LOOKING through the photo album of my son’s first year recently, I marvelled at how little evidence there was that he had been born in the early days of lockdown. Most of the pictures were taken at home, and capture the intense insularity of the first months of life. They remind me of John Donne’s image of a world contracted to a sunny room (“Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere”).
What you can’t tell from those photos is that, for so much of our son’s life, we were indoors only because we couldn’t be elsewhere.
During my maternity leave, I had imagined watching him crawl around a church hall while I dipped endless biscuits in sugary tea and compared notes with other mums. Instead, I spent my days racking my brains for ways to entertain him in our small flat. Some were successful (it’s fun to grab floating scarves), some less so (it’s fun to eat Ikea’s finger puppets).
At least, in 16 years’ time, he will master a three-point turn with ease, having spent hours negotiating our narrow kitchen in a walker.
There are gaps in the photo album, too. The first pictures that we have of the family meeting him show people smiling from doorsteps or separated by windows. There was nobody to take photos of the three of us, although I like to think that our gradual proficiency with a selfie stick can be discerned.
For at least the first two months of the first lockdown, I kept having to remind myself that it was actually happening. Before stopping work, I had written about the virus in China in January. But its arrival in the UK, and the imposition of nationwide restrictions, felt utterly surreal. How to process the calculation that more than 500,000 people might die?
WALKING helped to preserve my sanity. In the early days, we took cautious turns around the park at the end of the road, past railings adorned with rainbow-laden posters.
Our son, who had been delivered at the hospital round the corner, looked so small against the white expanse of the pram’s bed. The streets were eerily quiet — except on Thursday evenings when, for several weeks, neighbours would suddenly materialise on their doorsteps, clapping and banging pans.
I remember one evening hurrying down the middle of the road, vigorously clapping to avoid giving the impression that we were graciously accepting a sort of standing ovation.
As the months wore on, I started going for longer daytime walks. I always came home feeling better if I had prayed while walking — under my breath, but out loud if nobody was around. I began to notice how many vestiges of an earlier, more religious age marked our routes — churches, almshouses, and a cemetery with a lich-gate that proclaimed: “I am the resurrection and the life.” I found myself wondering what other passers-by made of those words, if they even noticed them.
I AM not sure that I have ever felt as conscious of a shared humanity as I have done this past year — so aware of a frailty held in common, and so mindful of the presence among us of ingenuity, of extraordinary feats.
Articles about the development of the vaccine left me in awe, but so did accounts of the care administered to the sick and dying. There are people who have spent the past year in layers of plastic, holding the hands of strangers who would otherwise have died entirely alone.
In my diary, I’ve recorded my own encounters with compassionate strangers. Perhaps all babies lower barriers to conversation, but those born in lockdown seemed to elicit a special kind of concern. Shoppers lamented that they couldn’t smile at him from behind a mask.
“It must be so strange for them,” was a common refrain. One woman tracked me down to deliver chocolate and a small bear for my son after spotting me on a bleak day crying over the pram that I had just hauled up some steps. I found the bear the other day among his toys, and remembered the anxious way she kept repeating: “I hate to see you so upset,” and “He’s such a lovely boy.”
I wasn’t depressed at any point, but I did experience intense anxiety: fear that I hadn’t mastered breastfeeding, and that my son wasn’t putting on weight.
I felt hurried through the phone call from a midwife in the first week after we left hospital, giving positive answers to questions about his development with no real idea whether they were true. I could understand their reluctance to make home visits, but I had no way of knowing what was normal. He firmly rejected attempts to weigh him on some borrowed kitchen scales.
I got some reassurance from a GP who inspected his colour via a video call (“try and hold him up in daylight”); and a health visitor who visited in PPE. But it was the patience and encouragement of Rachel, who manned the local breastfeeding phone-support line, that saw us through. On New Year’s Eve, I thanked her for all her help in 2020. I still thank God for her.
AS THE summer progressed, and before the second lockdown hit, we experienced something closer to normality. We were back in the beer garden at the pub at the end of the road, and family members could finally hold our son in their arms. It was worth going to the few indoor baby groups that ran. But it was hard to strike up friendships behind masks, marooned on mats carefully positioned to avoid proximity.
I didn’t want to turn away other children who crawled towards our little island, and I felt the truth of observations about social distancing made by the psychoanalyst Philippa Perry: “Your mind knows the reason why you’re not hugging. But your body seems to make up its own wordless reason, which is rejection.”
Still, one of my favourite photos was taken at the soft-play centre. You can’t read my expression behind my mask, but my son, hands clasped, is gazing with pure joy at the expanse of plastic and netting that lies before him. My best friend tells me that she occasionally shows the photo to people who are concerned about the resilience of the “lockdown generation”.
Another picture has us watching bubbles float past us in the living room of a dear friend whom I met at NCT classes. We are caught up in bubbles in a government-sanctioned bubble — an exemption from the rules which lasted through the second lockdown, and for which I will always be grateful.
OUR little boy is now one, and I think the photo that best captures our surreal year was taken in church. Held in my arms, he is looking straight at the camera.
Behind us on the exposed brick wall hangs a painting, six feet high, with swirling gold lettering that reads: “The Word became flesh.” It reminds me of the Graham Kendrick song that we had on cassette in our car for years when I was growing up:
Love indestructible in frailty appears,
Lord of infinity, stooping so tenderly,
Lifts our humanity to the heights of his throne.
It has been a hard 12 months, but I have felt God’s tender care through numerous acts of human kindness. Far from being made fearful by a year spent largely with just two people, my son can barely contain his excitement on encountering others.
He will beam at strangers, and attempts to run after older children, despite not yet being able to walk. Yes, I want to tell him, humans are fascinating — fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God.
As for me, I have still placed my true reliance on Jesus — the resurrection and the life heralded by the cemetery gates. Having lost my own mother as a child (Features, 22 May 2020), I cling to the words and want to pass them on to my son.
I am hopeful that, this Christmas, we will be back in the village church near the house where I grew up, hearing the rest of those golden words read aloud by candlelight: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”