supposed to hurt us, and make us act. It is the most basic biology.
Tonight I know my Small Small Person will wake me up, because she is ill. And when that cry pierces the air and my slumber, as I stumble exhausted to reach her in her nice safe cot in our nice safe house in our nice safe city, I will be extra glad to go.
If you too are up in the wee small hours with a wee small person, console yourself with the thought they are still seeking comfort. That they believe you will make it better for them. That they still trust you, someone, anyone, to dry their eyes.
Because when I looked, when I really looked at Aleppo and at that boy, I saw my own children. And that silence, that terrifying silence, slayed me – far more than the noise of tears ever could.
I wish I could see him sob, hear him shriek and hold his flailing limbs through his meltdown. I wish I could tell him I’m there. That I’ll fix it for him. Shush in his ear. Rock with him. I wish he was making as much sound as his lungs could muster. I wish he was letting it all out, and being cleansed by it.
I don’t know where his mother is, if she still is, but if he is mine then I am her, too. And she is me – just somewhere, somewhen else. Not so very far away, after all. Her anguish at his quiet, her impotence, her rage, her desperation; they are all mine. They are all yours too.
And unlike me – unlike you – she cannot hide from it.
Tomorrow I am going to be festive, and Christmassy, and try and make magic for my kids. But tonight, tonight I am going to cry. I am going to cry because there are children in Aleppo who have forgotten how, and why.
And I didn’t even notice until my five-year-old pointed it out.
And it is quite the most awful thing I have never heard, and could ever imagine.
Doctors Without Borders – donate.doctorswithoutborders.org
White Helmets – peoplesmillion.whitehelmets.org/donate/peoples-million
Save the Children – secure.savethechildren.org
The Red Cross – redcross.org.uk