Why I love the NHS

It’s been another one of ‘those’ weeks. Sophia woke up with a temperature on Saturday, and all our plans for the weekend vanished in a puff of smoke. True, those plans hadn’t been wildly exciting ones – focussed mainly on finally taking the sides off Sophia’s cot and transforming it into a Special Grown-Up Girl Bed, and doing a mini-revamp of her room at the same time, and maybe popping into central London for a meander round, a little bit of Christmas shopping, and a pizza. Instead, I watched Peppa Pig DVDs on loop.

poorly S

By Monday I was getting a bit worried as her temperature was still very high, and she wasn’t really eating or drinking. I phoned our GP’s triage number, and they advised me to bring her in, giving me an appointment for an hour later. The GP who we saw was also worried that she was dehydrated, and told me to take her to A&E. Paediatric A&E was almost literally bursting at the seams – the waiting room ended up being standing room only. Half the children were battered, bruised and broken from school playground injuries, and the other half were poorly babies and toddlers nestled forlornly on parents’ laps, in much the way Sophia had been with me for the last three days straight.

Despite their busyness, the lovely nurses took lots of time to coax and encourage Sophia to drink some water – the most she’d had all day. She revived almost instantly. As she happens to be a child who gets more hyper the tireder she is, as the time crept on past her bedtime she became completely manic. We still had to wait to see the doctor, but now I had the child running crazily round the waiting room, looking the very picture of health.

Obviously I was glad that she was feeling better. But in the circumstances I did slightly wish she could look a little sicker. However, I knew that the inevitable consequence of me leaving without seeing the doctor would be an instant and possibly catastrophic relapse in the carpark.

We finally saw the paediatrician on duty. A man who had undergone years and years of education and professional training, punishing shifts and heaven knows what stress in order to be able to tell me that my now perfectly healthy seeming toddler had a viral throat infection. The sore throat presumably being why she didn’t want to drink, and the virus causing the temperature which in turn exacerbated the dehydration. But he shushed my apologies for wasting his time and told me that I hadn’t, dehydration can be serious in small children, and it was important that she was checked. He persuaded Sophia to drink some more, and rewarded her with a teddy.

Unfortunately it seems that my stubborn little girl will only deign to drink when directly instructed to do so by a highly qualified health professional. Mummy just doesn’t cut it. So I’ve spent the last two days using every bribe, threat and stealthy stratagem I could think of to get her to drink. When I haven’t succeeded she has been such a poorly, limp, grey little bundle it is heartbreaking. When I have succeeded it has been with some sugar laden horror which I will no doubt spend the next month trying to wean her off, but, at least, so far, we have avoided another hospital trip.

But there you have it. Yet again, when I needed the NHS they were there in spades, with warm, caring, professional staff bending over backwards to provided the best care possible for my daughter and reassurance for me.

In a completely different storyline, last week I saw my GP because, despite my efforts at self-help, anxiety is a demon which I’m just not succeeding at beating. She referred me to the local mental health service for CBT. 48 hours after the GP appointment I had a phone assessment. Five days after that they phoned to offer me a 16 week course of CBT, starting tomorrow. My biggest fear was being made to feel a nuisance, a hypochondriac, a waste of time, and that just didn’t happen. I was taken just as seriously as I would have been if I’d gone in with a clearly defined physical problem like a sprained ankle, and the treatment is just as prompt and, I am hoping, will be just as effective.

There is no doubt that the NHS is stretched. Years of austerity politics have imposed direct financial challenges, as well as an increase in workload caused by cuts to social services and cuts to benefits leaving people cold and hungry and vulnerable and the NHS having to pick up the pieces. However, don’t believe the insidious propaganda from a right-wing Government and a right-wing press which imply that the NHS is no longer up to the job of providing 21st century healthcare, and that we have no alternative but to adopt some kind of private system or top-up instance, or parachute private healthcare companies in to ‘save’ the NHS (and no doubt make a substantial profit in the process). The NHS is coping because it has brilliant and committed  staff. If the pressures caused by austerity eased then it could be even better. We don’t need anything else.

And as a counter to the ‘private sector good, public sector bad’ school of thought, I will briefly outline my only other consumer experience this week. I attempted to buy a new gas cooker. I ordered it from John Lewis, and arranged to have it fitted and the old one removed one day this week. This would be through Hotpoint, the manufacturers of the cooker. Yesterday at 4pm I got a call from Hotpoint to arrange the fitting. Which would be fine, except that I had already been told it would be fitted yesterday. Instead I was being offered dates next week or the week after. And it would actually be several visits – one for a gas engineer to disconnect the old oven, one for the delivery guys to bring the new one and take the old cooker away, and a third for the gas engineer to return to connect the new cooker. I would have to make myself available at home from 7am – 7pm on the chosen day. There is no way of narrowing down the time slot, and no way of streamlining the process to avoid separate three visits.

I am paying for this ‘service’, I am a customer with free choice, and, in using John Lewis I felt I was exercising this choice for a fairly high end option which should be fairly stress-free. Wrong! At the time of writing I have no new cooker, and no date booked for the cooker already purchased to be delivered, as for one reason or another, I find it rather hard to be continually available at home for 12 hours straight on a day of someone else’s choosing, and with the prospect of no doubt endless stressful phone calls as I am bounced backwards and forwards between John Lewis and Hotpoint, and put on hold to listen to tinny muzak.

Funnily enough, at no point during this process, will I wish that private companies like these could take over our beloved and crucial ‘free at point of need’ NHS.

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Mumsnet Postnatal Care Campaign

It’s hard to write this without sounding whinging, or ungrateful, or NHS bashing. And I’m none of those. Well, I’m definitely not ungrateful, and I absolutely think the NHS is one of the most amazing things about our country, although, to be fair, I probably do whinge a bit sometimes!

However, despite my massive gratitude for having had a healthy baby, and my recognition of the NHS as an incredible institution with millions of selfless, hardworking, dedicated staff, I want to write this piece to support the Mumsnet #betterpostnatalcare campaign, because it really, really, really matters.

I suffered, still suffer from to an extent, PTSD after a difficult pregnancy and horrible birth. None of that was anyone’s fault, really, just bad luck. However, I do believe that my sense of trauma and anxiety were massively exacerbated by my experience of post-natal care, or rather the lack of it.

I was due to have a planned c-section for medical reasons, but went into labour before the booked date. I had to wait overnight, in labour, for a theatre to become available. Halfway through the c-section, the epidural failed and I could feel everything. I refused a general anaesthetic because I wanted so much to be able to hold and feed my daughter, and so I was given massive injections of morphine to enable me to cope with the pain while the operation was completed.

Unfortunately the morphine affected my breathing and oxygen levels. I spent the next twelve hours needing continual oxygen, and observations every fifteen minutes.

Despite this, my husband was banished from the ward for two hours when our daughter was about 5 hours old, because it was no longer visiting time.

At 8pm that evening he had to leave us both for the night. I hadn’t slept for 36 hours. I had been in labour for 12 of those. I had had major surgery which had gone fairly traumatically wrong. I was still off my tits on morphine, catheterised and had only just had the drip and oxygen mask removed. Yet I was left for 14 hours to be solely responsible for my newborn baby. When she cried, and I pressed the bell for a nurse to come and help me lift her out of the crib so I could feed her, I was told off. I was told that it is important to mobilise after surgery, and she was my baby and therefore my responsibility.

I was too demoralised and intimidated and exhausted to argue. Instead I co-slept with my daughter in the hospital bed. I say ‘slept’ – she fed and dozed, as newborns do. I lay there, digging my fingernails into my arms to try and keep awake because I was terrified of falling asleep and suffocating her or letting her fall from the high bed. I know that co-sleeping can be perfectly safe, but I also know that co-sleeping whilst exhausted and drugged is not recommended by anyone. However, I was physically incapable of lifting her in and out of her crib, and I couldn’t leave her to cry all night without being cuddled or fed, and no-one would help me, so I had no choice. When I drifted off to sleep periodically I would startle awake 20 minutes later from an excruciatingly vivid nightmare that I had suffocated her. My pulse would be racing and I would be bathed in terrified sweat as I checked she was ok, and then redoubled my efforts to stay awake. These nightmares continued for months afterwards; I still have them occasionally 2.5 years on.

The next morning, my husband still wasn’t allowed back on the ward until 10am. A midwife came in to remove my catheter, and told me to go and have a shower, alone, and remove the dressing from my c-section wound.

It was now 48 hours since I had slept properly. I asked the midwife if someone could keep an eye on my baby while I showered. She looked at me like I was mad, and said “she’s not going anywhere, you know” and left it at that. I asked if I could wait until my husband arrived, and was told the dressing had to be removed within 24 hours of the operation or it would become infected.

I went to the shower. I felt faint. I tried, and failed, to remove the dressing which was stuck to my stitches with dried blood. I felt even fainter. I sat on the floor of the shower, blood pouring out of me, and cried my eyes out. I have never felt so lost, so lonely, so abandoned. For weeks afterwards I was terrified of having showers and touching or seeing my scar, even in the safety of my own home.

When the obstetrician did her ward round I confessed that I hadn’t been able to remove my dressing. She did it for me, and was horrified that I had been told to do it myself. She was also adamant that, 12 hours after a c-section, it was absolutely acceptable to ask for help lifting the baby in and out of the crib.

I begged to go home that day, but wasn’t considered well enough. I didn’t tell my husband or parents when they visited what the night had been like. I just couldn’t talk about it. In fact my daughter was 18 months old before I could speak about it at all. Watching my husband leave that second evening was so bleak. I wanted to be happy; I had my much longed for, long awaited, perfect and adorable baby, but I was so scared and traumatised that I just couldn’t enjoy her.

It is unbelievable to me that, in the 21st century, we see fathers being able to spend the time immediately after birth with their partners and new babies as an optional luxury rather than a necessity. Post-natal care seems to be caught in a cleft stick, with hospitals too short-staffed and under-resourced for nurses and midwives to be able to help and support mothers postnatally, but fathers and other family members not allowed to be there the whole time, especially overnight, leaving mothers and babies totally vulnerable and unsupported.

We know that breastfeeding rates are poor in the UK. We know that rates of postnatal mental illness are high. It seems self-evident that poor post-natal care in hospitals is a huge factor in both of these, and I very much hope that the Mumsnet campaign leads to some dramatic improvements. Because there are many excellent reasons why my husband and I now consider our family to be complete, but the fact that I am too scared ever to contemplate another stay on a postnatal ward really shouldn’t be one of them.

 

This post is entirely my experience of giving birth at the end of 2014, but it was written to support the Mumsnet Campaign to improve postnatal care for all mothers and babies. Click on the link if you would like to get involved.

Writing it out

When she was about ten months old, and just at that ‘pulling herself up on the furniture’ stage, Sophia slipped, lost her grip on the edge of the sofa and fell over backwards, banging her head on our wooden floor. I was sitting on said sofa at the time, and I reached forward to scoop up my sobbing little girl. As I laid her against my shoulder I felt her go all floppy. When I looked at her, she had lost consciousness. Still holding her, I sprinted across the room to grab the phone and call for an ambulance, but by the time I got there she had come round and was crying again, so I phoned my good friend and neighbour instead.

She rushed round, her own daughter in tow, and between us we agreed that Sophia didn’t seem ‘right’. She didn’t greet my friend the way she normally would, she was quiet, and frighteningly pale. I decided it was better to be safe than sorry, and took a taxi to A&E. A few hours, a lot of kind NHS staff, and a leaflet on care following head injuries, later and I was reassured that she didn’t have concussion. It was a frightening experience, but I thought no more of it until a couple of months later when I had left both children alone for a few moments while I started tea, only to hear mingled screams which had me dashing out of the kitchen in record quick time. Anna had been trying to pick Sophia up, and she had somehow slipped backwards out of her arms, banging her head on, you’ve guessed it, the wooden floors. Suddenly our beloved original Victorian floorboards didn’t seem such a good idea, and I fervently wished for shag-pile throughout. I picked Sophia up to comfort her, and was standing in front of the hall mirror when I saw in the reflection the colour drain from her face, her eyes roll back in her head, and she passed out. She came round again almost instantly, but it was another trip to A&E to check she was alright. Thankfully, she was.

Both times, after receiving a clean bill of health, I almost wondered if I had imagined the incident. Had my anxiety caused me to see symptoms which weren’t really there? I was able to dismiss that idea in February when Sophia tripped over my stretched out legs (which she had been using as a climbing frame) and bumped her head. I picked her up, she immediately lost consciousness. This time it was a Sunday afternoon, and husband was at home. I screamed for him, and he came running downstairs, took one look at the pallid, floppy bundle in my arms and called for an ambulance. While he was talking to the operator she came round, and we were advised that, given she was now conscious and the ambulance service was experiencing very high demand that afternoon, we should just take her to A&E in a taxi.Yet again I was reassured that she didn’t have concussion, but this time the doctor I saw felt that she should be referred for an assessment by a paediatrician in case there was an underlying health issue.

In April she was diagnosed with Reflex Anoxic Seizures. These are a totally harmless form of seizure which tend to affect very young children. When they are shocked by something like a sudden pain (such as a bang on the head), their vagus nerve, which controls blood supply to the brain, temporarily constricts, meaning blood to the brain stops, the heart stops, breathing stops. When I had described Sophia as looking like death, I hadn’t been employing writerly hyperbole or maternal exaggeration. Luckily, as soon as the child loses consciousness, the vagus nerve begins to function again and everything gets back to normal pretty quickly.

We were hugely reassured that it was nothing serious, and I also felt vindicated at how worried I had been when the paediatrician described the attacks as ‘truly terrifying’.

Since April she has had two more minor episodes, but with the paediatrician’s reassurances ringing in my ears we coped perfectly well with both of them at home. Sophia is very washed out and tired afterwards – perfectly normal – and so it was really a case of giving her a bit of extra TLC and a chance to rest.

Then, a week last Sunday, my world shifted a little on its axis.

Sophia and I were on our own in the house as husband had taken Anna off to the park with her friends and their dad. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, and we were both sitting at the little table in our garden, Sophia tucking into an apple for her afternoon snack.

I don’t quite know what happened. She was right next to me, close enough to touch, but she wiggled a little in her (non highchair) seat and somehow fell through the back of it, straight onto her head on the concrete patio.

She screamed incredibly loudly, and I knelt next to her and pulled her onto my lap. She immediately went floppy and lifeless. I can’t imagine I ever won’t find that experience terrifying, but I kept calm, telling myself it was just one of her attacks, and would pass shortly. We had been advised that, while she is unconscious, it is best to put her in the recovery position in case she is sick. I was just about to do so when her limbs started to twitch as though she was having a fit. Really frightened now, I laid her down on the patio. I had a sudden, sickening remembrance that she had been eating an apple when she fell, and I was scared that she was now choking on it, that these convulsions were caused by that.

The sight of her lying on the patio, eyes closed, skin a bluish grey, not showing any signs of breathing, completely still bar these unnatural seeming and increasingly feeble twitches, will haunt me for a very long time.

I tilted her head back and opened her mouth, searching desperately for the piece of apple I feared might be choking the life out of her in front of my eyes. I couldn’t see anything, but she was still unconscious – and this now felt like far longer than she had been in any previous attack. What should I do now? Start CPR? Or phone an ambulance? I screamed as loudly as I could for help, praying that some neighbours might be out in their gardens, but there was no response. I could feel time ticking away. I ran into the house to get the phone – it wasn’t on its stand, and I couldn’t remember where my mobile was. I saw it on the kitchen worktop, grabbed it, and ran back to Sophia.

Suddenly I couldn’t bear seeing her lying on the concrete any longer. I scooped her up in my arms, and ran into the house, on the phone to the ambulance operator as I did so. I opened the front door so that the paramedics would be able to get in, and laid Sophia down on the rug in the living room.

The operator was amazing, calming me down, reassuring me that help was on its way, keeping me clinging onto sanity by reminding me that Sophia needed me. At this moment I was pretty convinced that she was dead. I am in tears writing this, as the bleak, blank terror of that moment washes back over me. I pulled up her little t-shirt so I could watch for breathing and feel for a heartbeat, and to my delighted amazement I could see shallow  breaths. Not right, not normal, still horrifically scary, but there was room for a smidgeon of hope. She was still unconscious, and if her eyelids flickered open momentarily the eyes behind them were blank, and would instantly roll back again as my baby vanished  back where I couldn’t reach her.

She came round as the paramedics arrived and checked her out, reassuring me that she was in no immediate danger. For the next two hours she was technically with me, but she wasn’t my Sophia. She didn’t talk or play or move or show any interest in anything. When my husband arrived at the hospital she didn’t seem to recognise him. My fear now was that she was severely concussed, or that somehow the oxygen deprivation had damaged her brain. Then suddenly, at 6.30pm, two and a half hours after she fell, normal service resumed. She smiled at me and said my name – the first time your baby calls you “Mummy” is sweet, but nothing compared to the blessedly sweet relief of those two syllables this time. She ran over to the toys in the waiting room and began to play. I asked her where Daddy was and she looked round the waiting room until she found him and exclaimed “Daddee!” with all her usual joy and excitement.

We weren’t quite out of the woods. In view of the length of time she had been unconscious and her abnormal behaviour afterwards, it was decided she should have a CT scan and be kept in overnight for observations. Not the best night of my life by a long way, and the image of her, heartrendingly tiny, going into the adult sized CT machine is another one which lingers painfully in my mind. But finally she was declared healthy, and we were free to go. The consultant we saw that morning is fairly certain that it was ‘just’ another one of her seizures. We will return to outpatients for her to have a few more checks, but having since browsed the excellent support website for patients and families with this condition, it seems that the jerking limbs which frightened me so much, the prolonged unconsciousness and the altered behaviour afterwards are all fairly common.

I am, needless to say, hugely relieved. We are unbelievably lucky. I know anyway how lucky I am to have my two gorgeous girls, but having felt that I was on the brink of losing one of them brings that feeling into painfully sharp relief. But. But. But. I am not okay. As a parent you are always vaguely aware of the potential hell that is harm coming to your child. But now I feel I have looked right into that abyss, not in a hypothetical scenario, but right there on a sunny afternoon in my own garden, confronting the seemingly lifeless body of my precious baby and my own total inadequacy in knowing how to help her.

There is also the knowledge that for some parents, some children, some babies there isn’t that amazing wash of hallucinogenic relief when you realise it’s all alright. While I was in A&E the nurse who was with us had to dash off to a cardiac arrest. I don’t know if that child survived. For some families the nightmare becomes a hideous reality and my heart aches for them, even as I feel guilty at my own undeserved good luck. But I also feel that though we may have dodged the bullet this time, the whole experience has highlighted the agonising fragility of life and it scares me. Terrifies me. It is illogical, probably illogical, but I can’t shake the image of my little family being balanced on a tightrope of good health and good luck, and one false move could send us tumbling into the void.

Why have I written this? Mainly because writing is what I do, and I am hoping that committing the demons to paper might help clear them out of my head. If I can raise awareness of Reflex Anoxic Seizures and relieve another parent of some of the terror and panic I experienced then that would be hugely worthwhile. And I also feel that there are some lessons I have learned from this which are worth sharing and repeating.

  1. Always know where your phone is, especially if you are on your own with young child/ren.
  2. Do a first aid course. I don’t feel I covered myself in glory, and no course can prepare you for the panic you feel when it is your baby not a plastic dummy, but I did feel that somewhere in the petrified soup of my brain there were a few pieces of information on how to clear an airway and resuscitate a baby which might have been useful.
  3. Fight cuts and/or the insidious privatisation of the NHS with every breath in your body. The wonderful paramedics saved my sanity, the hospital staff were concerned and caring and knowledgable. The CT scan was carried out immediately with no thought of cost.
  4. Find a way of loving and appreciating your children and other family/friends every day, without existing under an overwhelming cloud of apprehension and fear. Alright, so I haven’t quite managed that one yet, but do let me know when you find the magic formula, I really need it.

Second Day of Advent: The NHS

This was not the post I expected to write today, but circumstances do indeed alter cases. Yesterday I had a very unpleasant and stressful evening, and at first it didn’t seem as though much about it could make me happy.

Ar tea-time Sophia experienced an unfortunate altercation between her head and a wooden floor. It was a horrible bang, and she obviously started screaming immediately. I picked her up to comfort her, and happened to be standing in front of a mirror, so saw with horror the colour literally drain from her face (you always see this phrase in books and I always thought it a little exaggerated, but it turns out not to be). Her eyes then closed, and I felt her body go all floppy as she slumped against my shoulder. It was probably only a matter of a few seconds that she was unconscious, but it felt like an hour. I was carrying her through to the dining room, intending to lie her on the sofa in the recovery position when she opened her eyes and started screaming again.

She’d actually done something very similar after a fall a few weeks ago and I knew that she needed to be properly checked out. I phoned my husband and got him to head home, and then whizzed round the house with screaming baby in one arm trying to put bits and pieces in a bag to take to the hospital. Meanwhile my husband had phoned our GP and had it confirmed that we did indeed need to take her to A&E. He’d also booked me a taxi, so we got that, poor Sophia still screaming, and I dropped Anna off at my friend’s house on the way.

whipps xWe were in A&E for nearly four hours before, thankfully, Sophia was examined and declared fit to come home, and I was provided with a long list of symptoms to look out for over the next 48 hours; just in case my stress levels weren’t already high enough! The hospital was manically busy. At one point the fire alarm went off – presumably set off deliberately, because over the din there was a repeated urgent announcement for security to go to main A&E IMMEDIATELY. There were barely enough seats, and anxious parents were cradling poorly children on their laps because there weren’t enough cubicles. Make no mistake, this is a system under severe stress.

But through all this, every member of staff I came across, from the receptionist who joked with me that a baby making that much noise would definitely be ok, through to the gentle and sympathetic nurse to the doctor who managed to be competent and reassuring without being paternalistic or patronising, was incredible. They are doing such a difficult job. Even with unlimited resources and unfailingly courteous patients this is a job in which a bad day at work can involve having to tell parents their child has just died; which kind of puts accidentally deleting half your Excel spreadsheet into perspective. But there are not unlimited resources, and, sadly, patients and their families often take out frustrations and problems on NHS staff. And don’t get me started on pay. Junior doctors have just had to fight not to have their pay cut – pay which seems pretty good at a glance but which follows seven years of training, ridiculously long and unsociable hours, and one of the most responsible jobs anyone can undertake and is still a fraction of that earned by, say, an investment banker. Thankfully they seem to have won the fight for the time being at least, but it can’t do much to improve morale to have to fight like that. Healthcare Assistants, on whom the NHS depend massively, earn between £7 and £8 an hour. Barely a living wage, yet they are the people, in work in the middle of the night, who were reassuring anxious parents, playing with vomit covered babies, taking blood from grouchy wriggly toddlers and many other jobs which most people earning several times their salary would recoil from.

We are so bloody lucky to have the NHS and the staff who work in it. I should declare an interest as, in a previous life, I was a manager in the NHS myself. No, we’re not all grey-suited, clipboard wielding, budget-cutting automatons with hearts of stone, whatever Holby City likes to suggest. Most managers, like most clinicians, are working in the NHS because they care about the patients and their families and want to make a positive difference to people’s lives. We get all this, free at point of need. I didn’t have to calculate last night whether I could afford to take my baby to hospital. When my mum had cancer a few years ago we didn’t have, alongside all the upset and anxiety which that illness inevitably provokes, the worry as to whether her insurance would pay up for the best treatment. She was operated on in a world-leading hospital within a couple of weeks of the diagnosis being made. This is amazing, and is well worthy of a place in my Advent Calendar as something that makes me happy. But we mustn’t forget that the NHS is not adequately funded. Far from being wasteful, we spend less per head of population on healthcare than almost every other developed country, and yet have far from the worst health outcomes. A lot of that is due to the fantastic staff who go the extra mile (or ten) every time. Imagine, then, if higher-rate taxpayers paid just a little bit more. Then perhaps there could be enough cleaning staff so that, on a busy night in paediatric A&E a cubicle wouldn’t have to be out of use for three hours because it needed a deep clean after an infectious patient had used it earlier.

A&E in the NHS is a great social leveller. There are very few private hospitals who will welcome you when your child starts turning blue with a severe asthma attack at 3am, still fewer who will take you in and resuscitate you when you collapse on the street with a heart attack or lose a leg and a few pints of blood in a traffic accident. We really are all in it together, so let’s all contribute adequately and fairly so that the brilliant staff can get on and save our lives for us. As the poster I had on my wall as a teenager said: ‘Roll on the day when hospitals have all the resources they need, and the army runs a jumble sale to buy a new missile’.

I have sneaked a slightly (ahem) political blog into my calendar – as I said, circumstances alter cases. But what unquestionably makes me happy is that there are so many lovely, dedicated, professional, compassionate and unselfish people – doctors, nurses, healthcare assistants, midwives, radiographers, physiotherapists, dieticians, occupational therapists, receptionists, secretaries, managers, porters, cleaners, kitchen staff, and many more – working for each and every one of us, every day, all over the country. A massive thank you from me to them.

 

The write career

I’ve never really had any kind of career plan. The question I dreaded most in job interviews or appraisals was “Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?”, because I never had a clue. When I was 24 and working for an NHS primary care trust in Birmingham I was called into the Chief Exec’s office – he was newly appointed and enthusiastically having ‘development’ meetings with various middle managers. He asked me the dreaded five-year question, and some mischievous impulse led me to reply that I hoped I’d be a stay-at-home mum looking after my four small children.

I don’t think this was the answer he was expecting; I was a graduate of the NHS  training scheme which is meant to be the breeding ground for the future top managers in the health service. My ambition was meant to be to be a chief executive myself by 35. But somehow, although I enjoyed a lot about my various jobs firstly in the NHS and then in healthcare regulation, and got promoted to head of department level fairly quickly, I just didn’t have the burning desire to progress higher.  I preferred the hands-on, people-facing side of my job, and for a while flirted with the idea of training as a doctor, until it turned out that the lack of science A-levels would be a problem. Who knew?

I wasn’t entirely serious about staying at home with four children either, though. I knew I did want a baby, in fact those who know me best are amazed I managed to wait until I was 27 to get pregnant, but I didn’t see myself as a fulltime mum. Before Anna was born it seemed like it would be a waste of my education, and I assumed I would be bored out of my mind.

After she was born things felt very different. We were lucky that, with a bit of creative accounting, we thought we could get by without my salary and so, unlike many parents of my generation, we did have a genuine choice to make. And when it came to it I just couldn’t make myself think it was a good idea to go back to the office. Was I bored? Yes, literally to tears sometimes. When the initial state of being comatose with tiredness had worn off. Do I feel that my education was being wasted? Well, you certainly don’t need a degree in English Language and Literature for round-the-clock breastfeeding, attending Rhyme Time at the local library, or making shapes with play dough. Would I swap a moment of these last four years at home for any job you could offer me? Absolutely not.

smgibsonladyatdeskHowever, by the time Anna turned two I was starting to feel the need for more mental stimulation than life with a toddler can provide. I had an idea for a novel, and my mother-in-law offered to look after Anna one afternoon a week so that I could write. One thing no-one tells you about having a baby is how much more efficient it makes you. I’d toyed with the idea of writing before, but it had never got further than a few scribbled ideas in the back of a notebook. With only three or four hours a week to call my own my motivation increased tenfold, and I found I was easily able to manage a chapter in that time. As my enthusiasm for writing  and involvement with my characters grew I started despatching husband and daughter off to the park or a museum on Sunday mornings so that I could snatch a couple more hours with my computer. By Anna’s third birthday I had 75,000 words of completed novel. I say completed; it actually then took another few months of polishing before my agent started approaching publishers. The first few said no, which didn’t really surprise me, it always felt like a dream that couldn’t possibly come true. And then Hodder and Stoughton made me an offer. Of actual money. They were going to publish my book AND pay me for it. That day in September 2012 is up there with my daughter’s birth and my wedding day as one of the best in my life.

And it’s just got better and better. I now get to say, as I did this week, “I’m afraid I’m busy on Wednesday, I have a meeting with my publisher.” I’ve met lots of lovely people at Hodder – my editor, the foreign rights people, the publicity people – who love books and reading as much as I do, and, even more amazingly, love my book. Two for Joy will be published on 6 June, and that is now near enough that I can start to believe it’s really happening. Especially as I have a print-out of the gorgeous front cover in my handbag, and heard this morning that proofs are already being sent out to journalists and reviewers.

Having one book published is certainly no guarantee of fame or wealth. Or, indeed, of having a second or third book published. But what I do feel, for the first time, is that I know what I want to do, and by happy chance writing is a career allows flexible working from home, thus combining very happily with motherhood.

In the meantime, in between meeting my publisher (got it in again!), coming up with ideas for promoting my first book, and blogging, I’m also hard at work on my second novel. And as for that five year plan – well, I want to emulate my literary heroines such as Lisa Jewell, Erica James, Katie Fforde and Elizabeth Noble, and become a successful writer bringing out a book a year. I’d also love a second baby at some point, although my husband seems strangely reluctant on the third and fourth…